“Okay, I think we’re set. Remember what I said about keeping it running smoothly?”

“I think so. Pull back with one hand, use the other to get the kinks out, right?”

“That’s exactly right. Now, for this one I think we’re going to need—” I dug around in the bag to find the big plastic bottle.

“What’s that?” Zeb asked.

“Pull lube. Here, hold out your hand.” He did, somewhat uncertainly. I squirted a generous dollop of the thick clear gel into his palm, then laid the bundle of cables atop it. “Then you just—” I cupped my hand under his own smaller one and closed it a little, nudging his fingers loosely around the bundle. “Not too tight, see?” I tugged the end of the bundle so that the blue-jacketed cables ran through Zeb’s palm, going in dry and coming out slick. “And then you just add in some more when it starts coming out a little dry. See how that works?”

He giggled. “I guess so.”

“Feels a little weird, right?”

“Well, you and Mr. Joiner did both say this’d be a dirty job…”

“There you go! You’ll get used to it pretty quick.” Still chuckling, I grabbed the fish tape where it dangled down from the conduit, whipped it through the end of the bundle, and secured it with a tight double bowline. “Last pull of the day. Go ahead and get yourself set and let’s get this done, how about?” I reached out and flicked on his headlight, seeing as how his hands were otherwise occupied and slick with lube in any case.

“All right!” I steadied the ladder as Zeb started climbing. Usually I’d do this part myself, with Hal driving from the other end of the pull. I still wasn’t entirely comfortable with today’s arrangement, but Zeb had acquitted himself well enough so far, especially for it being his first time. Too, watching, it occurred to me, not for the first time, that he might have been built to spec for this kind of work—oh, I fit well enough into tight spaces when I needed to, but his short, slender build made it so easy you could see he didn’t even have to think about it.

“Here, pull lube coming up—” I handed up the bottle. “All set? Got your walkie?”

“Yep!” Zeb sang out, half in the plenum and slightly muffled by the drop ceiling tiles we’d left in place.

“Okay, then. Go ahead and get ‘er lined up. Don’t be shy with the lube. Oh, and watch that fiberglass!” It took half a minute to get from the cable closet to the comms room. Two tugs on the fish tape, two answering tugs, and I started pulling. Hand over hand, gentle, not too fast—ah, there was the resistance I’d expected, from the two tight turns in the conduit just this side of the firestop wall. That was mainly what the lube was for, but even with it, the job got harder from here, and I wasn’t sorry for the chance to pause when I felt Zeb pull back.

Once the burning in my biceps had settled some, I gave the fish tape a couple of querulous tugs. Getting no answer back, I took the walkie-talkie off my belt and keyed the mic. “Zeb? You good?” Nothing but static. “Zeb?” Nothing again. Uh-oh. I’d been worrying about him all day, and—empty half-finished building, him up that ladder with no one nearby, no one else here and me not even in earshot, who’d be to know if he— It didn’t take me nearly half a minute to get back to the cable closet, because I was running this time. And all the while, trying not to think about what I was all too sure I’d see—

—and then, skidding back into the closet, didn’t see. A weight left my chest that I’d barely had time to notice was there—he hadn’t fallen, after all, but I couldn’t make out much past that. “Zeb! You okay? What’s up?”

“Uh…help?” Was that embarrassment?

“Sure, what’s—oh.” I’d looked around to see that the smooth curves of cable from the drum boxes up to his hands were anything but smooth now. One of them hadn’t been laid on the drum right, looked like, and instead of running properly it had tangled the others into an absurd snarl that had climbed right up behind him as I pulled and—I stepped up on the bottom rung of the ladder for a better look. “Yep, it got you good all right, huh?”

“Yeah, I heard you on the walkie, but I couldn’t get loose to—” Definitely embarrassed, and it was hard to blame him; he’d got himself into a hell of a spot.

“Okay, just…hang on a sec, let me see if—” Not that I didn’t have cutters, but then we’d need to start the whole pull over, and Hal wouldn’t be too happy about eating the cost of the wasted cable. I thought about trying to untangle it down here, looked over the snarl again, thought better of it; if I tried that, Zeb would fall. Nothing for it but to—

“Listen, I’m gonna come up. You tell me if you start to lose your balance, you hear?” Two on a twelve-foot ladder, I didn’t like it at all, but what else could I do? He’d have needed his hands to get down, and it looked like he had all he could do to stay on the ladder as it was. And even to cut it I’d have to be up there anyway, so…

There was barely enough room to get past the drop-ceiling frame. “This’ll be a little awkward, sorry—” I leaned hard against Zeb’s calves, reached around to grab the ladder and steady both of us, and wriggled myself up that way, inch by inch and all the while with the cables dragging at me and the whole front of me dragging at Zeb.

“Sorry,” I said again, once I’d gotten myself in place and was sure the ladder was stable. Awkward for sure especially with how much taller I was; I had my feet on the rung below his, and still found myself pressed close enough to smell his sweat along with mine. Pressed right up against his—oh don’t think about it, dammit, that’s not going to help!

“No, I mean, it’s okay, just—” Zeb tried to gesture with the knot of cables wrapped tight around both his hands, and that made the ladder wobble.

“Hold still!” I strangled my frightened shout just in time, but even as a hiss it was louder than I’d have planned it to be, with my lips so close to his ear.

“Sorry!” I could feel him breathing, the way his back moved against my chest. Fast and frightened. “I tried to, to unkink it, but—”

“It’s okay, just…go easy.” I grabbed hold of a roof truss with one hand, then let go of the ladder with the other. “This next part’s going to be a little scary, okay? I need you to raise your arms up and put light on them, so I can see to get you untangled.” I felt his shoulders tighten against my chest. “I know, but—here, look up, see this truss?” The spill of light from his headlamp fell on the steel structure. “Can you reach that?”

“I, I think so…” I pulled some slack in the cables with my free hand, and reaching up he was just barely able to get his hands on the bottom beam. “Yep, got it.”

“Okay, now. Hold on tight as you can to that, and keep your light on the cables, okay? And don’t move. I have to see to fix this, and I’m not going to be holding on to anything here…” This was going to have to be dangerous for someone, but at least this way I’d be doing the falling if anyone did. Not that I’d mention that out loud, of course, but—”Oh, wow. Really got you good, here, but I think I can—” I shifted a foot, raised up on my toes to get a couple more inches of reach. You’d think the nerves would make it easier not to think about—

“Ow! Not so hard, I can’t breathe—

“Sorry, I’ve just about got it here…okay, now, give your hand a yank, and—” He did, helped along by the pull lube that was quickly getting everywhere. The ladder wobbled again. I snatched hold of the roof truss again, then leaned back a little to give Zeb some space to breathe. “Okay. Let’s just…take a minute right here, what d’you say?”

“Yeah, this—this is scary.” He chuckled nervously, and I felt it in my breastbone.

“I know.” I eased down a little more onto the balls of my feet, and took hold of the ladder top with my free hand. Zeb leaned back against me a bit, still holding the truss with his left hand next to mine. “There you go. Deep breaths—we’ll laugh about this later, but for right now…”

He breathed deeply, and I leaned back as far as I could. Partly to give his narrow chest a little more room to expand, partly for the sake of—”Do you think Mr. Joiner will be—?” An icewater thought, that, and at the moment it wasn’t entirely unwelcome.

“Mad?” I gave half a shrug. “Oh, probably.” I felt Zeb’s shoulders tighten—”At me,” I added. “This whole clusterfuck is my fault, not yours, is the way he’ll see it.” I sighed. “That’s the way I see it, too.”

“Do we…” Zeb shifted his weight from one foot to the other. I tried not to think about the way that felt, and thought I mostly succeeded. “Do you have to tell him?”

It took me a moment to answer. This was an option that genuinely had not occurred to me. “Well—I guess we could keep it to ourselves, as long as neither of us gets hurt, but…” I half shrugged again. “I mean, why would we? He’s been mad at me before. Not the end of the world, if that’s what you’re—”

Zeb shifted his weight again. Not from side to side this time—I clutched harder at the truss and threw my own weight forward again, to counter his movement and keep the ladder stable. Oh, well, no hiding it now, I’d just have to—and then Zeb took my right hand off the ladder top, and—oh. Not just fear that had him breathing fast, then. Or me, and I could feel my cheeks turning warm.

“Uh, Zeb, I—” oh the hell with it! My engagement ring was on the other hand anyway. This hand, though—I turned it a little, moved it a little, tilted my wrist against what lay beneath the zip of his jeans and whatever else he wore, and ground the heel of my thumb hard against him. Too hard?—no, from his answering sigh and the way he moved against me, I thought I’d just about got it right.

I couldn’t find anything else to say just then, but it didn’t seem to matter. Besides, it’s hard to talk when you’re biting at the edge of someone’s ear, just for the sake of hearing him moan about it. And anyway, I realized a minute or two later, the bottle of pull lube was right there—

“Hey, Hal? Yeah, just got done at Patlex.”

“Oh, already? How’d the pulls go? How’s the new guy?”

“Went fine! Zeb did great, but we’ll be a little while getting back to the office. He got into some fiberglass, so we’re gonna swing by my place, give him a chance to get it out of his hair.”

“Your place, huh?”

“Yeah, it’s closer. And anyway, I don’t think that brother of his does too good a job looking after his place. A clean shower might be a nice change for him.”

“Sure. Look, you guys started at seven. If you want the day…”

“It’s 1:30!”

“Yeah, and it’ll be, what? Four, four-thirty, by the time you get back here, at least. I’ll pay the hours—you two have done a full day’s work by me. See you tomorrow.”

“Thanks, boss! I appreciate it.”

“Yeah, yeah, I didn’t get fiberglass in my hair, I figure that makes us even. You have a good one.”

“You too.”

(2111 words)

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