Straight in. See the realtor and straight out. No stopping for so much as a coffee. Mark could go through the drive through on his way back to the interstate.
Certainly no hanging around on the off chance he might see—
It was over. They were getting married. Trey was getting married. But not to him. Who would ever marry him? Of course he’d have to ask someone first, but he didn’t believe in it. Just because something was legal now didn’t mean you had to do it, and he’d tried to explain how watching his mom and dad’s disastrous marriage had put him off for life and he was sure Trey understood.
The image of the cute table arrangement in their favorite restaurant would be forever burned in his brain. The candles. The balloons. Trey had even got him flowers. He’d thought—he’d actually been completely convinced it was because of his birthday until Trey had damn well gone down on one knee and every single person in the place had stopped talking.
And he’d wanted to die.
And as much as he’d tried to apologize and explain getting married wasn’t something he wanted things had never been the same since. Then Trey had joined a gym. Not that Mark had thought he needed to. He loved Trey’s body. Liked he had something to get hold of first thing on a morning and last thing at night—and every minute in between. But gradually Trey had changed. Not just on the outside, but on the inside. Mark had known he was losing him and even though he’d tried to hang on with his fingernails it had been no use.
He’d even offered to get married and Trey had fixed him with such a hurt look he’d never mentioned it again.
Nine months after the disastrous proposal Trey had packed and gone. Mark had immediately changed his job and headed in the other direction. They’d leased their cute cottage that nearly sat on the sand, but Mark had never returned. Until now. Nearly two years later he’d gotten an email from Trey saying he was getting married and would he mind if they sold because he really wanted the cash for a deposit on his new place.
So Mark had to come back one last time. And yes, he could have gone to the office to sign the contract but something—something clearly masochistic—had made him come here. He was just looking out from the bedroom window when he heard the noise downstairs and he turned to go down and meet the realtor.
Mark froze at the shocked whisper. A bare step into the kitchen to see Trey stood there looking…apologetic almost? “What are you doing here?”
And Trey winced so Mark immediately felt like shit. “Not that you don’t have every right,” he rushed out. “I just wasn’t expecting it.”
And Trey didn’t reply just kept staring at Mark like he had two heads or something. Then Trey seemed to realize what he was doing and held out a letter. “This came. I’ve been keeping an eye on the mail and for some reason it wasn’t redirected to you.”
“I thought I’d changed everything.” Mark frowned and reached out just as Trey seemed to change his mind.
And their fingers brushed. Trey jumped like he’d gotten an electrical shock but Mark felt it too. And suddenly he didn’t care about whatever was in the letter. “You’re getting married,” Mark choked out. “Congratulations.”
Trey shook his head. “No. No I’m not.”
Mark’s heart beat a tattoo. “You’re not?”
Trey turned and walked into the lounge. And straight to the doors looking out to the beach where Mark had built a deck. Or tried. It was still a little wonky and it badly needed re-staining now. Mark had followed him and took in the slumped shoulders and the bowed head.
“I’m sorry,” he offered knowing how important marriage had always been to him. Growing up in group homes and never being fostered had—Mark knew—made Trey want to cling on to every bit of security he could.
He knew that. Of course, he knew that. So why couldn’t he have just smiled and let him put that damn ring on his finger? It wasn’t like he’d ever been interested in anyone else. Trey had been it for him since high school. It was Mark’s stubbornness that had driven them apart.
He wondered if the other guy had met someone else, but he didn’t like asking. And the idea that anyone would ditch Trey for another was so ridiculous it was insane. Trey was perfect.
“I ended it,” Trey said softly as if Mark had asked, and he turned around. “I worked out—just in time thank goodness—that I was more in love with the idea of getting married than in getting married to Sean.”
Stunned, Mark took a step forward then stilled. It wasn’t up to Mark to offer comfort. He’d lost that right.
Lost that a long time ago.
Trey turned back around and gazed at the beach. “What are you doing now?”
Mark turned the question over in his mind. He knew it had been a casual enquiry as to work, where he lived, who he might be seeing, but—
Was there a chance? He had to know.
“Wondering how I was insane enough to let go the best thing that ever happened to me?”
“And wondering if I begged with everything in me if my best friend would give me another chance?”
Trey still didn’t move.
“And wondering if I told him how much I loved him, how I’d always loved him, how he owns my heart, if he might ever consider turning around and letting me convince him of that?”
Not so much as a flicker. Mark closed his eyes against the sudden sting. He’d tried. It was too late. He knew that really.
“He might,” Trey whispered, and Mark’s eyes flew open. Trey had turned and was looking at him, eyes shining. “On one condition?”
“Anything,” Mark promised. Anything.
“You have to promise never to ask me to marry you.”
Mark blinked. “But—”
“No.” Trey shook his head. “I want more than that. I want you to never to let me go, and I don’t need a piece of paper that tells me that. I thought I did. For a long time I thought that being together in the eyes of the law was more important that what is in your heart. And—”
But Trey never got to finish because Mark couldn’t stay still any longer. He lunged for Trey and Trey made that special little sound in the back of his throat as Mark wrapped his arms around him and brought their lips together.
The sound that Mark had missed so much that told him Mark was home. Loved.
He never gave the letter another thought. If he had he might have been surprised at the empty envelope that Trey had stuffed into his pocket as soon as he had gotten the call from the realtor telling him where Mark was going to be.
He’d cancelled the listing anyway.
They were home to stay.
“What are we going to do on Saturday?”
Jake looked up at Gael. The question had been casual, but he knew it was anything but. Saturday was Derrick’s birthday party. The first birthday since Derrick had come to live with Gael and Jake. Jake eyed his lover knowing this was important to him. “I think we have to work out what Derrick would enjoy.”
“That’s what worries me,” Gael rushed out. “I know all our friends would come but you know he hates being with more than two or three people at a time.” Like Gael, thought Jake.
It was true. Derrick would be fourteen, but he wasn’t what anyone would call a regular fourteen-year-old. He was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and immediately taken into care. His mother had died sometime later. Add that to his enhanced abilities and Derrick was definitely a challenge.
Not that Jake would have it any other way. Derrick was partially deaf and blind and the doctors considered him somewhere on the autism spectrum but no one really knew. Add the communication challenges to his abilities and it was an amazing mix.
“Why don’t you ask him?” Jake brightened. Gael could communicate with him through a child’s version of an I-Pad, but only when it had no visible power source. Derrick would make the tablet work somehow on its own.
“I did,” Gael admitted.
“And?” he didn’t see the problem.
“I tried to explain what a party was and I don’t think he understood.”
“We can ask the team? He knows them.”
“The team is a party all on its own,” Gael cautioned. “I think it will be too much for him. I think we just get him a cake and maybe grill some chicken outside. We’ll explain to everyone it will be too much for him.”
Which was all very good and a plan until they got to work the next day and the first words out of Finn’s mouth were, “What’s Derrick doing for his birthday?” and Vance’s ears pricked up.
“It’s Derrick’s birthday?”
Jake hushed him hoping Gael hadn’t heard.
“What’s the matter?” Finn whispered which was totally a waste with enhanced hearing but luckily Gael had just stepped outside with Doc Natalie.
And of course, everyone crowded around.
Jake squirmed. “It’s Derrick’s birthday on Saturday.”
“Great,” Talon said. “I saw this electric powered race car I bet he’d love.”
Adam chuckled. “You’d have to take the batteries out.”
“That would be amazing,” Sawyer said. Jake sighed. It would be. Derrick could only work his tablet with the battery out. They’d never tried it on anything else though.
“Maybe you can call in for five minutes?” Jake said weakly hoping Gael would talk to him afterward.
Of course, it was rarely that simple. The phone call he got later gave him the first clue. “Jake,” Connie’s voice came through loud and clear. Connie was officially Vance’s mom but she had taken them all under her wing. “I understand it’s a special birthday on Saturday, what can I bring?”
Jake stifled the groan. His life would not be worth living if he upset Connie. “A cake?” he asked weakly. He’d told Gael he would order the cake so technically…
“Jake,” Pete’s voice rang out from the phone later that afternoon. Jake did groan out loud that time. The chuckle he got back was sympathetic.
“You messed up buddy, didn’t you? Finn was here an hour ago and he kind of let the cat out of the bag.”
“Who to?” If it was just Terry he might have a chance.
“Everyone,” Pete supplied the humor loud in his voice. “I’m bringing them all around for five.”
Jake bashed his cell phone against his forehead. Pete ran a foster home for enhanced kids. Everyone meant seven of them. He swallowed. He’d better get Connie to build a bigger cake.
“Jake?” Michael Ramsay’s voice on the end of the phone made him smile. But this time he’d made the call. Michael was the principle of the special school Derrick attended and he and his wife had three special needs children themselves. Above all else, he had taught Jake to sign when he asked Gael and Derrick to be his forever family. Jake blurted out what he’d done. That instead of there just being three for Derrick’s birthday it was twenty and counting. “What am I going to do?” he wailed.
He heard the chuckle down the line. “Thanks for asking,” Michael laughed. “The kids, Emma and I will be around for five. I’ll bring sausages and you know Emma will bring her special dip.”
“Nooo,” Jake laughed despite himself. Add five more.
In the end, Jake decided to just go big and it seemed like he invited everyone on the planet. He bought a ton of food and he was outside on their deck counting chicken breasts when Gael came downstairs with Derrick after his bath.
Gael took one look at the mountain of food and narrowed his eyes. “What did you do?”
Two hours later when nearly forty people had consumed enough food to feed an army, Derrick opened his presents. Or Gael did it for him. Jake had watched the pair of them get quieter. Derrick had withdrawn into himself and Gael had beaten himself up because of it. Jake had spent the last thirty minutes trying to frame an apology, but he felt shit. Gael had been right. Derrick had been overwhelmed and miserable which made Gael miserable. Talon stepped up. “I think we should open mine next.”
Jake waved a defeated hand. If he was lucky, he would just get relegated to the couch tonight.
But Talon didn’t give the toy to Derrick. He gave it to Liam. He gave it to their fifteen-year-old enhanced superstar because despite Derrick’s challenges he was still a child and it was still a fast car.
Liam unwrapped the car, all the while telling Derrick he had brought his Mustang GT because it was better than Derrick’s Pontiac Firebird and that he really had better concede now. Derrick tilted his head and watched Liam make sure the batteries were out of the Firebird. He placed the controller in Derrick’s lap and put the two cars side by side. “To the fence line and back.”
Everyone was quiet. Jake wanted to die. It was going to be awful when Derrick didn’t even look at Liam’s car or even his own. Gael would kill him. Jake would probably save him the bother and do it himself.
“Are you ready?” Liam yelled and all the kids crowded around them. Liam’s car sped off hurtling towards the fence. Derrick’s never moved. Gael shot Jake a look of utter sadness and Jake wanted to cry.
“Come on Derrick. Or are you afraid your lousy car has no engine?”
Jake bristled. That wasn’t like Liam. Liam was normally the kindest— The Firebird jerked and seemed to lift off the ground. Gael stared at Jake his eyes round in surprise, and then the little car was off.
Screaming, cheering. Everyone joined in to yell their favorite home. Jake was completely convinced he saw dollar bills change hands at one point when the Firebird zoomed past the GT. The entire yard erupted in laughter when the Firebird beat the GT. Gael was laughing along with everyone else when Liam solemnly picked up both cars and bent down to where Derrick was sat.
“That was awesome.” He pronounced solemnly and looked expectantly at Derrick’s screen. Gael opened his mouth. Jake knew he was going to explain that Derrick wouldn’t understand. That he could only talk to Gael and Jake through Gael’s ability and he’d never communicated with anyone else.
But then the screen lit up.
“Derrick wants to go again.”
Everyone agreed it was the best birthday party ever.
And of course it was raining.
Bo picked up the last box from his empty apartment and groaned at the stiffness in his muscles. Gavin had cleared out last night. They’d even argued over that. Debated who was going to hand back the keys. Gavin had offered but then Bo had insisted as he’d said the apartment was in his name, so it should be him.
Gavin had shaken his head and swallowed. “It’s handing over an envelope to Mrs. Chen, Bo. It’s not exactly a huge responsibility.”
“Good job I’m not asking you to do it then,” Bo snapped back immediately. The distress in Gavin’s eyes immediately made him regret the dig. It had been a stupid mistake. A fucking birthday card; that’s all it was. Bo had been working late, again… and had asked Gavin to mail his gran’s birthday card, and he’d forgotten.
Gavin had realized two days later and had immediately told Bo and apologized over and over, even offering to call his gran and explain but Bo had snapped and called him irresponsible. He’d been chasing a promotion and he’d just found out it had been given to Alan suck -up Wainwright an hour before Gavin had told him he’d forgotten to post the card.
Disappointment, tiredness, frustration, yes, but none of those had been an excuse for the unforgivable low shot he’d fired at Gavin. That he understood family didn’t mean anything to Gavin, but that it was important to Bo. He’d hated himself as soon as the words were out and seen the hurt on Gavin’s face because it was true. Gavin didn’t know what a family was because he’d been brought up in seven different foster homes.
Bo had reached for him immediately, but Gavin had turned away, slamming the door as he ran out, and he hadn’t come home that night.
He’d finally got a text from Gavin the next morning saying he was moving out and would be gone the next day. Bo had volleyed one back saying it was good timing because he’d been offered a room with one of his co-workers in the city and it would be less of a commute. He hadn’t gotten a reply to that text at all.
It had been totally dumb. Just like all their arguments over the past couple of months. Something had rattled Gavin and Bo had been too caught up in work to really find out what. It was probably a good job they were splitting up. He was a selfish asshole who didn’t deserve someone as sweet as Gavin anyway.
The ache that accompanied that thought was worse than the one in his shoulders because that hurt was in his heart. Ignoring the rain that was pelting his face he turned around after loading his last box into his car and stared back at the old house. It was split into three apartments, but Mrs. Chen wanted to retire and he and Gavin had talked about putting in an offer for it and turning it back into one big house. It even had a small yard at the back—totally private—that they could deck out properly and turn into a lovely space.
At least Gavin would have been able to. Gavin was good with his hands. The thought of how good Gavin was with his hands…his lips…his teeth, had the ache in his chest doubling, and because Bo was a masochist instead of getting in his car he ducked around the building and entered the small enclosed yard through the tiny gate at the back.
He’d known somehow it wouldn’t have been as empty as he thought.
For a second he stared into the brown eyes of the man getting as soaked as he was as he stood in the middle of the empty yard.
“What are you doing?” Gavin croaked out, and Bo knew by his voice that not all the water on Gavin’s face was from the rain.
“The same as you,” Bo replied and walked up to Gavin.
Gavin laughed shortly, the hollow sound still heard even above the noise of the downpour. “I doubt it,” he whispered.
Bo’s eyes raked Gavin’s face. So expressive as always. The hurt, disappointment was there, but it was the longing that made Bo’s breath catch. “What I said was unforgivable.”
Gavin swallowed. “I got a letter,” he blurted out. “About a month ago from an old social worker I used to have when I was a kid.” He paused. “Some guy’s come forward saying he’s my dad.”
Bo gasped. The delight for Gavin was immediately tempered with the crushing realization that Gavin didn’t feel he could tell him. And guilt, because that was all on him. “That’s fabulous,” he said infusing his voice with as much excitement as he could muster. Gavin didn’t look excited though, he looked scared to death, and clarity was a punch to Bo’s gut.
He gathered the smaller man in his arms trying to keep as much rain off him as possible. “There are a million reasons why he never stepped forward before, not least that he might not have even known you existed.” Bo was thrilled when Gavin didn’t try and pull away from him but just lowered his chin into the crook of Bo’s neck. They used to stand like this and just sway when one of Bo’s favorite tunes came on when they were making breakfast together.
He couldn’t remember the last time they had eaten breakfast together. Chasing the promotion had made him go into work early and come home late. He had made a shit ton of mistakes and at the end of the day work never mattered, not really. He’d lost the only thing that really did. The man he held in his arms and was about to walk away from. “I made a decision,” he said, finally.
Gavin raised his head to look at Bo.
“I’m going back to school. You know I want to be a realtor, but I was too afraid to lose the steady wage and go commission only. You hate working for Cormicks. We talked about flipping houses together so many times, and we both have a bit of money saved up. I think we should try.”
Gavin’s eyes widened. “But why would you want to go into business with me when we’re splitting up?”
Bo pressed their foreheads together. “I’m an idiot. I’m impatient and a stubborn ass. I don’t think there’s ever anyone that could stand working with me.” His breath hitched. “Or living with me.”
Gavin looked up. The brown eyes shimmering again. “I think you would have a line of guys wanting the job.”
“I don’t want a line of guys,” Bo croaked out. “I’m only interested in one.” The rain must be coming down harder because torrents seemed to be pouring down his face. “That’s if he’ll ever forgive me.”
Gavin reached out and put his palm onto Bo’s cheek. “And what other qualifications are you looking for?”
“Eating breakfast together every day. Dancing to the radio.” He looked up at the dark sky. “Making out in the rain.”
“I want to apply,” Gavin said breathlessly.
“No need,” Bo said as he took him in his arms. “You already got the job,” and he bent Gavin back and sealed their promise with a toe-curling kiss.
It was still raining but he didn’t care.
“You want me to go where?”
“Don’t say it like you didn’t hear exactly what I just said.” Gael arched an eyebrow at Talon’s incredulous tone.
“But he’s nearly fifteen,” Talon carried on ignoring the look.
“Fifteen year old’s do not have show and tell,” Talon hissed. “I mean that’s something first graders do.” They were waiting outside Tampa Science Academy on the corner of North Boulevard and Waters Ave. It was a little far from Vance’s mom and dad’s where Liam lived but Liam had just transferred here after a friend of the lieutenant had recommended the school.
It was supposed to be perfect for the budding science geek that Liam now was.
Talon sighed. “Tell me again from the beginning.”
“Connie’s worried Liam’s not settling in.”
“Because he’s done a personality one-eighty in the space of four weeks since the semester started.”
“Meaning what?” Talon asked sharply. He hadn’t seen Vance or Sam for what seemed like ages, as much to Talon’s disgust, Gregory had loaned them out to the DEA. They were due back very soon though.
“Meaning he’s gone from being crazy excited about everything to spending most of the time holed up in his room. Connie’s real worried.”
Talon gazed at the stream of students that had just burst out of the building. “Which I don’t like obviously, but what the hell has that got to do with show and tell or more importantly me?”
“He’s not making friends apparently, according to Finn.”
Talon brightened. “Exactly. Finn would know what to do.” It was only he was doing a school visit this afternoon that he wasn’t in the car.
Gael shook his head. “Nope, it needs to be you.”
Talon glanced at Gael. “Would that be because I have a mark on my face and Finn doesn’t?”
Gael beamed. “You’re getting the idea, boss.”
Talon growled. “You still didn’t explain.”
“School science project, right?”
Talon groaned. He had hated those.
“All the kids have to get together into small groups and work on a project for the advancement of humanity.” Gael used finger quotes. Talon scoffed.
“Not much, then.”
“I know, Connie says the teacher is quite… earnest.” It sounded a complete load of crap to Talon, but what did he know.
“Anyway most of the class have gone for things like recycling etcetera. You know the type of thing—”
“Because if we don’t look after the planet there will be no humanity?”
“But why does that involve us?”
“Because,” Gael said dropping his voice lower even though they were on their own. “Liam hasn’t been asked to join in any groups.”
Talon shot a look at Gael. “Are you telling me he’s being deliberately excluded by the other kids?”
Gael just looked at him resignedly. “And I’m sure you can imagine why.”
“And the teacher hasn’t said anything?”
“Connie says not. Liam was put in a group but the others have made it more than obvious he isn’t welcome. Liam begged her not to tell the teacher because he thinks it will make things worse.”
“Which it may do,” Talon agreed. “Are there any other enhanced kids there?”
Gael shook his head.
Talon blew out a breath wishing Finn was here. Finn would know exactly what to say to Liam. “He’s coming.” Talon saw Liam break away from the kids heading towards the buses. Connie had told him this morning they were picking him up from school. “So I’m guessing you want us to help Liam come up with some sort of project? When’s it due?” Talon asked his eyes taking in the way Liam kept his head down even though he knew he’d seen the car.
“Tomorrow?” Talon said incredulously. “How the hell are we gonna come up with a project for tomorrow?”
Gael grinned just as Liam got to the car door. “Really Talon? The Advancement of Humanity?” Gael chuckled. “We’re not going to come up with a project. You’re actually gonna be the project.”
Talon had no idea whether to look intimidating towards the little shits that had given Liam hell for four weeks or just to stand there and look like he even knew half of what Finn was talking about. Genetic Determinism. Finn and Liam were just warming up and he had twenty-five fifteen year olds and their teacher—Miss Kelly—completely spellbound.
It might have been the science—that was certainly impressive—but Talon personally thought it was the flames dancing from his finger tips as he held his hand up that was tipping the balance in Liam’s favor.
Finn was happy to answer questions but had directed the first few towards Liam who probably knew far too much about their unit than he should. No, scratch that. He absolutely knew far more than he should, but they all trusted Liam to keep quiet. Eli’s abilities were documented and the fact that Talon now had some of their team’s had also been reported. It was impossible to hide when he had been present when some nutcase decided he was going to bring a gun to a fist fight outside a high school Finn had been visiting. Talon was picking him up afterwards because his car was in the shop and had seen the guy pull his weapon over a stupid ass fight about parking spaces of all things. The weapon had been metallic shavings a few seconds later but at least thirty parents and students had seen what Talon did. He was just very careful never to demonstrate Sawyer’s other ability. Being able to walk through brick walls wasn’t something he really wanted to see on Fox News.
“It’s not a project, though,” some kid sat at the back mumbled to his buddy.
The other kid nodded. “He’s a foster kid. His old man was some psycho I heard that was put away for killing someone.”
“Liam?” Talon interrupted. “You missed the question that,” he quirked an eyebrow at Miss Kelly and pointed to the two students who were sat at the back.
“Philip and Tomas,” she supplied as both kids sat bolt upright hearing their names.
“That Philip and Tomas asked,” Talon carried on not missing a beat as both their eyes grew wide at the spotlight shining on them. He glanced at Liam. “They have heard that your dad made great discoveries with tectonic energy and wondered how that came about?”
Liam practically lit up with enthusiasm and while being careful not to mention his own ability, went to great lengths in describing how to harness the power of the earth. Even Talon was impressed despite hearing it all before. And then when they were winding down, because the whole point of Talon being here was so Liam could make friends—not so he could score points with children, satisfying though it may be—he bent towards Liam while Finn was talking. “Go with me on this, Liam.”
He cleared his throat as Finn finished. “Liam actually asked me if he was allowed to arrange a small tour to the facilities we have at the FBI headquarters. I can allow maybe a couple of students and I suggested we made it a competition for the best question. Liam says, and I agree, that Tomas and Philip can come and two more.” He looked at Liam who was looking back at him with far more understanding—he thought—than any fifteen year old should have, and shrugged.
The teacher immediately perked up even more and suggested two more students who both smiled eagerly at Liam.
An hour later and Liam was given permission to show the class the Lenco which obviously Talon had made sure they rocked up in. It was nearly lunchtime before everyone was done and Talon had been very satisfied to hear Liam asked by a few of the kids if he was going to sit with them at lunch. Miss Kelly directed them all back inside and gave Liam permission to say goodbye on his own.
“Thank you,” Liam whispered and flung his arms around Talon’s waist. Finn beamed and Talon rolled his eyes pretending it was no big deal but he hugged Liam back just as hard.
He shoved Liam back and looked at him. “So what did we learn?”
Liam smirked. “That enhanced have exceptional hearing?”
“No!” Finn scolded, laughing.
Liam broke off from Talon and gave Finn a hug. “That if I have any problems I should just tell you guys,” he added quietly.
“Exactly,” Finn sighed with relief and they both watched as Liam hurried to join his new friends that were waiting for him.
“You big softy,” he said and prodded Talon’s bicep.
“Mmm,” Talon replied noncommittally turned to the Lenco. “I could get on board with this school thing.”
“You could?” Finn asked looking hopeful.
He nodded trying not to grin. They didn’t have to be back at the office for an hour and he definitely had some homework he thought Finn could help him with.
Finn pulled up at the local deli on his way home, a few minutes before it closed. He was enjoying learning to cook, and while he’d mostly been responsible for it when he’d lived with his entitled mom and his lazy slob of a brother, they’d been firmly in the burgers and fries department, and Finn loved experimenting.
Last night they’d had vegetable curry, and tonight he was going to do chicken milanese. Vance’s mom, who fed them all even more than they ate at Betty’s, had been giving him recipes and instructions. Finn loved food, and Talon was happy to eat anything Finn put in front of him. He would always clean up afterward, though, sending Finn for a shower or to put his feet up for a few minutes. It was all Suzy Homemaker, and Finn loved every second of it. In fact, as far as compatibility went, the only time they clashed so far was at work… or specifically if Talon thought Finn was at risk. Which, unfortunately, because of the job they did, meant pretty much all the time.
The bell didn’t ring above the door as Finn walked in, which he didn’t think about until he saw the terrified look on Mr. Adeila’s face as he walked toward the deli counter. Finn had a split second to register something was wrong, and for the second time that day, he felt the barrel of a gun in his back. Shit. And surprisingly, it wasn’t the thought of whoever was holding the gun that terrified him; it was the reaction Talon would have, knowing Finn had managed to get himself in a situation again.
“Hands where I can see them,” the voice behind him clipped out.
Finn immediately put his hands up, and the robber came around from behind him. Finn took in the skinny body, the ripped jeans, filthy T-shirt, and the black mask. He also recognized the Sig SP2022 the guy was clutching as if his life depended on it.
“I have a gun,” Finn said evenly. Being shot, especially accidentally, wasn’t on his to do list today.
The man stiffened, and Finn lifted his arms higher, showing the holster clipped to his belt that had been hidden by his shirt. The robber lunged and fumbled to get Finn’s Glock. Finn didn’t move. He was nervous, but the gunman seemed completely terrified. The guy needed to calm the fuck down before the gun went off.
“You a cop?”
Finn shook his head. “No. I just want us all to walk out of here safely. I didn’t want to surprise you.”
The guy grunted and waved his gun with a shaky hand to indicate Finn should move. “Get over there.”
Finn walked around the counter to stand with Mr. Adeila. The old shopkeeper looked terrified. Finn was glad neither his wife or daughter, who helped in the shop, were here.
The gunman took two steps back and locked the door. “Empty the register.” He fished a small canvas bag out of his pocket and threw it at Finn.
Finn pressed the cash button, and the register drawer shot open. Bar some loose change, it was completely empty. Finn hesitated a brief second, and then he understood the abject terror on Mr. Adeila’s face. His wife and daughter would be upstairs in their apartment, and the last thing he wanted was the gunman thinking the money was up there.
Finn glanced at the gunman. “It’s empty.” He stepped back as the gunman stiffened. He knew if he could see his face, it would be incredulous.
The man leaned over. “Where’s the fucking money?” he shouted.
“My wife already went to drop it in the bank,” Mr. Adeila stammered. “We never keep any on the premises overnight.”
Finn started talking. “Look, I have my debit card on me. I can withdraw five hundred in cash, now. There’s an ATM just outside on the wall next to the dry cleaners. Let me put my hand in my back pocket and get my card out?” Finn sounded reasonable, which quite frankly shocked the fuck out of him.
The gun waved precariously between them.
“Let Mr. Adeila go,” Finn urged. “It will take us seconds to just step outside, and then you can go.”
The man leaned over the counter to the old man. “Where’s your phone?” Mr. Adeila gestured to a small cell phone on the counter. The guy grabbed it and threw it to the floor, stamping on it. Finn took a breath. That was good. If he intended on shooting them, he wouldn’t care about the phone. “Sit down, hands on your head,” he shouted to Mr. Adeila. “If I see you move, I’ll put a bullet in you, and then I’ll go looking for your wife.”
Mr. Adeila whimpered but sank to the floor, cowering. Finn didn’t dare take his eyes off the gunman.
“Outside… now.” The man gave Finn a push and then stopped. Finn realized instantly the second his plan wasn’t gonna work as a black-and-white pulled up to the dry cleaners. “Fuck,” the man spat out, and then suddenly the gun wasn’t in Finn’s back—it was pointed at his face.
Finn had a second to see the right side of the pistol before he dropped and did the move Vance had been teaching him for weeks. He punched the guy right in the balls just as he heard the small click from the useless weapon before it was dropped. The guy screamed, turned, and staggered to the door. Finn followed, and in another second, the guy was sprawled on the ground in the shop doorway with Finn kneeling in his back.
Unfortunately Finn was likewise sprawled out by the cops in the mad rush when they saw what was happening. It took some hurried explaining, and Finn showing his ID before he was allowed to his feet.
“Ballsy but dumb,” the officer from district three pronounced as Finn and Mr. Adeila were checked out by the paramedics. “You feds think you can pull some superhero stunts. Other people might get hurt.”
Finn appreciated the irony, especially when it didn’t say anywhere on Finn’s ID which unit he belonged to. “The safety was on.”
The officer paused as he was writing. “What?”
“It was a Sig Sauer SP2022. Some of them have manual safeties, but they’re not common. I’m pretty sure he knew nothing about guns, and I only noticed when he shoved it near my face,” Finn said matter-of-factly. The cop regarded Finn carefully, and Finn shrugged. He wasn’t going to explain the years he’d spent with his dad, pouring over the old gun magazines when Finn had told him he wanted to join the FBI. That was private.
Mr. Adeila had been incredibly grateful, and Mrs. Adeila came running down stairs. “Finn,” she had exclaimed when her husband had explained what had happened, and she had cried all over Finn’s shirt and then tried to give Finn his weight in food. Finn grinned. Maybe Vance’s weight in food would be a more accurate description. “Policemen need to eat,” she insisted, patting Finn’s arm.
“I do,” he protested, not correcting her, as the plastic sack was pressed into his arms, but it was nice. The gratitude, the appreciation. When he got an invitation to Mr. Adeila’s daughter’s wedding next month, Finn knew it was time to leave.
Talon was going to kill him…again. Finn really hadn’t meant to invite anyone else. Their first Christmas Day and they’d promised each other they were going to eat turkey in bed. Just the two of them – all day.
Thanksgiving had been a complete bust. Some cop over in Gainesville had decided to arrest an enhanced fifteen-year-old for threatening a store owner that morning except it had turned out the kid was just trying to get help. He was mute and lived alone with his elderly grandmother. She was just pulling a baked ham out of the oven, and she’d had a heart attack. The kid wasn’t trying to threaten anyone, but the store owner had taken one look at the mark on his face; the lightning bolt shaped scar that all enhanced had, and assumed the worst.
So, Finn was determined Christmas was going to be perfect. He had all the recipes from Connie, Vance’s mom, and she had completely understood when they’d turned down the offer of going to their house for dinner. They’d said they might stop by later, but that was when Talon had pulled Finn into his arms, kissed him stupid until his knees gave way, and gruffly told him they would be spending the day in bed. At least he’d waited until they had got to the car to impart that particular news, though.
And he really hadn’t meant to invite Gael.
They’d all been chatting as they’d gotten out of their uniforms the day before. Talon had to go see Gregory over approving a possible new agent that he absolutely refused to discuss with the rest of the team, and Finn had asked Gael casually if Wyatt his younger brother was visiting him for the holiday.
“Nah,” Gael had shrugged. “Wyatt’s got a new girlfriend. He was invited there.”
Finn had paused. “So, are you going to Vance’s then?”
But Finn had known instantly Gael was lying. Vance had a huge family, and the place would be packed. Gael had a tell when he was stressed. He pulled at the bottom of his scarred cheek with his teeth where it touched his lips. The scar his dad had given him when the drunk had held a twelve-year-old Gael down and tried to burn his enhanced mark off with a gas lighter. Because of the looks of fear Gael got – his mark and the way the left side of his face was all scarred – Gael hated crowds unless he was in uniform. Finn knew damn well he’d spend the day alone in his apartment.
“We’d love it if you came to us,” the words were out of Finn’s mouth before he thought twice, and the shy, hopeful, look Gael gave him made the thought of imminent death at the hands of his boyfriend worth every second.
Not that Talon was an ogre… much. He’d listened as Finn had haltingly told him an hour ago either he was gonna have to get out of bed, or there was gonna be three of them in it. Talon had kissed Finn on the nose and told him he was a softy. Finn had just copied Talon’s trade mark raised eyebrow. It had been Talon who had insisted on staying with the kid at Thanksgiving. Taken him to visit his grandmother in the ER to see she was okay, and then got him settled at the group foster home near where they all lived. Talon was as soft as Finn, he just hid it better.
“It smells amazing,” Gael had greeted them and held up a bottle of the expensive Dutch vodka Talon liked. Finn had waved them both out of the kitchen, flushed, and mildly panicking at what now seemed an insane amount of food he’d bought. They’d both offered to help, but he was relieved when he heard the sound of the game coming on and stared at the mess in the kitchen. In his eagerness to impress his boyfriend, he’d gone a little over board. Finn grinned – understatement.
An hour later he was reading Connie’s instructions on how to make the green bean casserole when the doorbell rang, and he walked out of the kitchen smiling in shock when Vance stepped into the apartment.
“Hey, buddy!” Gael grinned at his friend, a little flushed as he and Talon had been experimenting with the Dutch vodka and the eggnog.
“What are you doing here?” Finn said in surprise as he nearly tripped over Olly. Talon’s black lab was ecstatic every time one of the team came over, and she’d rushed to greet Vance. Vance shrugged.
“There’s like fifteen kids at mine,” Vance grumbled and sat on the corner of the sectional. The sofa dipped alarmingly.
Talon chuckled. “You mean you’ve got no TV to watch the game on?” Vance grinned and chinked the beer bottle with Gael’s glass as Gael passed it to him. Finn immediately reversed back to the kitchen to peel more potatoes.
“Hey,” Talon followed him back into the kitchen. “This isn’t about you being in here, and me being out there. I wanna help.” Talon bent his head and kissed the back of Finn’s neck, and turned him around gently taking the potato peeler out of his hand.
The doorbell rang, and Talon groaned. Finn pushed him out. “Go see who it is.”
Finn came out of the kitchen a few minutes later and stopped in astonishment as their boss; Tony Gregory stood talking to Talon. Finn blinked. The man looked quite good in jeans. Couple that with the peppered gray hair and easy smile and he looked about ten years younger than normal.
“Sir?” Finn squeaked in alarm. Shit, were they gonna get called out?
Tony turned and smiled. “Don’t worry. I was on my way to my sister’s, and I was passing so I just thought I’d say hello.” He pushed a bag awkwardly under the tree and said his goodbyes hurriedly.
“Hey, Talon?” Gael called and picked up a present from under the tiny Christmas tree. “Santa’s been, and you haven’t opened your presents.” Finn flushed bright red. Oh dear God, no. He knew exactly what was in that and the last thing he wanted was it opening in front of anyone else. Gael saw his face and grinned evilly.
The doorbell rang for the third time. Talon just leveled Finn a look as he got to his feet, but Finn had no idea who it was.
But I really should have he thought, as Sawyer and Eli walked in. “We’re not stopping,” Sawyer said hurriedly, and Eli dug his hands into his pockets and looked at the floor. “We were just on the way past.”
Finn gave his boyfriend kudos for not so much raising an eyebrow at the obvious lie and bolted back into the kitchen.
“Finn?” Finn looked up from stabbing the turkey as Eli came in. “Talon says we could stay, but I wanted to check with you.” He looked down at Finn as Finn poked the thing with a knife. “I think it’s dead,” he said dryly.
Finn didn’t look up. He knew Eli was looking at the disaster area that was their kitchen. He was probably going to come out with some smart comment about Finn being as useless in the kitchen as he was at the FBI. The sound of a faucet being turned on had him looking, though. He tried not to gape as Eli started stacking pans to wash.
“You don’t have to do that,” Finn stammered.
Eli ignored him and quietly carried on. In five minutes working together, they could actually see counters. “Thanks,” Finn said.
“I never had this,” Eli replied so quietly Finn barely heard him. He flushed slightly. “I don’t mean the food.”
Yeah, Finn had sort of guessed that. “Clearing up a disaster zone?” Finn quipped.
“Can I help?” It was Sawyer. Finn made a quick decision. Trying to do everything was just pushing people away. It was dumb.
“Mash,” Finn said nodding to the potatoes.
“With cheese?” Sawyer rubbed his hands gleefully and opened the fridge.
“You doing green bean casserole?” Vance asked from the door.
“I was thinking about it,” Finn replied cautiously. “Your mom wrote down how to do it.” His own mom had always just bought pre-prepared shop items.
Vance chuckled. “Mom thinks she knows the recipe but dad has perfected it over the years. You got any bacon?”
Finn grinned as Talon and Gael walked in. The small kitchen was getting kind of full. Talon took over the turkey and Gael pushed Finn down on a chair producing two beer bottles. One he opened and passed to Finn, one he threw at Vance who promptly opened it and mixed it into the sauce he was making. Gael started frying bacon under Vance’s watchful eye. Talon just cleared up as people finished with things.
“Where are we eating?” Talon suddenly said, and Finn nearly choked on his beer; their kitchen table was barely big enough for two of them, and Vance was two people just on his own.
“That’s easy,” Vance said. “We just put everything out on the counters, plate up what we want and go sit in the there.” He nodded to the lounge. Finn smiled. He was going to do this elaborate place setting idea he’d seen on TV, but suddenly Vance’s idea seemed better.
The meal was easily the best thing Finn had ever eaten in his life. He was perched on the floor with his back wedged in between Talon’s legs. The game had finished, and Gael was eyeing the bag Gregory had pushed under the tree. “Hey, this one’s got my name on,” and he dragged the bag out. “We’ve all got one,” he chuckled and passed everyone a present from the bag.
Talon approved the bottle of wine he opened. Vance chuckled at the key-ring with the tiny free weights attached and the card that said Vance had to try and not break these. Gregory had actually had to get the team their own gym at the field office because Vance kept breaking all the equipment in the regular one. Sawyer got an Amazon gift voucher and Eli a book on old Harley Davidsons which he was thrilled with. Finn opened his eagerly then blushed a deep red at the T-shirt inside.
Talon grinned and held it up so everyone could see another Superman T-shirt to add to his collection. Talon cleared his throat. “Actually, Gael can you pass me that small red envelope?”
Gael pulled an envelope out from behind the tree that Finn knew for sure hadn’t been there that morning. Gael passed it to Talon, and Talon solemnly handed it to Finn. “Merry Christmas.”
Finn took it with shaking hands. His boyfriend’s blue eyes darkened. He opened the envelope, and a key slid out. Finn looked at Talon in confusion. Talon stood up. “C’mon.” All the team followed Talon as he solemnly walked Finn to the elevator and down to the parking garage. Talon came to a stop next to his monster truck and then moved Finn to the side so he could see what was next to it.
A gleaming blue Mustang coupe. Finn stared, completely unable to find words. Sawyer took the key from him and got behind the wheel and started the engine. He got back out and handed him the key. “It’s a sweet ride.”
Finn swallowed quickly. He’d bought an old Taurus three months ago, and no matter how many times Vance’s uncle tried to fix it, it had constantly let him down. He’d wanted to be independent as usual, and instead of asking for advice he’d bought the car straight off the lot. It had been a disaster, but Talon hadn’t even once given him shit about it.
“How did it get here?” Finn asked in awe.
“Sawyer drove it here, and Eli followed in his car,” Talon answered.
Finn’s eyes narrowed, remembering how Talon didn’t seem fazed at Gael’s arrival. His eyes narrowed. “You knew everyone was coming.”
Vance chuckled. “Like we were gonna miss this.”
“Besides, we’re family.” Gael cuffed Finn on his head. “You gotta include us.”
Talon turned him around so he was facing him. “Do you like it?” he asked, and Finn heard the catch in his breath. Finn smiled and launched himself at Talon to be caught and wrapped up in his big strong arms. All these months he’d tried to be independent. Worried every minute he wasn’t strong enough, fast enough, or even capable enough around his enhanced team, and it was dumb.
They needed to be needed just like him. Every one of them was his family from Talon who kept his heart beating to Eli because he’d included him.
It was going to be the best Christmas ever.
I wanted superheroes, but I didn’t just want a man in tights (not that a lot of people would object to that) but I needed a reason.
According to the fountain of all knowledge – Google – some babies are being born without their little toe. Some scientists say this is ridiculous, but others are more specific. The plantaris muscle in the foot is used by animals for gripping and manipulating objects with their feet – something you see in Apes. Humans also have this muscle but because of evolution is now unimportant to the extent that 9% of humans are now being born without it.
1 in every 100,000 people are now born without an appendix.
I was now thrilled that I didn’t need a magic wand/Aliens/ a futuristic deadly strain of the common cold or glow in the dark vampires.
My heroes are ordinary humans undergoing natural physiological transformation.
I admit to speeding evolution up a tiny bit, but hey – this is fiction.
And this is where it got to be fun.
In Five Minutes Longer each of my team of enhanced humans have a scientific reason for their ability.
In the first book we find out about Gael:
“I want to know what just happened,” Finn demanded as they shut the truck doors.
“You okay?” Vance asked Gael as Gael winced a little and took his shirt off. Vance brushed a hand over Gael’s back. No bullet hole, no blood.
Finn looked at the material on the shirt suspiciously, then picked it up. He carefully poked his finger through the hole in the back where the bullet had gone through, and with a sinking feeling, raised his eyes to where Vance was watching him steadily.
He thought a second before he ran his mouth off. Then he turned to Talon, who was sitting quietly in the front seat, watching him. “So next time someone’s waving a gun around, can I stand next to Gael, boss?” Finn asked innocently.
Gael guffawed and slapped Finn on the back. Finn tried not to wince.
“I take it this is your other ability? What is it, rapid healing?” Finn frowned. That still didn’t explain the lack of blood, though.
“Not exactly,” Gael answered.
“Gael,” Sawyer said warningly.
Gael looked at the guys sitting around the truck. “We’ve got a decision to make. We can’t work as a team without trust.” He looked at Finn. “To be honest the TV cameras saw me take the bullet, saw me move fast. There’s going to be questions anyway.”
Finn took a breath. “I know you don’t trust me.”
Talon interjected. “It’s not as easy as that. Even Gregory doesn’t know all our abilities, and we can’t expect you to lie if you’re asked a direct question.”
“I can change the…. I dunno.” Gael shrugged. “Last year I got skin cancer.”
“Cutaneous Melanoma, to give it its full title.” Gael’s scars twisted when he tried to smile. “It was shit really. It’s the most aggressive form of cancer, and you’re pretty much out of luck if it’s spread.” Gael gazed at Finn. “Mine had. Anyway, Talon and Gregory gave me a chance. We can’t get health insurance, and because the team wasn’t official, the bureau wasn’t gonna pay for anything…. So you met the Doc?”
“Well, turns out her daddy is one of the most renowned dermatologists there are, and he was fascinated with me. I had a shit-ton of tests, and I was waiting for the results when we were asked to help with a special op last year. Drug running, but they thought an enhanced was behind it, so they asked for our help… unofficially.”
Finn returned Gael’s smile automatically, even though his heart was doing its best to escape his chest.
“Things went wrong, and Talon got knocked out so he couldn’t help. They had Vance pinned down and were just going to shoot him. I thought, what the hell. It was likely I was going to die anyway so—”
“What he means is, he threw himself at the dick-head with the Tec-9 that was just about to blow my brains out,” Vance interrupted.
Gael chuckled. “The thing happened with my skin like you saw today. None of the bullets touched me. I went for a load of tests, and they found out there’s something called a Klf4 gene in everyone that is responsible for making human skin a barrier. Anyway, I won’t bore you with science, but basically the levels of it in me are off the charts. This gene doesn’t just protect the skin, though—it can have something to do with melanoma and other cancers. The doc called it ‘a double edged sword.’”
Finn swallowed. “It’s an activator and a repressor. That means it helps as well as harms.”
“How the hell do you know all this shit?” Sawyer burst out.
Finn shrugged. “It took me so long to learn to read, once I had, there was no stopping me.”
“Anyway, my skin changing didn’t just save Vance. When I got back and went to Doc’s, all traces of my cancer had gone, and Gregory doesn’t know because Doc’s father doesn’t work for the FBI. Doctor-patient privilege.”
“We keep it secret because we don’t want to end up as lab rats,” Talon said quietly, his blue gaze resting on Finn’s.
Finn frowned. “Secrecy won’t necessarily help that, though. The public knows you saved Cryer’s life—they’re gonna be more on your side.”
“Agreed with provisos,” Talon said. “I don’t want a perp suddenly deciding to see if Gael can withstand armor-piercing rounds.”
They all winced.
Talon started the truck and looked around at everyone. “We agreed on secrecy a long time ago. I get where Finn is coming from, but I’m not gonna insist on it. You all will have to come to your own decision.” Without waiting for a reply, Talon added, “Gregory wants us back at the office.”
Finn stared at his back. He hadn’t forgotten what that reporter said, and despite his nice little speech there, he hadn’t done any sharing. Finn now knew more about Gael than Talon. What he knew about Talon, Vance had told him, and Talon was supposed to be his partner, not just a member of the team. It all came down to trust. Talon gave him no direction out there. He didn’t even tell Finn to stay with him. That showed a glaring lack of trust as far as he was concerned.
He gazed out of the window. He was squashed up against the door, as Gael’s bulk sat next to him. He thought about what that reporter said about Talon. Had Talon really lost control and killed his father? Finn remembered the tightness in his chest when Talon demonstrated his ability on him, how he couldn’t breathe, how he couldn’t move.
Maybe Finn should be the one not trusting the team, not the other way around.
Did you know a human can actually change their DNA? I simplified it a little (maybe more than a little) but there’s a whole science called Epigenetics behind that question. Epigenetics doesn’t come in until the second book – One Step Sideways, but it’s just as fascinating as someone getting bullet-proof skin from the same gene that develops in the uterus to make a baby’s skin waterproof.
“So, are you going with the traditional flowers and chocolates, or are you being a bit more creative?”
Talon blinked at Gael, having no earthly idea what he was talking about. “Please don’t tell me you forgot,” Gael said flatly.
Talon paused, his mind going a mile a minute. It wasn’t Finn’s birthday. “Fuck,” he swore succinctly. Fucking Valentine’s day was tomorrow. Gael slapped him on the back, grinning.
“He’s a guy,” Talon said defensively after a few seconds.
“Who’s a guy?” They both glanced up as Vance came down the corridor toward where they were standing outside the medical bay.
“Finn, apparently,” Gael drawled.
“Huh?” Vance looked from one of them to the other in confusion.
“I mean he’s not going to be into all that stuff, flowers and shit,” but even as Talon spoke the words, he knew it was a lie. Gael just raised an eyebrow. Vance barked out a laugh.
“You forgot Valentine’s day.”
“You could just take him out for dinner,” Gael suggested.
“When?” Talon nearly wailed not even attempting to disguise his I know and freely admit I’ve fucked up voice. It was nearly ten p.m. They had just finished up a really long day and they’d all eaten take-out earlier. “He’s going on that crime scene forensics course tomorrow, and I have no idea what time he’s gonna be done.”
“There are one or two places that will be open late in Ybor,” Gael mused. “Although, Friday and Valentine’s Day? It’ll be a zoo.”
Talon nearly growled in frustration. He hated eating out. Hated the stares, the whispers when they saw the mark on his face. The fear and mistrust many didn’t bother to hide. “Gianelli’s,” Vance pronounced naming their favorite Italian restaurant. Gianelli’s had a private back room, and they had originally gone to celebrate Doctor Natalie’s engagement. The doc had gotten Gael the private help he had needed when he was diagnosed with skin cancer and had kept it away from the bureau. When she’d asked them to come, they couldn’t say no. They’d all been eating and suddenly heard the sound of raised voices in the main dining room. It had turned out there was a birthday party going on, except the boyfriend of the birthday girl had objected to her ex thinking he could turn up and it had quickly become a fight. Talon and Vance had just grabbed a man each by the collar and hauled them outside. It had been over and done with in a few seconds, and the owner was so grateful his restaurant hadn’t got wrecked, they’d all drunk complimentary champagne. It was the only place the team ever went to eat out, not including Betty’s Diner.
Talon pulled his phone from his pocket and started dialing the number. Three restaurants later he gave up in disgust. Everywhere was slammed. The others didn’t take bookings but were expecting wait periods of at least an hour and the thought that he had no idea what time Finn was going to be back made the two early slots he was offered impossible to accept.
“Can’t you stop and get him something on the way home?” Vance asked.
“The truck’s in for service. We’re both in Finn’s.” In fact, any second his boyfriend was going to come out of the locker rooms looking for him. As if Finn had heard him, the door opened at the end of the corridor and Finn came out with Sawyer. Finn was laughing, and Sawyer was shaking his head in amusement. Finn looked up, and Talon met his green eyes. Everything in him soothed instantly. He wanted to do something special. He didn’t want to do chocolates and flowers, and yeah, he’d stuffed up the chance of both because he’d forgotten. Forgot Finn was normal, and he was anything but. Forgot his boyfriend was and would always be the very best thing that had ever happened to him. Forgot he wasn’t supposed to take him for granted. His lips curled upwards in the answering smile to Finn’s soft one.
“You done?” Finn said softly and gasped as Talon drew him in close to his body. Finn looked around, alarmed.
“Everyone’s gone home,” Talon murmured desperately wanting a kiss.
“Well, we haven’t,” Sawyer groaned, turning and following a chuckling Vance. Gael threw him a pointed look and then ruffled Finn’s hair.
“Knock ‘em dead, tomorrow, kid.”
Finn’s eyes sparkled, all eager. “I can’t wait.”.
Talon smiled indulgently. He couldn’t imagine anything more boring than discussing the nuances of directional blood-spatter, but he knew Finn had just bought a book by a famous forensics scientist in preparation for the course and Talon had already been lectured by his boyfriend on the value of it. Apparently, the book – Forensics for Fiction – had been written for authors, but Finn had raved about it and had even gotten their boss Gregory interested. Their team didn’t have the experience to handle murders in any way, and to be honest, they were having enough problems with the living, but Gregory was trying as hard as he could to plug all the numerous gaps in their training.
And Finn was an asset Gregory had recognized when he had been too stupid to. No, he had to get Finn something special…
Talon was fairly pleased with how things were going so far. He’d deliberately turned off Finn’s alarm and woken him up with breakfast in bed. Just a little too late to have Finn worrying about anything other than ramming down his chocolate chip muffin and racing in and out of the shower. He’d arranged for Gael to pick him up as he was still without the truck and after Finn had disappeared in an eager blur, he was showered and ready for Gael when he showed. Gael quizzed him immediately when he’d arrived, but Talon had just said everything was in hand. Gael had grinned and called him a lucky bastard. Which he knew. He had a dozen stops to make when he got his truck back but was waiting outside the training area next to the Tampa PD building when Finn came out of the door. Finn looked in surprise when Gael took his keys from him and promised Finn his “baby” would be safe and sound in their parking garage when he needed it tomorrow. Talon steered a bemused Finn to his truck and got him settled in there.
He started the truck and turned around. “You thought I’d forgotten, didn’t you?”
Finn opened his mouth, then closed it, and Talon smiled at the pink flush that started in his neck. He leaned over and pressed his lips to Finn’s, satisfied when he felt Finn’s hands creep around his back. He pulled back and then nearly—for a split second—thought to hell with the plan and wanted just to drive Finn home and carry him to bed, but he didn’t.
“I hope you’re hungry.”
Fifteen minutes later they pulled up outside Betty’s Diner. “What are we doing here?” Finn asked in astonishment. Talon grinned and jumped down from the truck and was at Finn’s door before he’d recovered from his shock enough to open it. Betty served breakfast and lunch six days a week, closed at 3 p.m., and it was the first place Talon had ever taken Finn to. To be honest, the diner looked closed. All the shutters were down, and it looked like the usual emergency lighting was on when you glanced at the door.
Talon just smiled and clasped Finn’s hand which he almost never did. He led Finn solemnly to the door and opened it. “I screwed up and forgot to book anywhere early enough.”
But Finn didn’t answer. He was too busy staring at the setting inside. Betty stood beaming, but even Talon was impressed at the table. All the smaller tables usually in the middle had been pushed to the side against the booths. The only table left was set up in the middle of the now empty floor. Talon blinked at the snowy white tablecloth and napkins, and the two candles flickering gently. The bottle of champagne he had dropped off earlier was chilling in the ice bucket. There were rose petals sprinkled over the table, and a single rose in a vase next to the candles.
Finn’s hand tightened in his, and he glanced at him quickly. The green eyes he loved shimmered as he stared, and then Finn gazed back at Talon and swallowed.
“It’s beautiful, Betty. Thank you,” Talon said, quietly.
“How?” Finn swallowed, and Talon guided him to the table. Talon didn’t answer because Betty was busy serving the soup. Finn inhaled. “My favorite.”
Betty beamed. “Of course,” and then she sniffed in that what did you expect kind of way. Talon’s belly growled as he smelled Betty’s homemade tomato soup. He’d spent all day worrying about making tonight perfect and hadn’t even thought about eating anything.
“How was your day?” Talon said.
Finn’s face lit up, and Talon listened as Finn eagerly told him what he had learned. They finished their steak and Betty pulled over a cart with some tiny deserts for them to share, and pressed a set of keys into Talon’s hand. “You just lock up when you’re done.” Finn stood up and threw his arms around her, and she chuckled and left them alone.
It was immediately quiet, and Talon swallowed down his suddenly dry throat. “You would be right thinking I forgot about Valentine’s day…I did.” Talon watched the green eyes he loved widen a little at his pronouncement, but then Finn’s face softened, and his smile was back. Gentle, forgiving and sexy as all hell. He was crap at sharing, but Finn deserved the truth and so much more.
“Normal life stopped for me the day I woke up with this.” Talon gestured to his face, then took Finn’s slim hands in his because he needed the touch. “Grandma and Grandad tried, but after Grandad died I stopped bothering.” He shrugged. “I never saw anything worth celebrating.” Finn’s hand tightened in his. “No, that’s not even strictly true. It…” Talon swallowed again, searching for the right words. “It was as if normal life didn’t involve me. Other people had lives. Went to ball games, hell – even dated. So, I didn’t forget exactly. I knew it was Valentine’s day. I just stopped thinking anything like that applied to me.”
Finn’s eyes glittered, and Talon brought Finn’s hand up to his mouth and kissed Finn’s palm. He needed a few seconds to cover his own eyes becoming suspiciously bright. Talon slid a hand into his back pocket and brought out an envelope. He squeezed Finn’s hand before he let go and straightened the envelope a little before handing it over. Finn’s lips parted soundlessly. “Yours is at home.”
Talon understood immediately. “And I bet you would never have said a word about it if I hadn’t.” Finn would never try and make him feel bad. Finn’s lips curled up into the shy smile he loved. “Open it.”
Finn tore the envelope and grinned when he saw the card. He arched an eyebrow. “This is a valentine card?”
Talon chuckled. “I think it’s a birthday card, but I managed to find one with nothing written on it. He watched as Finn read the words Talon had written and saw the lump travel down Finn’s throat.
super hero with heart
“I think this is you, not me,” Finn said quietly. “You’re the one with the super abilities.”
“Come here,” Talon ordered quietly, and Finn got up, and Talon drew him close until he was sitting on his lap. Talon gently raised Finn’s chin with his finger until their eyes met and held. “Every day. Every day you make me a better person. Every day when I can’t love myself, you do it for me. You have the biggest heart of anyone I know, and I don’t know how the hell I ever got so lucky that you make room in it for me.” Talon thumbed the moisture from under Finn’s eyes and captured his lips with his own.
He had gone to five stores before he had found the card he wanted. It had a picture of Superman on it, and Talon could hear the words as he had written them.
“You are my hero. Love is your superpower, and you save me with it every day.”
“How old are you, five?”
Finn elbowed his incredulous boyfriend who was reacting to what Vance had said and then promptly had to shake his arm out. He really had to learn not to do that. It was like poking concrete.
“You asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday,” Vance replied a little defensively.
“I think it’s an awesome idea,” Finn butted in staunchly and ignored the dark look Talon sent him.
Talon shook his head as if words were failing him.
“What’s an awesome idea?” Sawyer asked as he walked into the locker room.
“Vance wants to go to a bowling alley on Friday,” Talon repeated slowly as if he still couldn’t believe it.
Sawyer grinned. “I haven’t been to one of those since I was about ten.”
“Exactly,” Talon replied.
“And then we can go get a burger or something,” Finn added and Vance’s face brightened a little.
“And don’t let him fool you,” Gael said who had followed Sawyer in nodding towards Vance. “Junior Gold Champion.”
“Of what?” Finn asked.
“How did you know?” Vance asked and then groaned. “Mom.”
Gael grinned. “Yep, even saw the photos. You were very cute.”
Vance groaned again and collapsed onto the bench which creaked alarmingly. Finn’s eyes widened. “Goldchampion?”
Gael waggled his eyebrows. “Three years in a row.”
“Wow!” Finn said in awe.
Vance sighed. “Yeah, then when I turned up for the qualifiers after the last year I was banned from competing.” He stood. “Was fun while it lasted, though.”
Everyone was silent for the space of a heartbeat knowing exactly what had happened to Vance in the year between winning and being banned from the sport.
“So what time do you guys want to meet?” Talon asked and mock-punched Vance on his shoulder.
It was packed. And Finn wasn’t sure the poor girl giving shoes out wasn’t going to pass out when she’d looked up and seen their group stood there. She blinked giving the “deer in headlights” look as Vance stepped forward.
“Umm, I’m not sure we will have any shoes to fit you,” she whispered. Finn thought she was gonna cry.
Vance just beamed. “That’s fine, ma’am. I brought my own.”
“Who has their own bowling shoes?” Sawyer hissed.
“Us, for starters,” Gael winked and stepped up next to Vance.
Finn was pleased. Despite it being busy, the lane next to theirs emptied quickly, and somehow no one else seemed to want it. Vance rubbed his hands and gently put down the black bag he was carrying. Finn peered over. “What’s in there?”
Vance opened it and reverently got out a gleaming black and purple bowling ball. It was huge. Finn doubted he would ever be able to lift it with both hands but cradled gently in Vance’s huge paws it looked like a tennis ball.
“Did you win your championships with that one?” Talon leaned over admiringly.
Vance shook his head. “No. It was a present from Mom and Dad after I won the last one. I’ve never used it.” He shrugged. “But it’s my birthday, right?”
Daniel shouted just then. “Finn, come and help me get the beers in.” They both walked over to the bar. “You just made his day.”
Daniel nodded. “They were talking world bowling championships at one point when he was a kid. Juniors obviously.” Daniel stepped up to the bar and started ordering.
Finn sighed. Something else a mark on Vance’s face had ruined. He carried the two jugs of beer and Daniel brought the glasses. Vance was stood rubbing his hands gleefully as Gael sat and entered the names.
Finn’s hackles rose at the derisive words, and he turned expecting to see whoever was speaking watching their group. He was wrong, but he still didn’t like what he saw. They had just finished their first game, and one lane over past the empty one three teenagers plus another kid were playing. He guessed at teenagers putting them all around fourteen. The boy they were all looking at—like he was something one of them had just wiped off their shoe—was a lot younger. Maybe ten, eleven, and looked completely miserable.
One of the older boys sniggered as the boy looked up from where he was picking up a bowling ball just as a fourth teenager joined them.
“You don’t think you’re actually playing, do you? You haven’t got a partner.” The boy that had spoken originally informed him and bumped knuckles with the one who had just arrived.
“Yeah,” sniggered the only girl in the group. “You’d need the baby rails on.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” the younger one muttered and went to sit down at the small table. It looked like he was the only one without a soda and some chips as well.
“Hey, Matt, these shoes are too small. Go change them,” the boy ordered and threw his bowling shoes at the kid. He fumbled the unexpected throw, and the girl rolled her eyes.
“Which is why we won’t let you anywhere near a bowling ball,” she decreed.
Finn blew a slow breath out and caught Talon’s eye. Talon had heard what had been said the same as every enhanced there. It was only that Finn had been stood the nearest he had caught Matt’s reply. Finn really wanted to go over and tell them what he thought, but he knew the team wanted to keep their heads down and leave without any fuss. It was a huge ask just getting them all in a public place for Vance’s birthday.
“I need a partner.”
Finn saw Matt gape in astonishment before he even realized it had been Vance that had spoken. Vance stepped up to Matt, smiling encouragingly. “We can either play your buddies, or you can join us?”
Matt still sat with his mouth open, but the girl piped up again.
“Are you even allowed in here?”
It was Vance’s turn to roll his eyes this time. “Too chicken to take us on?”
The girl stiffened and glanced—suddenly unsure—at the other two boys. The oldest took a step towards Vance. “Set ‘em up.”
“Set ‘em up,” or Taylor was apparently the self-elected leader of the group, although as far as Finn could see he just a self-absorbed righteous douche-bag. The girl was called D.Zee which Sawyer immediately mispronounced as Dizzy as often as he could to annoy her. In fact, when her frustration became palpable Vance intervened with a hand on Sawyer’s shoulder.
They were just kids. Kids that needed a lesson in manners maybe, but Sawyer was in danger of crossing a line. The quick nod Sawyer gave Vance as he backed off showed he knew that.
They suggested two games, and Talon offered to split the team to pair up with the kids but Taylor wouldn’t have that as if he had something to prove, and as it would have been ridiculous with them all playing, Daniel took Sawyer, Eli, and Gael to the spare lane and they played a separate game.
That left Vance and Matt, Talon and Finn, Taylor and D.Zee, and C.J and the last boy to arrive—Mike—all playing in pairs. Vance, Matt, Finn, and Talon were one team and Taylor, D.Zee, C.J., and Mike another. Finn tried not to roll his eyes as Talon went first. Talon had deliberately pulled his strength to be fair to the kids, but he had so badly misjudged it he only knocked over one pin. His second go was a little better but he still only got five. Taylor snickered and took a ball. Of course, he got a strike on his first attempt and high-fived his team.
“Matt, do you wanna go first?”
Matt gave Vance his best deer in the headlights look and shook his head, so Vance took his turn and immediately knocked every pin down. The boys were silent because Vance hadn’t smashed them. He hadn’t hit them so hard pins had ended up one lane over like Gael had the first time. He had been careful, slow, but incredibly accurate. The smile on his face as Matt high-fived him was infectious.
Taylor bristled, and Finn sighed. He honestly thought he would unbend a little. D.Zee remained quiet, but C.J. and Mike both were soon laughing and joking with Vance. Vance even gave them tips on holding the ball, and they were really grateful.
Taylor was the only one who seemed to be getting more pissed off by the minute.
“It’s not his fault,” Matt said quietly as he followed Finn’s gaze.
Finn glanced back. “Taylor’s?” Matt sighed and nodded. Not completely sure what Matt meant he just stayed silent having a feeling more information would be coming. The technique usually worked on the team, anyway.
“He’s my brother,” Matt clarified. “There’s just us now, and my mom works two jobs.” Matt took another breath and looked around to make sure he wasn’t being overheard. Finn didn’t tell him it was likely the team could hear him anyway. Matt was silent for a little longer before he said. “He hates me.”
Finn shrugged. “All big brothers hate their little brothers sometimes. He won’t really.”
Matt nodded emphatically. “He does. It’s my fault Callum got locked up.”
Callum? Who the hell is Callum? “And Callum is?”
“My older brother.”
Finn was getting confused. “Older than Al?”
Matt nodded. “But just by one year.”
“We’re just gonna get some sodas,” Finn called out to the others and practically dragged Matt with him. They stepped around the seating area and walked towards the counter. Finn paused. “Tell me from the beginning.”
“Callum is like your friends.”
Finn did a mental oh and started to understand why Matt was sharing. “He got his scar just before thanksgiving, but we didn’t care.” Matt stared at the floor. “Anyway, I wanted these Nike’s like Eric Salter had. He was showing off. Saying we were trash. So I took them.”
“No,” Matt said like Finn was slow or something and looked up at him. “I took them from the store, but I didn’t even get past the door. I set all the alarms off.” There was a pause. “Dumb, huh?”
Finn’s smile was gentle.
“Anyway, I started crying because the security guard was holding me real tight. Taylor was with me, but Callum was waiting outside. Taylor had some money he got for his birthday,” as if that explained why they were there in the first place. “The guard was mean. He was yelling and trying to take me to the office and asking where my mom was. Taylor was trying to say she was at work, but we knew if she got called out she wouldn’t get paid for the day, but the guard didn’t care, and he was hurting me.”
Finn could understand how it had escalated. “What happened?”
“Taylor went and got Callum.”
Shit. “And what did Callum do?”
“He was just going to talk, but the guy went nuts as soon as he saw Callum’s scar.” Matt raised tear-filled eyes. “He had a gun.”
Finn’s jaw dropped. “The guard pulled his gun?”
Matt nodded miserably. “Callum is fast, real fast. He had the gun off the guy before anyone blinked. But then two more guards came and then the cops showed up. They said Callum was gonna shoot the guard, but he didn’t even point it at him, he just held it so it was pointing at the floor.”
Finn hardly dare breathe. “Did Callum get shot?”
Matt shook his head. “Not with a bullet. These cops had dart things.”
Finn closed his eyes. ENu He could imagine.
“They took him to prison. No one would believe he hadn’t done anything.”
“How long ago?”
“Last year,” Matt took a breath. “No one will listen. They let Mom visit, but it’s in New York.”
So, money. They were stuck. She couldn’t afford to go, miss work or have someone else watch the kids. Finn sat on one of the empty seats and Matt dropped down next to him. “Callum and Taylor were always tight,” Matt explained. “Now Callum’s gone which is all my fault, and what’s worse is Taylor has to watch me when Mom works. Taylor won a thing at school for tonight and got free tickets. He had to bring me, but there was no way he was gonna let me play.”
It was such a mess. Finn took a breath. “Let’s go get the soda. I need to know your full name and where you live. We have a lot of friends that are cops including all Vance’s family.”
Matt raised hopeful eyes. “You think you can get Callum home?”
Finn tried a reassuring smile. “I don’t know if I can, but our boss knows a lot of people. I’m pretty sure he can help.”
Finn would make sure of it.
Five days later Finn stood next to Vance watching for the cop car to pull into the shared parking lot. Gregory had invited Matt, Taylor and his mom to their offices to discuss getting Callum released. Gregory had called in everyone he knew to help, but they hadn’t budged, so Talon had called Senator Bryan Duvall. He’d had to promise a week of his time in Washington to help his campaign, but Finn was going to go with him, and he’d never seen the capital.
He’d made a list.
The senator had even promised them a guided tour of the White House. Talon would be making history as the first Enhanced human to ever set foot in there. The senator said it was a P.R. dream.
Amy, Matt’s mom, reminded him of Connie. He was determined to introduce them as Connie was getting together an unofficial support group together for those parents with enhanced kids. Even Taylor hadn’t said a word in complaint as they had gotten a full guided tour of the field office, and Talon had promised to show him a few hand-to-hand moves in the gym.
Vance’s small grunt grabbed Finn’s attention from where Amy and the kids were listening to Talon demonstrate the new database of enhanced they were setting up.
“But it’s voluntary?” She frowned. “I’m not sure I’m thrilled with Callum being on police files.” Then she blushed. “Not that he isn’t already now of course.”
Gael nodded. “I felt exactly the same, but I was recently persuaded that it would only be visibility that will keep the kids safe. We recently helped a little boy that was being imprisoned by his father. If Bo had been documented and in school, the situation would either never have happened in the first place or would have been harder to maintain for the ridiculous length of time it was.”
Amy’s eyes filled. “I can’t believe Callum got locked away when he didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Amy?” Vance interrupted from the window. “There’s something I want you all to see.”
Amy, Matt, and Tayler rushed to the window just in time to see two cops get out of a patrol car. Taylor sneered but just before he turned away in disgust Finn saw his eyes widen and his breath hitch.
“Callum,” Amy cried and pressed her hand to the glass. Of course, the teenager that got out of the back of the car was too far away and couldn’t hear her through the glass, but because Vance’s brother Chris was one of the cops and it was arranged, he glanced up at the window, nudged the boy and pointed for him to look up.
Callum’s face broke out into a huge smile, and Chris laughed as they both waived. Amy laughed, cried, hugged everyone and fairly bounced on the spot until the door opened and Chris and Callum walked through. He was mobbed. There was shrieking and crying. Finn ducked his head and felt an arm slide up his back and give his shoulder a squeeze. “I don’t think anyone’s watching you, you’re safe,” Talon whispered as Finn drew his sleeve over his wet cheek.
Finn shook his head. “Like you’re not just as bad,” he whispered and ignored the raised eyebrow. He’d seen Talon’s face when they had gotten the call to say Callum was going to be released. His big tough guy was as soft as the rest of them around kids.
He sighed happily, and around him.
Talon accepted a hug from Amy and was dragged over to greet Callum. Vance came and stood back next to him by the window. After a few moments, Taylor slid over next to Vance.
“We get bowling coupons from school when we get a high score or do something good.” He shrugged. “I got another last week I’ve not used yet.”
Finn glanced away so Taylor wouldn’t see his grin.
“Yeah?” Vance replied, equally as casual.
“So, I wondered if you wanted another game? I mean,” Tayler hurried on, “Callum and Matt will be going with me so I thought you could bring a team.” He suddenly seemed to find the carpet fascinating. “It would be better with four though, so you can be on our team if you like.”
Vance’s grin was ear to ear, and he nudged Taylor playfully. Of course, if Callum hadn’t chosen that second to come and talk to them, he wouldn’t have managed to catch his brother and save him from toppling over.
Vance rubbed his hands in glee and Finn chuckled. It was nice to have a Five Minute break from saving the world.