Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
PART THIRTEEN - CONCLUSION
"Left! Left! Stay left!" Ricky shouted, calling out to Jangbu Nuru.
Descending in a whiteout.
It was like swimming in a giant bowl of milk, and there was no down or up, no right or left, just moving, keep moving, and dont stop, or else youll die.
In a matter of minutes it had begun to snow heavily, and they had just about made it down the Southeast Ridge to the Rock Steps above the Balcony, before the winds had really kicked in, turning the squall into a full-blown gale. Negotiating the Steps had been difficult, and it had taken the collective efforts of Ricky, Jangbu, and Paul, to safely rappel Jim Harris and Mike Donaldson down them.
Then it was a question of sorting themselves out at the bottom, of re-attaching the short-ropes between Jangbu and Jim, Paul Andersen and Mike, and then again clipping into the fixed rope once Ricky had been able to dig it out of the snow. Then theyd reformed in a single line, spaced closely together, with Allison and Harry Owens bringing up the rear.
The descent down the narrow Ridge and the technical climbing at the Steps, all in the midst of a snowstorm, had cost them precious time, the mountaineer knew. It was a double-edged sword: they had not a minute to spare, yet one false step taken in haste could cost one of them their lives. After no sleep in nearly two days, they were the walking dead on their feet, plodding blindly through the whiteness, shell-shocked, bewildered.
Faster! Faster! Rickys mind silently screamed, knowing that if she were of a mind to, she could be safely in her tent at the South Col within the hour. Or she could stay, moving down the mountain at an agonizingly slow speed, her progress only as fast as the slowest climber in the group. Stumbling over the rock and ice until they finally ran out of oxygen, and out of time.
But leaving was never an option for the mountaineer. She knew that these people were depending on her; one person, most of all. And so she alternated between breaking trail in front of Jangbu and Jim, and dropping back to help Paul with Mike Donaldson. The oxygen and thedexamethasone had revived him to the extent that he was mobile, but the executive was helpless beyond a basic stepping motion. He had virtually no strength left, and on the steeper sections of the slope where the snow and ice were hard, he weakly pawed at the surface with his crampons, unable to stomp his boot down hard enough to get a good foot placement. With Paul holding onto Mikes harness from behind, Ricky had ended up many times setting his boots by hand.
Jim Harris, meanwhile, seemed to have gotten a small amount of power back, but his oxygen-starved brain was constantly producing strings of nonsensical sentences, and fragments of conversations with people who werent there. Whenever he was aware enough to notice his surroundings, he peppered Jangbu and Ricky with child-like questions in a lost, slurred voice, not even seeming to recognize them.
"I want this off!"
Ricky moved to intercept the team leader, when for the fifth time in the last 10 minutes, he grabbed at the carabiner on his harness that hooked him to Jangbu. Like a petulant child, he tried to remove it, but fortunately he appeared to have no clue how to work the mechanism.
"Oh, no you dont!" Sweeping next to him she batted his hand away and continued guiding him down, that simple motion enough to distract him from his objective for the moment.
Ricky could barely see 10 yards in front of her, but she knew they had to be close to the Balcony. She could just about see where she was putting her feet, moving more by memory and feel than by anything else. She knew this mountain, she told herself. Knew it by heart. Had memorized the majestic sweep of its buttresses, the dizzying promontory of its summit, the simple beauty of its glacial melt-water. She could get them all down blind, if she had to.
And it might just come to that, she considered. The winds were ripping off the Ridge; it had to be blowing at 50 knots by now, firing the snow sideways. Camera flashes of lighting, not unusual for this type of summer storm, occasionally flickered in the whiteness, immediately followed by avalanche-like booms of thunder; the sound quickly muffled by the heavy snow. It was an otherworldly scene, and it was easy to let your mind drift if you let it easy to imagine things.
No! She squeezed her eyes shut, not that it made that much of a difference. She was still feeling okay, and she had a job to do. Her oxygen was long gone and in a way, she was relieved at that. No more worrying guessing when it might run out, and the affect that would have on her. Shed felt the expected dip in her energy level, that was inevitable, but shed fought her way back from it, and though the cold was settling into her bones now, she still had confidence in hersamochuvstvie.
Fear struck at the tall womans gut at the alarm in Allisons hoarse shout.
"Keep bearing left," she told Jangbu, handing him the length of fixed rope shed fished out of the snow. Then she backtracked as hastily as she dared to Allisons position on the line.
"What what is it?"
"I cant breathe," she panted, the eyes beneath her goggles widened in panic. "I keep pulling but Im not getting anything."
Already Ricky had turned Allison slightly, brushing the snow off her oxygen gauge.
"It cant be gone already?"
The faint hopefulness in Allisons voice tugged at her heart, but a quick glance told her what shed already suspected shed see. The bottle was empty.
"All gone," Ricky said tightly. Quickly, she snapped open the younger womans backpack and removed the depleted canister, discarding it. "There. That should lighten your load a little bit. But hang onto your mask, okay? You never know."
"Okay ." A trusting whimper.
"Youve got to keep moving, now all right?" Ricky dipped her head down as she spoke, trying to keep the icy pellets of snow from flying into her mouth.
"Ricky ." Allisons voice was barely audible, and the mountaineer could see her eyelids fluttering behind her glasses. "Im so tired."
"No!" The mountaineers voice was fierce, and she shook her partner by the arms, snapping her to attention. "You promise me you will keep walking down this mountain. You dont stop, okay?"
Slightly dazed eyes looked at her, searching for a moment, and then flickering in understanding.
Theyd been resting at the Balcony for several spare minutes they didnt have, while Ricky gave Mike Donaldson another shot of dex. She was beyond caring what the additional dose of the steroid might do to the mans system; she figured living with the potential after-affect was better than dying without it. She suspected he was suffering from some frostbite in his hands and feet; increasingly, his feeble attempts at any effective downward movement had been growing weaker.
Just before theyd arrived at the Balcony, Jangbus oxygen had quit. The sirdar made little of it, and Ricky knew her friend was used to doing without. But hed been breathing bottled gas for days now while stocking the higher camps, including supplying the ill-fated cache at the South Summit, and she knew the sudden drop-off had to be hitting him hard.
Paul Andersen tossed his now-empty bottle aside just as they were getting ready to push off from the Balcony. "Well thats that," he said dully, his lips thin and blue beneath his frost-coated beard.
"Can you take the lead this pitch?" Ricky asked him, watching as the discarded bottle tumbled away into the void. "Ill take Mike for a while," she said, figuring to give the guide a break while his reeling body adjusted. Also, that position on the ropes would place her next to Allison. The younger woman had been diligently keeping up her end of the bargain, plodding on, head down into the wind, and it had not escaped the mountaineers notice that from time to time Harry Owens had offered her a few precious puffs of oxygen through his mask.
For that, she was inordinately grateful. Shed have to remember to thank him properly for his help, once this was all over.
They pushed off from the Balcony, threading their way in a ponderously slow fashion down into the gullies of the Triangular Face. Roller coaster rises and dips, where they would find themselves suddenly shielded from the biting winds, only to be hit full force once theyd struggled over the opposite side.
It was in one such protected gully at the bottom of the band, with Ricky once again leading the way, where she saw an object that didnt seem to fit with the surrounding terrain. Not a rock not an icy chunk of a cornice, fallen from above, but a body.
"Hang on!" She held up a hand to Jangbu, who was still hauling an ominously quiet Jim Harris. Unclipping from the line, she swam through about 10 yards of deep snow. The body was mostly snow covered, lying in a fetal position, but glimpses of a blue and gold climbing suit could be seen colors that had caught Rickys eye.
Bracing herself, she turned the body over.
The climber was Phil Christy.
Ricky dropped to her knees, frantically brushing the snow from his face and chest. Damn, damn, damn! She pulled off her over-mitt and gloves and desperately felt for a pulse.
His goggles were gone, as was his facemask, and somewhere along the line hed lost his gloves, too. His jacket was partially unzipped, and snow had begun to collect inside.
"Phil! Phil!" she shouted desperately, scrabbling for a shot of dex. She dug one out of her pack and stuck him with it. No response.
"Cmon cmon! Phil!" She slapped at his face, and tiny slivers of ice broke loose and tumbled to the ground. She pulled him up into a semi-sitting position, fighting back a twinge of nausea at how cold and stiffened his body felt to her touch. She leaned in close to his mouth and nose, listening for breath sounds, but again, detected nothing.
Swallowing hard, she gave her radio another try. Shed had no luck with it since her last abbreviated conversation with Sandra Ortiz at the South Summit. The interference from the storm could be too much, or perhaps by now her batteries had quit it was hard to tell, but she had to give it a shot.
"Bouchard to base. Bouchard to base. Over."
The wind gave up a lonely howl in response, as the mountaineers gaze focused on Phil Christys unmoving chest.
"Bouchard to C4. Bouchard " she gasped, " to anyone. Over."
Boot-steps slogged up behind her; it was Jangbu Nuru, wading through the snow to stand by her side.
"Is Mr. Phil," he said solemnly, mournfully.
"Yeah." She snapped the useless handset back onto her pack strap, and leaned forward. Gently, she lifted up one frosted eyelid, then the other. His pupils were fixed, and dilated in widened surprise at the moment of his death, as theyd never been in life.
Bodies were a part of life on Everest, on any high mountain that challenged a climbers mettle. You got used to it. But she had to admit that it was just a bit more jarring when that body happened to be someone you knew. Someone who, annoying fool or not, youd sat across from over breakfast, or who youd heard joke about getting married if he didnt win a silly bet. Well, Phil Christy had pushed himself, and won the bet.
And lost everything else.
"We got to keep going Ricky," Jangbu told her. "No help Mr. Phil." The sirdar was anxious to get moving again, and for more reason than the weather. Sherpas were notoriously superstitious about dead people. It was bad luck to see a body, even worse luck to be near one. The sirdar turned, and began to tramp back to the huddle of climbers.
Ricky reached around the dead man and pulled off his rucksack, which through it all hed somehow managed to retain. She eased him back down into the snow, and, offering him some small shred of dignity where he lay, secured the pack over his face. There was nothing else she could do, and she knew it. Not for him, and not for Kevin and Dorje, wherever they might be.
What the hell had happened, here? To have made it down the mountain so far, only to die here, alone, within an hour or so of Camp? Maybe hed gotten tired once his air ran out, and hed sat down to rest. Or maybe his glasses had fogged up, and hed removed his glove to clean them.
Everest played no favorites, Ricky Bouchard knew that. Shed heard tales of climbers whod died within scant feet of reaching their tents on the South Col. On the mountain, the last laugh was on you.
The only thing for it now was to get her people back to Camp IV, before darkness hit. That, she did have something to say about. Lifting her booted feet high against the thigh-deep snow, she made her way back to the fixed rope.
Uh-oh. The mountaineer drew in a sharp breath of air. Everyone was sitting down in the snow, everyone but Allison, who stood like a stone, frozen into position on the ropes.
The beleaguered climbers let the snow fall upon them, heads bowed, uncaring; like cars pulled to the side of a back-country road, stuck in a snowdrift.
Ricky made her way to a small, powder blue form. "How are you holding up?"
"II," Allison choked out through frozen lips, "was afraid that if I sat down I wouldnt get up."
Ricky Bouchard was weary. She could admit that to herself, now. She wasnt exactly sure when the situation had begun to spin out of control. Maybe it had been at the South Summit; maybe at the Balcony, when Paul Andersen had begun to lead them off in the wrong direction, nearly taking the direct route into Tibet, or maybe it was now, with a dead body behind them and the mouth of a storm in front of them.
Theyd fought the good fight, but finally, in the end, theyd arrived at the give up moment. She knew that if she didnt say a word, theyd all continue to sit right where they were, letting a lethargic, false warmth override what their dulled senses told them, until sleep seemed like the most wonderful, logical option in all the world.
Maybe this damned shipwreck was still salvageable. For Allisons sake, and for her own; for the life they deserved to have together, she had to try.
"Youre doing great," Ricky assured the frozen woman by her side, feeling the cold tears spring to her eyes, unbidden. "Im so proud of you." She gave her a gentle hug, and though Allisons arms remained stiffly at her sides clinging to the rope, the mountaineer was relieved to feel some of the tension leave the smaller womans body, as she relaxed and responded to the embrace.
"Were going to get moving now, okay?"
"Okay." A tired voice, emotionally and physically drained, but determined.
Ricky summoned up a reserve of energy she hadnt realized she possessed, and turned to the rest of the group. "Listen to me!" She worked her way around the huddle, grabbing at shoulders, pulling people to their feet. Doing anything she could to help them ward off the deadly inertia. "We cant stay here. Were close. Real close." She paused to help Jangbu work his numb fingers to re-attach his short-rope to a hypoxia-dazed Jim Harris. "Youve got to keep trying!" She shouted to be heard above the wind. "One step just give me one step at a time, and well make it okay?"
"Hot toddies on me when we get there," Harry Owens weakly joked, and he pushed himself to his feet.
Offering him a frozen grin, Ricky moved to the front of the ropes. "Do whatever youve got to do. Forget everything else and focus. One step at a time. And dont stop, okay?" she pleaded. "Dont stop."
She turned and faced downhill. Maybe it was her mind playing tricks on her, but it seemed that the visibility had begun to improve somewhat. She thought she could see a good 30-40 yards in front of her now, so there was that. Camp IV was down there somewhere, and by God, she would find it.
Step. Breathe. Breathe.
Okay. That worked. Time to try another.
Pemba Sherpa had a fine reputation among his peers. He worked hard, toted more than his share of the load, and had aspirations one day to become a sirdar like his idol, Jangbu Nuru. Pemba had to admit that he also enjoyed the prestige that came with working high on the mountains, just as his father before him had, and the money he received in a seasons work was enough to keep his growing family fed and clothed for the entire year. Not too shabby.
Unlike some of his brethren, he didnt mind working with the western climbers. Mostly, the job was to stay out of their way, while at the same time making sure you were at the right place at the right time, whenever they needed you. A delicate balance, and young Pemba had watched Jangbu Nuru carefully, imitating him, honing his craft.
It was Jangbu who had recommended him to Jim Harris and the Peak Performance Adventure Company, and he was grateful for that. Not all expeditions were the same, hed found that out over the years. With Jim Harris, he ate well, was well clothed and kept, and there would be a bonus at the end of it all if they were successful.
Harris seemed an okay fellow, and Mr. Paul, too, but from what Pemba had seen, he had to say that he preferred the company of Miss Ricky, Jangbus friend. She was a fine climber, one who hed be willing to match against the best of the Sherpani and, unlike some of the other westerners, hed never heard her complain. Like him, she loved the Mother Goddess, the best and the worst of her, he could tell.
No, she was not like the others. Hed known that from their very first climb through the Icefall, when hed seen her risk her life to save his friend Pasang Sherpa, whod been working for the Spanish team this season. And then there was that day several weeks ago, after hed descended from one of the storms up high, when shed sought him out in the Sherpa tent. Somehow, shed heard that hed lost one of his over-mitts in the hard blow, as hed been attempting to dig out tent platforms. Shed given him a pair of her own, against his vehement protest. Gore Tex the logo had said, and Pemba had worn them proudly, instantly becoming the envy of the junior Sherpas on the team.
Yes, he would certainly become a sirdar one day, just like Jangbu. He was disappointed that he didnt have a chance at the summit today after all, as that would certainly have enhanced his reputation. But hed been there before and he would be there again one day.
He was patient.
And when Ricky had asked him to help Mr. Lou back to camp, hed been happy to do it. Mr. Lou was a nice man, and hed obviously been in some distress. Better to retreat, and live to see another day, that was the Sherpa motto. When theyd arrived back at camp, it had been all Pemba could do to have the poor fellow swallow a few gulps of hot tea, before hed keeled over in his sleeping bag and fallen into a deep, exhausted stupor.
Later, hed been safely in the Sherpa tent, drinking hot tea and dozing, when hed heard the fragmented distress call from Miss Ricky to the Doctor. Hed tried calling her on his radio, but this was not the first time hed seen the contraptions fail. Instead, tired as he was, hed instantly sprung into action.
Leaving his tent, hed been shocked at the way the storm had blown up, and he had been a little scared, too, but he knew what Jangbu would do in a situation like this. So he poked his head in the rest of tents, gathering up what oxygen bottles he could find; some filled, some partially empty. Then hed grabbed a full thermos of hot tea, and had been steeling himself to start over the icy scree towards the ropes, when a dark figure had materialized out of the whiteout.
It was Mr. Kevin, who wasted no time staggering towards his tent, mumbling incoherently. Pemba tried to talk to him but Kevin ignored him; it wasnt the first time that had ever happened. Regardless, Pemba knew he could expect no help from him.
Squaring his shoulders, hed headed for the ropes. And then another form swirled into view, dressed in a blue and red climbing suit.
"Need a little help there, son?"
It was one of the men from the English tents. Hed heard the Peak Performance transmission. And it seemed one of their climbers was still out there, too. This man was the only one in their group, after the arduous day on the mountain theyd all had, with enough power to make a rescue attempt. Pemba had been glad to share his load of oxygen, it was certainly heavy, and hed been glad for the company as well.
Theyd decided to head up the slope towards the fixed rope at the base of the gullies, to see what they could find. To go any farther in this mess, with night approaching, would be ill advised. And with any luck theyd meet Jangbu, Miss Ricky and the rest of the team before they even got half way.
Well, theyd gone more than halfway by now, and Pemba Sherpa was worried. Very worried, indeed. Dark would be upon them soon, and the storm had only teased at letting up. Pemba kept turning around, checking to make sure the English was still with him, and also mentally marking his trail. He knew this mountain pretty well, but Jangbu knew it better, and hed feel much more comfortable if they would just find him right now, thank you, so the sirdar could take the lead on the way down.
"II dont know how much more we should keep going," the English shouted up to Pemba. "This is no good."
"Little more little more," Pemba replied, not breaking his stride. They were almost to the gullies now. Let them get there, and then see what they could see. Then, hed make his decision. If only the Mother Goddess would smile upon him, the decision would be taken from his hands!
Pemba Sherpa kept plodding forward, pulling the fixed rope out of the snow with every step, with every slide. Hed been breathing the bottled oxygen for so long now that every swallow in his dry throat meant pain, but he knew that was nothing compared to what the climbers up the mountain were feeling. Just a little more little more.
And then Pemba realized there was tension on the rope, tension from above. He pulled himself forward, through the swirling snow, and gulped hard as a tall figure, clad in red and black, loomed above him. For a moment, Pemba was frightened, thinking the apparition must be a mountain ghost, emerging from the mist to claim him for its own.
Until he heard a low, rasping voice greet him.
"Hi, Pemba. Nice gloves."
Allison Peabody was above it all. Floating, detached.
A part of what was happening to the body she saw struggling beneath her in the snow, and yet not.
Comfortably adrift, connected to her corporeal self by the most slender of tethers.
And then suddenly she could breathe again, or at least she was getting more air than she had before. Perhaps they had arrived all the way back at Base Camp by now. But no, for there was walking, always more walking, punctuated by confusing moments where she had to rejoin her body, and execute baffling maneuvers with an awkward, cold rope that someone kept pressing into her hands.
The voice always in her ear, yelling at her, making her do things she didnt want to do, driving her on, and always the walking, more walking. Or was she being carried? Sometimes, it was difficult to tell the difference.
And then there was no more down. And she found herself staring through blurred, stinging eyes, toward smudges of color in the encroaching darkness; tents, sagging under the weight of ice and snow.
Cmon. You can do it! Another step, Allison. For me. Please.
Next, her eyes were closed, and she knew that, but she saw no reason to open them just now. She was tired, so tired, more physically drained than shed ever been in her life. Unable to lift a frozen arm or a foot that seemed to not belong to her in the first place.
She could detect through her closed eyes the glow of a dim light, and then her goggles were gone, her boots, too, and there was a calm, soothing voice, urging to swallow some hot tea. A voice whose requests she had not refused of late, and she had no intention of starting to do so now.
And so she drank. Felt the hot liquid coursing down her throat, warming her chest, thawing her belly. It felt so damn good. Then the voice was in her ear again, gently murmuring now, no more yells, telling her that shed made it, and that everything would be okay.
She couldnt help herself then, couldnt stop it if shed wanted to. She was so relieved, so emotionally released, that she finally let her guard down. Felt herself collapsing, losing it, remembering what shed been up against, and how so many times shed wanted to simply give up.
Just like Phil Christy did. It would have been so easy. God, it was a good thing her eyes were closed now, so she wouldnt have to remember any of this later!
But she hadnt given up.
Shed focused, and done exactly what Ricky Bouchard had asked of her, more than in her heart she knew she would have been capable of on her own. Shed been so scared. Even now, the what ifs attempted to flood her mind, but fortunately, she was able to turn the tide back. Ricky was here with her, and she didnt have to think about anything else right now, if she didnt want to.
This will make you feel better.
A prick of a needle against gradually warming skin.
And then Allison was drifting again, but it was a good thing this time, she reasoned, as her sense of detachment increased. It was all a dream. And she was so warm. So safe. She and Ricky, together.
She felt fingers brush matted strands of hair from her forehead, and then the hand was replaced by a brush of lips.
Whatever Ricky Bouchard asked of her, she would do.
Ricky pulled back from Allison, a look of quiet grief on her face. Once more she checked the regulator attached to a bulky Zvesda bottle next to the blonde, making sure the oxygen flow was turned up to a luxurious 3.5 liters per minute.
The mountaineer was still having trouble wrapping her thawing mind around what had just happened; the cold, white hell theyd descended through. At the South Summit shed told Sandra Ortiz that she would get everyone down, but it had been close.
Too damn close.
If Pemba and Harry Owens teammate, David Lowe, hadnt shown up when they did the mountaineer squeezed her eyes shut, refusing to give in to the torture of what nearly had been.
She was feeling better herself; the hot tea and an energy bar had worked wonders, and she wanted nothing more than to stay by Allisons side, holding her, feeling the heat warming between them that told her the smaller woman was alive, and well, and safe.
It had been chaos when theyd gotten back to camp; Paul Andersen had been close to a state of total collapse, and Jangbu, too. The hardy little Sherpa had pushed himself to the limit this day, and had barely managed to survive it. David Lowe and another climber from the Spanish team had immediately begun to attend to an insensate Jim Harris and Mike Donaldson, forcing hot, sugar-laden brews into them. The sooner they and everyone else got out of the death zone and back down to Camp II - hopefully by tomorrow morning, if the weather cleared the better.
Ricky had been content to care for Allison herself, warding off those who sought to attend to her own needs, people like Lou Silvers, whod been rousted from his slumber by the excitement. The attorney was feeling better, and though his cough was still in full flower, his color was healthier than when Ricky had last seen him. Clearly, hed made a wise decision in turning back.
The mountaineer had turned the little stove in their tent on high, chasing away the frost that coated the floor and walls. Shed gotten Allison comfortable, rubbing at her frozen limbs, taking care to examine her hands and feet for any signs of frostbite. Although the younger woman had a bad windburn on her face, and it looked as if her eyes might give her some trouble, it had appeared as though shed escaped relatively unscathed. Ricky had sagged back in relief, thanking any god who might have been listening.
She hated the thought of leaving Allison, even for a minute, but her work this day was not yet done. A client was dead, and she needed to determine what a certain Kevin MacBride, or perhaps Dorje, knew about it. Did MacBride know his friend was dead? Did he even care?
Thats not entirely fair, the mountaineer thought, reaching for her boots. Silencing a groan, she tugged them on. She spared a last look at Allison. She was sleeping peacefully, as bundled up in sleeping bags, clothes, and blankets as Ricky had been able to manage without actually smothering her. Her breathing was good, and her color was, too.
Sighing, Ricky mentally had to nudge herself back through the vestibule of the tent,
and out into the storm once more. It was almost full dark, and the winds were still
blowing hard, maybe about 40 knots. She started tracking towards the central cluster of
tents, and was nearly upon the commotion before she noticed it.
Lou Silvers was there, tired but alert. Pemba was there too, standing next to Jangbu, listening. The sirdar was chattering into a radio handset, tears of exhaustion and frustration rolling down his face.
"Whats happening?" she wanted to know.
"This is shit. This is all such shit." The attorney muttered.
"Lou," Ricky demanded more forcefully. "Whats going on?"
"Its Dorje," he said, the despair plain in his voice. "He never made it back."
"What the" A bolt of anger shot through her. Instantly, she spun on her heel towards Kevin MacBrides tent. To leave not one, but two of your teammates on the hill inexcusable.
"Forget it, Ricky." Lou stepped in front of her, holding her back. "The guy cant think straight worth a damn I already tried it. He cant remember a thing. Hes out of it."
Ricky released a sharp burst of air. "Whos he talking to?" she nodded towards the radio.
"Pembas handset is only partially working. It can receive, but it cant transmit. We we can hear Dorje out there." He looked glumly at the two agitated Sherpas. "They can hear him, but they cant answer. Cant figure out where he is."
Jangbu collapsed into the snow, weeping. "I bad luck, Ricky. I tell Dorjes mother I look out for him."
The mountaineers heart nearly broke. She had never seen the sirdar so distraught, and yet she wondered what condition she would have been in if the situation were reversed, and it were Allison out there, all alone in the dark in the cold.
Faint words sounded over the handset; Dorje, speaking in Nepalese.
"Whats he saying?" she turned to Pemba.
The young Sherpas eyes tracked down to his feet; he was obviously exhausted to the bone, he had made two runs up the mountain already. "He say," he wrung his hands, looking slightly ashamed, "wont someone please come help me?"
There was one good thing to be said about being in a camp surrounded by a bunch of physically and mentally drained climbers, Ricky Bouchard considered, screwing the top down tight on a hot thermos of tea. Everyone pretty much had no fight left in them to stop her from doing what she fully intended to do.
There was no way she could leave Dorje out there. Not while she knew he was still alive. He was the youngster on the team of climbing Sherpas, and this was his first time working the high camps. How proud his family had been of him, Jangbu had told her, when theyd first sat down to review the strength of the Sherpa team.
God only knew what the hell had happened up there with the young Sherpa, MacBride, and Christy. Theyd pushed themselves from the start, bursting out of Camp IV like racehorses pining for the lead. Then there had been the storm, the problem with the gas, and who knew what else, leading to hypoxia, or worse. Theyd probably been just confused at first, then disoriented, and then well, the one thing she did know was that a man was lying dead in the gullies, while another was lying warm in his tent.
And as for the third man she was going to bring him back.
Oh, theyd tried to talk her out of it. Jangbu, Pemba, even a numb Paul Andersen. Wait til morning, theyd said, but the mountaineer knew that was time Dorje simply didnt have. A teammate was lost. She planned to find him.
Quickly, shed gathered up a few supplies, not trusting herself to return to her tent. Seeing Allison might weaken her resolve, and she did not fully trust herself to resist that selfish pull. To fight the desire to just curl up next to her and close her eyes, and let someone else worry about everyone elses problems. She knew that Allison would forgive her, would understand if she did exactly that.
But Ricky Bouchard knew she could never forgive herself.
"Okay " she said, stowing two ¾ full Poisk bottles into her rucksack, along with the tea, some chocolate and, of course, more syringes ofdexamethasone. "That should do it."
They were gathered at the opening of Lou and Pauls tent. Pemba had grounded several lanterns just outside, throwing feeble splashes of light a few yards into the snow; beacons, to guide her home.
"Youre sure you dont want any gas for yourself, Ricky?" Lous weathered face was clouded with concern.
"Im sure," the mountaineer quietly replied, knowing her body could not withstand another dip if she had to do without again.
"And youve got Pembas radio."
"Yeah," she told him, figuring a half-working radio was better than none. And maybe Dorje would sign on again, and be better able to describe his position. But she doubted it.
"Mebbe Dorje straight up above," Jangbu offered helplessly. "You no have to go far, Ricky."
"Maybe." She smiled faintly at her old friend, and shouldered her pack. "Youll make sure these people get out of here tomorrow, if the weather clears?"
"Yes," the sirdar said, lowering his head.
"Ricky!" Lou Silvers said, suddenly alarmed. "Dont dont leave me with a helluva lot of explaining to do to Allison you hear me?"
The mountaineer faced the compact attorney, fighting back the emotion that suddenly assailed her from some unknown place within. Lou Silvers was a decent man, and had become a good friend to herself and Allison over these past weeks.
She could see by the pleading in his eyes that he knew.
He knew that the young blonde sleeping peacefully several tents away was more than just a client to her. More than just a friend.
Ricky swallowed hard, wondering how in the world she could be such a fool as to even think of attempting this thing. "Stay with her Lou will you?" She took a deep, steadying breath. "Keep her safe," she added, and her voice nearly broke at that.
"I will," the attorney replied, locking his pale eyes on hers. "I promise."
Without another word, the mountaineer unzipped the opening, and shoved herself out into the storm.
Into the dark void.
Nighttime on Everest on any mountain for that matter changes the rules. Landmarks that are in plain sight during the day, become invisible; terrain, more difficult to negotiate. Let alone if a blinding storm is blowing. This time, Ricky Bouchard would have to depend on her senses, on her instincts, moving by feel and by touch, relying on what the mountain told her.
She moved across the snow-covered scree, clipped onto the fixed rope, and began to push upward. The wind howled; icy pellets bit into her cheeks, and the thick snow swirled around her.
Veronique, you fraud, this is probably the bravest, and the craziest thing youve ever done.
But it was all about risk, right? About the choices you made. And the consequences of those choices. Ricky Bouchard decided she could live with hers. Or at least, she hoped to God that she would.
She rolled onto her back, detecting the annoying encumbrance of the oxygen mask, and it was then that the bits and pieces began to flutter together. And with those shards of memory tumbling into place, her pulse quickened.
She knew she was back in her tent, she remembered that much; recalled the bitingly hot tea Ricky had made her swallow . Ricky! She could feel her presence near, even now. She forced open a swollen eyelid. There she was, right next to her, watching over her, with salt and pepper hair, and--
"Lou?" Allison blinked. And blinked again. The figure next to her was blurred, but she could see enough to know who it was and who it wasnt.
"Right here, Allie." The figure moved closer.
"Wha--- wheres Ricky?" She slowly levered herself onto her elbows, groaning. God, it felt as though shed been hit by a truck.
"Cmon. Lets try to get some more tea into you." Gently, he helped her remove her oxygen mask.
"Aah!" she cried out, reaching for her eyes as unforced tears began to stream from them. "Imy eyes they hurt! Feels like Ive got sandpaper in them or something."
"Just a touch of snow-blindness, I think," Lou said, tugging her hands away. "Easy there. Leave em alone, if you can. Just rest. Itll go away," he soothed. "Really."
"Okay," she said, gasping against the painful stinging.
"Now here." The attorney offered her some hot tea. "Drink this. Itll help to warm you up."
Gratefully, Allison accepted the tea, trying not to spill it on her trembling hands. She felt so cold now, felt it deep down to her core. A part of her understood that this was a good thing; it meant that she was warming up, as opposed to the non-sensation of freezing to death. If it hadnt been for Ricky .
"Lou," she peered at the attorney through puffy, slitted eyes. "Wheres Ricky?"
"Well," he shaped his words carefully, "shes not here."
Allison was sure she hadnt heard right. "But she was here. She was."
"Dorje never made it back, Allie," he told her, visibly bracing himself. "She went out there, after him."
"Allison---" he reached out for her.
"NO!" She shook him away, spilling the tea over her hand and onto the sleeping pad.
"She wouldnt do that." A faint whisper. "She wouldnt." There had to be some other rational explanation. She turned to Lou, a pained, half-hopeful smile on her face. "Where is she? Really."
"Dorje was calling in on his radio" he continued with the devastating truth, "but we couldnt return the transmission. Were not sure where he is, but Ricky thinks she can find him---"
"NO!" Allison lurched for the door of the tent. "Ricky, no!"
Lou sprang forward, grabbing for her arms. "Allison!"
"Let me go!" she cried out, fighting him. "Dont you see? I have to go. I have to help her!"
"She needs help Lou!" Allison was weeping now. "Why would she do that? Why would she go alone? I have to-" With renewed effort, she pushed him away. Moving quickly on her hands and knees, she was through the vestibule, and had unzipped the opening. Ricky Bouchard was out there, somewhere, all alone. It wasnt supposed to be like this. It wasnt.
"Allison!" She ignored Lous pained shout. But she felt the strong arms that wrapped around her middle, tackling her so that she lay half in and half out of the tent, pinned in position. "Please!" A hoarse whisper in her ear. "Ricky knows what shes doing. You have to trust her!"
"Noooo!" She cried out, the gut-wrenching howl of a wounded animal. She strained desperately at the force holding her down, tried to fight it, but it was all too much. And then the hardship of the last two days, the sudden shock of the cold, finally reared up and took its toll, and she felt the strength drain from her body. She lay on the ground, empty, as the storm shrieked around her. "You promised," she sobbed, the tears slipping off her face, dotting the snow beneath her. "You promised you wouldnt leave me."
Allison Peabody sat quietly in her tent, half-propped up in her sleeping bag, her mind dulled thanks to the constant, mesmerizing hiss of her oxygen regulator. Lou Silvers sat next to her, an extra jacket wrapped around his legs, busying himself by melting more snow for tea.
All through the night shed waited in a lonely vigil, staring at the silent, useless radio by her side, letting her fingers from time to time trail up to the protection cord she wore around her neck. Ricky never should have given it to her, and she never should have accepted it, but it was too late to do anything about that now. The fates of Ricky Bouchard and Dorje Sherpa, rested in the hands of the Mother Goddess.
Allison had begun to think that the storm might never end, but around 3AM it finally began to ease; the tent walls stopped billowing in upon them, and by the time Pemba checked on them at dawn, delicate colors of rosette and gold were streaking through a clearing eastern sky.
But still no Ricky Bouchard.
If anyone could survive a night exposed on Mount Everest, Allison fervently believed that Ricky could. People had done it before, mostly unintentionally, but she recalled hearing a tale several years earlier of a daredevil Sherpa whod pulled the stunt of staying out all night on the summit, no less.
But of the others, those inadvertent victims, many had suffered horrible, crippling injuries, like hypothermia, hypoxia, and frostbite. The frostbite had to be the worst, she figured, not because it killed you, which it sometimes did, but because more often than not, it let you live.
Shed seen a case of it once, when shed gone to climb Denali. Theyd just arrived at the muddy, smelly Base Camp, when a young man was brought down. Hed been a solo climber, a bit of an eccentric loner, and had gotten caught in a storm hed been ill equipped to handle. By the time rescuers found him, his limbs had been frozen solid. Which had actually helped, in a way. Frozen, hed still been able to walk until they were able to get him to a med-evac zone.
Back at Base Camp, a physician had begun the thawing process: soaking his arms and legs in lukewarm water. But the way hed looked Allison had nearly been sick to her stomach. The skin of his face, his hands and feet, was a dark, charcoal color. And the swelling his nose had appeared nearly flush to his face.
She could still remember his screams, as the dying tissue in his body tried to revive, only to give up its last. Shed heard later he lost both feet, and all the fingers in one hand.
No! Dont think about that. It will not happen. It wont!
All she could do was wait. And hope. Shed been afraid to fall asleep, afraid she might miss Rickys call, but she was ashamed to admit that she had fallen into a dazed, hypoxic slumber more than once during the night. She superstitiously chided herself, fretting that by having done so, she might have somehow lessened the mountaineers chances.
As time passed with still no word, a sense of detachment began to envelop her, deadening her senses. Idly, she began to wonder if she were going into shock. Or maybe it was just her system reacting, withdrawing the way it always had, before shed met Ricky.
Because it was easier not to feel, not to hurt.
She could turn the pain off anytime she wanted to, right? After all, shed spent her lifetime perfecting the art.
She was at peace in her numbness, her isolation.
Preferred it, in fact, being alone.
And so she stayed that way when they came to get her, insisting that she descend immediately, telling her that staying any longer in the death zone might mean shed never get down at all. She supposed that fine point should matter to her but it didnt really; how could they ever understand, and in the end she hadnt the strength to fight them. So she let herself be short-roped half-blind down the Lhotse Face, all the way to Camp II. Told herself that she wasnt dying a little bit inside, with every step that took her farther away from Ricky.
At Camp II she blankly passed through the makeshift field hospital that had been the Peak Performance dining tent, letting the doctor from the British expedition poke and prod her, telling her how very lucky she was.
It wasnt until the next morning, after some perfectly kind, considerate strangers had guided her down through the Cwm and the Icefall, and into Base Camp, that she dispassionately took in the news that by the evening before, reports indicated there were two climbers with severe injuries in at Camp IV. The information had been hopscotched along an international chain of climbers and radios, since afternoon weather patterns and the altitude were still wreaking havoc with communications.
The injured climbers were to be brought down to Camp II possibly today, and from there, thanks to a rare, perilous helicopter landing in the Cwm, would be evacuated to Pheriche.
Two climbers, alive.
Even then, Allison refused to let herself believe it. To hold out any hope. Because if she did .
It simply hurt too damn much.
The atmosphere in Base Camp distinctly changes after the summit attempts have been made. The energy, the excitement, the anticipation that pervaded in early April gives way as May draws to a close to a joyous exhaustion, or bitter disappointment, or even grief.
The little town of Base Camp mourns if its community has been diminished by the loss of one or more of its members; the only thing that travels faster than news of a summit success, is the word of a summit death. All the expeditions feel it, are moved by it, knowing, but for the whim of the Mother Goddess, it could have been one of their own.
Some swear never to come back, shaken to the core by the rawness of the experience, the brute-force game of survival that they have played out against the mountain. Others resolve to return again one day; stronger, perhaps better equipped, and with better luck. To finally seize the prize that has thus far eluded their grasp.
There is a distinct end-of-season feel to the whole scene. Some climbers who for one reason or another never even made a summit attempt, are long gone. Others, who have returned from the higher camps, simply keep descending, anxious to return to the green, to the thicker air below. Expeditions are departing; the sounds of equipment and tents being broken down and packed up echo through the valley. Sounds punctuated by the ever-present cracks and grumbles from the Khumbu, as though it were urging them along; hastening their departure.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the mighty glacier begins to reclaim its territory. Temporary structures: tent foundations, latrines, cooking facilities, start to tilt and pitch in opposing directions; a tinker-toy town after a small earthquake. The glacier movement can also generate great lakes of melt water in the most inconvenient places; the makeshift volleyball court, or a sleeping climbers tent. By the time winter arrives, nearly all signs of any man-made structures will have been obliterated.
Leaving behind nothing but that sweep of rock and ice, thrusting impossibly high, touching the rich texture of billowing clouds, standing out in brilliant relief against a vivid blue sky. Leaving behind memories, too, of what might have been.
Of what very nearly was.
Allison Peabody slowly picked her way across the rocky scree, her head bowed against the bright mid-morning sunshine. Powerless to withstand the exhaustion that had overwhelmed her body, shed collapsed into her sleeping bag yesterday afternoon and slept straight through the first real sleep shed had in days. The inactivity had certainly helped her eyesight. The doctors had told her that the skin on the cornea is replaced every 24 hours, if you rest your eyes.
Theyd been right.
The swelling was down, and the crusty pain shed endured had gradually dissipated.
Better, the disconcerting feeling of not being able to fully see, was now gone.
So she could see, so what?
Would Ricky be able to see? Would Ricky be able to walk? Was Ricky even alive? Communications on the mountain were still terrible. Lou had informed her of that when hed stopped by Rickys tent earlier this morning. Allison had chosen to sleep there, feeling closer to the mountaineer somehow; imagining, in the ebb and flow of her dreams, that Ricky had merely stepped away momentarily and that she would return, soon.
Lou had told her that a Nepalese army helicopter was going to chance the dicey landing above the Icefall shortly, and that hopefully, despite tired batteries and poor reception, that word had gotten through to the people caring for the injured climbers at Camp II.
Multiple expeditions had pitched in to help out in the rescue, and Jangbu Nuru was still up there, hed added. As sirdar hed refused to come down until all under his charge were accounted for.
Jangbu. A better man by far than the majority shed known in her lifetime.
The attorney had urged her to join him in the dining tent, and at first Allison had refused, her mind already on where they were taking Ricky, and how she could get to her.
"Please, Allison," Lou had pleaded. "Youve got to keep your strength up. And " hed paused, "II promised her, Id take care of you."
That had nearly broken her, nearly punched through the wall of nothingness shed carefully built around herself.
It was all shed been able to do to wave Lou off, nodding that shed join him shortly after all.
Cautiously, Allison chanced a glance up the mountain. It was hard to believe, here in the peaceful calm of Base Camp, that somewhere up there, the drama still continued. It felt strange to her, being down here in the deep valley, drinking in the thick air. Like she didnt belong here anymore was separate, somehow.
And indeed, that was true, she considered, crossing her arms in front of her chest at the chill she still felt; at the coldness that permeated her being like an ill wind. Her place was with Ricky, no matter what.
No matter where. Of that, shed already made up her mind. There was nothing left for her in her old life, nothing that she even remotely cared to return to. If Ricky were gone well, that would simply be that.
She stepped into the dining tent. Lou Silvers was there, gingerly sipping on a hot cup of coffee. A plate of pancakes sat in front of him, barely touched. "Hey!" his pale eyes crinkled in greeting. "Glad you made it, Allie."
She offered him what she hoped passed for a smile, and sat down across from him.
Lopsang quickly presented her with a cup of hot tea. "What I get for you today, Miss Allison?" The Sherpa cook was distinctly subdued, the normal merriment gone from his dark eyes, his weathered face.
Guiltily, Allisons thoughts flickered to the young Dorje. Remembered that there were other people out there who, like her, worried, feared for a loved one on the mountain.
"Miss Allison? Pancake? Omelet?"
"Uh " she caught Lous warning eye, "Maybe some toast, to start?"
The attorney frowned, but said nothing.
Allison fiddled with her cup, and drew in a tentative breath. "II suppose I should talk to Sandra about how I can get down to Pheriche," she said stiffly, keeping her eyes on the steam rising from her tea.
"I think theyre planning something for tomorrow. Jim and Kevin should be ready to travel by then."
"What about Mike and Patsy?" Allison asked as a matter of course. Two people she would likely not ever see again.
"They hauled off out of here early this morning. They couldnt get away fast enough. Left a lot of expensive stuff behind, too," he clucked. "Paid some Sherpa porters up from Lobuje to get em down. Last thing I heard was him mouthing off about having his lawyers look at the assumption of risk clause in the Peak Performance contract." He shook his head, grimacing. "The guy still doesnt get it."
Risk, Allison thought. And the choices you make.
Just like Ricky had told her, you had to live with them. Trying, somehow, to factor in with those choices the vagaries of life.
A snowstorm that wasnt supposed to happen, and an oxygen cache that went missing.
A team leader who turned out to be unfit, both physically and ethically.
And a mountaineer who had already performed above and beyond what was humanly possible, only to tempt the fates once more.
Why had she done that? Why?
"You know," the attorney continued, picking idly at his pancakes, "Ive been thinking, Allie. She saved me, up there." He looked to Allison for a reaction, but the younger woman kept her eyes lowered. "I can be so pig-headed sometimes like when Im doing a cross-examination in court. I just get so focused I go for it. No matter what. If she had encouraged me to keep going like Jim did with Mike," he paused, remembering, "I might have."
Allison lifted her eyes to Lou, saw the pain on the mans face, and the understanding, too. He knew what she was going through. Knew that his kind words were a poor substitute for that which she truly desired. Her heart stuttered as she allowed herself to feel that, to let herself go, allowing the ice that had built up protectively around her spirit begin to thaw.
Ricky had done only what shed had to do, what she was compelled to do, by being the kind of woman she was. The same quiet, noble woman of strength and character who Allison had helplessly fallen in love with.
"She saved me," Lou repeated, shaking his head in wonder.
The whump-whump of helicopter blades began to sound in the distance, drawing closer, heading for the Cwm.
"She saved us all," Allison hoarsely whispered, knowing it was true of herself, most of all.
The helicopter passing overhead, a rare enough experience at altitude, drew the curious attention of those still in Base Camp. Climbers stood in small clusters gazing up, solemnly aware of the unfortunate purpose of the unusual flight.
Paul Andersen had crawled out of his tent and was watching; he offered Allison and Lou a tired wave. The guide was in fairly good shape after all hed been through, and would help guide the hike down the valley the following morning.
With its big engine whining, the chopper circled once, then disappeared from view.
"Hes down," Lou said softly.
They stood there quietly, boring their eyes into the sky above the lip of the Icefall. The thin air at that altitude dangerously tested the helicopters capabilities; takeoff would be critical.
Allison listened to the distant thumping of the spinning rotors, imagining that every beat matched the pounding of her heart. What was going on up there? How were Ricky and Dorje? When were they going to tell her something? Allison felt as though she were hanging onto the remnants of her sanity by only the thinnest of threads.
Just then a man approached. Tall and lanky, with curly black hair, a full dark beard, and a friendly, wind-burned face. "Thought Id see how you were doing, love."
"Oh, Harry!" she cried, the recognition dawning. She threw herself into the Englishmans arms. "Thank you thank you for all your help up there. If it hadnt been for you"
"Dont thank me," he said chuckling, patting her back. "Thats some guide you people had. Shame about what happened, though," he added.
The emotion drained from her face. Wordlessly, Allison pulled away, returning her attention to the mountain.
Noticing her sudden withdrawl, Harry cleared his throat. "Well . ah, any news? Thats what the whirlybirds about, right?"
Allison didnt answer him. Couldnt, if shed tried.
"Yes," Lou told him, speaking for the younger woman. "They brought Ricky and Dorje down from Camp IV yesterday, or at least thats what weve been able to gather."
"And it doesnt look good," Lou said tightly, his eyes fastened on the stiffened back of Allison Peabody.
The whine of the choppers engine suddenly intensified. Rising slowly above the Khumbu, a black insect against the white vastness of the massif, was the army helicopter. It seemed to hover for a moment at the edge of the Icefall, laboring, and then it began to zip away towards the southwest, towards Pheriche.
"There it goes," Harry said, shielding his eyes as he followed it.
Allison watched it too, watched it take what was left of her battered heart off of the mountain.
"Okay!" A frazzled-looking Dr. Sandra Ortiz emerged from the communication tent, with one of the short-wave radios in her hand. "I was able to get that theyve got the two patients on board, and are heading to Pheriche."
"Ive got to get there," Allison blurted out, feeling a panic begin to bloom in her chest at the thought of Ricky leaving her behind.
"Well be having a group start down the mountain tomorrow, Allison," the doctor began. "You can"
"No," she cut her off. "I have to go now. Today. To Pheriche."
"What?" The petite physician was plainly confused. "Theres nothing you cantheyre only getting stabilized at the clinic there, while the chopper loads more fuel. Theyll be off to Kathmandu by the time"
"I dont care!" Allison insisted, feeling flushed, angry, feeling something, for the first time in two days. Her hands clenched in two tight fists. "I have to go today."
"Today!" she cried out, realizing she was on the verge of losing it. Desperately, she fought for control of her teetering emotions, worrying that if she gave way to all of them, right at this minute, shed never be able to pull herself back together again. And she had to stay strong.
For Rickys sake.
"Look," Harry Owens stepped in, looking warily back and forth between Sandra Ortiz and Allison. "Weve got a yak train heading down this afternoon with some of our equipment and things. IIm sure you can go with them, if you feel you need to."
"I do," Allison said, willing herself to calm. "Thanks."
"Its the least I can do," the young Englishman said, tapping the bill of his cap. "Ill just see about it, then." He headed back towards the British camp.
Allison sighed heavily, weak with relief. Okay. She had a plan.
"You all right?" Pale gray eyes gazed at her in concern.
"Yeah," she told the attorney, watching Sandra Ortiz retreat back to the communications tent. And was reminded of the conversation shed overheard on the radio up top. Only days ago, though it seemed like years. "Excuse me."
She left Lou there, trailing instead after the physician.
"Is there something else I can do for you, Allison?" The doctor had stopped at the entrance to the tent and turned, detecting her presence.
"Why did you do it?" she asked, proud that she was able to keep her voice so firm, so even.
"Im sorry. I dont know what"
"Why did you let him go up there, knowing he had a problem?"
The doctors face became an unreadable mask. "Im sorry. I cant discuss any patients medical history with"
"Your patient," Allison ground out, her anger building, "was our team leader. He almost got himself killed. And he jeopardized the lives of the rest of us, too."
"Im sure I dont know what youre talking about," Sandra said stiffly, but Allison could see her dark brown eyes begin to dart nervously from side to side.
"Dont worry about any lawsuit, lady. Not from me, anyway." Allison laughed bitterly. "Thats not my style." She put her hands on her hips. "I just wanted to see if I could understand what kind of a doctor was willing to risk sending a man to his death." She shook her head. "And from where I stand," she let her eyes travel up and down the other womans form, apprising her, "theres not much to see." She spun on her heel to leave.
Allison turned slowly back around, taking in the pained, stricken expression on the physicians face.
"You wouldnt understand."
"Try me." Allison folded her arms.
"I had to. You see " she hesitated, "we have a history, Jim and I." Just mentioning the team leaders name seemed to lend her a sense of confidence, and she was actually able to relax her face into a small, shy smile. "II love him." Her hands fluttered self-consciously. "And he loves me, too."
Oh, God. So that was what it all came down to, in the end? To two people, allowing themselves to be used by each other, telling lies and believing them, all for what?
"Thats not love," Allison said, gazing at the pathetic, misguided woman before her. "Thats sick."
And she turned and walked away.
The sooner she could get the hell out of here and get to Ricky Bouchards side, the better.
It felt good to be busy, to have something to do. Folding sweaters. Stowing gear. Cleaning up her campsite. It helped to keep her mind off things.
Until she found her journal in her hands.
She didnt open it. Instead, with her breath catching in her throat, she quickly stowed it in her duffel, glad to have it out of sight.
She hadnt written in it in days. Wondered if she would ever write in it again. And, if she did, what sort of a story would the words she put to paper, tell?
Allison finished packing up her own belongings, placed the duffle in the vestibule of her tent, and then made her way with heavy boot steps towards Rickys tent at the far edge of the encampment.
Pemba had assured her hed take care of her climbing gear, including dismantling her tent and Rickys too, so all she had to worry about were the smaller, personal items. At some point, miraculously, all the gear was supposed to show up at the airport in Kathmandu, ready to go wherever.
Taking a deep breath, Allison ducked inside Rickys tent. Lou had offered to help her, wondering if this might be too hard on her, but shed declined his assistance. She preferred to be alone for this solitary task, considered it an elegy of a sort to Ricky, through her thoughts, her memories, her oh-so tentative hopes.
Gazing around the dim interior, it dawned on Allison for the first time how, other than the small camp stove, and the odd bit of extra climbing gear, there wasnt much else here. Not of a personal nature, anyway. It appeared that Veronique Bouchard liked to travel light.
Allison threw what she could into a rucksack; some clothes, including one of Rickys thick, red sweaters. She could not help but nuzzle it, breathing in a faint trace of the mountaineers scent.
Letting her heart feel the ache, the need.
After a time she gathered herself. Slowly, reluctantly, she folded it away. She moved to the head of the tent where Ricky kept her lantern. Next to it she found a few other items: a Buddhist prayer book, and a worn pocketknife bearing the faint intitals JPV.
A small leather portfolio containing several folders was jammed behind the sleeping pad. Allison reached for it, and saw that it was unzipped. Idly, she flipped it open, figuring it contained business papers. It did, she saw at a glance, including profiles of all the Peak Performance clients.
With the profile of one Allison Peabody placed on top. A faint smile played across Allisons lips as she took note of a bold script across the bottom of the page: Has possibilities, but will need to keep an eye on her.
Thank God she had.
Allisons eyes traveled to the photo of a pinch-faced, bored looking young woman, whose green eyes drilled into the camera as though she had much better places to be than in some two-bit photo shop, getting her picture taken. She barely recognized the sullen stranger staring out at her.
A woman who simply didnt exist anymore.
Allison carefully closed the portfolio and packed it away. The tent seemed so quiet now, so empty, without the powerful, natural force of the mountaineers presence. But if she tried hard . The young blonde closed her eyes, sending her soul out among the cathedral spires of white, searching for Ricky. For her spirit.
She just had to make it. Had to be okay.
And then the tears began to fall, unbidden, because she knew things wouldnt be all right, they couldnt be, not ever again. Ricky was only human. If she somehow survived this trial, their lives would be changed forever. The reports said the climbers were badly injured. How did you come back from that?
Well, she and Ricky would find a way. Together. After all, Allison, she crawled towards the door, youre in this for the long haul.
Just let that cantankerous mountaineer try to get rid of her!
Outside, she perched on the flat rock at the entrance to Rickys tent, where theyd both sat together so many times, enjoying the sun, the stars, and each other.
The kindly Harry Owens had confirmed that the yak train would be leaving within the hour or so; and that was just fine with her. She would definitely be ready to say goodbye to this place.
She stared up at the mountain, thinking of all that had happened, of the things shed discovered about other people, and about herself. She was proud of what shed accomplished, but at the same time, she knew a man had died up there.
Poor Phil Christy.
And as for his friend a return to the lower elevations had helped in his recovery, but a stunned, devastated Kevin MacBride still was unable to recall exactly what had happened. Theyd panicked when their oxygen had run out in the storm during the descent; hed remembered that much. Confusion, and lethargy had soon followed. Theyd kept having to stop and rest untiluntil suddenly Kevin was alone.
On his own.
He didnt even remember stumbling back into camp, or hearing Pembas frantic visit to his tent. A typical reaction to hypoxia, Allison knew.
Was it all worth it, she wondered?
Worth the price?
If all that shed been through had been necessary to bring her to this place, to Ricky then yes, it most certainly was. Sighing, she allowed herself to find a certain peace in that.
She lifted her eyes towards the hidden summit; she could see the flag of its plume flying, misty white against the azure blue sky. Had she ever been that high? She let her gaze track down down along the Southwest Face into the Cwm, along 29,035 icy cold feet of hope and hell, finally terminating in the frozen river of the Icefall.
She saw a blur of movement in the jumble of smaller seracs at the base of it, at the point where it widened out into the rock and ice delta of the lower moraine. She blinked, and was pleased to find that her healing eyesight had not deceived her. It was a climber no two climbers, just finishing the traverse. Allison was mildly surprised. It was a bit late in the morning - just before noon - to be mucking about up there, although such a thing wasnt entirely unheard of.
They were probably just as anxious to get the hell out of there as everyone else was, Allison considered, and she slowly pushed herself to her feet. They had to be coming from Camp II. Her stomach fluttered at the thought of what news they might have on Ricky, but she had to know.
The climbers were moving slowly, probably not taking any chances now that they were nearly down, and Allison had to squint against the sun that was now nearly directly in her eyes. She turned slightly to her right, still heading for the base of the Icefall, and now she could see the climbers again, closer. The first climber, wearing the floppy multi-colored hat of a Sherpa, had turned to help the second climber down; helped him awkwardly unclip from the rope as he stood half bent over, catching his breath.
Hmnn, Allison thought. That second guy mustve had a tough time getting
Allisons heart leaped in her chest. The second climber had turned, and was looking towards her. A climber wearing black pile pants and a red and black jacket.
No. It couldnt be.
She willed her feet to move.
There was no way.
The climber straightened and stood tall, impossibly tall, eyes fastened upon her now. She could feel the heat of the gaze, even through the glacier glasses the figure wore.
Could it be?
A gloved hand slowly lifted in greeting.
"Ricky?" Allison cried out, breaking into a shambling run across the scree. "Ricky!"
The figure started to lurch towards her, assisted by the Sherpas hand at its elbow.
"Oh, God, Ricky!" Allisons voice was a choked gasp as she flung herself into Rickys arms, nearly bowling her over. "Is it really you?"
It was impossible, wasnt it?
But there was no mistaking the embrace, the feel, the touch; the soothing words her hearing could not process, and the way her body and her soul reacted to it all.
And so her senses confirmed to her what her stunned mind refused to register: that somehow, someway, Ricky Bouchard had just walked out of the Icefall.
"Nice to see you, too," the mountaineer joked, her voice a thin rasp.
"II cant believe it ." Allison kept her head buried in Rickys chest, afraid to let go lest this vision holding her somehow disappear. "What are you doing here? I thought you were"
"I climbed up this damn mountain," Ricky growled, holding her tight. "There was no way in hell I wasnt going to climb down, on my own two feet."
"But how?" Allison lifted her head, her eyes brimming with tears. "We heard there were two climbers that"
"There were," Ricky explained, coughing. "It was a regular party up there." She released Allison and started to hobble slowly towards the tents. She draped her arm over the smaller womans shoulders, allowing her to take some of her weight. "It took me a while to find Dorje, but I did, about 50 yards into the gullies. He was in bad shape. Hypoxic. I knew there was no way to get him moving anytime soon. Not in that weather. So I started to dig out a snow cave."
"A snow cave?" Allison gazed at the mountaineer in wonder.
"Yeah," the tall woman croaked. "It wasnt much but it at least protected us from the brunt of the weather. Id just about had it done, too, when this this guy comes barreling out of the dark from above."
"What?" Allison stopped, allowing Ricky to catch her breath.
"Yeah. From the International expedition. Wearing one of our empty Poisk bottles, I might add," she said dryly. "Poor guy was frozen solid," Ricky shook her head, remembering. "By this time I was feeling pretty knackered too." The mountaineer started to move again, with Allison carefully supporting her. "So we hunkered down until the next morning."
"Until they found you?"
"Nah." A rough laugh. "We found them. It took a couple of shots of dex each to get em moving, that and a few strong words." The corner of her mouth turned up in a grin. We started down the slope you know the drill one step at a time. Didnt catch up to Jangbu and a couple guys from that British expedition, until mid-afternoon."
"Thank God," Allison almost wept in relief. She angled her head to take in the quiet form of the Peak Performance climbing sirdar, Jangbu Nuru.
"And how are you doing, Jangbu?" she asked, realizing with some small sense of embarrassment that she hadnt addressed him up til now. The wiry little Sherpa had been walking closely to Ricky on her opposite side, discreetly busying himself with a balky carabiner.
"I fine, Miss Allison, just fine," he beamed, teeth flashing from his dark skin.
"Hell, hes better than fine," Ricky chuckled hoarsely. "I had to talk him out of having another go at the top."
"No no, no!" The sirdar protested. "Jangbu all finished, this year. Next year, summit for sure!"
They were nearing the tents now. Several Sherpas had noticed Jangbus approach, and were excitedly calling to him.
"Your buddies are waiting." The mountaineer nodded towards the tents.
The sirdar seemed to hesitate. "I good luck again, okay, Ricky?" Jangbu peered carefully at Ricky, awaiting her response.
"Yeah," she told him, grinning. "You are, my friend."
And with another burst of a smile, the Sherpa left them, heading towards the growing crowd of his brothers. They welcomed him with shouts and laughter; slaps on the back, and an overflowing mug of chang.
"Cmon." Allison urged the mountaineer on. "Lets get you looked at."
"Im fine," Ricky insisted. "Its Dorje I think will be okay." She gazed in the direction the helicopter had flown. "But that other guy ." She pursed her lips. "Frostbite. Bad. Plus he was bleeding from the nose and" The mountaineer had to stop again. She pulled off her glasses, and rubbed at her eyes. "I dont know."
It was then that Allison was able to fully take in the mountaineers gaunt, haggard condition. The windburn had turned her face an even color darker than usual. Her sunken eyes were two blue orbs set adrift in an angry bloodshot sea, and her lips were swollen and cracked.
"II hope he makes it," Ricky finished, wearily replacing her glacier glasses.
Allison could feel how the mountaineer was hurting. Ricky knew shed tried her best, and yet felt that supreme effort still might not have been enough. But that was Ricky Bouchard. Always putting the welfare of others above her own.
No matter the cost.
It took a moment before Allison trusted herself to speak.
"When you didnt come back I thought you were dead," she said quietly, struggling to keep her voice from faltering. "And then they said theyd found two climbers badly injured and I" her composure finally broke, and she let the feelings flow at last, all of them.
Felt the hurt and the pain, the despair and the relief.
And the love.
She needed to feel that, most of all. Had been so afraid she never would, ever again.
She was unaware of precisely when Ricky took her in her arms again, she only knew that she was where she belonged - wrapped inside that embrace, safe.
And when her rockslide of pent-up emotions had given way at last to a few loose, skittering pebbles, she heard the mountaineers husky voice buzzing in her ear.
"And how are you doing? Really."
Allison could feel her partners body tense, awaiting her answer.
"Im fine," she said. "Now."
As she said those words she thought she hadnt any tears left to cry, but she was wrong; they came spilling down her cheeks just the same. She felt Ricky stroking her hair, trying to comfort her with small, gentle motions.
"I could never leave you, Allison," she swore to her. "Ever."
Ricky Bouchard and Allison Peabody sat at a small table in the secluded rear corner of an otherwise noisy, crowded, smoke-filled bar and would-be restaurant. Allison tugged at the hem of her short blue canvas skirt, which contrasted nicely with her red and white flowered cotton top. The mountaineer featured khaki shorts, a white T-shirt, and hiking boots. Her hair hung loosely about her shoulders, and she laughed at something Allison said; the brilliance of her smile highlighting the deep tan of her skin.
The casual observer wouldve been hard-pressed to argue the point that both women, the taller one in particular, had not just come back from, say, an extended sojourn in the South Pacific. Were it not for the fact that said bar and ersatz dining emporium stood in the shadow of the Himalayas, in Kathmandu.
"I dont care what you say," Allison said, shooting Ricky a look of feigned injury. "Its definitely more quiet here. Were not as close to the music."
"Quiet," the mountaineer replied, tongue firmly in cheek, "is not usually a word I would associate with this place."
This place, happened to be The Rum Doodle. The Rummer, as alpinists referred to it, was the place in Kathmandu for the après-Everest climbing crowd. With its dark spruce and oak interior, its somewhat sticky wooden floor, and a jukebox locked in a 1960s rock n roll mode, occasionally interspersed with dashes of Motown, it was as likely a place as any for high-altitude astronauts to re-enter the earths atmosphere.
To acclimatize as it were, to the relatively lower reaches of the planet after long weeks away. Breathing in the thick, luxurious, albeit smoke-filled air.
Upon returning to so-called civilization, a stopover at the Rum Doodle was a definite must. Founded and operated by British ex-patriots, the Rummer owed its name to a work of fiction, Ascent of the Rum Doodle, a satirical account of an old-time mountaineering expeditions ascent of the 40,000 foot make-believe Rum Doodle.
Although the food was mediocre, the drinks were better, but it was not exclusively the hospitality of the place that had for years attracted an overflow of patrons. Behind a long, deeply pitted bar whose wooden edges had been worn smooth by decades of chaffing elbows and arms, hung four locked glass cases. The area was guarded hawkishly by the Rummers management.
The cases did not hold prized liqueurs and elixirs of the orient. Rather, each case protected the big boards that contained the Mount Everest summit register. Ricky had shown Allison the register as soon as theyd come in, and the younger woman had marveled at the scribbled inventory of historys climbing greats: Sir Edmund Hillary, Reinhold Messner, Ed Viesturs, and more. Drawing as closely as she could to the register without eliciting the attendants ire, shed found on her own a Veronique Bouchard, more than one, in fact, with the most recent entry immediately followed by the flourished signature of Jean-Pierre Valmont.
"Can I have another burger?" Allison blotted the corner of her mouth with a paper napkin. "That was so good Ive been dreaming about them for weeks!"
"Only if you promise to share." The mountaineer casually lifted her hand, immediately getting the attention of a rather harried waiter.
"Oh, no you dont." Allison circled her arms protectively around her depleted plate. "I saw what you did to my french fries." She offered her scowling companion a cheeky smile. "Youre on your own, sweetheart."
After Rickys stunning return to Base Camp, theyd taken their time making their way back down the trail. Although theyd nearly ended up leaving that afternoon anyway with the yak train, once Ricky had found out that Allison had already packed and was prepared to leave. It had taken all of the younger womans considerable skills of persuasion to finally get the mountaineer to relent, to take a couple of days and get some of her strength back, before they departed.
Once theyd begun their descent, however, it had gradually unfurled into a leisurely, intoxicating experience of re-acquainting themselves with the earthly things theyd nearly forgotten.
A juniper tree, swaying in a warm, afternoon breeze.
The moist, earthy scent of a farmers tiny field, freshly plowed.
And not waking up in the middle of the night, breathless, desperately gasping for oxygen that simply wasnt there.
Theyd even stopped once more at the monastery in Thyanboche. There, Allison had been only too happy to again endure cup upon cup of the salted, yak-butter tea pressed upon her by the indulgent, beatific monks. Knowing enduring such hospitality meant being granted another audience with the Rimpoche.
Allison would have sipped their tea for a week if shed had to, smiling and nodding all the while, for the opportunity of being able to offer thanks to the Mother Goddess for having granted them both safe passage.
Ricky would have been content to trek all the way back to Kathmandu, but when theyd arrived in Lukla yesterday, at the entrance to the Sagarmatha National Park, Allison had convinced her to board a small plane for the last 100 miles of the journey. Once back in the capital city, safely ensconced in the relative comfort of the Hotel Garuda, theyd taken the remainder of the day to just laze about, resting, relaxing, and rediscovering one another.
It was amazing, Allison had thought last night, lying contentedly in the mountaineers arms, how quickly things could change. One week, youre on the upper reaches of Everest, fighting for your life while trying to keep from freezing to death, and the next youre in a near-tropical zone, fighting off the heat while you try to re-adapt to the smog, the growl of traffic, the sound of babies crying in the night. It was a dissonant, confusing clash of images, of sensations, of realities. The only thing that had even remotely allowed her to begin to reconcile it all, to make sense of it, was the woman whod slumbered deeply beside her.
This morning Ricky had announced they were going to visit Dorje in the local hospital, as well as the other climber she had rescued. Anatoli Rimskov was his name, theyd found out, a climber whod joined the International expedition from his home base in Uzbekistan.
Dorje was improving slowly but steadily, theyd been pleased to see. His only recollection of what had happened on the mountain was one of trying to keep up with Kevin and Phil, and then somehow becoming separated from them. With his oxygen gone and no power left, hed simply sat down in the snow, freezing, hoping that somehow someone would come help him.
Hed lost a few toes, and several fingers on his puffy, swollen hands were still in jeopardy, but the little Sherpa remained optimistic about it all, shyly telling them how he planned for another summit next season, even as hed thanked Ricky profusely.
They hadnt really been able to talk to Anatoli.
The High Altitude Cerebral Edema, or HACE, had hit him hard. Hed just come out of a coma, but was still drifting in and out of any real state of awareness. It would be a long haul back for the man, the doctors had told them as they stood outside his room, looking in on him. And in time, the medical experts were hopeful hed return to full cerebral function.
But he would never climb again.
Ricky had been quiet when theyd left the hospital, and Allison had respected that, letting the tall woman take the time she needed to work that information through, to come to terms with it. All she could do was be there for her, supporting her, reassuring her that the only reason either of those men had a chance now, was because of her, not despite her efforts.
Gazing at the mountaineer now, Allison wondered not for the first time at how quickly shed recovered from her experience and regained her strength, now showing very little signs of what shed been through. Ricky was gradually putting weight back on, they both were, and there were still a few drawn lines in the white circles about her eyes where her goggles had been, but other than that, her recovery had been nothing short of miraculous.
The waiter reappeared with Allisons burger and fries.
"Please?" Blue puppy dog eyes captured her.
"Oh, go ahead," Allison relented with an exaggerated sigh. She pushed her plate towards the center of the table. As if she could deny Ricky Bouchard anything.
"Gee, thanks!" With childlike delight, the mountaineer tucked in, spearing a hot french fry.
Allison watched her partner enjoying herself. She could not help but notice how Rickys rich dark hair seemed to shimmer in the glow of their tableside candle; how the planes of her face were highlighted, her features so noble, so beautiful in the amber half-light.
Rickys survival, along with Dorjes and Anatolis, would go down as one of the great stories of mountaineering. How could she, Allison Peabody, hope to ever measure up against such a legend?
The one-time stockbrokers eyes flickered to the register cases.
To the names that history would remember, even as it inevitably forgot those whose signatures were missing; those whod made the summit, only to perish on the descent.
People like Phil Christy.
"Pretty impressive, huh?" The mountaineer said, following Allisons gaze.
"Yeah." She forced a smile. "All those names so many famous people. People Ive only read about. Its hard to think that somebody like me belongs up there."
"But, you do belong," Ricky told her. She regarded her closely, sensing the subtle change in her mood. "You do."
From the corner of her eye, Allison noticed a tall, thin blonde approaching their table. "You ready, Veronique?" The woman, about 40 years of age and standing nearly to Rickys height, handed the mountaineer a Sharpie.
Ricky stood, motioning to Allison to do the same. "Yeah, Gilly, thanks."
"Its been a while."
"Yes," Ricky replied, her voice steady and even. "It has."
"Well. Lets have a go at this, shall we?" With a friendly, open smile on her face, Gillian Whitby, the Rum Doodles manager, led the way to the bar. "What is this three times now for you?"
"Four, actually," the mountaineer replied, winking at Allison. "But whos counting?"
To Allisons great consternation, as they approached the register the bars lights began to blink. And a drum roll and rimshot sounded from out of nowhere.
"Whats going on?" Allison turned to Ricky, alarmed.
"We are," the mountaineer rumbled, placing calming hands on her shoulders. "Dont worry. Itll be quick."
"Just us?" Allisons squeezed out hoarsely as she felt all eyes in the bar turn upon her.
"Yep!" The mountaineer flashed her a rakish grin.
"You knew this you knew!" Allison cried, even as Gillian Whitbys amplified voice announced them both, including a brief account of their recent exploits.
"Well, I do have some prior experience, you know."
Allison sucked in a deep breath of air, trying to settle her rattled nerves, letting the warmth of Rickys smile soothe her, the touch of her hands on her shoulder, anchor her.
And suddenly the crowd was cheering, with loud, bawdy wolf whistles scattered amongst the applause.
"Okay." Ricky handed Allison the Sharpie. "You first."
Ricky gently spun her around to face the open register. And once again the stark reality of it all smacked her full in the face.
No. No way! A ripple of panic swept through her. To have her name added to such an illustrious group to this exclusive club who in decades past would never have willingly accepted an amateur such as herself as a member it didnt feel right. And to have her name be forever linked this way to the famous Veronique Bouchard it was simply absurd.
Ricky saw her hesitation.
She stepped closer to the smaller woman, dropping her mouth to her ear so as to be heard over the raucous yells of the crowd. "You earned this, Allison," she said firmly. "You made it every step of the way, on your own." A pause. "If you dont sign it, I wont."
"Ricky!" Allison snapped her head up, only to find herself trapped by a pair of piercing blue eyes. "Your names got to go up there. Its only right!"
"Im not going anywhere," she said slowly, evenly, "without my climbing partner. You got that?"
Allison swallowed, hard. She got it.
She signed the register, and quickly Ricky did the same. Amidst more cheers and applause, they made their way back to their table, accepting congratulations along the way. The register case was carefully closed and locked, and the music started up again the Rolling Stones I Cant Get No Satisfaction, for about the third time that night.
They sat down. Allison could feel the heat of the mountaineers gaze on her, regarding her carefully. She decided to bluff her way out of it, and took a bite of her hamburger. But it was cold, and she could detect the blandness of its taste now, and it was all she could do to swallow it down.
"I couldnt have done it without you, Allison. You know that, dont you?"
A round of quart-sized beers suddenly showed up at their table.
"Compliments of that gentleman over there," the bartender said, before diving back into the crowd.
Ricky nodded and gave him a thank you wave.
"Oh, cmon," Allison groaned. She took a gulp of the beer, hoping to kill the taste of the burger. "You could climb that thing blindfolded."
The tone of Rickys voice, the serious set to her face, immediately got Allisons attention.
"That night, in that snow cave." She hesitated, glancing out over the crowded bar, gathering herself, before returning her attention to Allison. "Dorje and Anatoli were fading in and out of it and it was all I could do, to just try and keep it together, you know?"
"Oh, Ricky" Allison felt her heart constrict at the obvious pain her partner was in, remembering.
"All all I could think of," the mountaineer lowered her eyes to the table, and took Allisons hand in her own, "was that no matter what I had to get back to you." She looked up and blinked through thick dark lashes. "Thats what kept me going. Knowing you were down there, waiting."
Allison gave Rickys hand a reassuring squeeze. "I would have waited for you forever, you know."
The mountaineer dipped her head, blinking away a tear. "I know."
They stayed that way for some moments, oblivious to the noise, the celebration, the smoke drifting around them. Two hearts, connected. Feeling that connection, and treasuring it for the thing of wonder that it was.
"So," Allison sighed at last, pushing her plate away. "Whats next?"
"Well," Ricky drawled, a smile playing at the corner of her lips, "I thought maybe another drink or two maybe a dance if things get crazy enough. Then," she leered suggestively at her companion, "who knows?"
"I meant," Allison said primly, knowing very well that the mountaineer had understood her original question, "what next? You know. The big picture. Weve got a load of gear sitting at the airport, with no forwarding address."
"We could just be a couple of climbing bums for a while," Ricky grinned. "Nothing wrong with that, eh? I thought we could maybe do Gasherbrum 2."
"Someday. After a nice, warm break," Allison warned, giving her an arch look.
"A break oh yeah," Ricky quickly added, although it was clear the thought had never occurred to her.
"Okay." Allison steepled her hands together. A plan. It was good to have a plan. "Thats one thing. Anything else youve considered?"
"Well," the mountaineer shifted uncomfortably, "as a matter of fact"
"What?" The blonde leaned forward, interested.
"Ah, I got a fax back at the hotel. From a buddy of mine, Ty Halsey." She rubbed nervously at the back of her neck. "Hes an editor for some magazine down in the states. Its crazy!" She shook her head. "He wanted me to do an article for him before I took this job. Now, hes all over it, of course. Looking for a womans account battling for survival on Everest, or some such fluff. Ive told him no a dozen times, but he keeps after me."
"Whos he work for?" Allison wanted to know, drinking from her beer.
"Uh ." The mountaineers tan brow furrowed. "Intrepid Magazine?"
Allison nearly choked.
"Do you know it?" Rickys face showed only mild interest.
"Know it, Im a freaking subscriber! Ricky, thats wonderful!" the younger woman enthused.
"Yeah well Im no writer." She pushed back in her chair, and began to intently regard the ceiling.
"And Im no mountaineer," Allison countered. "But that didnt stop me from getting to the top of the worlds highest mountain with a little help." She paused, gauging her partners level of interest. Her slouched indifference could not hide from her the fact that, knowing Ricky as she did, if the woman truly hadnt been interested in the opportunity, she never would have raised the issue in the first place. "Look," she said. "If you want Id be happy to help you with it."
"Yeah?" An eyebrow lifted.
"Yeah. That is only if you wanted me to, of course."
"You know," Ricky sighed, thinking, "Ive always wished there was a way to let people see what I see when I climb, you know? To feel what I feel, as though they were right there, themselves."
"You can. You have, Ricky," Allison told her earnestly. "With me. You were an amazing guide."
"Ah, beginners luck." The mountaineer waggled her hand.
"Luck had nothing to do with it Ricky Bouchard, and you know it!" Allisons eyes sparked. "You could have done a hundred times better than Jim at running that operation. In fact," she continued, warming to the idea, "thats something else you could do. Start your own company!"
"That takes money, Allison," Ricky looked at her sternly.
"And I say, were in this together, okay? If I can help, I can help. So shut up and deal."
The mountaineer matched her gaze in fiery intensity for a moment, before she suddenly relaxed. "Gee is this our first fight?
Allison felt the tension immediately drain from her body. "How quickly they forget." The corner of her mouth turned up in a wry smile. "Try about our 100th."
"Oh, yeah," Ricky said ruefully, recognizing the truth to that statement.
"The point is," Allison continued more calmly, "there are a lot of options open to you." She fell silent for a moment, and then a crimson blush colored her cheeks. "God, listen to me. Weve only been together a month, and here I am already trying to run your life."
"I dunno," the mountaineers face split into an open grin. "I kind of like the sound of that, actually." But the smile faded as she focused her eyes on Allison. Searching. Concerned. "But what about your plans? Your big career, the life you have back in New York"
"The life I had." Allison corrected her. "It was a sham, Ricky," she said, letting her heart speak for her. "It meant nothing I can see that now. And it wasnt a life at least not for me." She bit her lip. "Being with you wherever you are now thats what I call living."
Allison could see the barely shielded hopefulness in Rickys eyes, see the tense set to her lithely muscled form. All she wanted to do was throw herself in her arms, and tell her how much she loved her; that she would never hurt her, and that she was hers, forever.
"Okay?" Still a touch of veiled anxiety.
Ricky grinned broadly then, and visibly relaxed. "In that case " she leaned forward, her blue eyes sparkling with excitement. "Let me tell you more about G2."
"Oh, no you dont," Allison groaned.
"Cmon! The mountaineer smirked. "If we leave tomorrow, we can be there in a week."
"The trek to Base Camp is a little rough, but"
"Wait wait, wait, wait just a minute!" Allison threw up her hands in a stop sign.
"What?" Ricky cried out, as though shed received the most grievous of injuries.
"If you think you can talk me into climbing Gasherbrum 2"
"Yeah," The mountaineer obstinately folded her arms.
"Without first buying me another drink," Allisons green eyes danced, "then I think youve got frostbite on the brain," she finished, feeling quite triumphant.
Without removing her eyes from Allison, the mountaineer reached out and grabbed at a startled passing waiter. "Two more," she barked, sending him scurrying away to fill the order.
And then suddenly Rickys hand was on Allisons again, and she could feel the heat, feel the intensity radiating from the tall woman, burning her, scorching her skin.
"Just watch me thaw, baby." In the glow of the candlelight Rickys voice was low; a thrilling promise in the dark. "Watch me."
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