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He calmed when Ty mumbled at him and tried to bury his head under Zane. He was hot to the touch and far too pale, but he was still breathing, and that was all Deuce could ask for this morning.

“Ty, wake up,” Deuce said as he sat up and shook Ty’s arm. Ty groaned and rolled, burrowing further against Zane, who opened his eyes to look at Deuce blearily. “Come on, G-Man,” Deuce grunted as he shook his brother harder.

Ty awoke with a jerk and a gasp. He tried to sit up and reach for a knife Deuce knew he used to keep under his pillow, but the pillow wasn’t there, and neither was the knife. He looked around wildly for a brief moment, obviously trying to figure out where he was, why his hand was tied to his body, and probably wondering why he was awake. That was, if his fevered mind even allowed him to think instead of instinctively reacting.

For all Deuce knew, Ty might think he was back in the Gulf with his Recon team.

Zane sat up and slid a hand gently up and down Ty’s back, trying to calm him with soft murmurs Deuce couldn’t make out. It seemed to help, and Deuce carefully watched reality seep back into Ty’s eyes before he said or did anything. Even hurt and unarmed, Deuce knew his brother could be a dangerous man, especially if he was disoriented. Deuce would never have risked touching him in that state. Apparently that danger didn’t apply to Zane Garrett. Something else to add to the list of things that didn’t quite add up.

“You okay?” Deuce asked evenly.

Ty nodded and swallowed hard as he looked down at his hand.

“Dizzy?” Zane asked quietly. “Hot?”

“Yeah,” Ty answered immediately. He didn’t even try to make up a lie or deny that he was sick.

Zane lifted one hand to touch the backs of his fingers to Ty’s forehead and then his cheek. Ty closed his eyes with the contact. Shaking his head slightly, Zane glanced to Deuce. There was worry shining clearly in his dark brown eyes.

“We need to get going,” Deuce said needlessly.

“Let’s get you up,” Zane said to Ty, climbing to his knees and sliding his arm around Ty’s back so he could help him stand. Ty wrapped his arm over Zane’s shoulders and didn’t even bother trying to hide that he couldn’t have gotten up on his own.

“Fuck,” Deuce muttered under his breath as he watched. He saw Zane’s face slide into an immobile mask with flat, emotionless eyes as he took Ty’s weight onto himself. Deuce wondered for a moment about an ability like that, to so completely suppress and hide emotion. It wasn’t at all healthy. A groan from Ty drew his attention again. “You going to be able to go?” Deuce asked him in a low voice. Earl was already up and gathering their equipment.

Ty merely nodded jerkily and looked up, letting his arm slide away from Zane’s shoulders. His fingers dragged slowly across the back of Zane’s neck, as if he didn’t want to forget what the contact felt like. Deuce felt a pang of anger and sadness as he watched them. As sick as Ty was, the two of them were still careful of showing too much intimacy for fear of how Earl would react to it. Deuce swallowed against a knot in his throat and gritted his teeth.

Zane reluctantly let Ty go, but he only took one step back as he watched Ty waver slightly. Ty closed his eyes and swallowed hard, steadying himself before he nodded to them both. Deuce knew his brother was in bad shape just by the fact that he didn’t seem to be ashamed of needing help to stand.

“You ready?” Earl asked gruffly as he stood on the other side of the fire pit watching them.

“Yes, sir,” Deuce and Ty muttered in unison. Zane just gave him a nod as he hefted the backpack awkwardly.

Once they crested the ridge they’d decided not to attempt the night before, the trail was too precarious to go anything but single-file. Deuce limped heavily as he kept pace with Ty, who trudged in front of him. Their father was taking point, but he kept having to stop and turn to wait for them as they lagged behind his pace.

Deuce wasn’t really surprised when Ty finally came to a slow, almost rambling stop a couple hours later and merely fell to his knees without further warning. Still, it scared the hell out of him when he saw it. The fear and adrenaline overwhelmed any other emotion as Deuce clambered to get to him. Zane, bringing up the rear, almost barreled over him trying to do the same.

Ty was on his knees, eyes closed and breaths coming in harsh, pained gasps. He supported himself with just the one hand. He was sweating profusely even though he was shivering violently, his cheeks flushed with fever, and his eyes were glazed and distant, almost gray in color as he stared at the ground. Deuce reached for him, preparing to help him up.

“No,” Earl barked suddenly as he went down on one knee in front of Ty. He didn’t touch him; he merely ducked his head and met his son’s eyes, forcing Ty to look up at him. “Get up, Marine,” he ordered, his voice stern and angry.

Deuce saw Zane bristle visibly, but Deuce put a hand out to calm the man as Ty’s shoulders snapped backward and he raised his head. Deuce couldn’t see an ounce of recognition in his brother’s eyes as he looked at Earl.

“Dad,” Deuce said uncertainly, reaching out again.

“Get on your feet, Marine!” Earl growled angrily, batting Deuce’s hand away before he could touch Ty and getting right in Ty’s face.

Ty’s chest was heaving as if he might be about to hyperventilate, but as Zane stepped forward to intercede, Ty lowered his head determinedly and pushed himself unsteadily to his feet again. Zane backed away and watched apprehensively, and Deuce stared at his father and brother in awe. The appeal to something ingrained deeper in his brother appeared to be what Ty needed. From one Marine to another. It was probably the only thing that would have kept Ty going, and Deuce wondered how Earl had known.

“You keep your feet, Staff Sergeant,” Earl told Ty, pointing to the ground.

“Yes, Gunny,” Ty managed to say in response, his voice a rough and tortured whisper.

Earl nodded curtly before turning and heading back down the narrow path. Deuce glanced from Ty to Zane, who looked just as unhappy as before, but that anger he’d held in his rigid shoulders was gone. He must have figured out what Earl was doing too and realized it was working better than anything they could have done. Deuce placed a calming hand on Zane’s arm. Earl’s words had gotten Ty to his feet. That was what mattered for now.

TY’S entire body was on fire. It felt like a sunburn that emanated from his fingers and burned out of control wherever clothing touched him. He burned, but he was so cold he had to clutch his heavy coat around him to keep his teeth from chattering, and even then he was shaking and shivering uncontrollably. The rational portion of his mind, the one that was trying to figure out how to survive, told him that the shivering was a waste of his energy. But then, so was walking. And breathing.

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He distantly recognized that it wasn’t the cool wind that made him shiver. He was going into septic shock. It had happened much faster than he’d realized it would, but a part of his addled mind told him that the exertion of trying to get off the mountain was sending the poisoned blood racing through his body faster than it would have if he’d been lying in a bed being given sponge baths by a pretty little nurse in white Crocs.

He concentrated on the footfalls of the man in front of him. He thought it might be his father, but if he was wrong he risked calling the Gunny “Dad,” so he just kept his mouth shut and tried not to fall.

Keep your feet. Keep his feet, they’d told him. It was shameful, not being able to keep his feet in front of the others because he’d been bitten by a kitty cat.

Keep your feet, Meow Mix.

If he fell, no one could carry him. Sanchez and O’Flaherty would drag him out, but… no. No, they weren’t here. Elias Sanchez was dead, shot over a year ago in New York City by a serial killer Zane Garrett had later killed. And Nick O’Flaherty was a cop in Boston, discharged just like Ty had been, thrown into the real world to make his own way. This wasn’t a Recon mission. He had to keep his wits about him. He had to grasp at a thread of reality and hold onto it.

Zane Garrett. Zane was reality. Zane was here, and he was clear enough for Ty to hold onto. Zane appeared at his side from time to time as they walked, taking his arm as they went over particularly rough terrain, but then he would move away again. Still, Ty could grasp at that thread and hold it.

Ty’s steps finally slowed, faltered. He stopped walking and closed his eyes, his head pounding. He wavered as a rush of noise assaulted his ears, and heat swept through him in sickening pulses. When he opened his eyes again, the edges of his vision were dark and sparkling.

His father turned around and looked at him, the man’s steel gray eyes hard and disapproving when he realized Ty had stopped moving. “You keep walking, Marine,” Earl said to him.

Ty’s entire body trembled, and the waves of heat kept coming, but he swallowed hard and nodded obediently. He took another agonizing step, and his knee gave out. He sank to the ground against his will, his knees and his one good hand hitting the rocky ground hard as he tried to catch himself.

He tried to push himself up and failed.

“Ty!” Earl cried in alarm as he darted toward him. He no longer looked stern or angry, just as worried and scared as any father about to lose his son.

“Yes, sir,” Ty managed as he tried to push himself back to his feet yet again. He lost his balance on the slight rise of the embankment, toppling over as his father caught him. He rolled to his back, knowing with a certainty that came with encroaching death that he would not be getting back up under his own power.

“They’re coming for us,” Earl assured him as he pulled Ty into his arms and sank slowly to the ground along with him. “I can hear ’em now, boy, just stay with us.”

In the floating distance, he could hear shouts, but Ty found that he couldn’t move. He fought to stay conscious. Shame washed through him, just as painful as the fever that ravished him. He had failed spectacularly in front of the only person he’d ever wanted to make proud of him. But even that shame wasn’t powerful enough now to get him to his feet.

“Stay with us, son,” Earl murmured into his ear pleadingly. “Hold on.”

“Grady, don’t you fucking dare give up after I dug you out of that basement,” Zane growled from somewhere close. “You didn’t give up then, and you won’t give up now.”

Ty’s eyes fluttered open, searching for Zane’s eyes. Above him, the sky was a startling blue. The scrub pine was a bright, almost neon green, and the few trees in view boasted brilliant leaves of orange and yellow and red. Ty had never seen such colors in his life. It was beautiful. The faces looking down on him looked like airbrushed photos, taken and perfected and stylized until the colors were stark contrasts of highlights and lowlights, making them look ethereal.

He met Zane’s dark eyes, the eyes he’d been searching for. “Zane,” he managed to gasp. He tried to think of something to say, an apology for dragging the man up here and thanks for all he’d done. I love you. But nothing came to his lips. He just closed his eyes, seeing Zane’s face imprinted in the darkness. He held to the material of Earl’s coat, trying to keep himself from spinning and swaying on the ground. “Mountain’s moving,” he told them all in alarm, the words slurred horribly.

“Ty,” Zane barked, his voice a mixture of anger and desperation. “Open your eyes,” he ordered. “Get up!”

Ty did open his eyes, but when he tried to sit up, his limbs wouldn’t cooperate. He put every ounce of his energy and will into getting off the ground, but he realized with a sinking sensation that he hadn’t even managed to lift his head.

“Get up, Beaumont, it ain’t your time yet!” Earl called to him, sounding far away and gauzy.

He was dying. After all the things he’d been through that could and probably should have killed him, he had to go and get attacked by a goddamn mountain lion. Someone somewhere was going to find that funny.

Ty’s eyes focused on the impossibly blue sky overhead as he felt himself slipping away, and the pain faded too. He idly thought that angel wings sounded a whole lot like the rotors of a chopper, and he’d really have liked the chance to tell Zane that.

Chapter 16

ZANE reflected on the past painful twelve hours as he walked tiredly down the long, door-lined hall. Mara Grady, with an assist from Chester, had lit a fire under the local search-and-rescue people as soon as they hadn’t shown up on the day they’d planned—she’d actually mentioned a bad feeling; Zane was pitifully glad that she hadn’t ignored it—and several rangers with dogs had found them on the mountain just as Ty collapsed. A rescue helicopter had been in their wake, and Ty had been airlifted off the mountain to this hospital in Charleston.

He’d barely made it.

The doctors assured Earl and Mara that Ty was now out of danger. He’d woken once so far to be told what had happened, only to immediately fall back into unconsciousness.

Zane turned the corner at the end of the hall and slowed as he saw Earl outside the door to Ty’s hospital room. To Zane’s eyes and satisfaction, Earl Grady seemed to be agonizing over the state of his son. The elder Grady stood with his arms crossed and his head down as he rubbed at his newly shaved chin and frowned, looking into the room where his son slept. He hadn’t gone too far from the room, but he hadn’t gone inside much, either. It was like he couldn’t make up his mind. As far as Zane was concerned, he could stay outside. He wasn’t feeling too charitable toward Earl Grady. If the man hadn’t gone overboard insulting Ty—and fuck, Earl couldn’t have thought of a worse thing to call Ty than a coward—then his son, Zane’s partner, wouldn’t be lying practically dead in this goddamn hospital.