FINN GRIPPED his Glock 19, trying not to let his hand shake. Heart pounding so loud he thought the perp would hear it, he crept behind Sawyer along the hallway of the house he had just entered. Two, possibly three guys and multiple hostages. He glanced at the small kitchen as he walked past and silently checked no one was hiding out of sight behind the door. He gave the tiny room one last look and moved down the corridor. Sawyer paused to the left of the door, with Finn behind. He knew the drill for clearing a room—he could do it in his sleep. SWAT teams never operated with less than two, and Sawyer had waited until Finn got in place. He gripped his gun tighter, willing his sweaty fingers not to cramp.
The ominous click behind him made him freeze. Shit.
“Bang. You’re dead.”
“Drew?” Finn blurted out indignantly as he swung around. “What are you doing here?”
“Shooting your sorry ass” came the familiar drawl from behind Finn, accompanied by Vance’s chuckle.
“But…,” Finn started protesting as Vance took the training gun from him.
“You didn’t check under the kitchen sink,” Talon said with a sigh, coming to stand beside Drew.
“That’s because all you bastards are too huge to fit under there!” Finn argued. “I didn’t know you’d planted Drew here. That’s chea—” He clamped his lips together one second too late.
“Cheating?” Talon repeated incredulously. “Cheating? This isn’t a fucking game, Finn.” Talon threw his hands in the air and stormed out as Finn winced. Drew sent him an apologetic look as he followed their team leader out of the empty mock-up house they used for training.
Shit. Finn closed his eyes in despair. He’d screwed up royally. He’d made assumptions that Sawyer had already checked, and because Drew wasn’t in the car when they’d arrived, he’d taken it for granted no one was there. Drew wasn’t even one of the team, but he did join them for training sometimes. Finn knew he was supposed to check anywhere someone on two legs could hide. He kicked the baseboard in temper before walking out.
Vance chuckled again, and his huge hand settled on Finn’s shoulder. “Don’t get bent up about it, kid. We all make mistakes.”
“Some of us more than others,” Sawyer added.
Finn kept his mouth shut this time. Didn’t even protest at the “kid” moniker they all used. He deserved it. He’d already screwed up with the target practice because he was too worried about tomorrow. The team was doing this as a favor for him so he wouldn’t be completely out of his depth when he drove up to the FLETC in Georgia. He’d been so excited when their boss, A-SAC Gregory, got him a place on the active shooter threat training program. The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco was in high demand, and he was sure Gregory had probably pulled some strings to get him in so soon. Then he’d been told there might be some written simulations, and his newfound confidence had taken a dive. His team knew about Finn’s dyslexia. It wasn’t an issue, and because they were relaxed, he was relaxed and it hadn’t posed any problems. But Gregory had excitedly told him yesterday how everyone would know he was from the new team and how he was sure Finn would make them all proud. Which, of course, was absolutely the wrong thing to say, because suddenly there was a real possibility that he would let them all down.
Finn silently followed Sawyer and Vance into the back of Talon’s truck. Talon sat in the driver’s seat, and Finn blinked in astonishment as Drew hopped up beside him. They usually left that seat for Vance, to give the huge guy room to stretch his legs. Finn pretended not to listen as Drew started asking Talon’s advice about a task force he had applied for.
“Are you hoping you might get to see your parents a little more often if you get transferred up there, or is this something you’re interested in?” Talon asked as he exited the training area.
“To be honest, I don’t think I’m using my talents here. Wiretaps may be important, but I am not planning on spending the next three years listening to them. I’m fascinated with the BAU, and I need to get to a space where I have a good chance of being considered,” Drew replied eagerly.
Talon shrugged. “I have an older brother who has his forensic behavioral science degree. He lectures some now. I can give you his e-mail.”
Finn seethed. Drew Fielding was a regular agent who often joined in with Finn’s training, but Talon didn’t especially like the guy since he’d caught Drew trying to get into Finn’s pants. Talon had said that Drew would make a good agent if he spent less time on manicures, and they’d all had a good laugh. Finn often sparred with Drew and had only been able to get the jump on him once, even with Vance giving him tips at hand-to-hand. And what was the sudden objection to wiretaps? He’d told Finn it was easy money for sitting and doing nothing strenuous.
Talon waved his ID at the security barrier as they pulled into the parking lot behind the Tampa FBI field office that was their base. The only field office that had a security barrier. Talon had told him it was just for them, but that was plain-ass stupid. No flimsy barrier was going to stop any of his team—well, apart from him. Because, and despite Agent Gregory saying he had found one or two candidates to join them, Finn was still the only regular human on a team of enhanced humans.
H.E.R.O. Human Enhanced Rescue Organization. Heroes? The press seemed to think so—well, at the minute anyway—but of course, that could turn on a dime.
Everyone got out. “Finn, wait up,” Talon said, and Drew, Sawyer, and Vance immediately made themselves scarce without any comments.
Finn let out a long breath while he waited for the earbashing he was about to get. Then, without warning, Talon curled a hand around the back of Finn’s neck and drew him in so fast he nearly fell against the lips that touched his. Finn melted instantly against the hard body, then stumbled as Talon let go just as fast, glancing around to make sure no one had seen, but the lot was empty.
“I need you safe,” Talon ground out, and Finn’s heart turned to mush, along with his muscles.
“I know.” And he did. Talon was struggling with being his team leader and his… boyfriend? Was that what Talon was? They’d hardly been out of each other’s sight for six weeks. If he didn’t stay over at Talon’s, then Talon stayed at his apartment. Not often, though, as Drew had a place in the same complex as Finn, and Talon’s monster truck was very visible. Their boss knew about their relationship and was choosing to ignore it, but that didn’t mean they had to wave it in anyone’s face.
Today marked the official start of his eighth week in the FBI, and he still wanted to pinch himself daily. Finn let out a slow breath as he turned to follow Talon toward the field office. Eight weeks. Eight weeks since he’d gotten the letter saying his application for the FBI had been rejected and then, an hour later, got the cryptic phone call from A-SAC Gregory saying he had been selected for a secret specialized training program in the FBI, to tell no one, and to report, not at Quantico, but at the Tampa field office in Florida.
That had been the strangest day of his life. He’d never forget meeting his new partner, Talon. All six foot five inches of him, with the gorgeous, blond-haired, blue-eyed Greek-god thing he had going on. Then he’d seen Talon’s face and nearly had a heart attack. The mark. All enhanced had a scar under their left eye shaped a bit like a lightning bolt. It was completely impervious to any type of makeup or even plastic surgery. There was something about it that burned through makeup, and it reformed just as quickly if it was surgically removed.
Talon stopped as they rounded the corner. “I know you got a little bent up ’cause of what Gregory said.”
Finn rubbed his chin against Talon’s shirt. “I don’t want to let you all down.” He didn’t look up until he felt Talon’s finger tilt his chin.
“It’s my fault. We shouldn’t be doing this rushed. The whole thing isn’t fair to you. You should be getting proper training.”
Finn stared into the deep blue he loved so much. “And we both know I would never have made the proper training. It is what it is, T.” Which was true; the FBI had wanted to fill an extra eight hundred and fifty agent posts last year. In the space of six weeks, they had gotten over two hundred and seventy thousand applications. Finn’s grades would normally never have made the cut.
“It still doesn’t mean I’m about to put the team, including you, in danger over something I should have sorted out.”
“And you will,” Finn soothed. It wasn’t Talon’s fault either. In the last four weeks, they had gone from persona non grata with the Tampa PD to having nearly every sergeant calling them, wanting their input on various cases. And because the team was doing their best to get enhanced accepted with the general public, Talon was struggling not to turn down any request for help.
Finn’s belly rumbled as he stood in the elevator. The others had been holding it for them when Talon and Finn caught up to them, which was a shame, but he didn’t want to go into the locker rooms with a hard-on, and he would have if Talon had kissed him anymore. Finn smirked—who was he kidding?—and tried to adjust his pants unobtrusively. He risked a quick glance at Talon and knew by the flare of his bright blue eyes that he’d failed miserably. His belly rumbled again.
Vance chuckled. “You hungry?”
“He’s always hungry,” drawled Talon.
Finn lifted his T-shirt and patted his flat stomach lightly. “Maybe I’ve got a worm.”
Sawyer spluttered, trying not to laugh. Vance just grinned.
“A worm? What the hell?”
“That’s what my granddad used to say when I ate a lot.” Finn grinned. “Did you know the longest tapeworm ever taken out of a human was one hundred and eight feet?”
Everyone groaned, and Sawyer made gagging noises. “Talon, please, for the love of God, shut him up, or he’s not gonna need any more training. I’m just gonna shoot him in the elevator.”
Talon chuckled, and Finn smiled, relieved. He didn’t know how he retained all the useless facts he did, but if it lightened the mood, he was all for it.
The elevator dinged at their floor. They had their own corridor—a whole corridor. Two huge classroom spaces, a locker room, and a gym. Gregory’s office and the clinic were on the floor above. The gym was new, though. There was a large one downstairs, but all the agents had access to it, and Gregory had successfully requisitioned one for their team. Gregory said he was sick of the complaints after Vance broke another piece of equipment down there.
Vance—all three hundred pounds of him—was easily the strongest guy, and possibly one of the largest, Finn had ever met. Strength was one of his abilities, and the phrase bench-pressed trucks wasn’t just a descriptor used on Vance. He had actually lifted the beast Talon drove.
Drew sidled up to Finn as they walked down the corridor. “Sorry about that.”
Finn glanced at Drew. His usual tanned skin looked a little pale and his brown eyes tired. He needs a few tanning sessions, Finn thought waspishly, then immediately felt guilty. Finn had resented Drew from the beginning because Drew was everything he had always wanted to be. He was a regular human FBI agent and had bested Finn physically, even though it was to be expected. Drew had tried to make friends, and Finn suddenly felt ashamed.
“My fault. I shouldn’t make assumptions.”
“I couldn’t say no when Talon asked after all the help he’s giving me.” Drew smiled and turned to walk off down the corridor, leaving Finn with a million questions. Help? What help? Drew and Talon had chatted so easily in the car, and Talon never did that.
It was stupid. Stupid, and he was jealous. The trouble was, he had no confidence in their relationship. It wasn’t like he was some catch. He might look okay, but Talon, of all people, wouldn’t go for someone based on looks.
They all trooped into the locker room and headed toward the miserable-looking vending machines. There was a canteen on-site, but they all hated it, since it was shared with the other agents and the cops who came in sometimes. They were sick of the whispered comments and sly nudges. The sad fact was that even though a lot of the cops were being swayed over the advantage of being able to call an enhanced team out when needed, a lot of regular agents still resented them.
Gael and Eli followed them in. They’d been absent for the training because they’d both had their monthly medicals.
“Gregory wants us now,” Gael said.
Vance groaned, just reaching the vending machines, and Finn sighed sympathetically, ignoring his empty belly. He would go and try to fill it with coffee.
“ABSOLUTELY NO fucking way.” Talon nearly overturned the desk he sat behind in his hurry to get to his feet.
Here we go…. Finn ignored Gael’s and Vance’s smirks at Talon’s reaction to the news Gregory had just delivered, and tried to concentrate, since he’d been too distracted by the real possibility he would starve to death.
“Talon—” Gregory started.
“He’s been here two fucking months—and half of that time, in the damn hospital. He’s just successfully demonstrated the perp would have to be fucking standing still for him to get a shot off—”
Finn closed his eyes and slid down his chair, desperately willing the heat he could feel climbing up his neck not to reach his cheeks. The hospital had been a complete exaggeration. Two weeks in total, tops. Well, okay, twice he’d been in for concussions. And there had been the black eye when Vance got a little enthusiastic on the mats, and then there was the broken nose last week when the perp had swung at him and Finn hadn’t gotten out of the way in time, but he hadn’t been admitted for either of those.
This morning was the first time he’d had to try for a moving target. He practiced at the outside shooting facility they called “the Farm” most days, and he thought he was getting quite good. Then they’d set the fake hostage situation up, expecting Finn to do better, and it had gone worse than the target practice.
Fucking enhanced. They thought they were so damned perfect.
“He’s perfect,” Gregory yelled back at Talon, and Finn started, shocked his boss agreed with him. He wasn’t about to miss any compliments. “He can absolutely pass for seventeen,” Gregory added, and Finn gaped in horror.
Seventeen? What had he missed?
“I-I’m twenty-four,” he stuttered out, wondering how he’d managed to lose the entire thread of the conversation.
“And you’re still the only one on the team who can go undercover in one of the new group homes.”
Finn’s jaw dropped as he stared at his boss. He was going undercover? Like real, honest to God… undercover? Finn’s gaze dropped to the floor, and he breathed out slowly. He didn’t think he would earn any respect by jumping to his feet, fist pumping and shouting his excitement, which he desperately wanted to do. This was his chance to be an active member of the team and earn some respect. He glanced cautiously at Talon, who was still arguing with Gregory.
“You obviously won’t be going to Glynco tomorrow, but I will rearrange that when this op is done,” Gregory continued, ignoring the outburst from Talon.
His team leader—his boyfriend—wasn’t exactly showing a lot of faith in his abilities, and as the only regular human on the team, he had a lot to prove. Finn half smiled at his own words. Regular. An ordinary human being, unlike the rest of his teammates, who were all enhanced. Humans who had changed suddenly around adolescence and got kickass abilities, such as speaking every known language without ever having to learn them like Gael, or setting things on fire just because he thought about it like Eli.
“And there is one obvious problem,” Sawyer piped up.
Oh good, Finn thought. Only one?
“He doesn’t have a mark?” Gregory guessed correctly, and Sawyer shrugged.
Finn stared at Gregory and gave Sawyer grudging points for stating the obvious. The US had originally panicked when the first kids were born with superabilities because, while some of the abilities were quite cool, like the Superman strength Vance had, a lot of them were downright deadly, like Talon’s. The public had calmed down mainly because the enhanced were so easily identifiable. They all had the mark Gregory mentioned, and despite various attempts, none of them could get rid of it.
“We know that marks cannot be covered successfully for more than a matter of minutes, but we can very easily add one.”
“Add one?” Finn blurted out. “I didn’t know that.” He ignored the dark look Talon sent him.
“It’s only something that’s just occurred to us that might be useful,” Gregory admitted.
“Yeah,” drawled Eli, “because who the fuck would want one of these?”
Finn didn’t know what to be more shocked at: that he was getting the chance to contribute, or that the normally silent Eli had spoken.
“We have a makeup artist who has been working with us,” Gregory said, “and Finn is the only one on the team who can do this.”
Finn nodded eagerly. He was desperate for the chance to actually do some work. “What would I be doing?”
“Not a damn thing,” Talon snapped.
“Sit down, Talon, and let me explain,” Gregory huffed out. Talon glowered at Finn as if daring him to reply, and Finn pointedly focused on Agent Gregory. “Let me go back a little. There are still no genetic markers that tell us if kids are likely to transform.”
Finn knew this. If ever an older sibling transformed and the families agreed, the younger ones would be subject to a barrage of tests until after adolescence. There had been a few cases where a younger brother had transformed, but so far there was still no scientific reason for it.
“We actually know very few definites,” Gregory said. “All enhanced children ever born are male, and the incidents are restricted to the US.”
“And there’s never going to be any baby Gaels running around,” Gael interrupted, his scarred face twisting as the skin pulled awkwardly in humor.
“So there are benefits, then.” Vance chuckled as Gael flipped him off, though he smiled at the teasing.
All enhanced were sterile, something the papers had made a meal of about fifteen years ago when the news headlined. Many people thought the knowledge that the enhanced couldn’t reproduce made the rest of the population breathe a little easier because they weren’t suddenly going to be outnumbered.
Gregory had made them go talk at a couple of high schools since they’d become celebrities after Gael saved a judge from being shot. Of all of them, Gael had been the most enthusiastic about going to the schools. It had to hurt that he would never have kids of his own.
Gael had been all over the news because he’d put his life on the line to protect a guy who was vocal in his dislike of the enhanced and thought they were a threat. The papers had loved it and eaten it up. Finn hadn’t been to either school visit, since the first time he had been in the emergency room when Vance nearly flattened him, and the second had been because of his nose.
He winced. Maybe Talon had a point. His timing sucked anyway.
“What about Drew?” Talon asked.
Finn gaped. Drew? Talon thought Drew would do a better job than him? The knowledge settled heavily in his gut.
“Drew would never pass for seventeen,” Gregory argued.
“That’s true, boss,” Vance agreed. Talon glowered. “How many other recruits get sent undercover after being given eight weeks training?”
Gregory sighed. “Do you remember one of the foster kids who disappeared last year—Dale Smith?”
Sawyer frowned. “Yes. We’ve never been able to find any trace. He has an older brother who turned eighteen in December and aged out of the system, but he hasn’t had any contact either.”
Gregory opened a file on his desk and passed around some photographs. Finn paled when he saw what they were. Tattered clothes lay in shreds on top of a skeleton. “The remains of what has been identified as Dale Smith’s body were found last month buried in a shallow grave on the Westside Trail on the Atlanta BeltLine when they were clearing old tracks. We have been unable to identify a cause of death as of yet. This has been brought to our attention finally because yesterday police were called to a boarded-up house in old Port Tampa. The house was empty and showed no sign of being lived in, with the exception of the storeroom. That’s where they found the body of another enhanced.”
“Did we know him?” Talon asked.
Gregory shook his head. “We haven’t been able to identify him. ME says a young adult and showed signs of physical abuse. He was emaciated, and the ME says he was basically starved to death. None of the previously registered occupants of the house are alive.” He paused. “The cops have found signs of access, but the whole place is derelict. This is where we come in and how it may be related to Dale Smith.” Gregory passed another photograph around.
Finn stared at the picture. It was Dale Smith, taken before he developed the mark, likely a school photograph.
“If you remember, Dale Smith was being attacked and beaten by his stepfather when the cops were called. His mom was a crack addict, and the so-called stepfather her pimp. Dale was removed for his own safety, but the car the cops were driving crashed. Both cops were knocked unconscious and Dale ran off. The cops had no memory of anything after leaving the house. No one has been able to locate Dale Smith.”
“And apart from their enhanced status, how are they related?” Gael asked.
“Because the photograph of Dale was found in the storeroom with the other dead male.”
Everyone was silent.
“Our focus right now is on the foster home and the missing kids. The past murders are being investigated separately. I want you to make sure no other kids vanish. You have complete access to any and all information on both victims, and you will be kept up-to-date with any new information.” Finn risked a look at Talon, who had stopped objecting when Gregory passed the photographs around.
“You should know that the powers that be, who wanted the enhanced children taken away from their parents for the parents’ safety, are now talking about removing the kids for their own safety.”
“Very clever,” Gael said sardonically.
“And as of this morning, we have another problem,” Gregory said. “Two more kids have disappeared.”
The room was silent again.
“Where from?” Talon ground out.
Gregory looked pointedly at Finn, and suddenly Finn didn’t need telling. The home. They had disappeared from the foster home. Finn swallowed. It was shit, complete shit. One of the things they were all hoping for was that kids with the mark didn’t get treated like baggage. They were only removed from the parents if the parents couldn’t cope. And that was why they were all here. It wasn’t as simple as just a specialized crime-fighting team. It was all about perception. The school visits were all about hope. Hope that the enhanced kids would be accepted and that they had a future.
Finn remembered Vance telling him about the day he’d woken up with the mark. “And just like that, my life was over.”
Except it wasn’t, and for all the kids, it was up to their team to make sure of that.