RUSTY DONOVAN glared at the line of traffic he found himself in. “Are you really sure this is worth it?” he grumbled to his best friend, Tyler Shadworth, who sat in the passenger seat of Rusty’s Land Rover looking sleepy in the predawn light.

Yawning, Tyler lifted the brim of his baseball cap and looked out the windshield before lowering the cap again. “Yeah, it’ll be worth it. You were wanting to get some new pictures for the New Mexico Department of Tourism account. You don’t get any more iconic than the Balloon Fiesta.”

“But couldn’t we have come when the traffic wouldn’t be so bad?” Rusty asked as they managed to get another two feet closer to their goal, several miles away.

With a huff, Tyler shook his head. “We need the crowds in the pictures, and we need lots of balloons to make them any good. Look, you’re the advertising guy. I’m the photographer. Trust me in this. We’ll get some good stuff today. It would’ve helped if we’d been able to get up and going a couple of hours ago.”

Even knowing Tyler wouldn’t see it from under the bill of his cap, Rusty flashed him a hard glare as they continued their glacial movement toward the balloon field. “And that wasn’t my fault. You forgot to set your alarm.”

“Hey, I got a little distracted with that cute thing at the hotel bar last night.” Tyler pulled up the collar on his jacket as if trying to hide from the impending light of dawn. “After she heard I was a photographer, she had to show me her modeling poses.”

“I hope you still have enough space on your memory cards for the paying work,” Rusty snapped. He’d already known why Tyler had been running late. He wasn’t sure if he was overly tired from a long week of dealing with clients, or if he was jealous about how easy it was for Tyler to get laid. But then Rusty had always held himself to a little higher standard than Tyler did. Since high school, Tyler had chased anything in a bra and often caught it. Rusty tended to be a little more selective with the guys he went out with. It was more than just a quick way to get off. Unfortunately he tended to be attracted to men who were the same level of workaholic as he was. Jobs came first and sex second. It had been a while since he’d even tried dating, and he’d resorted to cruising apps when he had the urge to get off.

“Who says I won’t get paid for the pictures I took of her?” Tyler chuckled. “I always make sure they sign a release form. There’s plenty of websites out there that pay good royalties for sexy pictures.”

“Yeah, I’m sure there are.” Rusty finally spotted a police cruiser ahead of them and the line of traffic heading west, kicking up a plume of dust.

A soft glow slowly rose above the horizon and drifted toward the east.

Tyler jerked up in his seat. “Man, we’re missing Dawn Patrol.”

“Not my fault.” Rolling up his window to prevent the dust from getting all over his leather seats, Rusty turned to follow the traffic. “What’s Dawn Patrol?”

“They send a couple of balloons up before first light.” Tyler leaned forward to watch the balloon go past. “I don’t know all the specifics of it. But they fly off to the east, then come back if the winds are blowing the right way. If you get in the right spot, you can get some great pictures of the balloons as the sun comes over Sandia Peak.”

“That might’ve been a good opportunity, then.” Rusty slowed the Land Rover down even further as the cars in front of him hit their brakes.

“We can try again tomorrow. We’re here all weekend, right?”

Rusty didn’t bother saying he’d hoped they could get the pictures done and head back to Santa Fe so he could spend Sunday working on a proposal for a ski resort. It could be a major account if everything went the right way. “Sure. If we don’t get everything you want this morning, we can come back tomorrow.”

Tyler turned from the balloon and smiled at Rusty. It was a look that had gotten him into so many women’s pants, but it didn’t have any effect on Rusty. “Thanks. I know this was a bad weekend for my truck to crap out on me. You’re the best friend ever for bringing me down here.”

For nearly twenty years, Rusty had been rescuing Tyler as much as Tyler had been saving him. At first it had been from school bullies who saw the photography geek and the gay science nerd as easy targets. Even if Rusty had dated the quarterback for a while, it hadn’t been enough to remove the target on his back, and he and Tyler relied on each other. Even when Rusty got mad at Tyler for little inconveniences, they were still best friends, and Tyler was helping him with work, so it only felt right to drive him around.

“No problem,” Rusty mumbled and let out a little sigh as they crested a rise and entered the parking lot proper. The place was busier than a mall at holiday time. It reminded Rusty of the time they’d driven up to Denver for a Broncos game, but there were more people. Each vehicle seemed to have at least three people, and the lines going down the hill, from the parking area to the huge field where little flashes of flame flickered off and on, were more impressive than the stream of traffic had been. Rusty hated crowds and wondered again why he’d let Tyler talk him into coming to the biggest event in New Mexico.

Even before they parked, Tyler was scrambling over the seat, reaching into the rear floorboard for camera equipment. “Hey, you’re cool with being my packhorse today, right?”

“I guess that means I get to carry your purse again?” Rusty said, smiling slightly at the running gag between the two of them.

“Wouldn’t be the first time someone thought we were together.” Tyler chuckled as he pulled his camera strap over his head. “Besides, you’ll know what I need before I do. You make a great photographer’s assistant.”

Without bothering to reply, Rusty grabbed the photography bag from the floorboard before he opened his door and stepped into the cool morning air. The crowd in the parking lot was already loud as people hurried down to the launch field. Every so often, a car horn cut through the human sounds, or a voice was raised louder than the surrounding din.

“I really wasn’t expecting this many people,” Rusty said as he and Tyler stepped into the line.

“What else were you expecting?” Tyler brought the camera up to his eye and took a couple of quick shots, the soft snap of his shutter just audible over the conversations around them.

“Based on the number of cars, about a third less attendees.” Rusty shrugged, trying to settle the weight of the camera bag more comfortably on his broad shoulder.

“It’s a family event.” Tyler lowered the camera.

“Yeah, I can see that,” Rusty mumbled.

When they got to the footpath leading down the slope to the launch field, the spectacle spread out before him. Down on the field, balloons were laid out on the ground in almost perfect rows while people wandered among them. Most just appeared to be milling about, but around each balloon, crews moved with purpose. Some tugged the fabric envelopes out and others got the baskets into position.

“Step to the side for a second,” Tyler said.

Rusty looked at him, questioning, as they moved out of the flow of foot traffic. Tyler didn’t seem to notice. He was pointing the camera down at the field, snapping pictures.

Tyler stopped and looked at the screen on the back of the camera, then frowned. “Light is still a little low, but I might be able to save a couple of them.” He put the lens cap back on. “Let’s keep moving.”

“Okay.” Rusty followed along as they rejoined the throngs of people marching down the footpath.

The aroma of funnel cakes hit Rusty as they reached the launch field. The sweet scent made his mouth water, even though he’d had some of the continental breakfast at the hotel while waiting for Tyler to finish getting ready.

“Okay,” Tyler sighed. “Once all the balloons are in the air, we’re going to have to stop for some food.”

“That shouldn’t take too long,” Rusty said, looking at the hundred or so balloons out on the field.

Tyler laughed. “This is only the first wave.”

Rusty blinked at him. “First wave?”

“Yeah, as the balloons that are laid out here go up, more will come in and take their places.” Tyler paused and pointed his camera toward the north end of the field, where the first balloon was lifting off. “It’ll be at least two, maybe three hours before it’s all done for this ascension.”

“Ascension,” Rusty repeated, realizing Tyler had used that word on purpose.

“Going up,” Tyler explained as he brought his camera down and glanced at the screen again. “When there’s a lot of balloons going up like this, it’s called a Mass Ascension.”

“Okay.” Rusty could understand where the term came from, but it sounded a bit like a whole lot of Christians dying at one time and storming the gates of heaven.

Tyler headed off toward where more balloons were lifting off. “Come on. We’re going to be going up and down the field like crazy for a little while.”

The thought of getting too deep in all the people made Rusty nervous. He hated being jostled around, and that looked like what was about to happen. “Wouldn’t it be better to find a spot up on the hill and just shoot as they go up?”

“Tomorrow morning, maybe.” Tyler pushed his way through people, then turned and looked at Rusty. “Right now I want shots up close and personal.”

“Okay.” Rusty heaved a sigh of resignation. “If you say so.” He plunged into the crowd, following Tyler.