Book 4 in the Falls Chance Ranch Series

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Everest - Chapter 6

6

“Do you seriously think David was involved in robbing a train?”

He heard Jake’s snort in the darkness.

“The guy was a pirate.”

“But that’s mostly a joke, isn’t it?” Tom glanced over at the dark outline of Jake’s profile beside him, not really wanting to talk but the subject held sufficient fascination that the words were dragged out of him, much the way that Dale’s mail had put its hooks into him despite his mood. They’d only stopped their research, come back to their tent and gone to bed when the equipment in the communications tent started to freeze. Even in clothes and in a high tog sleeping bag it was still hard to get warm tonight and their breath was misting above them. “He couldn’t have been. Treaties were signed internationally about privateering, decades before the early 1900s. I remember reading something about it.”

“Officially.” Jake linked his hands behind his head. He would have read the same kind of things himself, he was as voracious a bookworm as Tom was on any kind of subject, he had a memory that grabbed on to detail of all kinds and he had lost himself in some of the richest, wildest libraries the planet had to offer. Some of them he’d taken Tom to and they’d soaked themselves in together on the floor of dusty, wooden rooms surrounded by heavy bound books that were too large and heavy to hold in your hands and needed gloves to touch and turn the pages. “Off the record there were still sanctioned ships very quietly going out to harass in strategic bits of the world and mess with foreign trade routes in diplomatic and military interests, much on the same rules. They could get away with things the Navy couldn’t and the government could just deny all knowledge. Empire days. I’d be willing to bet from what I’ve heard that it was on the same terms it always was: plundering, no harm or damage; whatever the privateers took they kept and all crew took a share. Goods, not cash. Those candlesticks I found probably came from a cabin somewhere. Flynn came across some old heavy jewellery once, Victorian stuff.”

But didn’t you ever ask Philip about this? What did he know?

Tom swallowed back the impulse to ask, still wanting the answers but not the information that would have to come with it. They rarely mentioned that name between themselves. Other than knowing that Philip was Jake’s Godfather, had set up the ranch with David, and that Jake had lived there for several years and regarded it as home, that was pretty much all in terms of specific details. Tom actively avoided knowing much more than that and had done for years, but he’d seen the warmth in Jake’s face when he looked at those newspaper photographs and he’d found David’s face in the picture without difficulty. Dale would probably know all this stuff in detail and have actively researched it, he belonged to that house like he’d been born there. He got it. Not easily, but he fought and fought to get there, and that Kiwi maniac of his would help.

Flynn.

The thought of Flynn in that way always sent a mild shiver through Tom. He’d had a thing for ‘assertive’ men as far back as he remembered discovering the male sex with all its attractions. If you had those instincts you’d have to be dead to not have them start flashing on red alert around Flynn, who walked around radiating it. It was in his eyes, it was in his voice, just the same way it was inbuilt into Jake’s hard drive. Dale had the brain to appreciate that, as well as the gut instincts. Jake thought of Flynn as the nearest thing he had to a brother, Tom knew it. They had more in common than there looked on the surface, which was why Tom found himself liking Flynn a little more than was comfortable because he was so like Jake and so much a part of Jake, even if Jake didn’t do the growling or the glares or the barked orders. There were times when Tom would have been very prepared to indulge him if he’d wanted to.

I need bromide. Or a roll in the snow.

Tom turned over as quietly as possible not to disturb Jake, who had gone quiet and was hopefully managing to get some sleep. His own head was too uncomfortably full and busy to settle himself, as tense and irritable as his body was.

I always thought I presented Flynn with a challenge.

The challenge Dale presented wouldn’t be nearly as bad as Dale thought it was, and Flynn wouldn’t think it was a problem. Nor would it equate to half the trials Tom knew he’d put Jake through, day in and day out over the last few years. And thinking about it was getting him more stirred up than calmed down, which also didn’t help. The phosphorus drummer boy was an old smugglers’ tale that Tom linked without effort to a Sussex village, knowing the story as well as Dale did. Probably better, since he’d grown up around that district and knew the castle in question and the harbours and narrow cobbled streets well. And that wasn’t a comfortable thought either.  It linked in far too tightly tonight with the puja ceremony and the primal grip of emotion he’d felt standing under the mountain, and brought it back once again in a wash of hotly unpleasant sensation that clenched his gut and throat.

A whole lot of bad associations, you’re stock piling them. Shut up and get some sleep.

Actively trying to sleep was always fatal.

Tom had heard his mother say: “You were terribly hard work as a baby, you just never slept.”  All his life he’d been a natural night owl, born contrary as if his body clock was set to the reverse of everyone else’s. His mind seemed to wake up at night, in the stillness, his energy swelled and restlessness gripped his mind and his body until being still was unbearable and being inside was suffocating. All his life it had been time he’d spent outside, reading, climbing, exploring – he’d been in persistent trouble about it at his prep school for the first month or two until he’d got sufficiently good at not being caught. In fact both his prep and public school had done an outstanding job of training him in skills they’d never intended to teach him at all. Scaling walls. Moving quietly, staying in the shadows. Lying convincingly.  

There was a soft sound outside, some way off. The soft crunch of boots on the shale. Unable to keep still any longer and moving just as he’d learned at prep school to avoid disturbing sleeping people, particularly the sleeping person who was usually all too aware of where he was and what he was doing, Tom slid out of his sleeping bag, grabbed his boots and jacket and went to look.

It was a Sherpa party from one of the other expeditions; Tom couldn’t see which. They were heavily loaded and making their way towards the ice fall, beginning a climb probably to camp two or three to set up the tents and lay in the provisions their climbers would need to find ready for them. Many of the best commercial expeditions advertised proudly that their clients had nothing to do at all but get themselves up the mountain, carrying no more than water and a few candy bars. Everything else would be taken up the mountain and provided for them, a tent and sleeping bag to fall into when they reached camp, food, water, their clothes and belongings, an individual Sherpa escort taking care of them who would also carry for them whatever they needed that day. It was exactly what their clients would need and what they would have to provide if any of them were fit to climb above base camp at all.

There was space out here. Bitterly cold space, but room to breathe. Quiet. Stillness. The faint lights in the distance of the Sherpas disappearing into the ice fall looked like marsh lights. Will o’ the wisps dancing on the snow. Tom watched them for a few minutes, the itching, tormenting restlessness strengthening moment by moment. By the time his hands grabbed up a coiled rope, his crampons, harness, ice axe and a head lamp, he was past the point of being able to argue with it.




            The ice fall was shadowy and blue in the light of his headlamp, and it was not silent. There were no human voices. No human within sight – the Sherpa party was a long way ahead now. But the ice groaned softly beneath him. Creaked and rumbled as the living glacier made its glacially slow movement and inch by inch through the day the ice serracs made their slow progress towards rearing higher or toppling and falling. It was a world of blue and white up here. The grey stone rubble of base camp was left behind. The sharp grey pinnacles of rock rose up out of the snow beside and above him where the mountain itself stood, but there was not one rock or pebble inside the massive popcorn machine of ice he was navigating. Nothing but white ice and snow leading steeply up ahead of him in a high bank, the beginning of 3000 vertical feet to climb.

His crampons crunched softly as he walked the first, increasingly steep paths between the smaller boulders, an eye to the sharp drops and hollows that were deep black against the blue white of the snow on either side of the path. The path itself led sharply around corners, squeezed between narrow gaps, wound over bottomless crevasses where you had to step half a foot or more of empty air to cross, always moving sharply uphill. A kind of insane adventure playground of paths and tunnels, slopes and drops. The fixed line came into view as it began to get seriously steep, the ‘safety rope’ that ran the length of much of the climb through the ice fall, and the Sherpa ice doctors would set fixed lines much of the way through the entire climb up the mountain. If you were clipped on and lost your footing or fell, the line at least prevented you immediately disappearing into a crevasse or 500 feet down a sheet face of ice without time to do anything about it.

There was a crazy moment of looking at the line and wondering if he was going to use it. Then some grain of sense kicked in and Tom clipped his carabiner onto the line, attaching his harness before he moved on, beginning to settle to the steady, familiar and deeply comforting burn in his chest and legs of hard physical work and the peace of being wholly, entirely alone. It was otherworldly in the dark. Moonless, but not pitch black by any means. In the very far distance once, he heard a deep, long rumble as on some far off foothill an avalanche fell. The first real challenge came in a short and almost vertical wall of ice, the side of a serrac with the fixed line running up it, and it was good to dig in with ice axe and crampons and fight it, mount and defeat it in a few strong, purposeful moves that brought him to the top, and to the first of the ladders across a yawning crevasse. Ropes ran on either side of the ladders to hold – loose ropes, although they were fixed in with ice screws – but at least they gave the impression of you holding onto something. In the dark the crevasse was nothing but black. Just a deep well of shadows, like something out of the book of revelations.

The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth…

The ladder creaked and clinked beneath his crampons as he walked it, making a slow and steady pace across it with his feet placed carefully. Vertical ladders were placed against the side of upright walls of ice; over one spot three long ladders, lashed together end to end to cover one of the widest of the crevasses, bent and bowed as Tom walked over them. One trial after another as the path wound up and up through this river of fractured leviathans, rolling forever in slow motion down Everest’s side.

He lost all track of time and gladly let it go. There was nothing in the world but the silence, the space, the sense of time having slowed down and his mind focused to a point as his body adapted and took on each test the mountain sent him. Challenge accepted. Overcome. Onto the next. Concrete and manageable. He was walking with the aid of his ice axe up a very long, winding and steep bank that was costing him all the breath he had in the thinning air when he first saw the glimmer of light flash across the ice below and glanced back. The lone figure was moving rapidly and efficiently some way down the ice fall behind him. In the dark, the colour of his suit was indistinguishable from the shadows but Tom knew the movements well enough to not need any other information and it was like a bucket of cold water dashed over him. To his shame, the first thought that lanced through his mind was Jake, how bloody dare you! Have you any idea how dangerous this is?

The outrage curdled with shame and confusion, and the knowledge that the burning shake in his legs and his lungs was still horribly satisfying. He’d done this a few times. Slipped away alone to quietly do something slightly… extreme. Swimming the harbour wall at Dover was the one that came first to mind. Climbing the waterfall at the ranch was another. He waited, guiltily wanting to climb back down to spot the climber who was swiftly making progress towards him, hating seeing him move without someone near to handle a rope if need be, except he was fairly sure that was not going to help. It took perhaps fifteen minutes for Jake to reach him, a fifteen minutes in which Tom got increasingly cold, since standing still was not a great idea. It was approaching four am when Jake came up the slope and glanced at his watch, clicking off the timer with all the satisfaction they normally would have felt together for completing a climb within a decent time window.

“Not bad. How much of a start did you have?”

There were moments when Tom had to really fight the urge to hit him. Jake paid no attention to his clenched fists and put a hand on his shoulder, turning him towards the rope in a calm gesture to go on. 

Climbing with Jake at his back raised a storm of very mixed emotions that was a long way from the icy detachment of the last few hours. Tom led the hard climb up the now smooth, long and steep bank of ice until they saw the red flag fluttering on a thin post marking the spot, and the flat plateau beyond it with a few new tents already set up and dotted around in small groups near a few ruins and rags of tents from previous seasons. Jake walked ahead of him to stand with his hands on his hips, catching his breath while he surveyed the area, then indicated a likely patch on what looked like fairly level ground.

“There?”

He was carrying a pack. Tom watched him swing it down and open it and was unsurprised by the tent and equipment inside. It was an hour’s hard work between the two of them in the dark to hack out a platform as flat as possible in the ice, and in the thin air Jake was coughing again and they were both out of breath by the time they had the tent pitched. The thermapad was high quality stuff, they’d tested it thoroughly up here in the autumn, and it lined the floor of the tent to stop the ice chill striking up through it. Tom leaned through the flap to unroll the down sleeping bag and spread it flat. Jake shed his crampons and outer boots to avoid puncturing the pad, crawled inside and unzipped his jacket, and from deeper down the back pack pulled out a small gas canister, a small titanium burner and a tin. Tom took the tin, going silently to fill it with clean snow. It wasn’t always easy getting a burner to light up here but Jake had managed it by the time he got back, Jake put the snow to melt over the burner and pulled out his water bottle from deep inside his clothes, unscrewing the lid to take a look.

“Frozen. How’s yours?”

Frozen solid too. Tom shed his boots more slowly and crawled into the tent, moving to sit on the far end of the sleeping bag, unsure of what to say or what to do now the work had stopped. Had he climbed all the way to this point alone – he had the fitness, the strength and the reserves to make the climb back to base camp, not exactly easily but without much difficulty. But without bringing food, water, making any preparations to shelter and hole up here if the weather had turned during the climb, he’d taken a more than stupid risk.

Jake, sitting melting snow over the burner, put out a hand without looking, snagged him by the collar and dragged him bodily across the distance, putting an arm around him and tugging him close enough to kiss his cold face and then his mouth just as he normally would. He had to be frustrated. He had to be. Any normal Top would either at this moment be sustaining an icy silence, issuing grim orders to face the nearest corner, or embarking on a lecture guaranteed to blast your ears off. Any normal man would be either sulking, shouting or be intimidated by the grimness and silence Tom knew he was capable of intimidating most men with. Not calmly melting ice and cuddling as if they had planned to get up in the middle of the night and make a completely unscheduled climb. But that was Jake. In a way it felt like being cheated of something he’d worked hard to earn. And yet Tom was aware his hands were shaking, his stomach was churning and he felt cold to the bone, and it had nothing whatever to do with the ice beneath the tent.

It seemed to take hours to melt the snow over the thin flame. Jake made hot chocolate from the sachets he pulled from his back pack, along with a pack of processed cheese, a pot of peanut butter and crackers and a handful of chocolate bars, scooped a large amount of peanut butter onto a cracker and took a healthy bite from it and put the rest into Tom’s hand. He hadn’t realised until he tasted it how cold he was. They drank the hot chocolate between them directly from the tin in the same silence, far too comfortable a silence. What the hell did you say? Sorry? What did that mean anyway? It was too petty a word, too easy and entirely pointless and it was insulting to Jake to even try.

It was still dark when they finished eating and the burner had warmed the tent. Jake put the burner out, zipped the tent fully closed and shed his down pants and jacket, pulling Tom over to strip him of the same, and he scooped them both into the sleeping bag, zipping it up around them with Tom on his chest. He held on pretty firmly. With his back against the zipped seam which made it very clear there was no chance of moving or getting out without his cooperation and Tom didn’t blame him.




                   They left the tent standing and the sleeping bag and burner zipped inside when they headed back down to base camp shortly after seven am. It was the beginnings of establishing the shelter and base at this camp that they would establish at every camp eventually. A safe shelter, refuge and resources at every stage on the mountain. They’d had only a couple of hours rest, the window for safety in the ice fall was mostly taken as between three am and noon, and it had been past five when they settled. It took less time to descend than it had to climb; it would become faster each time they passed through it now as they gained familiarity with it and began to recognise the landmarks and as their acclimatisation improved. It was not long after ten when they walked back into base camp in bright sunshine, and Jake led the way directly to their tent, stripping off his wool hat and sunglasses, laying his gear down in the shelter to the side of it and crouching to unzip the tent and grab the two rucksacks there. They were packed. Well filled. Tom noted that with a bolt of alarm that grew as Jake zipped the tent back up, slung one rucksack over his shoulder, jigging on the balls of his feet to get it balanced before he pulled it up over his other shoulder and clipped the harness.

Tom stood at bay where he was, glaring at him with all the means he had to express What exactly the bloody hell do you think you’re doing without verbalising anything that would entertain the plenty of people around them. Jake just swung the second rucksack over his shoulder, turned and started walking with the sun glinting off his fair hair. Directly out of camp without a word to anybody, away from the tents towards the Khumbu trail. Carrying Tom’s pack with him. He knew Tom would follow. Eventually. Jake would be fine with it if that was in a minute or two or an hour or two. Even a few hours. He’d just go, secure in the knowledge that sooner or later Tom would join him. Eventually Tom swore and went after him. 

There were clients. There were people here dependent and damn useless, they both knew it, and he was walking away. Just walking away. What was worse, Tom knew if Jake had decided they were leaving, there would be no changing his mind. It took him some minutes to catch up and when he did, Tom wrenched at the second pack to get it away from him. It was bad enough he’d pushed Jake to this without forcing him to exhaust himself too with the double weight. Jake let him take it, Tom swung it up and buckled it on and too angry to speak, overtook him and kept on walking.



  

The bareness of the landscape below base camp made it like walking on the moon. There was nothing. Nothing but grey rock as far as the eye could see, just shale and dust although they were still walking down the same glacier they had ascended during the night. Wherever you looked was barren and grey rocky desert. Within twenty minutes base camp was long out of sight. Here and there the landscape was fractured, ruptured as the kilometre wide glacier moved, forcing up new and bare sections of white ice, not yet exposed long enough to be coated in grey dust. They’d crossed deserts in Egypt; Tom had seen this kind of vast bareness before but somehow the sun-baked open expanses of rock and rough sand were more hospitable than this was. This looked like the gateway to Tartarus.

That was probably the most unhelpful thought he’d had yet and he’d had plenty in the last few days. Even after years of experience, there were still times Tom found he’d fallen into the trap of seriously believing he won’t know. He was stalking ahead of Jake which he had absolutely no right to do. Brat in disgrace. Brat in total disgrace, he had no business leading anything. He was pushing their pace too, pushing it hard and he knew Jake was letting him. It was something of a grim satisfaction to know how much faster they could move now, days into their acclimation, than they could those days ago when they first walked up here. They were fitter, harder, the oxygen processing more effectively, the proof that their time up here had achieved something.

And I dragged him up and down to Camp One this morning, the highest he’s gone yet. He should be resting, not hiking a whole lot more because I lost the plot.

Certify me a complete and utter bastard.

They burned through the tiny village of Gorak Shep and on down the path through the bare, cold desert until the first tin roofs of Lobuche came into view, and still Jake didn’t call a halt as Tom expected. He was getting seriously alarmed by mid afternoon when they were on the trail that led down to Dingboche and the landscape gradually began to come to life again. Juniper bushes began to appear in amongst the bare rocks down here where the oxygen levels were thicker, plateaus and brush began to take the place of desert, walls and the occasional Sherpa farm, the first reminders of the rich valley rainforest that lay below. It was there that finally Jake took his arm and turned him off the path. 

They went high. They always went high. Just half a kilometre ago there would have been nowhere they could have gone in the desert for miles without still being in plain view of any passing tourist or climber, and there were a lot of them on the trail today, looking rather enviously at their speed as they passed. Now there was cover. Bushes. Green. They’d come down off the desert shelf and were emerging into the valley where the land around them was gradually softening and becoming more rolling, the views wider and gentler and the colours softening into greens and golds and browns instead of stark, dead grey. They climbed sharply up the steep mountainside from the path and a good half mile above the trail and then away from it, into the wilderness and behind cover of the roll of the hills and the thick juniper bushes where they were completely hidden from the trail now far below and a long way off, or anyone else in this lonely valley, Jake shrugged off his pack. They’d long since shed their gloves and down jackets in the growing heat of the day, Jake sat down on the scrubby earth, unzipped his fleece and leaned back on his elbows to survey the open rolling vista of misty green and brown hillsides beneath the white angles of the mountains in the distance.

There was something about seeing green again. It was a moment before Tom realised he was standing gawping at it like his brains had leaked out of his boots. Then he unclipped his harness, dropped his pack and somewhat hesitantly sat down beside Jake. The oxygen down here felt deliciously thick. A faint headache he’d got so used to he’d stopped noticing it had faded away. It was warm here under the sun to the point of being hot too.

They sat there for a few moments in silence, just breathing the richer air. Then Jake leaned over, took his arm in a gentle grasp and brought him to his feet. Without thinking, Tom came around to stand in front of him and his stomach lurched hard as Jake far too calmly found the elasticated waist of his down pants, released the cord and pulled them straight down. His underwear went part and parcel with them, abruptly he was bare from waist to knees and before he had time to take that in, Jake took his arm again, drew him in one mild pull far enough down to reach his waist and turned him directly across his knee, laying him there without effort and in an all too well practiced position. His one arm rested across the small of Tom’s back. Stomach twisting, palms starting to sweat, Tom felt Jake’s palm rub briefly and far too kindly across his now extremely bare and upturned butt, and then Jake’s hand lifted and swatted firmly and directly across one cheek.

It wasn’t possible to hide the slight jerk of reaction at the smart. Laying across his lap with a very intimate view of scrubby earth, Tom pulled himself hurriedly up on his elbows which was what Jake expected, and which meant he was paying full attention to what was going on rather than detaching himself from it. It also had the unfortunate effect of curving his spine and hips which raised his backside slightly higher over Jake’s knee and Jake simply went on unhurriedly and firmly spanking first one cheek and then the other in a steady rhythm, working inch by inch from the top of his thighs up to the fullest part of his butt and then down again in a very uncomfortably thorough way. He was good at this. Tom suspected Jake could have dished out one hell of a spanking if he’d wanted to; he had been stupid enough and desperate enough to be in this position with several men in his earlier life long before he met Jake, a couple of whom had had a close relationship with black leather and a few of whom applied their palm or whatever implement they were using with as much strength as possible and very little sensitivity or timing.  He’d had a reputation with them as a dead-end kid. Nothing got a flinch or a sound or any kind of acknowledgement, it must have been rather like operating on a dead fish, and he’d walked away from whatever they could dish out with his backside purple and his interest as freeze dried as his emotions. Some of them had been decent and well intentioned men. A few had been men he’d respected. Some had been tedious idiots. One had stopped after a few minutes and told him gently and far too kindly to put his clothes on and come and have a cup of tea and talk. That had been the one Tom had escaped from the fastest and remembered with the most discomfort.

Jake was taller than any of them, he had solid muscle in his shoulders and arms from nonstop hard physical activity, Tom was very well aware of the power he could exert if he chose to. But he didn’t. And yet he was far too good at Tom. Wincing and twitching in spite of himself as his butt was now stinging all over and the swats were being methodically applied to already well swatted ground, Tom twisted his arms tighter together to ensure he did nothing so contemptible as failing to keep them out of the way and resisted the urge to grab hold of scrubby grass which was just pathetic, and reminded himself that this stung, and that was all. Hotly, yes; everywhere, yes; uncomfortably, very definitely, but … not nearly enough to affect his ability to breathe or to think perfectly clearly, or to be anything but wholly present in every damn conceivable way. Tom found himself grabbing onto the grass anyway and his legs starting to independently flex and straighten as Jake began to re-cover his ground for the fourth time around, feeling his throat tighten and the words burst out in a tone he hated, harsh and bitterly sarcastic.

“I don’t sleep. You know that. So don’t forget to point out that I should get a grip, acquire some self discipline and try because that’s what normal people do when they’ve got half a brain. And yes of course it was a bloody stupid thing to do, it was deranged, and did you know I actually considered not using the fixed line? That ought to be grounds for divorce. And I hated seeing you there alone, I could have thumped you for doing something so stupidly dangerous as being there alone and that makes me every kind of bloody hypocrite. If you wanted to climb that damn mountain you should have found someone sane to do it with. You know I can always be relied on to screw it up and find some way of taking up all your time. That’s what I do, isn’t it?”

Jake didn’t point anything out. But he paused for a moment and Tom felt him reach over and unzip a pocket of his rucksack and couldn’t help glancing back in sheer apprehension. It was the small, rounded maple wood paddle that Jake took out, worn and weathered probably more from five years of rough travel than from its regular contact with Tom’s backside, and Tom couldn’t help the pathetically whiny groan that slipped out at the sight of it because he’d done it now.

Jake didn’t use that paddle any harder than his hand, but the first brisk swat of it on his backside reminded Tom sharply that the damn thing stung. It stung and his butt was rapidly becoming so tender that a firm smack anywhere at all with that thin paddle made his hips jerk and shift and his eyes were beginning to sting and dampen, and he was struggling not to hold his breath and hoping this was the end, they had to be nearly at the end. And still Jake didn’t stop. The hand resting on his hip moved and slid up to his shoulders and rubbed, a gentle, comprehending and deeply sympathetic touch which made Tom’s eyes start to burn painfully and his breath catch for the first time, but Jake just went on patiently applying that paddle on its steady circuit. Another round and Tom was horribly and shamefully near to throwing a hand back to rub or distract him or break his rhythm or something in desperation, because this was just going on. And on. And on. It was moving into the territory of one of the longest spankings in their history, and that was an appalling and overwhelming realisation…  worse still because it was fully justified in being.

He wasn’t a stranger to tears alone with Jake in events like these – most often silently and after it ended. However tears were running of their own accord and he was gulping wetly and no longer able to keep still when Jake finally laid the paddle down. And then Jake simply went back to using his hand. His palm was gentler than the paddle, and somehow that made it even worse. It was that which finally and forcibly yanked free the knot in his chest and throat, he was a mess, a limp and blubbering mess by the time Jake turned him around on his lap and seated him directly on the ground on his now blazing butt with his back against his chest, wrapping both arms gently around him. Fenced in with Jake’s knees on either side and Jake’s shaggy face nuzzling at the back of his neck, unable to do anything dignified like retire to a safe distance or a corner or another continent, Tom folded his arms tightly over the top of Jake’s, dropped his head on them to at least conceal some of the mess and continued his fall apart without being able to stop. Jake was the only man who had ever made him feel small enough to be held like this; something easily managed and containable instead of gangly, awkward and unsurmountable.

Their record for sitting like this was about four hours; Tom had timed him. It had been on a hill above a Peruvian city that had gone undisturbed by man for five hundred years.  Jake never gave a damn about time, he just casually expected it to work around him.

“I am sorry,” Tom began incoherently at some point into their arms and Jake nudged his head up and kissed what he could reach of his face. It was a possessive, deeply reassuring kiss and Tom twisted around and got to his knees to get his arms around Jake’s neck. Jake hugged him back, strongly. The fact he hadn’t actually yet done anything about Tom’s down trousers still being at half-mast as he usually would have done was not altogether reassuring. Particularly as Jake’s hand slid down his back and rubbed the sorest spots gently which drew Tom’s attention right back to them.

“How tired are you?”

Jake. You can’t do that. I just abandoned you in the middle of the damn night and climbed the bloody ice fall alone, I couldn’t have done anything more stupid if I’d bloody tried.”

“Plenty of climbers have done the ice fall alone.” Jake pointed out mildly. Tom tipped his head against Jake’s shoulder in frustration, near to laughing with his face still wet with tears.

“If you did it I’d kill you.”

“I know.”

Jake turned his head to kiss him, then leaned over to scoop a sleeping bag out of his rucksack and unroll it one handed, and he shifted Tom across to it with one arm, putting him flat without effort and in a way that made it very clear who was master of this conversation. Tom rolled onto his side to get his weight off his flaming butt, not quite sure whether or not adjusting his clothes was something he’d get away with. Although the cold breeze right now was quite welcome. No lectures, and there wouldn’t be. No demands of promises, no expectation of apologies; that was Jake all over. Who got without comment that it was something Tom would never do in his sane mind, and the length of that tanning had nothing whatever to do with severity of punishment or balancing any kind of book.

Somewhere between too emotionally wrung out to feel much except a deep, exhausted sense of calm and painfully intense emotion for the man currently collecting enough dead and broken juniper branches and dry scrub, Tom watched him find a safe patch of sheltered rock and start a fire. Unpacking one of the rucksacks, Jake dumped oil in a skillet and cut a lot of potato into it, pushed that around long enough for it to start to brown, then sat comfortably down beside it and threw in a couple of handfuls of vegetables he must have taken from the mess tent. He was as perfectly at home here as he was in any landscape, he always looked a direct part of it. It took a long time to say it, even knowing how much Jake was owed it, and Tom said it very stiffly to be able to say it at all.

“….I don’t do religious…. Services. Not well.”

Jake nodded slowly, processing as he continued to push around the browning potatoes. It meant he was listening closely. He knew this stuff. About the cathedral, the robes and the pageantry and the choir processions, the pilgrims’ hollowed out step that Tom remembered acutely with his hands, a touch memory formed so long ago that he still remembered what it was like to sit within that hollow and be cupped completely by it. With the sound of plain song coming from the nave beyond the stone pillars. It took something of a shudder to shake the image off, but the sharp smart of his backside and Jake was dominating everything at the moment and in this wrung out calm it was hard to get worked up about anything much.

“Not doing them isn’t going to present much of a problem.” Jake said reflectively. Tom shook his head, watching Jake break eggs into the pan and add a whole lot of cheese.

“This time it would have done. It’s not our mountain to barge up on.”

Their last climb in the Autumn had been independent and without any Sherpa support or involvement, and therefore no puja had taken place. This was their first direct involvement with the ceremony Tom had been aware of at a distance and watched other expeditions participate in; the direct experience had been very different.

Jake gave the skillet a firm shake and another scrub around with the spoon, then brought the skillet across and sprawled on the ground beside Tom, putting it down between them. Tom took the spoon with less keenness than the acceptance of a hell of a lot of calories lost in the last 12 hours and a duty to do something about it. The heavy, starchy, bland food the Americans appeared to thrive on – Jake had actually managed to produce pizza imported in from somewhere which had gone down a bomb in the mess tent- was anything but tempting. His first cautious taste made his eyes widen and his mouth drop open involuntarily in surprise. He took another, larger scoop and this time closed his eyes, tipping his head back in bliss. It was hot. Damned ridiculously, palate-searingly spicy, the kind of fabulous burn-your-throat-out heat that reminded you why humans ever bothered eating in the first place.

“Oh God, that’s fantastic.”

“The cook had handfuls of them. The Sherpa guys don’t like what we and the clients are eating so he’s been cooking separately for them. He said this is locally grown, they put it in most things.” Jake put a hand over Tom’s and steered the spoon in his own direction, talking with his mouth full. “Coriander and round chilli.” 

He loved spice too, another crazed soul addicted to the sensation of his throat catching fire. Unable to help himself, Tom butted his head roughly against Jake’s shoulder, which didn’t shift him an inch, and leaned hard against him while they ate, sharing both the skillet and the spoon. When they were done, Jake tossed the empty skillet out of reach and lay back on the sleeping bag, settling his shoulders into it with a grunt of comfort and pulling Tom down into his arms. He did it a whole lot too strongly for arguing to be even a possibility and without much choice in the matter, Tom let go the last of the tension and turned his head into Jake’s shoulder, draped over his chest and one leg. Jake’s hand slid slowly down his back and rubbed his still bare backside, both soothing and reminding of its heat and soreness. He was making one heck of a point; that wasn’t lost on Tom either. It was subduing in a strange sort of way that wasn’t at all depressed.

“What are we going to do about the ice fall?” Tom said eventually, mumbled enough into his shoulder that he had at least the hope that Jake wouldn’t hear it. Jake didn’t answer. His hand was still trailing over Tom’s back, as if he was cataloguing bone by bone. Tom sighed and did his best to find Jake’s ribs with his elbow.

“You heard me; stop acting innocent. What the hell are we going to do, Jacob? We can’t take them in there. You’ve seen them climb. Or try to. I won’t do it; it’s beyond irresponsible, it’s heading for grounds for manslaughter.”

“Ok, then let’s run a training trip to Lobuche, east peak.” Jake said comfortably.  “They can acclimatise while they do it, it gets them the extra altitude and it’s a good nursery slope for crampon experience and rope work.”

It was brilliance. So much so that it was a moment before Tom pulled himself together enough to reply. The east peak of Lobuche was a hiking peak; nothing worse than a steep walk. Total novices were regularly taken up there by commercial expeditions in the summer months in the Khumbu valley, and it wasn’t that unusual for a commercial expedition on Everest to take clients there for exactly the reasons Jake was suggesting: altitude experience and acclimatisation without having to make the high challenge and high risk climb multiple times through the ice fall, and safe nursery slopes for equipment practice and fitness training. Jake’s arm tightened around him, his voice was quiet against Tom’s hair.

“They’ll get the chance there of getting to the top of a mountain, a lot of good experience and a serious fitness test, not to mention trying out snow camping. Anyone who makes the distance and handles it well, and then passes the equipment and fitness course when they get back, is going to be a lot better trained to cope with the ice fall.”

And rationally very few of them stood a real chance of getting to that point; anyone who did would have made serious progress and deserve serious consideration of trying a higher challenge.  It would work. And for those who failed – they would still have climbed a mountain.

Jake abruptly rolled over, turning Tom with him so that he put Tom directly down on his back on the sleeping bag and braced over the top of him, stooping to find his mouth in a way that blocked out any further coherent thought. Then he slid downwards, and Tom grabbed for him with both hands, and after that things got confused and rough, and highly enthusiastic, and the rest of his clothes were lost in the scrum.


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015

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