Zane felt another flash of mild surprise. These people treated him like one of their own; it was the strangest thing. “Morning, sir,” he answered, reaching for one of the coffee mugs and the sugar bowl after sopping up the juice on his plate with his napkin.
“Is it the garden hose?” Earl asked before taking a sip of his coffee.
“Uh, yeah,” Zane chanced.
Earl chuckled and nodded. “That’s the fifth one,” he told Zane in mild amusement. “He got in a fight with the rake summer before last that damn near killed all of us before it was over. You try taking that shovel from him, you risk getting it shoved up your nose.”
His point was emphasized by a shout from one of the combatants outside. Zane had to laugh again, just at the ridiculousness of it all. “You all are something else,” he stated, still chuckling. Each of them seemed to deal with life’s little absurdities in stride, something Zane had never really figured out how to do. At least not without some form of chemical help. Zane envied them.
He also wondered if this was the root of why everyone in the Bureau thought Ty was batshit crazy.
“Something else,” Earl echoed. “The boys call it the galloping crazies,” he informed Zane seriously.
“Yeah,” Zane agreed. “That’s about right.” He shook his head and scooped a teaspoon of sugar into his coffee. “My family is seriously normal. So seeing this”—he waved his hand around—“it’s an eye-opener.”
“Normal,” Earl repeated, looking at Zane as if expecting him to expand on the notion.
Zane shrugged with one shoulder. “No arguing, no rocking the boat, mind your own business, show up for Sunday lunch or else. Nothing really extraordinary, but not much bad, either. They’re just… normal.”
“Not close, huh?” Earl commented.
“They are,” Zane answered with a rueful curl of his lips. He was the odd man out and had been for a long time. He didn’t spend any time thinking on his family if he could avoid it. There was too much to be angry or upset about.
Earl didn’t respond to that other than to nod in understanding, apparently content with silence just like his son often was. Zane went back to his coffee, letting it go. Earl sat nursing his coffee for another moment before glancing at the window when there was another short shout. “I reckon I could go help them,” he mused.
He was saved from having to do so by Ty stomping back into the kitchen with a length of mangled green hose in his hand. “Hose is a goner,” he told them grimly as he let the piece of hose fall into the trashcan. He lowered his head as he washed his hands and moved to sit down beside Zane, crossing his arms over his chest and covering his mouth with one hand as he tried desperately not to laugh. The others came inside as he pressed his hand over his mouth and slouched further in his chair, and Ty studiously avoided meeting his mother’s eyes as she glared at him.
Chester grinned at them all and sat beside Deuce, propping his shovel against the leg of the table carefully. “That was a big’n,” he told them. “Cold for a big’n like that,” he advised, which caused Ty and Deuce to break into uncontrollable snickers as they tried to hide their laughter from their mother.
Zane just grinned. “I hear you’ve got quite the eye,” he complimented deliberately.
Chester narrowed his eyes and pointed his finger in Zane’s direction, wagging it at him threateningly. “Smartass, eh?” he asked knowingly. “I ain’t sure I like you,” Chester claimed as his eyes narrowed further.
“How about breakfast, Ma?” Ty asked as he leaned forward and tried to distract his grandfather with the movement.
She responded by thumping a plate in front of Chester and sitting down with a huff. “Amen,” she said in annoyance before beginning to dish eggs onto her own plate.
Ty glanced over at Zane and smiled at him, giving him a quick wink. Zane returned the grin and reached for the biscuits, taking two before passing the plate to Ty. Ty’s knee occasionally brushed against his under the table as they ate, but the conversation died down as the food was passed around. It was an odd, remarkable feeling, to be eating breakfast with Ty and his family and feel not only welcome, but like he might belong there.
It was a feeling Zane tried to soak in and store for later.
When the breakfast was mostly over, Ty stood and scooped up the empty dishes off the table. They clattered as he dumped them in the sink. “Are we going to sit here all day, or are we going up the mountain?” he asked as he ran hot water.
The corners of Zane’s lips turned up, and he turned in his chair to look at his partner. “Waiting on you, bus boy.”
Mara walked by and smacked Zane lightly in the back of the head for his trouble. “Be nice,” she chastised as she walked out of the kitchen. Zane just smiled.
Ty laughed softly, turned back to the sink, and rinsed his hands. “If we don’t go now, we might as well wait ’til tomorrow,” he added as he grabbed a dishtowel to dry his hands.
“Got a garage roof needs patching,” Earl suggested as he poured himself more coffee.
Deuce stood hastily and made his way out of the kitchen. “I’ll start packing up the truck!” he called as he went.
“My duffel’s packed,” Zane told Ty with a shrug. He already had on jeans and boots along with his thin T-shirt covered by a long-sleeved Henley.
Earl grunted and pushed away from the table. “We’ll just patch that roof next time,” he said to Ty with a smile before he strolled out of the kitchen, mug in hand.
Ty cleared his throat, snorted in annoyance, and looked at Zane with narrowed eyes.
“What?” Zane asked softly.
“I should’ve left your ass in DC,” Ty muttered to him as he pushed away from the sink counter and moved slowly toward the table where Zane sat. He cocked his head to listen briefly, and then he bent and stole a surprise kiss before leaving the room.
Zane licked his bottom lip as he stood. He was smiling when he followed.
THEY said their good-byes to Mara at the trailhead, each giving her a hug and a kiss—even Zane, Deuce noticed—and they each shouldered their packs. Deuce examined his walking stick, a long, thick piece of wood that had been hand-rubbed and stained dark. It had a length of survival rope tied around the top as a handle, and fixed into the wood of the tip was a small compass.
“That’s quite a walking stick,” Zane said, coming to a stop to stand next to him as he zipped up his heavy coat. He had Deuce’s old pack hanging off his broad shoulders.
“It is,” Deuce agreed readily. “Ty made it for me. Saw one at a gun show somewhere and thought it might come in handy.”
Zane snorted. “Thoughtful,” he said more genuinely.
“He can be,” Deuce answered as he tightened the strap on his own pack.
Zane smiled a little. “Sometimes,” he agreed, looking over to his partner, who was circling around one of the other cars in the gravel lot, frowning at it thoughtfully. “So,” Zane sighed as he watched Ty for a moment. “Where are we off to? Just… up the mountain in a random direction?” He glanced up into the trees, and now that Deuce really looked at him, he could tell Zane was tense. Edgy, even.
“There are several different trails we can take from this point,” Deuce answered. He tugged at one of the straps of Zane’s pack and shortened it for him, making certain it fit snugly to his back. Borrowing a pack was generally frowned upon on the trail because it was so important that they fit well. But Zane and Deuce were roughly the same height, and the pack wasn’t too heavily laden, so Deuce wasn’t worried about it. “We don’t usually have a set path planned out. Just a general idea of how long it will take so Ma can pick us up at the other end. Ty’s got the trail map.”
Zane shot Ty a glare as Deuce spoke, and his brother just smirked evilly as he walked past them. It was easy for Deuce to see the dynamic between them. Ty and Zane seemed to get along best when they were annoying each other. They enjoyed the adversity, and Deuce was enjoying seeing all the puzzle pieces of their partnership and how they were starting to fit together.
“Great. He’ll pick the worst one,” Zane grumbled as Ty moved past them.
“Nah,” Deuce answered with certainty. “He stays away from the really bad ones when I’m with him,” he said with a tap of his walking stick on the ground to indicate his bad leg. Zane offered him an apologetic smile, but Deuce waved it off.
“You ready?” Ty asked them from where he stood at the head of the trail.
“What’s with the car?” Zane asked as he and Deuce moved to join him.
Ty shrugged and looked at it again. “Expired inspection,” he explained. “Been up here a while.”
Deuce glanced over at the vehicle, wondering why Ty had even noticed and why Zane had felt the need to ask him about it. It had to be an FBI thing.
“You want to do something about it?” Zane asked Ty as they all looked at the dusty car. There were several stickers on the back for the Appalachian Trail, the Shenandoah Valley, the Great Smoky Mountains, The Black Cat in Boone, North Carolina, and several others in the same vein. The owner was obviously a hiker.
“Ten to one the driver has a hemp wallet,” Deuce said to Ty wryly.
Ty snorted and shook his head, smiling. He gave the car one last look and shrugged. Deuce figured the car probably belonged to a long-term hiker who hadn’t thought ahead to have the inspection done. Ty was apparently thinking along the same lines.
“We’ll let it be,” Ty answered carelessly. “Y’all ready?” he asked them. Earl had already disappeared into the trees.
Zane nodded, although he did give the car one more look before he started walking. Deuce started off down the trail just ahead of him, knowing Ty would take up the rear like he always did. It often didn’t matter what trail they intended to take. Earl went where he pleased. That was why they had stopped even trying to plot their course years ago.
It was quiet on the mountain, cool and peaceful and wonderful. Deuce and Ty had grown up in these mountains, and no matter how many big cities he lived in or how much money he made, Deuce would always consider this home. He glanced back at Zane and then Ty as he followed a curve in the trail. Zane was looking all around him, and it was even clearer now that he was stiff in the shoulders. Wary. On guard somehow.
Very interesting. It could be as he said, that he just wasn’t accustomed to the mountains, or it could be that this was how Zane Garrett always was. Deuce didn’t want to describe it as a hair trigger, but it was close.
It usually made Ty cranky when Deuce started analyzing his friends, but he just couldn’t help himself. “Is it the trees that make you nervous or just not knowing where you’re going?” Deuce asked over his shoulder.
Zane glanced up at him. “Both,” he said curtly, though he sighed and shrugged a little after that answer. “But I imagine I’ll get used to it really quickly.”
Deuce turned and glanced back at him more fully. Behind Zane, Ty was fixing a lime green buff over his head as he walked, not really paying attention to them. He had about half a dozen of them, each a different color and pattern, and he wore them underneath his straw hat to keep his ears warm and wick the sweat away from his short hair. Deuce knew he’d worn them through a variety of different Recon missions, and he was never without one on the mountain.
Deuce looked back at Zane and smiled. “Shout if you need to stop,” he advised.
“Come on, ladies!” Earl called from far ahead of them. “Next twenty miles ain’t gonna hike theirselves!”
Behind him, Deuce heard Ty begin to whistle the tune to “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Deuce knew, though, that in his mind Ty was singing “The Bear Went over the Mountain.” Deuce grinned. It was going to be an interesting hike.
IT WAS well past midday of the second day of hiking when Earl stopped them for a decent break. Ty set his pack against a towering tree and took out the trail map. He held it up and tilted it into the broken sunshine that cut through the canopy of leaves. They were going over terrain he didn’t recognize, and though Earl seemed confident in where he was going, Ty’s father always seemed confident in where he was going, regardless of whether he knew where he actually was.
Ty was fairly certain they were already lost.
Deuce came over as Earl and Zane sat on a fallen log near the trail, eating the last of the sandwiches Mara had wrapped tightly in wax paper and packed up for them. “I think we’re lost,” Deuce muttered to him.
Ty snorted in amusement and nodded. “This trail here,” he said, indicating the path they’d been following, “it’s so overgrown I don’t think it’s been widely used in a few years.”
“Think we should ask Dad if he knows where we are?” Deuce asked dubiously.
Ty looked at him askance. “And have to listen to him harp at us for not having our bearings?” he posed. “Not me.”
“Good point,” Deuce agreed with a sigh.
“You don’t think this is another of his little tests, do you?” Ty mumbled with a frown as he turned the trail map sideways. “Is that crayon?”
“He wouldn’t do that when you have a stranger up here,” Deuce answered with a shake of his head, ignoring the second query. “Would he?” he asked doubtfully.
Ty shrugged and looked up at his father and Zane as they ate in silence. To his eye, Zane looked okay; he hadn’t made a single peep about them slowing down or stopping yet. He was stubborn, and he’d tromped along with them gamely, even talking with Deuce about some of the places he’d worked. But Ty also knew his partner still wasn’t sleeping at night, and this hiking was wearing on him. Zane tried to hide it, but Ty knew what to look for after the last few weeks. Sometimes even a nice rough roll between the sheets wouldn’t help Zane sleep well.