“A true hero isn’t measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart.”—Zeus, from the Disney movie Hercules
Two thousand hours.
And not so much as a kiss.
Not that it would be appropriate right at that second in time, but Vance seemed to spend more time dreaming about his new partner than actually helping him. Sam’s radio crackled, and Vance jumped.
“Jesus, big boy,” Samuel “Angel” Piper whispered and patted Vance’s hand. “Settle down. We might be ages yet.” Sam held up the strap for his shoulder holster that he’d been trying to adjust. Vance grinned. Sam would be better off trying Toys“R”Us rather than the FBI for one small enough.
Vance tried to get his heart to regulate and to concentrate on what might be finally happening. He wasn’t suited to stakeouts. Not that they’d been on this for longer than two hours, but he was a “ram the door down and ask questions later” kind of person. He had volunteered to do the ramming on more than one occasion, but Sam had immediately put the kibosh on that, and it had stung. The fact that Sam didn’t think Vance was capable of doing anything other than stand around for what seemed a ridiculous amount of time and follow other people through doors stung also.
For ten of their twelve-week partnership, they’d been loaned out to the DEA. Sam’s old boss had needed him to talk to an informant who refused to speak to anyone other than Angel, and Vance seemed to have spent more hours standing in empty corridors and abandoned buildings waiting for other guys to ram doors down than he ever had with his team.
“What are you thinking about?” Sam narrowed his eyes.
Vance huffed. Like I’m gonna tell you.
The car door opened. Special Agent Eddie Ramirez from the Baton Rouge DEA and ATF joint task force slid into the back seat. “Are you sure about this?”
“No, but Jaylen is,” Sam replied.
Vance glanced at Sam. He’d noticed that Sam got a little defensive when questioned. His mom would have said prickly. He had no idea why Sam got so bent out of shape, though, because at twenty-seven and looking ten years younger, Sam had to be used to half the force having more experience than him.
“And I ask again, how reliable is this kid?” Ramirez challenged.
Vance didn’t even bother trying to add anything to the conversation. The only other thing Vance had spent the last nearly three months doing was being stuck in a hotel room while Sam arranged meets with the informant, who would only speak to him. Vance was Sam’s partner, which was the only reason their boss, Gregory, had agreed to loan Sam to the task force in the first place—Gregory had refused to let Sam go without Vance having his back.
Except he didn’t, hadn’t, because Ramirez immediately said Vance stuck out like a sore thumb and banned him to the motel every time Sam met with Jaylen.
Vance hated Ramirez.
“He’s been reliable enough for the other seven arrests we’ve made,” Sam said mildly. “I was brought in to speak to Jaylen. This is his ticket to getting out.”
Sam looked over at the brightly lit church that was currently spilling out its worshippers after the service ended. According to Jaylen, the Holy Place of Our Lord was a front for the Red Stones, who had started out as a small-time distribution network and was now into import, prostitution, and protection. They brought in as many guns as heroin—hence the task force with the ATF. Jaylen had also insisted the church’s foster and private adoption program for at-risk kids was basically another way of cultivating either prostitution or their own army. And even worse—if there was a worse add-on than that—the younger, prettier ones, whose biggest problem should be learning how to throw a ball or ducking homework, were being sold on to fuck knew where and to fuck knew what.
Pastor Dominic Innes, who regularly held food drives and church picnics, was especially fond of little boys. Vance knew Jaylen had saved this last bust until he had gotten the deal he wanted. It had taken weeks, starting with reliable leads that led to bigger things until Jaylen had gotten a witness protection agreement for his family. Once he was safe, he’d promised to give them the info they needed to put Innes away, but they had to place Innes at the church as well. No risk of plausible deniability.
“You want me to go take a look?”
Vance immediately sat up. No way Sam was going in there to wander around on his own.
Ramirez shook his head. “I’m just waiting for as many people as possible to clear out. We have agents already in position around the back next to the storage area.” They were parked in a trash-strewn vacant lot hidden in plain sight next to a tricked-out Mazda and a Chevy held together by rust and optimism. The lot was steadily emptying, though, and it would soon get to the point where their cars would draw attention.
Vance looked up as their radio crackled again, and Sam’s eyes gleamed immediately. Movement had been spotted, and they thought they might have been seen. Four DEA agents ran past them, and in moments all four cars emptied and agents converged on the huge warehouse that doubled as a church.
Vance followed Sam, determined not to let him out of his sight this time, and they ran in through the heavy oak doors that still stood open. A few frightened shouts echoed as Baton Rouge PD quietly herded the stragglers. Vance carried on to the door at the back of the stage that led to a large locked storage room where they were told all the action happened, and in particular after the service. They were hoping to catch Innes in there so he couldn’t deny shit. The kids were kept at the pastor’s house, where Vice and CFS were with the cops doing a simultaneous raid.
They came to the door to the storage area, exactly where Jaylen said it was. A brief second and the door was rammed, bursting open, and with guns held high the cops swarmed in. Vance followed, but the hammering of his heart was the only sound he heard. There was quiet when he’d been expecting shouting, maybe even a few gunshots like the last raid. A few calls of “clear,” and then Sam holstered his Glock 43 and spun around the empty room in confusion. Vance followed quickly but did not put away his Sig P320, despite what many others did. If there was one thing he would do, it was to protect his partner.
Like a quest, Vance thought. An obsession, even. No, he preferred quest. Like they had in history. Didn’t it involve a big guy sitting on a huge-ass horse? Vance could easily be the guy. He wasn’t sure about the horse. And armor? Wasn’t there always armor?
“Fuck,” his not so in distress, and especially not a damsel, partner uttered eloquently.
“Wow,” Vance agreed, being dragged from visions of sword fighting and reminded why he was here as he looked around. They’d expected a drug dump, not something reminiscent of the medical room Dr. Natalie ran back at the field office. Sam whistled and pivoted slowly.
“What the hell, Sarge?” Sam murmured to Sergeant Victor Reed from the BRPD, who was in charge of getting everyone into the church and not letting anyone they were there to arrest leave.
Ramirez blew out a breath. “This is not what we expected.”
“What were you expecting?” Vance asked, taking in the large space. He wasn’t surprised when there was no reply. Some days in the last three months, he’d barely even gotten an acknowledgment, which to be fair, had pissed Sam off no end. Vance was used to having people look at him like he was some weirdo who didn’t deserve the uniform he wore proudly.
Not that he was even allowed to wear that at the moment. Ramirez said it drew too much attention.
“Not this,” Sam said adamantly.
There were seven metal carts, each in its own bay separated by huge curtains of transparent plastic. Each section seemed to have been cleared out really quickly. There was a cavernous metal fridge standing empty and wide-open, and a few discarded and broken test tubes. Sam fished in his pocket, pulled out a latex glove, and snapped it on. Then he bent and picked up a piece of plastic, which Vance saw immediately was a blue glove similar to the kind dentists wore or that were used in hospitals. Sam pushed it into an evidence bag that he had pulled out of his other pocket. Vance was impressed. Sam’s pants were usually so tight, nothing else could squeeze in there.
“We need to get forensics in here,” Reed said.
He saw Sam give Reed a look and then wandered over to the corner. There was an electrical cable coiled loosely on the floor, as if it had been dropped. He didn’t attempt to touch it. The area was clean, very clean. They might be in a church, but the place they had raided five days ago had been a pit. Ramirez started barking out orders and walked back into the main church, trying to locate the pastor.
Everyone turned toward the voice, because quiet as it was, Gabriel Dsouza’s voice had a strangled quality to it. The DEA agent’s expression was decidedly grim. He stood at the open door to the left of the room. Vance followed Sam automatically as they walked over with Reed.
Sam came to a sudden stop at the doorway. Vance peered over Sam’s head, not a hundred percent certain what he was looking at. “Shit,” Reed said; he had walked in first and immediately got on his radio. Sam didn’t move, and neither did Vance.
“Where’s Innes?” Sam asked.
Reed glanced up. “According to the assistant who is being detained outside, Innes backed out of taking the service, as he was sick. There isn’t any sign of him at his house. Just his wife and around six foster kids. The wife is saying he is absolutely at the service and the only reason she couldn’t go was all the kids have the flu.”
“Sam?” Vance said, still not a hundred percent sure what it—they were. Well, he knew he was seeing two dead bodies—large guys. The clear plastic wrapping around them was open enough to see through, but he had never seen anything like this. They didn’t even look human. They reminded him of store dummies. Then he saw their faces, or in particular the jagged scar that ran from their left eye nearly to their top lip.
Just like mine.
“Enhanced,” Sam said in bewilderment a fraction of a second before Vance did. Sam glanced up at him, sympathy in his eyes. “This is probably a stupid question—”
“No,” Vance answered. He’d never seen either of them before. He stepped back and walked into the larger room, pulling his phone out of his pocket. This wasn’t just a drug bust anymore. He wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but his gut told him this was something else entirely. He dialed the number, and it was answered in three rings.
“Hey, buddy. When am I going to see your ugly mug?”
Vance opened his mouth to tell Talon it was very likely he would be seeing him soon, when Reed suddenly yelled, “Bomb!” Vance looked up as Reed nearly shot out of the small room, pushing Sam in front of him. Vance didn’t even think. He dropped the phone and dived—and not in the direction everyone else was running.
THIS IS kinda nice. He knew by the smell whose small hand was holding his own. Wood chips with something a little tangy like oranges. He would know Sam anywhere, even with his eyes shut. Maybe he ought to open them, but if he did, he wasn’t sure Sam would still hold his hand.
“Come on, big boy,” Sam urged and squeezed his hand a little tighter. Nope, he was just gonna lie here.
“It’s no good, Talon,” Sam said after a minute. “I guess I’ll have to go and arrest that drug lord on my own.”
“The fuck?” Vance croaked in alarm, forcing his eyes open and trying to heave himself upright.
“Aww, that wasn’t nice.” He recognized Finn’s voice and then felt a firmer hand on his shoulder. Squinting brought Talon into view. The slim hand slipped out of his own.
“Worked, though,” Sam said thoughtfully and linked his hands demurely on his lap.
Vance scowled. “I just woke up,” he protested and looked around the room. Hospital. Not that he’d ever been in one as a patient, but he’d visited enough times. He groaned and shut his eyes again after another glance at the pinched lips that not only told him Sam was somehow angry at something, probably something he’d done, but that half the team was in the room to witness his humiliation. “What happened?” he croaked and tried to swallow.
In a flash Sam was up and offering him a sip of water. Vance sipped very slowly because it gave him an excuse to touch the hand Sam wrapped around the glass. Sam didn’t look quite as mad this time, more worried. Vance let the straw go reluctantly but took a fraction longer to release Sam’s hand.
“Can I get you a coffee?” Talon offered.
“Are you insane?” Sam butted in. “He wants to actually get discharged.”
Talon laughed and Vance chuckled. Then Vance moved, and his back rubbed against the sheet. A flare of pain made him hiss a short breath in.
Finn immediately took Sam’s place. “We can get the nurse.”
“I’ll get him some more water,” Sam said, picking up the nearly full jug and practically running from the room.
Vance sighed and looked at Finn. “Now what did I do?”
“He’s worried.” Finn chewed his bottom lip, then punched Vance on his arm. “We all were. Never ever do that sort of shit again.”
Vance widened his eyes. He’d barely felt Finn’s hand, but Finn sounded worried. “What happened?”
“What do you remember?” Gael stood and came over to the bed.
What do I remember? Memory rushed in like an alarm clock in the second of disorientation before you shut it off. “Crap, there was a bomb.”
“Yep,” Talon confirmed. “They’re not a hundred percent sure yet, but initial findings suggest the room was booby-trapped.”
The bodies. “They were enhanced.”
Talon blew out a breath. “So we understand from Sam, but the blast didn’t leave us much, which was probably the point.”
“At least everyone got out,” Vance said in relief.
“No, Vance. They didn’t. That’s what has Sam so upset. Reed, Dsouza, and two other officers from the BRPD were killed immediately in the blast. You saved his life,” Talon continued. “Apparently instead of running from the building, you dived on top of him. You shielded him from the blast.”
Vance stared at Talon in confusion. “I did?” He remembered the shout but not much else.
“All he has is a mild concussion,” Finn said.
“Because you landed on him,” Gael added dryly. Vance glanced at Gael, not completely sure he was serious. “I swear to God,” Gael promised and crossed his heart.
Vance winced again. “Did I hurt him anywhere else?”
“No,” Talon said in exasperation. “You saved his life and got your back shredded in the process.” He waved his hand at Vance’s body. “It’s only because you’re enhanced, you’re not dead yourself. The paramedics said they didn’t even know it was possible.” Finn quickly put a hand on Talon’s arm, and Talon visibly calmed. He smiled. “You saved his life,” Talon repeated in case Vance still didn’t believe him.
“Really?” Vance echoed, still amazed.
“The ceiling collapsed, but you protected him from that too.”
“Which protected your head and your legs from the fire,” Finn added.
Then why is he mad? Vance had seen the look on Sam’s face as he left the room.
Finn nudged Talon’s arm. “Survivor’s guilt,” he said knowingly.
Gael nodded as if in agreement. Talon rolled his eyes. Vance knew what he meant, but he was still convinced there was something else.
“Anyway, your skin is healing itself at a startling rate, even for us,” Talon added. “Third-degree burns in some places over your back, which would have had a regular human in the hospital for weeks. The muscle and tendon damage repaired itself when a regular would probably have never healed.”
“The doctors are really excited about you,” Finn put in, and they all looked up as the door opened and Sam came walking in with a fresh jug of water.
Vance attempted a smile and was gratified to get a hesitant one from Sam. It was something.
“When can I go home?” Vance asked brightly. His back didn’t really hurt that bad. It had taken him by surprise was all.
“I think the doctors want you for a while longer,” Finn said. “The downside of your nerves healing is that you have some pain.”
“Huh?” Vance dragged his eyes from Sam.
“It means”—Sam came to the bed finally—“third-degree burns don’t generally hurt because there’re no nerves left to feel pain.” He stopped close but just poured Vance a glass of water. “The main thing they were worried about was dehydration and blood loss with you, which is why you have two IVs.”
Vance opened his mouth as Sam lifted the glass, and Sam hesitated for a second when it became obvious Vance was making no attempt to take it from him. A smile played on his lips, but he offered the glass and straw to Vance, and Vance curled his big hand around Sam’s smaller one. He let go of the straw after a few seconds. “I’m sorry about the other guys,” he said with feeling.
Sam glanced down at the glass and Vance’s hand. He was going to say something—Vance knew he was—but just then the door opened and what looked like every doctor in the damn hospital walked in, a veritable sea of white coats.
“Mr. Connelly,” the first one greeted him, and Sam immediately took a step back, which Vance didn’t like one bit. The doc paused and glanced around at the team, seeming a little nonplussed.
Talon took the hint. “We’ll just wait outside.”
Sam took another step away from the bed, as if he was about to follow the guys out. Vance shook his head.
“Sam’s my partner, and Talon’s my team leader. You can say whatever you want in front of them.” The doctor looked uncomfortable, and with an amused flash of insight, Vance realized why the doctor was a little nervous. He had forgotten for a minute most people saw them as a threat, even with the good publicity lately and the work Finn was involved in with the schools.
In fact, most kids thought they were cool. It was their parents who took some convincing.
“Very well,” the doctor agreed, with a hint of reluctance.
Vance stuck out his hand, trying to appear friendly, but really a white coat wielded all sorts of superpowers he didn’t have.
The doctor took it. “I’m Dr. Henshaw, and I’ve just been on a telephone consultation with Dr. Goran, who treated your colleague Gael Peterson over in Tampa.”
Vance remembered. Their own Dr. Natalie was a fan of Dr. Goran. Gael smiled, but he didn’t say he was the colleague mentioned.
“Uh-huh,” Vance agreed and wriggled his shoulders. They didn’t hurt so much now as itch. The doctor shook his head at Vance’s actions.
“Remarkable,” he pronounced and beckoned to the nurse. For what seemed like an hour but was probably five minutes, Vance’s back was oohed and ahhed over by all the white coats. He stopped listening after a few minutes when one of them pronounced it was incredible that he wouldn’t need an autograft.
“We need to keep you here for another week—”
“What?” Vance interrupted Dr. Henshaw. There was no way.
“Mr. Connelly, I have Dr. Yarisima flying in from Italy—”
“Uh-huh.” Vance leaned back, knowing instantly what was going on, and he got it, he really did, but he had a job to do. “Well, I hope he got a refundable ticket, because I’m going home.”
All the white coats gasped in unison, rather like a choir, but he wasn’t hanging around for the chorus, and he swung his legs out of bed, making sure the sheet came with him, because he wasn’t showing his ass to anyone.
Well, at least… his eyes immediately sought out Sam, who was trying—he was pleased to see—not to laugh. One casual look at Talon, Gael, and Finn told him they were equally entertained. “Doc, I get that my skin is doing really good, but Doc Natalie can check on me, or I can go see Dr. Goran.”
“But—” Dr. Henshaw looked like he was going to cry.
“I’m going home,” Vance reiterated gently but firmly. He felt fine.
Dr. Henshaw let out an aggrieved sigh, but there was nothing he could do, and he knew it.
Vance waited until they had all trooped out. “Do I have any clothes here?”
“I’m sure there’s a tarpaulin I can find somewhere,” Sam quipped immediately, and Vance snapped his lips closed, lowering his eyes, and tried not to let the “joke” sting worse than the burns.
“Oh hell,” Sam whispered, voice contrite. “That was shit. I didn’t mean—”
“We’ll go see what we can find,” Finn said quickly, and Talon and Gael went with him.
Vance wanted nothing more than to be with Sam, or in Sam’s company, what seemed like every minute of every day, but all Sam did was joke and make fun of him. Big guy. He’d liked it when Sam had first said it when he had been undercover as Angel. Made the name seem to mean something else then. But he hated it now. He felt fat and ugly and—
“I’m sorry,” Sam whispered, and his hand covered Vance’s. Vance froze. He couldn’t even jerk his hand away. “It’s not an excuse, but Reed was good to me when I first worked with them.”
Vance caught the admission of something else in the hesitant words. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help everyone.”
Sam’s other hand clasped his, and Sam hesitantly squeezed them, being careful to avoid the IV line. “You’re not Superman,” he said with a small curve of his lips.
“No,” Vance agreed solemnly. “Finn has his own set of fans.” But he didn’t want to be Shrek either.
Sam’s smile widened, and he tilted his head thoughtfully. “When will your mom and dad be home?”
Vance tried to get his brain to work, but it was a lost cause with Sam touching him. It had been so from the first day he had seen him. Vance’s eyes widened. “What day is it?” They were on a cruise that all their kids had chipped in to pay for to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary.
“Thursday,” Finn supplied, hearing the question as he came back into the room empty-handed. “I’ve spoken to Connie myself, and as soon as they dock in Brisbane, they’re flying home. You were brought in on Tuesday night. Jacob and Chris were both here earlier, but as soon as the docs said you were okay, they left to check into a hotel.”
“What happened yesterday?” Vance screwed his eyes up, trying to sort jumbled-up memories. He didn’t remember his brothers being here, but he wasn’t surprised they had both come.
“They gave you a lot of really good drugs.” Sam waggled his eyebrows. “I’ll ask Talon to get our things from the motel.”
The nurse came in. “I understand you’ve crushed all the doctors. Now I need to take out those IVs,” she said cheerfully.
“Who’s at home?” Sam asked.
Vance shrugged, then stopped when the skin on his back pulled a little. He actually didn’t mind the thought of having the house to himself for a few days.
“You can come home with me until they get back.”
Vance didn’t move for the second time in less than a minute. He wasn’t sure oxygen was flowing around his body. He certainly wasn’t breathing any in. He tried—for another second—to come up with a reason it was a bad idea, but not surprisingly, he couldn’t think of a single one.