Summary: Vin and Ezra ae trapped in an elevator during a heat wave.
"Hold the elevator," Ezra Standish called, his hand raised to gain his colleague's attention. The wave of acknowledgement allowed him to slow his pace. The record heat wave hitting the Denver area had made the outside air uncomfortable, but here, in the indoor parking garage it was positively suffocating. Ezra knew his benefactor would not leave him to swelter. It wasn't in his nature.
Sliding into the air-conditioned car, Ezra offered a two-fingered salute in appreciation. "Thank you, Mr. Tanner."
"I didn't want ya t' be late again," Vin said, slouching against the wall as best he could on crutches. "It makes Chris surly."
"Our esteemed leader puts far too much value on punctuality." Ezra pushed the button for the twentieth floor.
Vin grinned. "He thinks you don't give it enough importance."
"Just one of the many areas in which we disagree."
As the elevator climbed, Ezra critically studied the pale face of the man across from him. It was only one indication his friend was returning to work before he had recovered sufficiently from a knife wound to his left leg. The blade had cut deep, from thigh to knee. Vin had nearly bled to death before Nathan reached the downed agent. The close call had shaken them all.
"Are you by chance returning to work prematurely, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked.
"Don't take a lot of energy t' sit at a desk."
His mouth open to contradict the assumption, Ezra suddenly found himself slammed to the floor when the elevator came to an abrupt stop, plunging them into darkness. The wind knocked out of him, Ezra fought to fill his lungs with air. When the dim emergency light finally popped on, he looked over to see Vin had also lost the battle with gravity and was lying on the floor. A soft moan indicated his meeting with the unyielding floor had been equally unpleasant.
"Mr. Tanner," Ezra finally gasped, crawling to Vin's side, "are you injured?"
Vin carefully sat up, one hand gripping his bad leg, the other the side of his head. "I'm fine. What happened?"
Recognizing the admission for the lie it was, Ezra chose to ignore it – for the moment – since there was nothing he could do. "Either the elevator has broken down, or the building has lost power." Cradling his swelling right wrist, Ezra pulled out his cell phone. "I'll attempt to ascertain the problem."
"Are ya hurt, Ez?"
"I think I might have sprained my wrist," Ezra acknowledged. Pushing several buttons on his phone, he finally closed it in disgust. "I'm not getting a signal."
Retrieving his own cell phone, Vin copied Ezra's actions before revealing, "I'm not gettin' nothin' either."
"Which leads me to believe it's not just this building that has lost power."
"So, we're stuck here?" Vin awkwardly rose and limped across the small expanse of the car.
"It would appear so."
"For how long?"
Knowing Vin's uneasiness with small, dark spaces, Ezra could hear the touch of panic in his friend's voice. It was a sound no stranger would detect, but was clearly audible to Ezra. He felt his own alarm when he saw a damp spot spreading across Vin's pant leg, directly above the wound. Knowing what the ominous sign meant, he said, "Mr. Tanner, please, sit down and let me tend to your wound."
Ezra was dismayed when Vin ignored him and continued to pace. Neither of them was in any condition to wrestle over the request. His gaze following Vin's every step, Ezra desperately searched for an alternative method to get through to his friend.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris Larabee typed the last sentence of a long report. Hunching his shoulders in relief, he reached for the mouse to save and close the file before sending it to AD Travis. He moved the arrow over the upper right box and was about to click the left toggle when the monitor went black. The lights in his office snapped off, leaving only the emergency light over his desk to illuminate the windowless room.
Dazed, Chris stared in abject disbelief at his blank screen. Anger finally replaced shock, and he rose from his chair. Throwing open his door, he bellowed, "Buck, if this is your idea of a joke, you better be prepared to meet your maker."
Buck held his hands up in defense. "It wasn't me."
From where he was standing, Chris could see the only light on the entire floor came from the emergency lights and what little sun filtered through the heavy cloud cover. His temper immediately cooled when he realized the entire building had lost power.
"It doesn't look like we're the only ones," Josiah said from his position at one of the windows.
Joining the profiler, Chris looked out upon the sea of high-rise buildings. The only visible lighting came from the dim glow of emergency lights and the car headlights on the street.
"Cell phones are out, too, Chris," Nathan reported.
Realizing the generator could provide lights for the building for only a few hours, and that Travis' phone lines would be tied up, Chris ordered, "JD, go upstairs and see what Travis wants us to do. In the meantime, let's start getting everyone ready to leave the premises. They're to dress in sensible shoes and leave non-essential belongings behind. No unnecessary weight. It's going to be hot in those stairwells, so make sure everyone has at least one bottle of water."
As his men quickly moved to obey his instructions, Chris took one last glance out the window. Police and rescue personnel were going to have their hands full. The ATF would be expected to take care of its own. Chris had no problem with those expectations.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"You're sweating, Ez."
His damp clothes chaffing against his skin, Ezra haughtily replied, "I do not sweat, Mr. Tanner, I perspire."
"Fancy words won't stop ya from overheating if ya don't take yer coat off."
Ezra was relieved to see a smile on Vin's face. He knew how much his friend hated small spaces. The suffocating heat made the space they were in seem even smaller. Ezra was proud of Vin for keeping it together and engaging in light-hearted banter, because he knew things were only going to get worse.
It had been almost two hours since their abrupt stop. The emergency generator wouldn't last much longer, which meant they would soon be plunged into total darkness. It was not a pleasant prospect to contemplate.
When Vin again rose and started limping back and forth across the short span of the elevator, Ezra sighed in exasperation. The activity could not be good for the man's injured leg, especially since Vin refused to use his crutches. As far as Ezra could tell, the bleeding had stopped, but activity would inevitably make it start again. The blood loss, coupled with the heat, would eventually leave Vin gasping in a huddled heap on the floor, just as it had several times before. Yet, as soon as he was recovered, Vin would resume pacing.
"Mr. Tanner, don't you think you should relax?" Ezra quietly advised. "Pacing is unproductive in the best of times. In your condition it is ill-advised as well."
The pallid features, the hoarse voice, and the sweat-soaked clothing made a lie of Vin's statement. Pushing to his feet Ezra felt dizzy from the exertionmaking him even more determined to stop his friend. Deliberately stepping into Vin's path, he said, "Mr. Tanner, I must insist that you sit down and conserve your strength."
"For what?" demanded Vin.
"For when our rescuers arrive."
"Ain't nobody comin' fer us."
"If all we had to rely on were strangers, or our superiors, I would agree with you. But there are five men a few floors above us who will stop at nothing to save us."
"They woulda come if they coulda already."
The emergency light flickered several times before going dark.
Ezra felt his heartbeat accelerate as the darkness closed over him like a shroud. The analogy felt all too valid. He knew it was only another side-effect of the oppressive heat, but the knowledge didn't calm his fears. He forced his voice to remain calm, knowing it was the only way he could appease Vin.
"Mr. Tanner, did I ever tell you about the time I went undercover as a high-school math teacher?"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris handed Barbara a flashlight and cautioned, "Don't use it until you have to. You have a long way down."
The secretary nodded her understanding as her gaze swept over the five members of Team Seven. "Don't wait too long, Mr. Larabee."
"We won't; we'll be right behind you. I just want to check each floor as we go down."
As she disappeared into the stairwell with the rest of the twentieth floor staff, Chris turned to his team. "Is that everyone?"
"All clear," Buck reported.
"Nathan, do you have your first aid kit?"
Nathan patted the bag hanging from his shoulder. "Right here."
"Everyone has a flashlight and water?" Chris confirmed.
"We're ready," Buck snapped in exasperation, wiping sweat from his brow. "Can we go already? That generator isn't going to last much longer."
The lights flickered once, and then a second time before going out. Chris wished it had been a sunny day. The cloudy skies offered little natural illumination.
"Let's ride," he said, leading the way to the stairwell.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Ya know, Ez, ya'd be a lot better off if'n ya took off yer coat and loosened yer tie," Vin said.
Although he had been raised to always keep up appearances, this was one time Ezra decided to partially follow Vin's advice. "You are correct, Mr. Tanner. It would be prudent in these conditions to take off my coat."
"And tie," Vin reminded him.
"One must keep up a semblance of propriety, Mr. Tanner."
"Do ya want me t' do it, or will ya do it yerself?"
"Well, when you put it like that." Ezra knew Vin wasn't bluffing, but he still wasn't comfortable loosening his tie. He was already making one concession. He took off his coat. Taking advantage of the darkness, he pretended to loosen his tie. "All right, I've unfastened my tie."
"Ya get one more chance."
"How do you know I didn't?" As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Ezra realized he had given himself away – something he hadn't done in the direst of circumstances as an undercover agent.
"First, because I didn't hear the fabric scratch as it was pulled apart–"
"Silk doesn't 'scratch,' as you so colorfully put it."
"Second, because I know you."
Realizing he had no choice, Ezra raised his left hand and awkwardly worked at untying the knot.
"Need some help?" Vin asked.
"Mr. Tanner, has anyone ever told you, you have extraordinary hearing?"
"Chris has, quite often."
Ezra could hear the smile in his friend's voice. He was glad he could ease Vin's uneasiness, even if it increased his own. "It appears Mr. Larabee and I do agree on some things."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
They had only searched four floors, but Chris was already feeling the stress of so much exertion in such adverse conditions. A quick glance at the rest of his team showed definite signs of difficulty. Even JD looked a little wilted.
"Hey, Chris," Buck said, joining his old friend at the stairwell door. "Has anyone checked the elevators?"
It was a good question, one Chris couldn't answer. He swore softly. When this was over, one of his recommendations would be to put walkie-talkies on each of the floors since they obviously couldn't depend on cell phones or land lines. Crossing to the closest elevator, Chris ordered, "Give me a hand, Buck."
Buck grabbed the hatchet from next to the fire extinguisher. Pushing the sharp blade between the two doors, he used it as a lever. It took all his strength, and help from Chris and Josiah, before the doors were pushed open sufficiently to allow someone access.
Chris looked down and didn't see anything. He shifted his body so he could look up. As far as he could tell, the elevator appeared to be on the top floor. With any luck, its occupants had gotten off before the power went out. Just to be certain, he called, "Anyone up there?"
When he didn't receive an answer, Chris pulled back and joined Buck and Josiah at the center bank. Nathan and JD came behind and closed the doors they had worked so hard to open. Chris was grateful for their consideration. The last thing he needed was for someone to fall down the shaft.
The next elevator appeared to be near the bottom. Chris didn't even bother to yell this time. Hopefully, whoever had been inside had already been rescued. He was too far away to be of any immediate assistance.
As soon as they got the doors open to the last elevator, Chris knew there was going to be a problem. The car was stuck between the two floors just above the one they were on. He didn't even want to consider that some poor soul might have been trapped in the almost airless shaft for close to three hours. "Is there anyone in the elevator?"
The answer was so long in coming Chris thought they had gotten off lucky.
"We're here, Mr. Larabee."
Recognizing the southern accent, Chris confirmed, "Is that you, Ezra?"
"It is indeed."
"Are you alone?"
"Mr. Tanner is with me. How do think I knew that bellow came from your illustrious self?"
Concern for his friend made Chris overlook Ezra's snappy retort. "Are you all right, Vin?"
Chris realized he should have known better than to ask the question. He could tell by the quiet reply, and the raspier than normal voice, that Vin was far from fine, which was only to be expected after being entombed in a virtual oven. "Hang on, we'll get you out."
"That would be most appreciated," Ezra said.
Knowing the others would follow, Chris raced up the stairs. The only way to reach his trapped men would be through the emergency hatch in the ceiling of the elevator. He just had to hope the power didn't suddenly come back on while they were in the shaft.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Ezra decided Larabee's voice had been the most beautiful sound he had ever heard, rivaling Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Bizet's Carmen. Even if it had taken Vin's phenomenal hearing to pick up the faint sound and identify it as their fearless leader.
Now that rescue was imminent, Ezra's discomfort seemed to have increased tenfold. He had stopped sweating, which he knew was dangerous, even without Nathan's expertise. Weakened by their ordeal, he knew he and Vin wouldn't be much help to their rescuers. He just hoped Vin was in better shape than his labored breathing indicated.
A thumping noise on the roof told Ezra that Larabee had found a way down to them. At least Ezra hoped that was what the sound indicated. Anything else spelled impending doom for the elevator's occupants.
A scraping sound from above was followed by bright light. Ezra lifted his good hand to shield his eyes. "It is good to see you, Mr. Larabee, so to speak."
"I've brought you some water." Chris dropped into the car.
Unfazed by the shaking car, Ezra grabbed the bottle, reflecting in the glow from the flashlight. "Bless you."
Without thinking, he tried to turn the cap with his bad wrist. A small moan escaped before he could suppress it. He closed his eyes as though the action would relieve his suffering. His thirst was so great the cry was one of frustration as well as pain.
Ezra opened his eyes when the bottle was pulled from his hand and replaced with another. He looked down to see the one he was now holding no longer had a cap. "You are a saint, Mr. Tanner," he said.
"Ya just learnin' that now?" Vin smiled as he twisted the cap off the bottle he had taken from Ezra. His cracked lips closing around the top, he took a long drink.
"Careful," cautioned Chris, "not so fast."
While there should have been no need for the warning, Ezra discovered it took all his will power to take short, timed swallows. If someone had tried to trade him a bottle of Dom Perignon for his water, he would have refused.
"So, Ezra, can I assume you're hurt?" Chris asked.
"Merely a sprained wrist, Mr. Larabee."
Shaking his head, Chris turned his glare on Tanner. "How about you, Vin? Any new injuries?"
"I'm fine," Vin repeated.
"Of course you are," Chris said and snorted. "Why do I even bother?"
In an attempt to deflect Larabee's temper, Ezra inquired, "May I ask what has caused our present predicament?"
"From what we can tell, it's a city-wide power outage. Communications are out."
"We noticed." Ezra patted the pocket containing his useless cell phone.
"JD contacted Travis. He ordered a complete evacuation of the building."
"Although not, apparently, before the generator gave out," Ezra grumbled.
Chris snapped, "Do you want to hear this, or make smart remarks?"
Honestly repentant, Ezra apologized. "Forgive me. I do not react well when my comfort level is reduced."
"We were making our way down, floor by floor, checking to make sure everyone got out, when Buck remembered the elevators."
"Remind me to tell Mr. Wilmington it will be my pleasure to take him to the most expensive restaurant in town."
"I'll be happy to remind you." Buck's grinning face appeared in the opening in the ceiling. "And I'm gonna order the most expensive item on the menu, even if I don't like it."
Ezra sighed. "Of course you will."
"You boys ready to get out of here?" Chris asked, helping Vin to his feet. "Or do you want to chitchat some more?"
"Need you ask?" Ezra rose without assistance, only to lose his balance and fall against the wall. A strong grip on his arm prevented him from sliding to the floor. Once his legs could hold his weight, he gently shook off the support. "Thank you, Mr. Larabee."
Bending and cupping his hands to lift Vin up, Chris said, "Are you ready, Buck?"
"Ready." Buck lay down on his stomach and reached into the elevator.
"You first, Vin," Larabee ordered.
When Vin put his weight on his bad leg, so he could place his foot in Chris' hands, the leg collapsed under him. Only Larabee's quick reflexes saved him from a tumble.
His arms supporting an obviously-hurting Vin, Chris remorsefully said, "That's not going to work."
"I don't suppose you have a rope?" Ezra asked.
"It's in my other coat. Any other suggestions?" Chris snapped.
"Coats," Vin's raspy voice mused.
"Even you don't carry rope in your pockets, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said.
Ignoring the remark, Vin gasped, "Tie the coats together to make a rope."
"Like tying sheets together," Chris said, smiling.
"Except," Ezra indignantly protested, "your sheet isn't an Armani."
Chris took Ezra's good hand and placed it under Vin's elbow. He guided his flashlight around until he found the coats. Picking them up, he knotted the sleeves together. Adding his own to the string, he tossed it up to Buck. "Ezra, you can send Armani a letter and tell him how he saved your life. I'll even notarize it for you."
Gripping one sleeve, Buck threw the rest of the makeshift lifeline back into the elevator. Although it was short, it still hung low enough for the trapped men to reach it.
"Do they have a Fashion Hall of Fame, Ez?" Vin asked as Chris partially lifted him to make it easier to reach the sleeve.
"It wouldn't surprise me if they did."
"Then send your coat to them, so everybody can see how fashion can save lives."
"Very funny, Mr. Tanner." But it was difficult for Ezra to act affronted. In truth, he didn't care about his coat. He would gladly pay its cost, and much more, to keep the light-hearted note in his friend's voice.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Taking sips from the bottle of water Josiah had handed him, Chris hovered as Nathan checked Vin and Ezra. His throat was so dry, he was tempted to empty the container, but he knew they were low on the precious liquid. Even to him, it was obvious both of the injured men were suffering from dehydration. They had a long way to go before they reached the main floor and replenished their supplies, unless JD found some on the abandoned floors as they made their descent.
When Nathan rose and moved away from his patients, Chris crossed to his side. He wasn't surprised when Josiah and Buck joined them.
Keeping his voice low, Chris asked, "How are they?"
"Not great. Some of the stitches in Vin's leg pulled loose. He bled until lack of fluids caused the blood to clot. He won't admit it, but the blood loss, coupled with dehydration, has left him in pretty bad shape. He's in no condition to walk down one floor, much less seventeen."
"His wrist isn't sprained, it's broken. He's in a lot of pain."
Looking over at their friend, Buck asked, "Do you have something you can give him?"
"I do, but he won't be able to descend those stairs on his own if I do."
"We'll help him," Chris said. "Give him the painkiller. Vin, too. And I don't care how much he protests."
"What I have isn't strong, but it should take the edge off."
As Nathan moved away to comply with Chris' request, Buck slipped closer to his teammates as he whispered, "It won't be easy, carrying two grown men down those stairs."
Angry, Chris demanded, "Are you suggesting we leave them behind, Buck?"
Affronted, Buck pulled back. "Of course not."
"Sorry." Chris rubbed his face tiredly. He was already hot and thirsty, and he wasn't exerting himself. The rest of his team wasn't in much better shape. Like him, they were taking small sips of water, saving what they had for Vin and Ezra. Chris knew he should order them to drink more, but since he wouldn't waste their precious water supply on himself, he knew his men would follow his lead and deny their own thirsts.
Realizing the unventilated building was getting hotter, Chris decided they couldn't wait for the painkillers to do their job. He could almost feel the moisture being sucked from his body. They couldn't waste anymore time. "Josiah, you and I will help Vin. Nathan, you and Buck get Ezra. JD, do what you've been doing – go ahead and check the floors. Make sure everyone's out. And see if they left any beverages behind." Helping Vin onto his good leg, Chris said, "Let's ride, boys."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The memory of their descent through the tall building was one Ezra hoped would fade quickly. Halfway down the remaining flights, his legs became wobbly and he found himself becoming more and more dependent on Nathan's and Buck's assistance. Knowing they were depriving themselves of water, Ezra felt guilty as he was forced to rest more and more of his weight on his companions, but they never complained, they simply shifted to ease the transition.
On the ninth floor landing, Chris and Josiah stopped, lying Vin gently on the floor.
"Nathan," Chris called up the stairs, "Vin's throwing up."
Buck pulled Ezra's good arm across his shoulders. "Go, Nathan."
Jumping down the stairs two at a time, Nathan reached Vin's side. Kneeling, he held out his hand to Josiah. "I need water."
"There isn't any more," the profiler said. "Is there anything else we can do?"
Checking the bandages on Vin's leg, Nathan shook his head, "Nothing, except get him out of here."
Chris wiped Vin's mouth with a handkerchief before putting one of Vin's arms across his shoulders as Josiah did the same.
When Nathan returned to Ezra's side, Standish pushed him away. "I believe Mr. Tanner needs your services more than I, Mr. Jackson."
"I told you, there's nothing more I can do for Vin." Nathan sadly took Ezra's arm.
Ezra forced himself not to wince when the healer accidentally bumped his sore wrist. He knew if the compassionate man ever discovered he had caused Ezra pain, it would hurt Nathan with an anguish far exceeding that which Ezra had endured.
Unable to ease his own discomfort or his companions, Ezra tried to block the journey from his mind. It was a poor defense, but it was the only one he had.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
He was falling!
Chris came awake with an abruptness that made him slide out of his chair. Leaning against the arm, he filled his lungs with air, and checked to see if he had disturbed Vin. He was relieved and, at the same time, disappointed, to see his friend was still unconscious. Hooked up to a number of monitors that were turned on sporadically due to the continuing shortage of power, and with IV's for saline and blood running into his arms, Vin looked worse than he actually was – at least according to the doctors. Chris still wasn't sure if he believed what they had told him.
When they had finally reached the main floor of the ATF building, Vin had been unconscious and the rest of them were operating on sheer willpower alone. Chris remembered being so disoriented he had fought the paramedics trying to pull Vin from his arm. Some water and an IV had been all Chris needed for things to make sense again. Although, as evidenced by his falling asleep in the chair, fatigue lingered, sapping him of strength.
Wearily climbing to his feet, Chris pulled the chair closer to Vin's bed. After the ordeal his friend had endured, Chris wanted to be there if the nightmares came.
Looking up, Chris smiled as Buck slipped through the partially open door. "How are you doing?"
"I'm fine, though I don't think I'll go anywhere without one of these in my hand anytime soon." Buck held up a bottle of water.
"You and me both." The smile disappeared from Chris' face. "How's Ezra?"
"He's getting another bag of fluids. The doc says as soon as it's empty he can go home."
"What about his wrist?"
"It was a simple break. It's already in a cast. He just has to take it easy for awhile. Nathan wanted them to keep Ez overnight, but with the power outage, there's no room in the inn."
"How about Josiah, Nathan and JD?"
"Josiah was down another pint from the rest of us. They still have him hooked up to an IV. He'll be ready to go about the same time as Ezra." Buck crossed to the bed and looked down at Vin. "Nathan and JD went to get our cars from the parking garage. Nathan's going to take Josiah and Ezra home when they're ready. He'll spend the night with Ezra, to be on the safe side. As soon as JD gets back, we'll head out to the ranch and take care of the horses, since I assume you'll be spending the night here."
"You assume correctly."
"How's Junior?" Buck asked.
Before Chris could relay what the doctor had told him, he heard a familiar sound coming from the occupant of the bed. Moving quickly, he turned Vin onto his side. Buck's reactions were equally as swift and he held a kidney-shaped dish level with Vin's mouth.
Chris closed his eyes, but he couldn't close his ears or nose. The sound as the smelly vomit encountered the plastic container was enough to make his stomach twist in sympathy. Swallowing against the bile rising in his throat, Chris croaked, "Easy, Vin."
"I'll get the nurse," Buck offered, nudging Chris to take the almost-full dish when he couldn't find anything else close at hand to catch the disgusting matter.
Chris gently rubbed his friend's arched back as he waited for Buck and the nurse. It didn't stop the heaving, but Chris could feel the muscles under his hand start to relax. It made him feel a little better, knowing he was offering Vin some comfort. He continued his ministrations even after Buck returned with a tired nurse in tow. Her face shone with sweat, a testament to the long day and adverse conditions prevalent in the hospital. Although it had its own generator, power was reserved for necessities.
"The doctor thought this might happen," the nurse said, crossing to the bed and pulling a hypodermic from the pocket of her uniform. Inserting the needle into the IV tubing, she pressed down on the plunger. "This should help Mr. Tanner's nausea."
"Thank you," Chris said, grateful when the medication acted quickly.
Taking another injection from her pocket, she uncapped it and skillfully inserted the contents into Vin's arm. "I'm giving him a sedative, so he should go right back to sleep. Rest and fluids are the best things for him right now."
Checking Vin's pulse and temperature, she recorded the numbers on the chart at the end of the bed. She took the almost-overflowing dish from Chris, and replaced it with an empty one from Vin's bedside table.
"Call me if he needs anything else," she instructed before leaving the room.
When Vin's body went limp, Chris gently positioned the man's various limbs until Vin looked comfortable. Brushing strands of long hair off the man's pale, perspiring face, he asked, "Buck, is there any news on what caused the power outage, or how long it's going to last?"
"A relay blew and took a whole lot of other relays with it. They've already got some repaired, but it could be another day, or more, before everyone has power again."
"Are you and JD going to be all right out at the ranch?"
"We may be better there. You have a generator."
"If it's not safe, don't stay."
"Hey, we've become quite skillful with flashlights. We'll be fine."
Chris didn't like the two men being so far out with no way to communicate. "Just be careful."
"Always." Buck saluted sloppily. "You take care of Vin. I better get downstairs and see if JD's back yet."
The words were on Chris' tongue to ask Buck to call him when they got out to the ranch. He barely stopped himself from issuing the request. It showed how dependent they had become on cell phones.
Buck patted Chris on the shoulder. "You just worry about Vin, Nathan'll worry about Ezra, and the rest of us will take care of whatever else needs to be done."
"Thanks, Buck." Once again Chris realized how lucky he was to have this man for a friend.
Opening the door, Buck pulled at the collar of his sweat-soaked shirt. "See you tomorrow, stud, hopefully in much cooler conditions."
"Amen to that."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris ignored the unhappy slump of his passenger as he pulled his truck into the driveway of Ezra's townhouse. Vin got his way far too often. But this was one time Chris would not let his friend break through his defenses.
Switching off the engine, Chris climbed from the cab and circled to the back of the vehicle. He opened the tailgate and took out the wheelchair. Setting it up, he took a moment to strengthen his mental barriers. From the first moment they met, Vin had been able to break through the lines Chris had built to protect himself. The trouble was, he knew his power. This was one time Chris was determined to take no notice of the pleading eyes and disconsolate expression.
"Your chariot awaits," Chris said, rolling the chair to the passenger side of the truck and opening the door. "Let me help you."
Vin shook off the hand on his arm. "I still don't see why I can't recover out at the ranch."
"I told you…" Chris slowly counted to ten. "…They still don't have the lines fixed out there. I don't have any power except from the generator."
"I don't need electricity."
"And," Chris continued as though Vin hadn't spoken, "I have to work. I'm not leaving you all the way out there alone."
"I can take care of myself."
"The doctor wants you to stay off that leg for a few more days. I know you, if one of the horses started limping out in the pasture you'd be out of that chair in two seconds. Or, if I got home from work late, you'd put out feed and water."
"What if I promise I won't?"
Chris shook his head. "The main problems remain: there is no electricity, and no phone service, so no way to contact you."
"Then why can't I go to my own apartment?"
Once more, Chris counted to ten before replying. "You know why."
"Come on, Ezra's waiting." Chris took a firmer grip on Vin's arm and practically carried the injured man the short distance to the wheelchair.
Grumpily settling in the chair, Vin asked, "What did you have to give Ezra to get him to agree to put me up for a few days?"
Chris tried to act indignant. "Ezra is your friend. What makes you think I'd have to offer him anything?"
"Because it's Ezra." Vin smiled crookedly. "He'd let me stay for nothin', but if he thinks he could get somethin' out of the arrangement, he's not above usin' coercion to get what he wants."
Marveling at his friend's insight, Chris finally admitted, "I'm allowing him to write-off his Armani coat on his next expense report."
"Please tell me you saw that coming."
"I saw that coming," Chris confessed. "Don't tell Ezra, but I was going to let him write it off anyway."
Vin shook his head. "I think the two of you need to be trapped in an elevator together for a couple of hours, or maybe days? You really don't know each other at all."
"I think if we were ever trapped together, only one of us would come out alive."
"I wonder which one."
To be truthful, Chris wasn't entirely certain who would prevail.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Slowing his own pace to match his companion's, Ezra walked across the parking garage to the elevator. Although the temperature was considerably cooler than the last time he was here, he could feel the sweat trickling down his back and temples. As bad as their ordeal had been for him, Ezra knew it had been much worse for Vin.
The bell rang, announcing the arrival of the elevator car. When the doors opened, Ezra found himself hesitating before resolutely stepping inside. He was startled when Vin followed him in without faltering, although his hands were gripping the handles of his crutches so tightly his knuckles were leached of color, and his breathing had become labored.
Dismayed to see his own hands were shaking as he reached over to punch the close door button, Ezra quickly put them behind his back to hide his shame. This was their first day back at work and he wondered if they shouldn't have waited a few more days – or weeks – before returning.
"Don't matter when we come back," Vin said. "This won't get no easier."
Surprised, Ezra demanded, "Are you reading my mind, Mr. Tanner?"
"Don't need ta." Vin pushed the button for their floor. "We might as well get it over with."
As the car started to rise, Ezra leaned against the back wall, surreptitiously wiping the sweat from his upper lip. He tried to keep his eyes off the numbers showing which floor they had passed. The closer they came to where the elevator had stopped, the more difficult it became to breathe. Looking over at Vin, he saw his friend had his eyes closed, and his shirt was stained with sweat even though the air conditioning was blasting through the small enclosure. Reading the fear in Vin's body language, Ezra found his own panic fading, overcome by his need to help his friend. "We're almost there," he softly encouraged.
"Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades," Vin rasped.
"Who made that rule?"
Vin opened his eyes and forced a smile. "Somebody who's never been trapped in an elevator."
When the bell rang and the doors opened on their floor, the two men almost crashed in their desire to escape the elevator. Pausing in the hallway outside their office, they took deep breaths to control their breathing. Ezra brushed imaginary lint from the sleeve of his jacket.
"Told ya we'd be fine," Vin said.
Ezra gave a slight bow. "Once again I am astounded by your prescience, Mr. Tanner."
"You should be."
A rueful smile on his lips, Ezra shook his head.
"We best go in," Vin said, nodding to the entrance of their office. "I'm sure the boys are waitin' on us."
Reaching out to open the door for his companion, Ezra said, "The first thing I'm going to do is stock the refrigerator and half the supply room with bottles of water."
"Good idea," Vin agreed. "While yer doin' that, I'll go through the emergency supplies."
"Do me a favor, Mr. Tanner, make sure rope has been added to the required inventory."
"That's at the top on my list of things to do."
"You do realize, now that we're prepared, there will never be another power outage of the magnitude we just experienced."
"That's fine by me."
Smiling, Ezra indicated Vin should enter the door he had opened. "My sentiments exactly, Mr. Tanner."