Book 4 in the Falls Chance Ranch Series

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Everest - Chapter 8

8

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This chapter is dedicated to our dear friend Tom. Unfortunately just as we were posting last week’s installment, Thomas passed away surrounded by his family and messages of love from his many friends. He fought the good fight against cancer but couldn't battle the pneumonia that followed. His loved ones have said we could share this with you. Tom, whom many of you will know as one of the first members of the Falls Chance Discussion group, and who had been with us from the very start.

Tom was an exceptional person. He was one of those that would have been welcomed with open arms at the ranch, and would very much have belonged there. Tom was an abused child who was put out of his home the day he graduated high school because he was gay. Instead of becoming embittered by his treatment, he went on to forge his own way in life and eventually found love and acceptance and everything he deserved, including his beloved long term partner with whom he was very happy. He found his way to our group and became friends with all of us, and family with some. If you ever get a chance, please do go back into the message history of the yahoo group or the barn on the forum, and read through some of the posts he made. As well as the many heartfelt and loving posts he made, he also bratted well with ChrisD and added a lot of fun and enthusiasm to this group and a good deal of encouragement to us keep writing. Tom also stepped up and volunteered his services and his time to help set up this Forum when Neo nuked up a year ago, and continued to give his time and effort as a moderator. We will always be very grateful for that. Our community of now over a thousand people, four novels and multiple novellas, would not be as it is today without Tom’s lively presence.

In honor of Tom and the strength of character he had to overcome his hard start in life and only be kind and grateful to everyone he met, we'd like to challenge everyone to do five nice things for others during the next week. It could be donating money to a favorite charity, helping a neighbor with yardwork, complimenting someone you don't usually notice....just something to pass along the love that we remember from Tom out to others. You don't need to tell us about it, but knowing you participated would be nice. Cancer could silence Tom's voice, but we are all of us from our places all over the world a part of the community Tom loved, and we can carry Tom's spirit forever among us.

And then....please treat yourself to a steak dinner and a piece of chocolate cake and think of Tom. Those are two conversations we'll always remember with a smile that Tom participated in.

Rest in peace, friend.

With our love, 

R&R

~ * ~




It was a long, cold and horrible night. Tom drifted around the outside of the tent as much as was possible in the wind, trying to find some respite in the darkness under the blast of the cold and flurries of stinging snow and the whipping of canvas in between his frequent, obsessive glances between the tent flaps at Jake. His heart was still thundering, and somewhere in the early hours he brought up the coffee, stooped and retching over frosted, grey shale, alone. The communications tent was dark and icily cold, the equipment froze in the small hours of the morning and there was no one to talk to and nothing to say anyway. In the medical tent Shem dozed curled in a deckchair under a blanket and Jake slept on beneath the oxygen mask. Staying at a distance meant at least he wasn’t disturbing them.


The other expedition compounds were stirring by 5.30am and it was getting light, Sherpas were starting to move around, kitting up, preparing breakfast and taking sleepy clients mugs of tea when Jake finally roused. Tom, standing in the half open flap of Shem’s tent stood long enough to hear his voice and know for absolute certain it was clear, and to hear Shem’s confirmation to Jake that his stats were back to normal, or as normal as any stats got around here; that he needed a couple of good rest days but he was fine, before he slipped away. A half way decent partner of course would have been there with him when he woke. Would be there with him now and being supportive, in fact would be unable to be anywhere else but with him, instead of having to remove himself as far as possible for fear of saying, doing or broadcasting things Jake really didn’t need to be burdened with this morning. But then it would come as no surprise to Jake; Tom had been letting him down in this way for years.


He knew Jake would look for him, and he would go on looking until he found him. And forcing Jake to walk any distance or exert himself this morning was cruel; it was appallingly unfair. And yet the urge to get as far away as possible was still dominant. Strident. Too harsh to be ignored. Tom fought it down and somehow compromised with burying himself in the communications tent, trying to focus on the still mostly frozen equipment there. He heard the familiar boots on the shale outside, heard every step Jake made behind him and Jake’s hands rested on his shoulders, grasping them gently as Jake looked over his head.


“Until the sun’s been on it another hour, the only thing you could usefully do with that laptop is stick it in a gin and tonic.”


Tom shrugged his shoulders away from his hands without looking up.


“How do you feel?”


It didn’t get Jake’s hands successfully off him.


“Knackered, but fine. Shem said if we’d stayed up there last night I might well have moved on to a good case of altitude sickness but we came down early enough.”


I could kill the bloody Australian team.


It was as unreasonable a thought as it was an unkind one. That team would be devastated this morning.


“I’ve got you to thank for that.” Jake said more gently behind him. “It must have been a horrible night for you.” Argh. Tom hunched his shoulders hard enough this time to shake Jake’s hands off, almost physically shuddering at the wetness of that statement.

“Oh for God’s sake I’m a bloody grown up, I’m quite capable of understanding you didn’t do it on purpose. I am not some bloody bunny you need to pander to. Go and sleep, you need it.”


‘Go and sleep’. To rhyme with ‘piss off’.


He was shocked by the arm that closed swiftly around his chest and hoisted him physically to his feet, and Tom lurched against that arm with all his strength as he realised what Jake was about to do. There was a confused, silent, harsh couple of seconds, then Jake got him turned around so Tom’s face was against his shoulder, wrapped that arm so tightly around him that it was impossible to move and scooped him up off the ground as if he weighed nothing at all.


It caused an immediate, devastating kind of implosion in Tom, a rush of so much ripped free in one go that was so unbearable that he wasn’t aware of anything for a moment except clinging to Jake so hard it hurt, and of Jake carrying him, his unhurried pace. And then that he sat down somewhere with his rough cheek against Tom’s equally rough face, his voice very quiet.


“I know. I know. It was a hell of a night, it was horrible, I’m sorry.”


From anyone but him it would have been utterly impossible to take. If anyone else but him had dared to try it, Tom would have knotted their legs behind their head. But if Tom was honest… Jake made it possible to take things from him that Tom knew he never would have been able to tolerate if he had to make the decision. Jake didn’t necessarily give him the option. And in Jake’s arms there was never a way out of feeling like this and of it all tearing free and discharging in one ugly go whether he was ready or not, because Jake got it. He heard everything. Not for the first time since he met Jake, shaking all over as his self control disintegrated, Tom found himself turning his jaw against Jake’s shoulder, unable to resist the impulse to bite, hard, to sink his teeth into what was, thank God, mostly fleece jacket but at least some of beneath that was Jake, skin and muscle and solid bone. It wasn’t through any desire to hurt. He never did understand it, although Jake didn’t move or react. He just went on holding Tom in that terribly safe prison, rocking slightly and slowly in the way no man ought to know how to do and which dragged up lines in Tom’s mind from a poem he hadn’t read in years.


Abashed the devil stood and felt how awful goodness is…


“That really sucked.” Jake said in his ear.


Tom’s jaw slowly relaxed, he felt the tension shudder out of him and instead leaned his forehead hard against Jake’s chest.


“Shut. Up.”


“No.” Jake turned his head far enough to kiss what he could reach of Tom’s face. A brief brush of his lips and the heat of his breath and the unique taste and scent of him that was his alone, that only someone truly pathetic would have found as comforting as Tom did to the very core of his bones. “She is going to do this. She is going to push every single button we’ve got, there isn’t going to be any mercy.”


“So toughen up.”


“No. This is not about being hard enough.” Jake let him go and grabbed his face between both his hands. They were large enough to cradle Tom’s entire jaw, expert at doing it and very capable, and after hours where he’d glimpsed a future of never feeling Jake do this again, or seeing Jake’s ridiculously turquoise blue eyes look at him like this again, it was awful to feel and it made him shake harder. Jake didn’t let him twist away, holding Tom’s face very gently a bare few inches from his.


“No one ever said ‘my strength is as of the strength of ten because I’m bloody harder than you are’.”


“If you’re looking for a pure heart you’ve got the wrong bastard following you around.” Tom said bitterly. Jake grinned, snatching another kiss that nipped softly at Tom’s lower lip.


“You’re kidding yourself. She isn’t going to make this easy for us, love. She’s going to set us the trials and they are going to be bitches to handle because that’s the whole point. That’s what we came here for. It’s not just whether we’re fit enough or we’ve got the tents in the right place and the weather holds, otherwise you’d be fine with taking any client who’s basically fit straight up there with us. You’re not because you know this. You don’t use a good time on a running machine as your qualification for hunting the grail. This is the stripping down process and we know it happens.”


The preparation. Not straight forwardly physical. Not just about mental discipline. There were other parts of you that had to prepare too, parts you couldn’t shut off and leave comfortably out of it, no no-go areas, and right now Tom felt wretchedly ill prepared. Jake let him go, leaning his forehead against Tom’s, his breath warm against Tom’s face in the chill of the tent.


“It sucked. And we handled it. And now we have to deal with it so if it happens again we’re better equipped.”


Whenever they struggled with a physical challenge they’d consider it together. Break it down, analyse it. Plan to attack it, to work through it and break the barriers. Physical barriers were infinitely preferable.


I thought you were going to die.


It was impossible to explain to him. The sight of him, all his golden physical beauty, all his strength, his grace, his confidence… Broken, shaking and uncoordinated like a puppet on snapped strings, his always easy, beautiful voice slurred. It had hurt.


My golden boy.


It was a pathetic, private thought, hastily swallowed.


“Now I have warned thee of thy vain glory and of thy pride,” Tom said through his teeth to get the quote out at all. It was from a book he’d loved since he was nine, although it had taken him years to fully understand the pain and the chagrin of Lancelot, the greatest knight, the most skilled, the strongest of them all, that with all his athletic prowess and courage, he still did not have the quality required to find the Sangreal. Jake shook his head slightly against Tom’s.


“No. Not pride.”


Ashamed of himself but considerably calmer, Tom folded his arms around Jake’s neck and hugged him with effort to put some serious comfort into it. Jake wasn’t showing it, but he had to be at least as tired, aching and sore as Tom was this morning, probably a lot worse, and he didn’t need drama, he needed a competent partner capable of meeting his needs and taking care of him.


“Shem said you were supposed to rest. Let’s eat and crash out, at least it’s quiet around here.”


“What happened to your face?” Jake caught him before he could get up, tipping Tom’s face up again to look.


“Slipped against a ladder last night.”


He saw what crossed Jake’s face. Only briefly, but it was there, and it was present in the softness of his voice, the care in his fingers near the bruise, and stupidly it helped. That he noticed and cared and looked like that about some stupid bruise really helped, Tom felt a rush of fury at himself for how much.


“Did you hurt anything else?”


“No, it’s fine, I-” Tom tried unsuccessfully to evade Jake’s hands unzipping his fleece, removing the multiple layers with far too much proficiency, turning his body in his hands and immediately finding the matching bruises on his shoulder and disappearing down his hip under his jeans. “It’s just a few bruises, that’s all.”


Jake ran his fingers very gently over the one on his hip and turned him back to even more lightly kiss the discoloured patch by his jaw, his lips feathering over the mark, and he snagged the laptop with one hand before he headed for their tent, keeping Tom very definitely in the other.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


When we are hiding a deeper fault, we tend to confess a lesser sin all the more vigorously…


Tom’s father had approved of the man who had said those words; they’d formed the basis of more than one sermon Tom had heard him give back in the dark ages.


Laying beside Jake, who had read for about two minutes before he fell asleep once he’d seen them both undress and get into the warmth of their sleeping bags - alone, Tom wanted Jake to rest and knew his own difficulty in keeping still – Tom watched the prayer flags fluttering from the stupa. The puja had been the first such ceremony he had participated in for years, it was the stuff of years ago when it had been a part of everything, a natural part of daily life. Within the safety of the cathedral close, the walled and gated ancient and medieval walls and the grace and favour houses that had once been a part of the abbey, on the green lawn in the middle of the close with its statues, beneath the eyes of the saints and the carvings on the wall of the cathedral itself, he had been free to play and wander as a small child, in the one part of the city that was entirely safe. The heavy cathedral doors, each one twice the height of a man, stood open at all times and the cool gloom inside was lit by the pools of coloured light that streamed down from the stained glass windows, by the candles in their huge stands high above his head, and the wide stone walkways between the great carved stone pillars and the chiseled tombs and the written tablets on the walls and the old, ragged flags of long ago regiments, led to the quiet little chapels where sometimes services were held, and sometimes they were wholly empty places to sit in and breathe the quiet and the stillness of the stone. Past the racks of little candles with people’s prayers burning, up the wide stone steps with hollows worn away by feet and knees through centuries, deep enough for a little boy to sit in. To the cloisters, the square stone passage that ran around the hidden central garden with names carved into the stone flags of who lay beneath them, to the narrow stone steps down into the vaulted stone ceilings of the crypt. It was a world of bells, where the Hours were still marked as they had been in this building by the Benedictines a thousand years ago, where the lamps still burned on their heavy chains in the sacred places, where the same words were spoken at the altar, day and night.

In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti


“You read Latin.” Jake had said somewhere in Florence as they passed a tomb where Jake had tried to decipher the inscription and Tom had unthinkingly translated it aloud for him. In the dark that night on a quiet and rickety train bound for Naples, Tom had made a clumsy, inarticulate attempt to explain to him both the Latin and his need to escape Florence which was far too dangerously reminiscent a world of ancient stone, bells and statues. Jake had never once asked him to explain himself or where he came from; the swapping of history so normal to new lovers hadn’t been something he’d needed. He’d simply taken Tom as he was, wholly on trust, and for that trust Tom tried to tell him a little of what he could. And while he would have answered any questions Jake made of him, he was grateful too beyond words that Jake chose not to ask him for more. Few men were that generous.


It’s the wrong sin.


Once he had known them all.


Not consciously; simply absorbed from the air around him where the words were as constant as the candles and the images on the walls and in the glass and flowed all day, every day. Samael, of mindfulness. Azrael, of stability. Ramiel, of trust. Uriel, of honesty. Michael


The words were far too simple to express the meaning carried within each name. As a child he had loved those names. 


He shook the thought off with an effort and tried the laptop again, desperate for some distraction. There were no further rants from Beau this morning – apparently she had accepted they were not abandoning Nepal for whatever she wanted to dig up. There was, to his rather flooding gladness, a mail from Dale. Short, to the point, in Dale’s extremely courteous tones, but his voice helped and it was audible even in the brief few lines.


To: LameducksRus@Mountaineagles.com
From: AdenD@horizon.com
Subject: Here is the news in English
  Tom:

  My apologies for the delay in replying to your mail. I could at this point offer a number of excuses, but to be frank it’s been a rather crowded few days. You and Jake may like to know that Gerry is here. He took a plane out of Seattle one night when things all got a bit much, and Luath and Flynn met him at the Texas airport. He, Ash and Luath are currently staying with us. Gerry has some minor chronic gallstone concerns for which Ash explained they have booked surgery shortly in Seattle. We’re assured this is routine minor surgery, minimally invasive, and should result in Gerry being far more comfortable.

  Sincerely

  D


Jake would want to know this. He was deeply attached to the men on that ranch of all ages, the letters he had regularly from Paul, from others in the group, brought him domestic news from homes they’d never visited, about friends and relatives they would never know, and yet Jake read them and replied to them wherever they happened to be, and he knew all about whose dog was limping and whose maiden aunt wasn’t on speaking terms with who. And he was very fond of Gerry. Tom glanced over at him, glanced at his watch to check the time in Wyoming and opened a new mail to reply, not disturbing him yet. He was ashamed enough that Jake’s first minutes of consciousness after his physical ordeal had been spent yet again sorting him out. He was also more than slightly ashamed of what had burst out of him to Shem in the middle of the night. Thankfully she was sleeping in this morning too, she’d been up most of the night with them, he hadn’t seen her and she’d confided in him as much as he had her – but it was information he would never ordinarily have spoken and in the cold light of day he wished he hadn’t.


For some reason it was much easier to type and think of the dark haired, quiet Englishman who would read this, who was reserved to the point of shyness and who looked at Flynn in a way that Tom entirely understood, because he saw Dale feel it too. Something sharp and unique and painfully… right. There were things he had said to Dale on the ranch in the summer that he had never shared with any other brat, or believed that they might be understood and matter to the other man in the same way they mattered to Jake and him. For some reason he didn’t understand he found himself speaking out again, the words coming out onto the screen in a rush in the same way they’d burst out last night to Shem.


To: AdenD@horizon.com
From: LameducksRus@Mountaineagles.com
Subject: Re: Here is the news in English
 I was glad of your email and any news that didn’t involve ice. We’ve had a bloody nasty few days. We went up to camp two as planned, made good time, no problems and were settling into our tents when an Australian team radioed down from camp three to say one of their team had fallen, and above camp one if they say someone’s ‘fallen’ they mean the climber was last seen plunging down several hundred feet of ice face. The ice might as well be granite, if you’ve bounced down several hundred vertical feet of it at high speed you’re not likely to get up again. The guy hadn’t clipped in to the safety line, he was probably in early stage hypoxia as it was the first time he’d been that high and no one was near enough to see he was in trouble, he lost his balance and was gone. We went out to take a look around and Jake found him. I’ve seen quite a few human remains in various states in my time, but this poor bastard was smashed, and I hope he was dead long before he came to a stop. There was a quick debate by radio with the Australian team about what they wanted to do, it’s not easy getting a body down from anywhere above base camp and a lot of risk for everyone involved in trying. The agreement was we left him where he was for his team to make a decision. Most bodies here are interred by being lowered into the nearest deep crevasse, it’s the best you can do. On the other hand, I’ve seen a certain amount of people up here not wanting to go anywhere near someone dead or dying, it’s too immediate a reality to deal with.

  We went back down to camp two and started to settle in again, and then Jake started sounding slurred and had a bad headache, all the signs of cerebral oedema, which scared the living hell out of me. I was livid with the Australian team that after climbing all day to our own carefully planned limits we’d had to go out to spend more energy at more altitude, and get stressed and upset which raises the risk from mountain sickness. Totally irrational, the poor bastard didn’t mean to fall and there was nothing his team could have done. It’s a constant balancing act up here between what you can safely plan to do, taking into account your own limits, and what you can then give beyond those limits for someone else who unexpectedly needs help or gets into trouble, without you putting yourself and your own team in danger. It was dark by this point, Jake absolutely refused to let me short rope him, and it’s not easy to have a row at altitude where there’s hardly any bloody oxygen. It took us over four hours in bad weather to walk down to base camp to the team doctor, who stuffed him full of fluids and painkillers and she and I sat most of the rest of the night in her tent watching Jake sleep until we were both convinced we didn’t need to descend any lower. I swear, we talked about this for weeks before we came out here, and it’s not like we haven’t been used to doing high chance things together for years, but up here I’m wary all the time for myself and you’d have to be insane not to be, but I’m even more scared for Jake while I’m watching him take all the same calculated risks I’m taking and its 24 hours a day, constant, taking those risks and escalating them. I don’t want to quit, but I don’t do great under stress either, so all in all it’s a joy to hear that there are still normal people out there doing normal things, and that other people are having a lousy time as well as me.

 T


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Jake stirred, and Tom found himself swiftly hiding the mail and pulling up Dale’s instead, turning the screen towards him as he rolled over and opened his eyes. He looked better. Tom assessed him quickly, colour to eyes to breathing, and he looked himself again, or at least himself after several weeks of base camp. None of them looked particularly great around here.


“Hi.”


“There’s a mail from Dale. Gerry’s with them, he’s got gall bladder trouble.”


“What? Is he ok? How did he end up there?” Jake leaned up on one elbow to read, then crawled out of the sleeping bag and grabbed for his boots. “How on earth did he get past Ash and get on a plane? I’ll call Paul.”


“You only want in on the gossip.”


Jake grinned at him and headed for the communications tent and the satellite phone at his usual, easy and long legged pace.


“I’ve got to hear this one. Makes a change talking stroppy brats instead of ice.”


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


They spent two rest days knocking around in the quiet of their more or less abandoned compound. Reading, cooking for themselves, and in Tom’s case trying with great effort for Jake’s sake if not his, to calm the hell down.


He wasn’t usually this bad. He knew he reached boiling point fast, God knew it happened; but usually when it did, they moved on…. Or if he was honest, Jake diverted it probably before he really noticed it, and things simmered back down to normal. Here… it was constant, all the bloody time. Tom was painfully aware that Jake had invested several days in them getting him back together and the mountain had blown him apart again in less than 24 hours. It was an endless rollercoaster of the unexpected. And Jake was absolutely right; this was the way it was going to be.


As a runner, you studied your weaknesses. Your style. Your stride. Your stamina. You knew them, you faced them, you worked on them. He and Jake did it obsessively together, Tom knew Jake’s body as well as his own with the delight of loving someone who challenged you and pushed you to develop as an athlete and challenged you to push him the same way. This was the same. Climbing as far as they planned to, as high as they planned to go, did involve exactly what Jake called it: a stripping down process. You had to discipline yourself let go of everything else holding you back, analyse it; everything else that took your focus, your energy, until all that was left was meeting the challenge. For their clients what would pull their focus would be ordinary preoccupations like worrying about staying warm. Minding about eating foods they liked, or being physically comfortable, or getting enough rest. Showering. Being clean, having clean clothes. Coping for five minutes with the inside of their own head without piping music into their ears with their frigging iPods. The little things they couldn’t let go of. You had to care more about climbing the mountain than any of that, and if you didn’t eliminate your buttons, they were going to be pushed hour in and hour out and take up more headspace and energy than you had to spare. Tom didn’t care about much of any of that stuff on the best of days, and he knew damn well, it wasn’t going to clean clothes or iPod concerns that what got in his way.


Jake was right on top of him and had been ever since his night bolt up to camp one. Right on top of him, even by their standards, and that was very, very comforting; Tom wondered if Jake really knew how much or if he simply guessed and hoped. And at times Jake would suddenly without warning calmly do something ridiculous or outrageous – an incident with a tube of peanut butter was a particular example – that would first annoy him and then make him laugh, and they’d mess together around for a while and things would be better. And Tom would realise later that he’d slipped again into that too-quiet, dark space without realising it, but Jake had seen it. They read to each other a lot. Jake soaked himself in the cutting the heads off mackerel epic in the book box and read the best bits out to Tom, which with dissection between them of the hero’s character, main failings and need for a really good Top, made for some very entertaining hours and it was something they loved to do together. And Tom breathed. Slowly, deeply, making the thin oxygen work hard for him. And he consciously tried hard to work with Jake instead of against him in resting. And eating. And getting a bloody grip. Because he could do this, he was not going to be beaten by a head full of bloody nonsense and a body that wouldn’t unclench. Sleeping, if he was honest, had hit bloody nightmare point. Gone from difficult to nearly impossible, although as always when he hit this point Jake had him lay beside him for a good proportion of every day, and in the warmth of the sun and daylight which was often when it was easier to doze.


He didn’t see John in those two days. Shem seemed to keep an eye on him and Jake went to talk to him once or twice, but from his report John seemed perfectly happy and was content to hang out with the many other clients on other expeditions in neighbouring compounds and eat with them.


Somewhere on the second afternoon the Canadian expedition, which had a compound near to theirs, crowded around something for a while and chattered excitedly and then waved for help and Jake got up to see. Tom followed him, and it wasn’t too difficult to spot the outline of what was emerging from beneath the rock and ice of the glacier. The body part wasn’t identifiable but the coloured fabric of down suit was clear enough. The fabric might have been twenty years old. Moving to get out of Jake’s light and shifting a couple of boulders further out of his way, Tom crouched with him to look, the two of them more hardened to this from the archaeological expeditions and the ruined cities they’d spent years hanging around. It was a climber, or rather parts of a climber. The glacier moved and shifted and was comprised of slow leviathans of multi ton ice blocks frothing together like some giant slow motion ocean; a human body didn’t stay intact long inside that. It was probably someone who’d gone into a crevasse on the ice fall at some point and was now gradually emerging as the glacier made its way down the mountain. Quite possibly it was someone who’d been buried in a crevasse; lowering a body down into the ice was often the only means of burial further up the mountain if you were able to do much for them at all.


Jake waved to Shem, who was sitting in a deckchair outside her tent and reading, and she dug her hands into her pockets and trudged across the shale to join them, standing to take a rather wry look at the anomaly lying in the ice.


“...Yeah. Jake, hate to admit it but I’m not that good.”


Jake, leaning casually with one elbow propped on Tom’s shoulder, grinned at her and the Canadians who had been looking quite shaken, relaxed a little.


“If we get him or her out, can you organise an evac?”


“No problem.”


Choppers came and went from the camp regularly, it was not going to be difficult to arrange an airlift to Kathmandu hospital who might be able to do some identification. The Sherpa team supporting the Canadian climbers were visibly upset and uncomfortable; one of the Canadians muttered something about a superstitious bunch and Tom resisted the urge to go and explain to him, plainly, that to the Sherpa their beliefs around death and signs in this sacred place were strong, and their rituals around death were gentle and respectful. To them this was being handled in an ugly and harshly utilitarian way, blinkered and devoid of any great feeling, and they saw this as a matter of the mountain and her witnessing presence instead of a simple matter of one climber.


It was not going to be any more respectful leaving a partially exposed body to decay in the hot sun of the day, even if the Canadian team permitted it. Westerners tended to like their dead out of sight as fast as possible and people around here mostly avoided looking at or thinking about anything that reminded them of their own mortality or what they were in the process of risking here, otherwise most of them would have struggled to stay and do it. Grabbing an ice axe from someone who was standing stupidly with it like he was chopping ice for a sculpture, Tom went to the figure in the ice and knelt down near it, using the axe as gently and quietly as he could and still get the necessary force behind it, in silence, with the care he’d learned from several years of working with archaeologists, and began to release the climber from the mountain. He knew from the shadow that it was Jake who knelt down to do the same beside him. Before much longer a Sherpa man joined them, an unfamiliar one, but he worked quietly alongside them. It took almost an hour for the climber to gradually return from the glacier’s embrace to the light of day. When they finally and very gently lifted it clear, it was still impossible to be sure who or what the climber had been. Watching the body being wrapped in the bright blue plastic sheeting that wrapped everything around here as weather proofing, his hands chilled from the rocks he’d shifted, Tom stood in the cold and ugly desolation of the grey rock camp below the wild beauty of the mountains all around and above them, and found himself thinking again,


This is Tartarus.



“There’s a chopper coming out to get him.” Shem said, coming to stand with Tom and watch. “I was going to moan that Jake was supposed to be resting, and you look like it wouldn’t hurt you either, but I’m starting to catch on. This is resting to you two, isn’t it? Like resetting all the tents yesterday and climbing around on the ice wall this morning. Do either of you ever stop?”


“No.” Tom said absently. He was watching Jake who was helping the Sherpa party. “We’re not going to wear ourselves out, we’re way above our energy margin.”


“You’d know.” Shem scuffed one elderly boot at the shale, watching with rather sad eyes as the wrapped package was carried past. “Just save yourself enough for tomorrow morning, ok? The clients should be back tonight.”


~ ~ ~ ~ ~



They got back just before dark, a cheerful and noisy party broke out in the mess tent shortly after and the compound went from being quiet and deserted to once more being a busy place full of people and the tinny electronics of music and the smell of coffee. They appeared to have had a thoroughly good time and enjoyed themselves, Bill and Spitz reported that the expedition had gone well, and from what Tom observed from his tent the mood was celebratory including John, who didn’t look much like a client who thought his expedition was over. Dorje, weathered and smiling widely came directly to Tom’s tent as soon as he arrived, a hand out to grip Tom’s. He said very little, but his welcome touched Tom in its sincerity. He shyly accepted Jake’s invitation and joined Pemba as their Sirdar, their senior climbing Sherpa guide, Tom and Jake, Bill, Spitz and Shem in the communications tent early the following morning while the clients slept late, dealing with delicate heads from the party and their summit climb on Lobuche. Bill laid out the list of names on the table between them all and picked up his coffee, cradling it in both hands. It was crisp this morning, their breath rising in front of them in the tent.


“Ok, four potential climbers to consider for the climb to camp one. John. Bart. Max. And Mr. Phoenix Loudon.”


He gave Tom a brief grin; he seemed to be sharing the inability to say the name without the full title appended.


“John I’m not happy about and I’m recommending strongly that you don’t take him any higher.” Shem said definitely. “I’ve advised him not to go up and he knows I’m saying this to you but I think he’s hoping he’s going to be able to talk you around. It isn’t anything he’s doing wrong or could fix, it isn’t even the diabetes, his body just isn’t handling altitude well.”


“We’re not taking anyone through the ice fall knowing that there’s a reasonable chance we’re going to have to manhandle back out again.” Tom said flatly. “Any doubts and there’s our answer.”


“I agree, we’re not putting our clients at risk, or any of us.” Jake sounded a good deal calmer than he did. “Shem, I’d take your advice anyway, but John didn’t manage to do more than the first few hours of the hike out to Lobuche, which has to be our qualifier. We’ll let John know he’s welcome to stay at base camp with the expedition and observe as long as he’d like, but he’s not coming with us to camp one.”


Bill leaned over to the list and scrawled a firm line through John’s name.


“Right. Bart. Bart actually did well on Lobuche. Not fast, but he kept on going and he’s fitter than he was when he arrived, he’s got a good attitude, he and Max mostly climbed together. He’s got the idea of crampons, he’s done a reasonable job of learning everything we wanted him to learn with basic crampon and axe use, and he’s trained hard. He listens to advice.”


“You think we should give him a go.” Jake summarized. Tom looked at him sharply. Bill, watching them both, shrugged.


“He and Max are as ready as they are going to be, they’ve got some sense and I think Lobuche showed them a lot of reality they took on board. With help I think they’d do the ice fall ok.”


“This is the problem. Right here.” Tom said grimly. “I knew it would happen. It’s hard to say no to people you know and you like, you end up wanting to help them and feeling obliged. Of course they want to climb, they’ve paid thousands to be here. But they’re not climbers. They have no usable experience to fall back on, they have no knowledge of what to do if things go wrong, they would be completely dependent on someone else to tell them what to do and look after them at every step. If that person fell or was injured, if they were alone up there without a carer they would be helpless. I don’t think we should be enabling that.”


“And I agree.” Spitz said shortly beside him. “Wholly. It is unethical, it is disrespectful to the mountain and irresponsible to others who climb. Bart may well enjoy the ice fall and never go beyond camp one just for the ‘experience’ of climbing, but he will be very slow and need much help and teaching, and a serious climber may very likely be stuck behind him, getting cold, wasting energy that would take him to the summit. It is like taking preschoolers on scooters to play among the cars on a highway so all may enjoy the road. This is not easy to say.” He added, looking at Bill. “Tom is right, it grows harder when they are men we know, and Bart and Max are likable, one would wish to help them. But he is also right that this is not a tourist play park. They bought their way here at high price because other expeditions would not have accepted them. I do not hold that against them Bill, they came in good faith and I understand this is difficult for you, but had we chosen to run this expedition from the start we would not have accepted responsibility for supporting any of these clients to make a serious attempt to climb.”


“That is a fact.” Jake sounded quite placid about it. “What do you think, Pemba? Dorje?”



Pemba did not look comfortable. The Sherpa men did not like discord and argument at all, particularly in this sacred place.



“We’re sorry for the arguing, we feel strongly about this,” Tom said firmly enough to signal to Spitz and Bill to tone it down. “It’s important to us to respect the mountain and to be responsible in how we care for the clients.”


Pemba nodded slowly, giving him a faint smile that appreciated the thought but still didn’t like the atmosphere. Dorje however spoke diffidently but directly, looking between Tom and Jake.


“Max and Bart work hard. They want very much to climb and season is still early, it is not so busy yet. If we were to go in the next day or two and later in morning we would not hold up other expeditions so much. We have good climbing Sherpas, we would take good care of them.”


“My point and Tom’s point is that while we have no doubt at all that you could short rope and tow a client up safely with you, it is not necessarily ethical to do so.” Spitz said  rather gently.


Bill took another swallow of coffee, reflecting. “The thing is though… we’ve set these people challenges, we’ve given them our expectations and qualifying criteria and Max and Bart have met them. We said we’d feel better about letting them try if they handled the Lobuche hike ok, and they have. We just have to take a deep breath now and get on with it. Bart’s developed his skills. Max probably knows the most about actual climbing than any of them, his fitness has sharpened up and a lot of his skills are coming back to him, he’s got some basic experience to fall back on. I say Max and Bart are go, with plenty of supervision and a tight turn-around time, and let’s see how they do. We said we’d let them climb as far as they were able.”


“What about Loudon?” Spitz said darkly.


Bill gave him a slightly defensive look. “He’s not all bad. He met the criteria too, he’s the fastest of the three of them, I don’t see we can say no.”


“His attitude is lousy.”


“…Yes.”


“And he is unbearably rude.” Spitz informed him. “Not so much to us I mind, but he is rude to our Sherpa guides when they try to help or advise him, he was extremely so to Pemba on Lobuche, and he does much need their help whether or not he will admit it.”


“That we’re not having.” Jake said matter of factly. “Pemba, I apologise that happened, I’ll deal with it this morning. We can make it very clear he’s getting to climb only if he promises to behave and I’ll have no problem sending him down to Kathmandu if we see it again.”


“Did you know he was blogging?” Spitz said reluctantly. Jake raised his eyebrows. Bill coughed.


“Er. Yes. Mummy is a rather famous New York journalist I understand – I’ve never heard of her, but apparently so – and she’s running his blog in her column. New York is getting blow by blow accounts of every move we make.”


“No.” Tom said flatly. “We are not getting into making decisions based on what kind of negative publicity he might give us,”


“No we’re not, because we don’t care.” Jake agreed.


“I don’t think it’s been that complimentary so far.” Bill said wryly. “Not that I’ve read it, but we had a couple of snotty comments on Lobuche that he was taking notes.”


“Let him. We don’t care what publicity we get or who says what, reputation for a company like this is built on success and safety, not gossip.” Jake got up, leaning on Tom’s shoulder for a moment. “Spitz, I hear your and Tom’s concerns, I take them seriously, let’s vote on this. Those of us prepared to support Max and Bart, and Phoenix with a serious commitment to treating everyone else on this expedition with respect, to climbing to camp one?”


Bill raised his hand. So did Shem and Pemba. Dorje also after a moment raised his. Jake raised his own hand and looked to Tom and Spitz who did not.


“Carried.” Jake nodded to Bill. “Bill, Shem, Pemba, will you come and join me in the mess tent and we’ll call in the clients one at a time and talk them through our decision? Spitz, we will do this as carefully and as safely as we possibly can and I’ll gladly listen to any suggestions on how we can do this in a way you’re more comfortable with. Or I’m equally fine with you taking whatever support you want and you and Bill go do your camp two acclimatisation and I’ll worry about the clients’ first climb.”



Tom heard the unsaid message in the hand on his shoulder. Pemba and Dorje left together, Shem followed them and Tom got up to go too. He heard Spitz behind him as he rose from the deckchair.



“And I am sorry too, Jake, but if we were here as we had planned, with nothing but our own focus and our own preparations to consider, Tom would not be struggling as he is and he would be safer, and that is a fact.”


Tom spun back to him, livid and not able to keep it out of his voice. “How dare you? I am managing bloody fine, and what happened up at camp two could have happened to any of us.”


“You are not fine, and I can see it.” Spitz said it brusquely, and his face was grimly sympathetic. “I do not want to see you unable to do this climb because of a commercial expedition you would never have associated with without being so obligated.”


Tom took a sharp breath to answer and Jake stepped directly in his way. He was smiling, and it was his usual, relaxed, lazy smile but with his eyes extremely steady. It was the kind of smile an angel might give you, the one that reminded you angels were a pure force for good and kittens and little bunnies, but they were packing a fiery sword and a double 07 licence. It wasn’t a ‘stop’ or ‘back off’ signal; Jake never gave a damn what Tom said to whom. Tom had seen him sit placidly by while he tore shreds off a particularly rude and annoying archaeologist on one expedition they’d guided together. It wasn’t other people getting upset that he minded about.


Tom took another slower breath, spun on his heel and walked away as Jake was asking, shoving roughly through the tent flaps and turning away from the client tents and the social bit of their compound as fast as possible.


I have to bloody calm down!


Exactly how was another matter. He’d always been like this. As long as he remembered, it had always been there. Jake understood it; Jake had always called him three parts wolf. Needing quiet, needing darkness, needing wild places away from people. The social stuff had always been hard. He pushed the thought away, walking fast over the rough ground towards their tent.


That was then; focus on now. Only now matters.


An awful, awful part of him wanted simply to grab his rucksack, roll up his sleeping bag and head down into the valley. Get away. Now. He got as far as crouching in front of his rucksack and gripped it, trying to make himself breathe slowly. Deep enough to release that run instinct. It didn’t work. It never did. Tom ducked his head, hearing quiet footfall behind him.


“Are we going?” Jake leaned past him to pick up his own rucksack. Tom shook his head.


“You can’t, you’re needed here.”


“Want to argue that one out?” Jake invited.


The impulses were many. To kick the rucksack flying, to shout at him, to yes, argue, knowing exactly what it would lead to – Tom bit down on all of them.


“Any minute now you’re going to say all the Top stuff about I can’t handle this, it’s not good for me, we’re getting out of here and we’ll board a plane for Fiji,”


“You’d hate Fiji.”


“I’m not giving up on this! I’m not just holding it together for you - I would anyway, but I want to do this too. I’ve always wanted to do this too. We had one scare, one, we handled it and it was fine, we knew this might happen, I am not going to quit.”


“I wouldn’t ask you to.” Jake sat unhurriedly down on the ground sheet beside him, propping his elbows on his knees to look at the mountains above them.


“And don’t you dare feel bad that we got involved with the client expedition because that was my choice too, if I hadn’t been bothered about them being safe you’d have been fine with us buggering off to the far end of base camp and doing our own thing just like we planned. If I’d asked you to do that you would, and I asked you to sort out the clients. I’m the one who won’t leave them, not you. So it’s my choice.”


“Ok.”


“Ok?” Tom gave him a savage, sideways glare. “It’s not bloody ok is it? Because I can’t be in this state. All the time you’re having to work flat out on keeping me together, Jake, it’s not good for you and it’s destroying your enjoyment of this, it’s pulling your focus, it’s pulling Spitz’s, it’s stressing both of you which makes the risks for both of you higher-”


“I agree, you need some help to let this go.” Jake dug in his rucksack beside him and Tom’s stomach flipped as he pulled out the martinet and quite simply patted his knee. “So let’s do it.”


Tom felt his mouth dropping open, something in his head gasping about What?! And This is not how this goes!


“We did this a few days ago!” he managed after a few seconds. 


“We did.” Jake agreed equably. “And it helped, and now we need to do it again. Over here.”


There was a really unnecessary kind of firmness to the last two words. Tom found himself moving, rather slowly, acutely aware that while their tent faced away from the compound and anything or anyone else but open miles of plateau beyond the camp, they were still shielded only by canvas. It was bloody difficult too to comfortably get over Jake’s knee when he was sitting on the ground, despite all the practice they’d been putting in lately. Not that Jake seemed to be in any way inconvenienced by it, and Jake didn’t give him time to figure it out; he simply pulled Tom directly across his lap. Tom braced himself on his elbows and felt Jake shift in a way that expertly tipped his backside higher and into a more vulnerable position and he felt Jake’s hands at the waistband of his pants, stripping them briskly too far downwards which Tom hated, since it was bad enough when they were just too far out of reach to be any damn good. Right down and it just felt –


He felt the light trace of the martinet strands across his skin a second before they flicked down in a brisk, sound snap and sting lit up brightly across his entire butt, animating a sharp, involuntary jerk in his legs and shoulders, and they just went on flicking. Unhurriedly, very effectively and the bloody thing spread out as it struck so the coverage was everywhere. He was using it lightly and there was barely any sound at all beyond the slight flicking snap of it landing, and yet the quiet of it was out of all proportion to how those strands stung. Mouth sealed tightly shut, Tom grimaced and twisted slightly and jumped at each sharp snap, and Jake just did not bloody stop. And the martinet being applied to already stinging skin did not improve it any, his butt was heating up and apparently getting steadily more sensitive with every thwack. Temper starting to slip, Tom braced his shoulders harder and gripped at the ground mat beneath them, aware that he was fighting back in a very reprehensible way and that a whole lot of attitude he hadn’t even been aware of before was starting to yank against its chain in a very unwise way, and then Jake, without spanking the least bit harder, just moved the brunt of the spanking firmly about two inches lower.


With his hand, that was always bad enough. With a paddle, it was dire. With the bloody martinet – the ends of those strands nipping and stinging there were hellish and they spread out and got damn everywhere, and Jake was angling it…. it was a shock, and it was impossible not to squirm without dignity or keep himself from yelping from the first stroke there, and once his self control snapped he felt his chest release like a cork yanked out of it. It felt like forever that he was gasping and squeaking and helplessly wriggling around under Jake’s arm while that bloody thing worked on his butt and all he could think about – all – was the sting. The sensation blocked out everything else, nothing else mattered, and the tension, the nastiness, sarkiness and temper, everything that was about the fierce, nasty ‘I’ thoughts, all of it slid away out of reach like water draining away and he felt himself let go, yield the field wholeheartedly on any terms Jake wanted, and accept fast what he knew at the heart of things; that none of the crap he’d been clinging to mattered a damn anyway. Just a whole world of here and now and yes, I get it, I do, really, just stop, please stop now!


He was wet eyed from sting more than emotion, very breathless and feeling wholly wrung out and limp with the release of tension and emotion when Jake dropped the martinet back in his rucksack, and his hand rested across Tom’s flaming backside, rubbing gently.


“Do you feel like behaving yourself yet?”


It never failed to make Tom laugh, even if it was the most pathetic and miserable attempt at a laugh that was possible.


“Come here.” Jake pulled him up from his lap and hugged him, closely, squashingly hard, and Tom turned his face into Jake’s neck and held onto him with a sense of security he hadn’t felt since they were down in the valley a few days ago. Released and settled and connected again with a sense of proportion back, and it was so insane that he could find that over Jake’s knee when he couldn’t do it for himself, when everything else they’d tried had helped but not enough. The relief from losing that nagging, biting sense of stress was overwhelming. The dragon cast off from his shoulders.


“Do that every day and that should probably hold you.” Jake said in his ear. That was too squirming a thought to consider properly, whether or not Jake was serious. They sat there together for some time, Tom rather shamefacedly but definitely hanging onto him, and Jake didn’t seem in any hurry to go back to clients or meetings or anything else he should be doing. When Tom finally sat up to straighten his clothes and wipe the last marks off his face, Jake ran a gentle hand over his head and turned Tom’s face to his, looking at him closely. Whatever he was looking for he seemed to find it. He nodded slowly and ran his thumb over Tom’s lips, leaning over to kiss him.


“Lie down. Stay put, wait for me. I’m going to sort the clients out and then I’ll be back.”


He pulled over one of his fleeces from the corner of the tent, balled it up into a pillow and waited until Tom lay down with it. Jake watched him settle before he got up and walked briskly towards the mess tent.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Jake wouldn’t explain afterwards what happened with Phoenix, or with John. He just refused to discuss it and no one else came near their tent that evening. Tom suspected Jake had probably engineered that too.


Around 3.30am Tom heard the Sherpa moving around and unzipping their tent to take a look saw lights on in client tents and in the mess tent before Jake’s hand snaked out and caught his, pulling him back down. Tom zipped the tent closed and dropped back into Jake’s arms. He hadn’t slept much but he had actually slept, for the first time in a couple of days. He also hadn’t wanted to be anywhere else but here tonight rather than wander, and he’d done an embarrassing amount of hanging on while Jake slept and hopefully didn’t notice too much of the soppiness in progress.


“They’re heading up to the ice fall at 4.30.” Jake said in his ear. “Bill’s leading them, the climbing Sherpa are going with them. I said we’d follow them up about 7am and play sheep dog.”


Did you give them a turn around time? What if Mr Sparrow Loudon won’t pay attention to it?


Let. It. Go.


With a still tender backside, Tom made himself stop that line of thought before it got started, smothering the faint swell of anxiety that threaded itself through his guts. Not only about the clients; about their last experience of the ice fall in the dark. He squeaked involuntarily as Jake’s hand inserted itself under his clothes and squeezed somewhere extremely personal.


“Stop it, or we’re having spam for breakfast.”


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


They dressed for the ice fall about 6.30am. It was getting light by then and almost everyone planning to go up the mountain this morning had gone. Only a couple of Sherpa were on their way up to crampon point, heavily loaded with gear for a higher camp when Tom looked out from their tent, and across base camp there were only a few rising smoke columns. The Sherpas with each team burned juniper as an offering for safety that day if they had any climbers from their team on the mountain; you could get an approximate idea of how many people were up there by looking at the number of smoking fires. Jake, pausing without his jacket on, knelt up on the sleeping bag to look with him, then held out a hand.



“Right. Let’s have a chat before we go.”


“What?” Tom glanced back to him and then realised and felt his stomach roll over. “Jake-”


“For a start, I want to see how your butt’s doing.”


“It’s fine thank you.” Tom edged warily towards him and Jake turned him over his knee, settling him before he pulled Tom’s pants out of the way and ran a hand gently over the now white skin.


“No marks.”


“I told you. There never is; you’re too damn good at it.” Tom had a try at getting up and Jake’s hand rested on his back keeping him where he was. “Jake…”


 This time it came out rather pathetically close to a whine. He heard Jake’s smile in his voice.


 “How are you doing this morning? Because I was quite serious about what I said last night.”


“I’m fine.”


“You know how Flynn defines ‘fine’ as an answer?” Jake asked him conversationally. “He says it usually translates as an anagram: Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional. So which one do you want to go for?”


Tom couldn’t swallow the snort of laughter despite his position, and despite twisting to try to turn over into a less dangerous position he still couldn’t escape Jake’s arm holding him right where he was.


“None. I’m calm, I’ll be a good boy. No neurotic breakdowns today.”


“Yeah, whose definition of ‘good’ is that?”


Jake sounded amused and Tom glanced back over his shoulder to see his face, quivering in spite of himself under Jake’s hand.


“Mine?”


“Ok, let’s keep that at the front of your mind for the next few hours.” Jake’s hand lifted and landed extremely smartly in the first of six very sound and what felt like very loud swats, only six but they stole his breath out of his lungs and felt as if they set light where they landed. Afterwards, when he had a moment to think about anything but what the hell Jake was going to do, Tom for one horrible moment remembered how loud those swats had sounded – gunshots, there was no way to disguise that sound – but then a certain amount of cracks and banging and thumping went on in base camp in the morning. The cracks from the glacier starting to warm up, people thumping ice off tents and boots, banging washed and now frozen and frosted clothes on rocks to soften them out of their rigid shape, and their compound was largely empty of people this morning; no one gave them a second glance when they left their tent. Those swats were still heating Tom very effectively half an hour later as they passed crampon point and began the climb up through the Khumbu ice fall. And the infuriating thing was that it still bloody worked.


Less than an hour into the labyrinth, on the top of a steep climb up a serac face they found Pemba and Bill with Bart, who was sitting on the ice and looking exhausted, breathing hard, and drinking from the thermos Pemba had carried. Jake glanced at his watch and crouched down beside them, giving Bart a cheerful nod and smile.

“Hey. How’s it going?”


“It’s wild.” Bart’s nod at the ice walls around them encompassed a great deal. “But man it’s harder than I was expecting. Way harder than Lobuche. I do about four steps and stop for a rest, my heart’s pounding.”

His sentences were coming out in fragments between his breathing, and he was coughing at intervals. The Khumbu cough; no few of them had it, and Bart’s fitness might have improved but supremely fit and able people struggled here.

“Yeah, that’s what it’s like the first time.” Jake said gently. “


And the ladders…” Bart glanced down at the one he’d just ascended and Tom saw his shudder, the man looked stunned and rather shocked. “I didn’t think I had a problem with heights but this scares the bejeezus out of me. I didn’t expect it.”


Jake glanced at Pemba who was waiting patiently beside him. “Bart, you’re not yet half way through and the deadline for turn around isn’t far off. You’re going to need to turn back. We need everyone clear out of here before midday.”


Bart nodded without raising his head. “That’s fine.”


“I’ll go down with them as far as crampon point.” Bill dug his own thermos out of his rucksack and poured steaming tea into the cup, knocking it back quickly. In marked contrast to Bart he looked fresh and energised, he was a damn good climber and a fast one and of all of them he knew this territory best. “Dorje’s climbing with Max and Spitz is with Phoenix up ahead since he went out of base camp like a bullet out of a gun. See you in a while.”


They left Bart still coughing with Pemba and Bill, and the man reached gladly for the rope Bill clipped him on to, with no hesitation to go down. Climbing here was far more mental than physical; when your body hurt and was exhausted all you had left was concentration and heart, and if you mentally checked out you needed to get off the mountain fast. Bart seemed in no doubt what he needed to do.


The next climber they overtook not far above where Bart had foundered was a vision in a pink climbing suit, sat panting and looking cuter and sourer than a Persian kitten being fed gooseberries, and Tom felt a brief and very uncharitable flicker of satisfaction that was too nasty to tolerate. He concentrated instead on the lingering heat and tenderness underneath his pants which dragged his mind up out of the gutter. Spitz was standing some feet away from Mr Loudon and smoking, looking equally fed up.


“Hey Phoenix.” Jake said cheerfully as they reached him.


“Too hot, going too fast, ego does not fit between the seracs.” Spitz said succinctly to Tom in Spanish, adding in English to Phoenix, “I said this morning that you would be too hot in a down suit. You will not need that below camp two.”


Phoenix gave him a poisonous look through designer sunglasses and turned a large eyed bunny stare on Jake that was so disingenuous that Tom nearly snorted.


“I’d be fine but I twisted my ankle a little in base camp last night and it’s slowing me up.”


Spitz grunted in a tone of expressive cynicism, dark eyebrows snapped together above his far more battered and practical sunglasses. Phoenix ignored him.


“If you’d give me a hand I’d be fine. I’m not heavy and then I’ll have the altitude training I need to get on this trip.”


Yeah, great idea, let’s push and pull you to camp one. Or get a Sherpa to carry you up and another one to peel you a damn grape. Let’s see if we can find you a high altitude Ken.


Stop it.


 Tom turned away to get a grip on himself, avoiding Spitz’s eye.


Wrong sin. It’s not arrogance and shock you don’t know it all; It’s bloody anger, isn’t it? Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malic…


The words lined up and rolled out in his mind from years ago, words he’d known all his life.


Bitterness and evil speaking, yeah that’s me.


It was quite a shock, quite distressing to realise and Tom stared at the blank walls of blue ice around them blindly for a moment, aware he was clinging to the sensation of his butt, the physical memory of the moments this morning when he’d felt together, anchored to Jake and clear headed, and known the world was in its right place. Jake’s voice behind him was calm to Phoenix but cheerfully detached; he was the wrong person to try the flirty kitten act on, and it had been done by far prettier men in far better outfits than a pink snow suit. Boys in Singapore in g-strings had tried this with real professional expertise and got nowhere to their frustration; flirts bored the hell out of Jake.


“If you’re tired and struggling, best thing you can do is go down and get Shem to check that ankle, you don’t want to be carrying an injury up here. We, none of us, want to be lingering in the ice fall any longer than we absolutely have to. I want to get you moving.”


“I will see him down.” Spitz said darkly.


Jake gave him a cheerful smile, getting up. “It’s fine, we will and you can continue your climb. If you wouldn’t mind going on, you could make sure Dorje and Max are ok.”


It was probably a sensible decision; it would ensure Spitz didn’t reach the point of shoving the Pink Peril into a crevasse somewhere. Spitz nodded shortly, pitched his cigarette butt off the trail and carried on up the rope he was clipped to.


They didn’t have to do a whole lot of chatting to Mr. Pelican Loudon, which Tom was grateful for. For a start, the little brat didn’t have the breath to talk once he was up and moving, and he was moving very slowly even with Jake below him encouraging him over the ladder walkways and down the ropes, and Tom above him with a watchful eye and a hand to steady the ropes. He actually wasn’t that incompetent. He was light and flexible and he’d probably learned the most from their teaching over the last ten days, but pacing himself was something he stubbornly refused to learn. And he kept on flashing the eyes at Jake. Apparently Jake’s firm word with him the other day had impressed on him the need to keep Jake on side. And quite possibly he had realised something that Tom knew very well; that Jake was extremely hot in an alarming kind of way when his voice got quiet and his eyes started getting penetrating.


They got him down to crampon point slowly but without event, and from there Phoenix hopped and clung to Jake’s shoulder and generally made a fuss with a great deal of wincing and grimacing until Tom lost patience, took his other arm and he and Jake more or less carried him as far as Shem’s tent. No doubt his blog post tonight would be full of Wounded Soldier. Tom had made only one attempt to find the blog; it had been subverted in seconds by Jake who had leaned over from his book and shut the laptop.


Phoenix was being supplied with tea by the kitchen boy and having his ankle examined by Shem and explaining his plight to a depressed looking Bart and a fed up looking John who had come to see what the problem was when Tom left him. The last ones home just before 11am were Bill, Dorje, Spitz and Max, who had made it two thirds of the way through the ice fall at Max’s pace before Bill turned the group around at 9.30am.


“So that’s none of them who met our criteria to climb any higher.” Jake commented when he came to join Tom and crash out in their tent. Sleep wasn’t something they were likely to try for hours yet, but climbing at the higher altitudes made the physical exertion hit you twice as hard and your body ended up tired. Just lying down and lying still became something you were keen to do for a while. Jake got his boots off and rolled over on his back beside Tom. It was hot in the tent by noon around here. The thermometer soared daily between -20 through the night to often 30 during the day; you went from tshirts and struggling to cool down to your breath freezing on the roof of the tent during the night.


Tartarus.


The lost world of the fallen angels, the gateway of stone, ice and fire where every man was punished according to his sin.


It’s anger. All the time, about bloody everything. About the clients, particularly Loudon, about the changes and things suddenly coming up, about the noise, the music, the messing around, about the danger to Jake because how bloody dare anything hurt him…? All the smart mouthing, all the snapping, I’ve done it most of my bloody life. Spitting and seething behind a sarky tone and a bad attitude.

I can’t even get a damn sentence out without swearing. That is what I have to do something about. Somehow. Your average bad tempered bastard doesn’t get sent much on the holy pilgrimages or sacred quests in the books.

           To: LameducksRus@Mountaineagles.com
           From: AdenD@horizon.com
           Subject: Well just to cheer you up
  Tom:
 I was very glad to have more news of you. That sounds a terrifying experience. The others were relieved Jake rang about Gerry and they’d heard for themselves that he was all right. In your position, had I needed to get Flynn or one of the others out of a situation such as you’re describing, I can only imagine how it might feel. I do not cope well under stress either, as you may have noticed over the summer.  
You said it was nice to hear that other people were having a lousy time as well as you and that it helped. I am not at all sure this is something you want to know, it’s not the easiest thing to explain either, but if it helps for you to have shared misery then here goes. It’s not only Gerry who has been involved in the drama going on around here. I said it had been a crowded few days, in part through Gerry’s arrival, but I’ve been aware for a few weeks I was in the process of coming apart. I have no real understanding of how to explain it.
 I get anxious. That is difficult to admit even in an email, it is still a new thing to realise that there’s a name for it and I ought to do something about it; I’m too used to thinking tapping and lining things up and running for hours is just what you do in the stress of the business world instead of thinking about what it is and why it is. I love Paul, I have always loved Paul, and have always been aware too that I can feel particularly anxious around him on a ‘bad’ day, although no idea as to why. You were there on the day poor Paul tried to reassure me in the middle of a freak out and got the full force of an Aden panic attack in the face, I wondered at the time if you understood it better than I did. You explained so much to me in the summer, you put words to so many crucial things I felt but didn’t know how to understand or explain to myself. I am most grateful for that.  
The anxiety went wholly out of control a few days ago when I cut my hand on a horse trough. Such a simple thing, just a minor cut, but I remember you too telling me that the first time you got sick after you met Jake you wanted to run. Oh I understand that. They will know, they will not ignore it, they will not gloss over it or let you do so, and that is so, so hard to take. And yet the kind of hard that the only thing that truly helps is to have no choice, because you want it as much as you are afraid of it. Paul does the same as you do. He puts words to it. And it is nearly impossible to take, and it’s as wonderful as it is terrifying and horrible, and I find myself clinging to him some of the time and then wanting to distance us as much as I possibly can at other times, and being truly horrible to him in the attempt.
 I have an unpleasant feeling I am making no kind of sense in trying to explain this.  
I have always used a mask of professionalism, intellect, detachment to avoid connecting in ways to people that are too personal. Too trusting or too risky. It’s something that I didn’t consciously realise I did until I came to the ranch, and that Flynn and the others taught me to recognise, and that mask is still a defence over letting myself connect to them wholly as I want to, or dealing with any feeling or situation that triggers the anxiety about losing control. I wish I understood it more, but I don’t. It has become apparent that there are a number of things I need to work through regarding my mother, which sounds so pathetically irresponsible in black and white, surely my problems are just that, mine, to deal with and resolve without blaming other people for them, but unfortunately those problems are inextricably bound with thoughts and memories that I’ve always preferred not to face.
This has triggered nightmares. I was so stressed during a conversation with Paul the other day I threw up and he said to me, that’s a lot of stress. It was a mere conversation; just on a matter that was too hard. But to enter a relationship like the ones we have, means nothing is too hard and there is nowhere out of bounds, it means finding and identifying these road blocks and then trying to find the courage to let them be taken down because that is what I want to happen. Even on the days and in the moments where I’d fight it to the death, I know that is what I want to happen. I wish I understood more about how, and it is so difficult to ask. I know that is all I have to do, to explain and to ask, but it is the hardest thing to let yourself do.  
Flynn instructs me to tell you ‘hello’ – this is an American thing, I believe he means that he sends his regards to you – and to get off the computer. I apologise if this is far too much to share, if it alarms you or you simply don’t want to be bothered. Please don’t feel I expect any reply or answers or advice from you. I just have experience that you understand much of this very well and it helps just to say these things to someone who may not think I am currently out of my tree. Best wishes to Jake.
 Dale


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