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.
It was amazing, high on Everest, how much the extreme conditions changed you in ways you didnt even realize, how eventually even the simple niceties of daily human interaction dwindled down to nil. The huddle of Peak Performance tents was barely eight feet from the tents of the British expedition on the left, and the Japanese encampment on the right. More tents were carved into the ice ledges a bit farther up the slope, but that location, being even more exposed to the wind and the weather, was considered less desirable. In spite of their proximity to one another, the various camps might as well have been miles apart. Barely a word passed from team to team, from tent to tent. At 24,000 feet, ones energy, air, and sense of neighborliness were all in short supply.
And this was some neighborhood, Allison Peabody had considered as shed crawled into her tent to await the return of Ricky Bouchard. They were all stacked on top of one another, as though crammed into an icy high-rise tenement. Tatters from tents of seasons past littered the ground, along with used oxygen canisters and other unrecognizable debris. Man vs. Nature, Allison thought wryly. Why was it that the first step, too often, was to trash it?
Thinking of trash . Allison held her hands over the small pressurized gas stove where she was melting snow for tea. God knew, Ricky would need it by the time she got back.
No thanks to that jerk Kevin MacBride, and Phil me too Christy.
Shed seen what happened out there on the slope, watched it all unfold, frozen in place, powerless. An instant before, shed been mentally castigated Kevin, not for the first time that day, when shed seen him make his move on the ropes. Had stood in horror as the ice boulder hed dislodged came pin wheeling down the mountain, gaining speed, seemingly heading right towards her.
Until Ricky had put herself in its way.
There hadnt been time to think, to act; her mind had barely been able to wrap itself around what was happening when the ice chunk had crashed into her lover, disintegrating into a thousand smaller pieces with the force of the impact. And then Ricky had been falling, tumbling down the hill towards Tibet, until somehow, impossibly, shed arrested her fall.
Even then, Allison hadnt been able to move, to shout, to breathe. Instead, after an agonizingly long minute, the mountaineer had risen up from the steep slope, shaking the snow and ice from her clothes like an oversized labrador just returned from a refreshing swim. And with a diffident wave, Ricky had continued on as though nothing had happened. Nothing.Finally, half numb with shock, shed started back up the mountain after Ricky, her worry over the dark haired womans condition escalating as theyd approached camp. But shed had no time to assuage her fears; one minute shed seen Ricky pull into Camp III, and the next, the mountaineer was barreling back down the slope.
"On my way to help Jim," Ricky had said brusquely, not meeting Allisons eyes, and the younger woman had neither the breath nor the energy at that point to challenge her.
The wind rattled the tent, snapping at it; all the climbers were indoors now, marshalling their strength for the return trek tomorrow. The sweet scent of the tea filled the air, its aroma stubbornly standing fast against the outside elements that threatened to sweep it away. Allison sat half tucked into her sleeping bag, her arms wrapped around her middle, trying to stay warm.
Ricky, where are you?
As if answering her silent call, the tent shuddered as the vestibule was zipped open.
Grunts as heavy climbing boots and crampons were removed and set aside.
And then there was a smaller gust of wind as the inner flap parted, and a dusting of spindrift wafted in, along with one very exhausted looking mountaineer.
Ricky collapsed on her back onto the floor of the tent, breathing harshly, pawing at the zipper of her jacket.
"Here, let me." Not waiting for a response, Allison crawled to Rickys side and helped relieve the mountaineer of her outer layer. "You sure you wouldnt be warmer if"
"I want it off." Rickys voice was terse, her mouth set in a grim line.
"Okay." Allison eased it off the taller womans shoulders, stealing a furtive glance at her partners features.
Noting the weariness in her face, the cheeks burnished to a golden hue by the wind and sun; the raccoon-like whiteness tapering around the rim of her eyes where the glacier glasses had shielded them, framing the vivid blue chips of ice that stole her breath away every time.
Ricky lay back down, focusing her eyes on the roof of the tent.
"How are Patsy and Mike?" Allison began to pour a mug of steaming hot tea.
The tension was rolling off of Ricky in waves; dangerous, unpredictable. Once, that threat might have scared Allison off, sent her scurrying for cover, but not now. Now, she recognized the symptom for what it was: Ricky was hurting. And by God, she was going to help her, whether the mountaineer liked it or not. Allison reached out and gently placed the mug in her hand. Ricky accepted it, but made no moved to drink.
"How are you?" Allison asked, her voice soft yet clear above the moaning winds.
"Fine." Blue eyes continued to glare at the domed roof.
"Ricky, what you did today"
"Id do again." Ricky violently cut her off, and pushed herself to a sitting position. "But it shouldnt have happened at all," she said, finally capturing Allison in a smoldering gaze. "If you had been hurt, Allison, I swear to you I would have killed him where he stood."
Uh-oh. There was no doubt in Allisons mind, by the look of fierce determination on her partners face, that shed meant every word of that vow. For a brief instant, she was afraid for Kevin MacBride. And then, "Its okay, Ricky," she soothed, knowing the last thing she should do right now was to match the mountaineers negative intensity. Sure, MacBride and Christy were worthless losers. The fact that she happened to agree with Ricky in that regard would not help to calm her down right now.
"I I was just more worried about you," Allison continued, slipping off a thin polypro glove so she could reach out and caress Rickys cheek. "If anything had happened to you " She felt her throat cinch shut, cutting off her words.
"Look," Ricky closed her eyes and sighed, leaning into Allisons touch, releasing some of her anger. "Im probably going to be fired."
"No, youre not."
"Its okay," Ricky said tiredly, reaching for Allisons hand and chafing it with her own. "I gave MacBride a piece of my mind when I got into camp and, well," she lowered her eyes, "I think thats gonna be it."
"No, it isnt," Allison said more firmly, pulling her hand away and lifting Rickys tea. "Here. Drink this. And I dont think youll have anything to worry about from Mr. Asshole MacBride."
"Allison " Rickys eyes narrowed, as a not-so subtle realization dawned upon her. "What have you done?"
"Drink!" Allison shooed the mountaineer into taking a sip, as she poured another mug of tea for herself.
Warily, Ricky swallowed a mouthful of the hot drink as instructed. "Now tell me."
"Kevin is a sorry excuse for a man, much less a climber," Allison began, her face growing flushed, "and his buddy isnt much better."
"You wont get any argument from me."
"Well, he was shooting his mouth off when I got into camp." Allison bit her lower lip. "About you."
"I figured as much." Ricky put her mug down and lightly rested her hand on the blondes knee. "Its just a matter of time until he tells Jim and"
"No, he wont," Allison blurted out, plunging into her story. "I took a hang gliding class at Lake Havasu last year. One of the guys in the group was Davis Mumford. Maybe youve head of him?"
"No. Should I have?"
"He writes an outdoors and adventure column for the Boulder Sentinel. Sometimes the national syndicates pick it up."
"MacBride and Christy are from Boulder," Ricky noted, her brow furrowed.
"Yeah, well, Davis and I got to be pretty good friends and and anyway, I decided to hit those two jerks where it hurt." She paused for dramatic effect. "Right in their over-inflated egos."
"Allison!" Rickys eyes flew open in alarm. "What did you"
"The Ugly American," Allison intoned, her hands framing the words, "climbing higher and stooping lower than ever before. Starring Kevin MacBride and Phil Christy."
"You didnt," the mountaineer groaned.
"I most certainly did!" Allison was on a roll now. Just the memory of how arrogantly Kevin had assured her he would get Ricky fired, made her blood boil. "The way theyve scattered their garbage over half the mountain. The lack of respect they have for the Sherpas. Their utter disregard for the traditions of Everest and what it represents."
"Allison ." Ricky began massaging her temples.
"Im not done yet!" Allison shot back. "The cruel bets they have going can you imagine some poor girl having to marry Phil as a result?"
"Its Kevins sister," Ricky said dryly. "Maybe they deserve each other."
"And then theres the danger they are to themselves and others," Allison continued on. "Not to mention the avalanche they caused."
"It wasnt an avalanche," the mountaineer muttered. "Not really."
"Oh, and did I mention," the corner of Allisons mouth turned up in an withering smirk, "how especially close Kevin and Phil seem to be during this climb?"
"Yes!" Allison crowed, feeling quite proud of herself.
"You shouldnt have," Ricky slowly shook her head, her face a mixture of irritation and gratitude. "I can fight my own battles."
"I know you can," Allison told her, green eyes shining, "but this is my fight, too." She recalled with some satisfaction the look of abject fear on Kevin MacBrides face when shed threatened to expose his personal shortcomings to his hard-core Boulder buddies, not to mention to the rest of the Colorado climbing community.
Unless he backed off of Ricky Bouchard.
"We need you on this climb, Ricky." She hesitated, and then spoke the words her heart knew to be true. "I need you."
Wordlessly, Allison patted her lap, beckoning the mountaineer to her. She could see a flicker of hesitation in her eyes, and then Ricky surrendered, leaning back into Allisons embrace with a bone-weary sigh. Small hands reached under the thick fleece of the tall womans sweater, and began to gently massage the tightly corded muscles of her neck and back.
Allison watched Ricky fight a losing battle; saw how heavy lids gave in to exhaustion, and promptly closed.
"I need you, too," Ricky murmured. "So very very much."
The next morning the Peak Performance team descended like sleepwalkers from Camp III to Camp II, torturing a whole new set of leg and back muscles on the downward trek along the steep Lhotse Face. The weather was fair, which helped, but even so it was all they could do to fall into their tents, eat and drink what they could, and wait for the next morning to arrive.
Allison doggedly continued to make entries into her journal, and Ricky marveled at that. After a hard days climb, one that required hair-trigger instincts of action and reaction together with a single-minded sense of focus, she herself preferred to let her mind go blank and wander to recharge. But not Allison. The younger woman loved to read, to write, and to talk, and Ricky had been pleasantly surprised that the most minimal of responses on her part, the occasional grunt yes or no, seemed to infinitely satisfy her partner.
The descent from Camp II to Base Camp the following day had been uneventful, save for the usual gut-churning thrill of the passage through the Icefall. To Rickys trained eye it was plainly evident how the terrain of the Khumbu changed from day-to-day; an extra ladder lashed on for stability here, a fragment of a rope dangling limp next to a new line there, replaced where a serac had come crashing through.
All indications that in this high altitude world, any sign of stability at all was illusory, a trick of the mind one played on ones self just to be able to make it sanely through the day.
Ricky Bouchard thought differently. She welcomed the changes. Counted on them, in fact. It was the uncertainty itself in her life that had become the constant that she needed, craved. And then along had come Allison Peabody. Holding out a hand to her like an anchor, drawing her in from the stormy seas. Ricky had reached out and taken hold, had taken that chance, and now she had no intention of ever letting go.
The team had immediately collapsed into their tents at Base Camp, exhausted beyond all measure, but infinitely relieved to be back down in the thicker air. The plan called for five days of much needed recovery at B.C., before that final summit push. Hell, twice that amount of time wouldnt be enough for the Donaldsons to get back on track, Ricky worried, but it would have to do. Jim looked spent, too, shed noticed, but that wasnt surprising, considering all the extra work hed had climbing with Mike and Patsy.
On the Camp III trek, it had finally been at Jims insistence that shed been summoned back down the hill to assist him and Pemba with the couple; Mike had been adamant beforehand, shed later heard, that they didnt need the extra help.
As it turned out, it had taken several hours just to travel that last 700 feet or so into camp, with Patsy barely taking a step or two every half minute. There was no way no way that she could make the summit in that condition; Mike either, for that matter. But it was ultimately Jim Harris call, Ricky knew, his responsibility. At $70,000 dollars per client, it was up to him to turn them back.
Lou Silvers hadnt moved from his Base Camp tent since theyd returned, hoping to shake his Khumbu cough once and for all. Of Kevin MacBride and Phil Christy, Ricky had seen very little, and that was just fine by her. Theyd kept their distance, and one time the mountaineer had watched MacBride actually turn around and head in a different direction when hed seen her coming, a stricken look marring his face.
It still bothered her that Allison had taken him on, threatening him. After all she was a big girl and used to standing on her own two feet. But privately, well, she had to admit that she was touched by Allisons gesture. No one had ever done that before for her, stood up for her, and it felt pretty damn good. The prospect of Kevin MacBride and Phil Christy being exposed in the Boulder media as loutish climbers with nebulous sexual preferences was simply an added bonus.
Rickys boots crunched across the moraine as she made her way towards the supply tent. These next few days at Base Camp would be a recovery game, a roll of the dice to see if your body still had what it took to get you to the top of the mountain. And it would be a waiting game, too, with climbers keeping one eye lifted towards the summit plume, and another locked on the weather reports, biding time until the weather window made an appearance.
Now, during the down time, was when you checked on your supplies, making sure you had everything in place for the final push; when you tested and re-tested equipment, knowing that all it took was a snapped strap on your crampon or a balky seat harness to stop your summit attempt dead in its tracks.
During that same time, Sherpas up high would be fixing the final ropes to Camp IV and above, all the way to the Hillary Step. The lines were an unnecessary convenience for Ricky; she believed a true mountaineer should do without, however she also knew there was no way the majority of the clients on any of the commercial expeditions could make the summit without the fixed ropes.
It was Jangbu Nuru, gliding confidently over the scree as though he were a lithe ballet dancer moving on a snow-white stage.
"You hungry?" His weathered face creased into a smile as he gestured towards the Sherpa dining tent. "Lopsang make big promise ramen soup!"
"Maybe later," Ricky told him, knowing Allison was still napping in her tent. "Ive got some things I want to check out over with the climbing supplies." She turned and studied the great icy massif rearing up behind them. "You gotta be ready. You never know when the mountains gonna give us a break, eh?"
"When the time is right, she let us know," the sirdar chuckled, pushing back on the floppy black and red pile hat perched on his head.
"You sure about that, my friend?" Ricky teased him, knowing how seriously the Sherpas took the relationship they had with the Mother Goddess. No Sherpa climber worth his yak butter would make a move up the mountain unless the signs were most auspicious.
"Listen to your mother, Ricky," the wiry little man chided her as he continued along his way, giving her achy shoulder a firm clasp as he went. "Listen to your mother."
Ricky stepped into the supply tent, her thoughts spinning. Here, in this land of rock and snow and ice, it had been weeks since shed last seen anything green, caught the scent of honeysuckle on the wind, felt the thickness of lush, verdant grass pushing up beneath her bare feet. Her hands found a loose length of rope, and she idly began to coil it up, looping it around her bent elbow and hand, even as her mind drifted thousands of miles away. It was May in Val-David. And she knew what her mother would be doing now, as she had done for every May since Ricky was a little girl: planting flowers in the small garden she kept at their home.
Ricky had paid it no mind, had never taken the time to appreciate it; it was simply something mothers, her mother, always did. Perhaps in Marie Bouchards case, it was a visual extension of her artists eye; the colors, the shapes, the selection of the flowers.
Every year Marie would carefully order a selection of seeds, cultivating the flowers first as small seedlings indoors; a concession to the abbreviated Canadian growing season. By the time May arrived, and the worst threat of a late frost had passed, Marie was ready to transplant them to the nutrient-rich bed shed carefully prepared close to the house and a safe distance from the pond behind their home.
Not that Ricky ever cared a whit. She was always too busy to pay much attention, hieing off to the mountains with Jean-Pierre every chance she could get. Sure, the flowers were nice to look at when they bloomed, if you went for that sort of thing, but she never could understand why each year her mother insisted on planting only annual flowers, doomed to die at the end of each flowering season. And so every following year her mother had to start from scratch, an inefficiency Ricky never would have tolerated for herself.
Long after she had left home to seek her destiny among the highest peaks of the world, her mother continued her solitary pursuit, her husband Andre knowing well enough to keep his distance. Alone, she patiently toiled, breathing buds to life, nurturing them, and sending them to the compost bin when their all-too-brief moment in the sun was gone.
Until that one spring, a few years back now, when Ricky and Jean-Pierre had stopped over in Val-David before heading west to the Canadian Rockies. This, after wintering in Argentina, which had been the best time to do some climbing there. In spite of the usual tensions with her father, it had been good to be home. To allow her mother to cook her favorite meals for her. To take long walks into the hills near her home where shed first honed her craft. To sleep, warm, in a childs bed in her childhood room, capturing, if only for a moment, fleeting remembrances of the hopes and dreams that child had once had.
Ricky had always been an early riser, but she supposed that was something shed learned from both her parents. And so when she arose on this particular morning, her father was already gone, off to his dentist office in town, and her mother was nowhere to be found. Not in the kitchen, the den, or in the sunny loft shed appropriated as her artists studio.
Puzzled, Ricky had stood by the kitchen counter nibbling on a brioche, when shed heard the schrrrpt! of a trowel slicing into rich loam, turning it over.
Marie Bouchard was on her knees, protected from the dew-covered grass by a small quilted pad. Lined up beside her were at least two score seedlings, sitting pertly at attention in their tiny pots. Ready at last to take that final, permanent leap into the great outdoors, after a week of hardening off for a few hours each day on the rear patio.
"Papa is gone, eh?"
"Yes." Marie rubbed at her forehead with the back of a gloved hand. "He went in even earlier today than usual. The Tocchet boy he had a toothache that worried your papa."
Marie returned her attention to her flowerbed, alternating between the trowel, a hand fork, and a small spade as she began to transplant the flowers to the garden bed. Each year, the flowers and design were different, Ricky was aware enough to at least notice that. She wasnt quite sure how her mother did it; like clockwork the flowers would rise up from the earth each spring, a boisterous, sweet smelling display of color and life.
"Where is Jean-Pierre this fine day?" Marie reached for another potted seedling.
Ricky restlessly shuffled her feet and leaned against the porch railing. "He went with his father to Montreal for the day."
"Ah," Marie intoned, sounding very much like her daughter had just a moment ago.
Her mother returned to her digging, her classic, patrician features somehow looking right at home amongst the wild mountains of the Laurentians; here with a smudge of dirt on her cheek and a tight chignon that was fighting a losing battle against the gentle breeze that slipped down from the hills.
Ricky lifted an eye towards the sun in the eastern sky, and regarded it carefully. It was still early, and a long day stretched out ahead of her where she had nothing planned, and nothing much to do. Jean-Pierre had abandoned her, and shed tramped her way along every trail to be had within a 20-mile radius of her home over the past week.
Maybe today was the day to simply relax. To take it easy. And yet, inactivity to Ricky Bouchard was anathema. If she had to stay here all day, cooped up with her mother, doing nothing, she was certain it would drive her mad.
Her eyes traveled back to the flowerbed. "There are a few weeds over there, you know," she pointed to the far corner.
"So there are," Marie calmly replied.
"I suppose I could get them for you, while youre doing that stuff." She gestured at the air dismissively.
Marie lifted her blue eyes to her daughters, and studied her carefully, the expression behind those eyes, unreadable. Finally, she nodded. "Theres an extra pair of gloves inside"
"I dont need them," Ricky said quickly, pushing away from the porch and striding over to the garden. She made quick work of the weeds, tossing them in a small pile to be discarded. Then she sat back on her heels and rested her dirtied hands on her thighs, casting a glance towards the potted seedlings.
"So, what do you have there?"
A look of faint surprise crossed Maries features as she curiously regarded her daughter. "Well," she cleared her throat, "these taller ones are snapdragons. Theyll be pink, yellow, and wine-colored." She then pointed with her trowel to another grouping of seedlings, smaller than the first. "These are pansies." Some of the tiny flowers had already started to bloom in yellow and white, scarlet and blue; their petaled heads waving lightly in the breeze like society matrons in their bonnets.
"And over here," she directed Ricky past the pansies, "are my zinnias. They wont bloom until later, after the rest of this lot, and they dont tolerate frost well, but," her mother sighed wistfully, "theyre so beautiful. Ive simply got to have them."
"You were going to put those zinnias where?" Ricky wanted to know, not quite allowing herself to catch her mothers eye.
"Im going with the rose, a bit of yellow, and the white variety this year," Marie said, with just a hint of nervousness in her voice. "So because of that, and their height you see - I thought Id use some in the back, and here," she held her arms out to the sides, "as a border."
"Sounds good to me!" Ricky shrugged, grabbing a hand spade and stabbing it into the earth.
"Non, non, non!" Marie cried out, the horror plain in her voice.
Ricky froze. So, shed done something wrong.
Well, that was what she got for even trying.
And she let herself feel the hurt, the pain, as the child she would always be in her mothers eyes.
"What I mean is," her mother said haltingly, reaching out to place her gloved hands on Rickys own dirtied fingers, " let me show you."
Ricky beamed, the hurt kissed away.
"You want to dig a hole, yes, big enough for the plant roots to be below the surface level of the soil, but not too big," Marie told her, reaching for a potted zinnia. "And well water the flats of the baby plants and let them sit a little bit before we plant them, eh?"
"Okay," Ricky said, reaching for the watering can behind her mother.
"Here, look at this snapdragon," Marie explained, lifting a seedling that was ready to be planted. "You must gently loosen the root ball, here, like this." She took Rickys hand, guiding it towards the seedling. She let her hold it, cupping her fingers around it and delicately working them into the small globe of dirt and new growth. "This lets the roots spread into the soil as the flower grows. You see?"
"Yes," Ricky said softly, "I see."
And then they had been off, the minutes quickly turning into hours, digging, planting, and watering.
About everything and nothing.
Simply enjoying one anothers company; two grown women who happened to be mother and daughter.
Not until the sun started to slip towards the west, and the last potted flower was safely put to bed in its new home, did Ricky and her mother stop their work.
"Well, that was something!" Marie Bouchard said, pushing herself up to her feet with a groan. "Id say weve earned a break, wouldnt you?"
"Ill make the iced tea," Ricky said, grinning through the splotches of dirt on her face.
"Wash your hands, first!" Her mother warned her, a sparkle in her sky blue eyes.
"Yes, Mama," Ricky laughed easily, and ambled back towards the house.
Later, sitting on the porch overlooking the garden, Ricky turned to her mother, the woman who had given her life and yet still, in so many ways, remained a mystery to her. "Mama, why do you do this?"
Marie Bouchard knew very well what her daughter meant. She took a sip of her tea and thought about the question, wiping her lips with a napkin before finally answering.
"I suppose I first did it as a way to tame this wild place," she said. "And the growing season here is so short as it is, what with the frosts lingering in the spring and coming so early in the fall. I suppose I wanted needed, for that brief period of time, something to look at, a thing of beauty, that was mine."
"You dont get that from your painting?" Ricky was confused, thinking of all the beautiful works her mother had created over the years: landscapes of Val-David, scenes of the country life, of country people.
"No, youre right, I do," the older woman said, gazing thoughtfully at the seedlings. "But thats more of a certainty. What becomes the final product, is all up to me. I have the control. But out here," she lifted her tea towards the garden, "there is uncertainty, in terms of the work. Will it survive? Will the frost come too soon? And then there are the insects and disease to worry about, and maybe even with all that, a storm will come up and destroy everything in the end." She paused, her classical profile backlit by the late afternoon sun. "Being able to create, to accomplish in spite of all that," she shook her head, "I have to have it. For myself." She turned to Ricky, probing her with her eyes. "Can you ever understand what this old woman is trying to say?"
"Yes, Mama," Ricky answered, understanding only too well that need which drove her mother. "I can. But why," she wanted to know, "why plant only annuals? Theyre just going to die anyway, and the next year youve got to start all over again from scratch."
"Youve answered your own question, Veronique." Marie reached out and awkwardly patted her daughters hand. "A fresh canvas, nest-ce pas? Another chance to start anew."
They sat there on the porch drinking their tea, watching the sun sink lower and lower, breathing in the sweet scent of freshly turned earth that lingered in the air.
Before the magical interlude ended, before they each retreated back into the comfortable emotional distance that time, hurt, and misunderstanding had stretched between them, Marie Bouchard allowed her heart to speak.
"Thank you for today, Veronique."
Ricky swallowed hard, but did not respond. I will not cry, she told herself, even as a tear sprang to her eye.
"Wherever you go every time I look out there, Ill think of you and this day and and how much I love you, mon petite fille."
"Im not little," Ricky retorted, feeling a bit embarrassed now, a fisted hand wiping the tear from her eye.
"Youll always be my little girl "
Blinking, Ricky found herself back in the supply tent, a half-coiled length of rope around her arm. It couldnt be that she missed her mother, could it? How was that possible, especially after the way shed left things with her, and her father, too. And yet, how else to explain the sudden pang of heartache? Maybe it was just that she felt the loss of a relationship with Marie that shed experienced only snatches of over the years, and now was wishing had been more.
Or maybe maybe being with Allison had helped to shine a light on other parts of her life, as well. Maybe with Allison, she saw that there could be more, and that she was deserving of it. And maybe maybe there was a way she could go home again one day to Val-David, with Allison Peabody by her side, and make things right.
But first things first. She had a mountain to climb.
Oh, Mama, Ricky thought, as she grabbed at another length of rope, if you could see your little girl now!
"I dont know about this, Jim." Sandra Ortiz said dubiously, as she continued her examination. Her eyes went sightless as she lifted her stethoscope and listened intently. An uncomfortable looking Jim Harris sat on the exam table in the medical tent, his flannel shirt unbuttoned. Without comment, Sandra moved the chest-piece of her stethoscope to the upper left quadrant of the team leaders back. "Deep breath."
The big man complied, sucking in a deep breath of air and then releasing it.
"Another." The physician moved the stethoscope to the right.
Jim Harris drew in another breath of air, coughing this time as he exhaled, the skin beneath this tan and beard noticeably paling.
Frowning, she removed the headset from her ears and let it drape loosely around her neck. "Push up your left sleeve for me."
Dr. Ortiz wrapped a blood pressure cuff around his arm, pumped it up, and release the valve with a hisss.
"Its high." She removed the cuff.
"Hey high altitude, high B.P. What can I say?" Jim grinned, rolling down his sleeve.
"You can button your shirt now." Her mouth set in a tense line, the young doctor made several notes in her chart, her pen scratching noisily across the paper.
Finally, she lifted her eyes to the waiting team leader. "Im telling you Jim, I dont like this at all. Youve just been pushing it too hard."
"Sandy," Jim sighed, barely containing his annoyance, "weve been over this before. Im trying to climb Mount Everest here, or hadnt you noticed. Weve all been pushing it too hard."
"But youve got to be extra careful, especially with your condition," she reminded him, moving closer to where he sat on the examining table. "And it doesnt help that your pulse ox has been dropping through the floor, too."
"Dammit Sandy!" The veins in Jims neck stood out as he pushed off of the table and hopped to his feet. "Ive got a business to run here! And its your job to make sure that I can continue to do that."
"Im doing what I can," the doctor insisted, trying to calm him down. Losing his temper was the last thing he needed right now. "You know that, Jim."
"Yeah, well, once the word of this expedition gets out," Jim grabbed for his jacket, "and we hit our summit numbers, I wont have to worry about this anymore. The reputation of the Peak Performance Adventure Company will speak for itself." A sudden cough cut him off and left him choking and gasping. His brown eyes burned into Sandra, daring her to come back at him.
Swallowing her pride, and her better judgment, she did not.
"And then," the team leader sputtered, recovering, "Ill be able to hire the top guides in the world to do this babysitting shit for me. People like Paul Andersen, Rolf Knowle, and even that guy the Brits are using. And I wont have to put up with a boatload of attitude from people like Ricky Bouchard, either!"
"Easy, Jim," Sandra Ortiz said, her voice low. She moved next to her agitated boss and began a one-handed massage of his back. Distract him. "Itll happen. I know it will. But in the meantime youve got to take care of yourself. Let other people shoulder some of the workload for you."
"Youre right," Jim sighed, leaning into her, allowing some of the tension to leaved his body. "As usual." He smiled faintly at the smaller woman, with just a hint of a sparkle in his eye.
Sandra blushed. "Okay, then." Her mouth quirked in a half-grin. "Dismissed." She started to turn away, and then stopped. "Oh, Jim, about the Donaldsons"
"Dont worry about it, Sandy," he temporized. "I wont let them overdo it. Ill give em enough rope so they feel like theyve made a good run at it, gotten their moneys worth, so to speak, and then Ill turn them back."
"It could be too late by then," the doctor said evenly, gazing up at him, wondering how the hell shed ever allowed herself to fall so far, so deep. "And for you, too."
"Not a chance." He grinned, slipping his arms possessively about her waist. "Thats why Ive got the best Base Camp doc in the biz, sweetheart."
"So, do you think youd ever like to go back home, sometime?" Allison Peabody had finally rousted herself from her slumber and made her way to the dining tent, where shed joined Ricky Bouchard for a very late lunch.
Thinking, Ricky stirred at a bowl of the promised ramen soup sitting in front of her. "No. Yes." Another stir. "I dont know." She looked up helplessly at her blonde friend. Somehow, shed found herself talking to Allison over lunch about her home, about her parents. Must be the day for it. "I mean the way we left things with each other." She pursed her lips. "It was bad."
"Because of what happened to Jean-Pierre," Allison supplied, tearing off a piece of brown bread and dipping it in her soup.
"I didnt really blame them," Ricky said, placing her spoon down and fixing her eyes on the colorful tablecloth. "How could I? After all, I blamed myself just as much."
The mountaineer heard her partners voice, but did not respond.
"Ricky!" The sharpness in Allisons tone forced Ricky to look at her. "Listen," she earnestly continued, "Youve got to move past this this guilt. It was an accident, for Gods sake!"
"Maybe if Id been there ." The mountaineer shook her head, feeling the blooming ache in her chest that was so familiar to her now.
"You would have done what?" Allison demanded. "Outrun an avalanche moving downhill at 100 miles per hour? I dont think so, Ricky. Youd have died too, and you know it!"
The truth of the younger womans words resonated in the tent, empty at this hour save for the two of them. The rest of the team had long since retreated to their sleeping bags for the usual afternoons nap.
A pot of tea simmered on a burner, hissing faintly.
The winds outside were picking up; the standard afternoon squall was on the way, ready to lay down a new thin carpet of white.
And in the distance, the ever-constant crackles and groans of the Icefall punctuated the silence, giving notice of its powerful presence.
"Youre right," Ricky said at last, simply, quietly. "I would have been dead, too." She paused, gathering her strength for what had to come next. For what she needed to say, and Allison needed to hear. "For a while there, I thought that wouldnt have been such a bad idea."
"Ricky, no!" A sharp intake of breath.
"He wasnt supposed to leave me alone," Ricky said, struggling to maintain her composure. "I was supposed to go first, you see. Or else, wed be together." A choking laugh escaped her throat. "He messed up the plan."
"Im so sorry," Allison said, reaching out to lightly stroke the back of Rickys hand.
"Afterwards," Ricky continued, biting back the tears, "I thought about what it would feel like to just let go. Who would care? Who would notice? I thought it might be freeing, in a way, you know? Leaving it all behind; the bullshit, the guilt, the pain."
Allison pushed Rickys mug of tea closer to her, urging her to drink. "Here."
The mountaineer took a long, steadying draught. And then, "I found myself taking risks." She set the mug down. "Unnecessary risks. Almost begging the fates for something to happen. Until one day there I was, halfway up the North Face of the Matterhorn. It was late in the afternoon and I was losing the light, and to make matters worse a storm had set in. It was snowing, and the wind was blowing so hard, so cold I knew I shouldnt go on and yet a part of me the bigger part, refused to turn back.
"And I was furious. Believe me when I say, Allison," she regarded a pair of compassionate green eyes intently, "youve never seen me really angry, and I hope you never do. Anyway," she swallowed, "I just started screaming. Yelling at Jean-Pierre at the top of my lungs. More pissed off at him in death than Id ever been in life. I just screamed and screamed forever, it seemed like. And the winds were blowing so hard, so loud, they just ripped the words away. I couldnt even hear myself. The only way I could tell I was even still yelling, was by the vibration, and the pain I felt in my throat." She paused, fingering the tablecloth. "I was just so so tired." Her voice broke.
Allison leaned forward on the table, her eyes locked on Ricky; supporting her, encouraging her. "What stopped you?"
"Jean-Pierre," Ricky laughed softly, shaking her head in amazement. "In a way. All I could think of was how he wouldve told me what bullshit it was. Taking the easy way out, when I never had before." Now, Ricky found Allisons hand and took it in her own. "And maybe maybe there was a part of me, too, that hoped to make some sense of my life. Of what had become of it. And that maybe there was a little bit of something, that was worth sticking around for."
"So you turned around, and made it back down."
"Yeah." Ricky chuckled, remembering. "What a complete idiot I was. I had no business being up there that day, solo, in the first place." Her eyes sobered. "A couple of days later," she said, "I got the fax from Jim. Asking me to come aboard with Peak Performance."
"You made the right decision," Allison softly told her, "in more ways than one. You believe that, Ricky," her firm words could not mask a gentle plea, "dont you?"
"At the time, I wasnt so sure." Ricky fixed her eyes on Allisons, and found herself gazing into the reflection of her own soul. The other half of her heart. "But, I am now."
Such a rare, extraordinary thing. A thing to be cherished, to be prized.
Days, weeks, years, even a lifetime might go by without your ever having experienced it; not once.
Unless you knew where such a thing might be found. Or, through the grace of that higher power above, had the good sense to know it when it found you, instead.
In the brilliance of a raw diamond gemstone.
In the tinkling sound of a childs laughter.
In a sunset off of Key West.
Or the promise of a lovers smile.
On Mount Everest, there was perfection, too, of a different sort. Visible in abundance, to the discerning eye.
In the shimmering never-never land that was the distant summit.
In the chorus of the elements; the soprano and alto of the howling winds, the tenor and bass of the grumbling glacier.
In the morning sunrise over the plains of Tibet.
Or in the promise of a weather window, sitting fat and wide open on the horizon, just begging to be climbed through; the portal to the mist-shrouded other-world.
Sought by many, attained by few.
"So, tomorrows a go!" Jim Harris lifted his cup of chang in a toast.
"All right!" Kevin MacBride cried out, as the rest of the Peak Performance team gathered in the dining tent joined in, cheering. All the clients were there, and the guides too, as well as Dr. Sandra Ortiz, Jangbu Nuru, Pemba, and Dorje.
At this final group meeting, Jim had once more gone over the details. Who had what roles. How they would climb through to Camp II tomorrow, recover for a day, and carry on to Camp III.
Then, would come the final push. A pre-dawn departure through the Yellow Band, a circlet of shale-like, sulfur-colored limestone that rimmed the summit, and on to Camp IV. But there would be no overnight stay there, not in the death zone of 26,000 feet and above. The longer you remained there the weaker you became, with your body, literally, breaking down. And so at Camp IV they would breathe oxygen, resting as best as they could throughout the afternoon and evening, gearing up for a 10PM departure for the summit of Mount Everest.
Sometime the following late morning or early afternoon, if they were lucky, they would be standing at 29,035 feet, the highest point on earth.
And then, theyd have to get back down.
They would need six days good weather, minimum, to make it happen; seven, to play it safe.
It had been a loud, raucous meeting, with the chang flowing freely, and Ricky Bouchard, as usual, had opted to stand off to the side in a corner, her arms folded. Allison had joined the rest of the clients at the main table, sitting next to a bright-eyed Lou Silvers. "Were finally gonna do it, arent we, Allie?" he said, fighting back a cough.
"You bet," Allison replied, smiling, catching Rickys eye and feeling herself growing pleasantly warm under the taller womans stare.
"Whoa " Jim held up a beefy hand, laughing. "Before things get too out of control here tonight," a rumbling laugh sounded in his chest, "I need you good people to remember something. Up there," he pointed in the general direction of the summit, "my word is law. And if we all stick together, well make it together."
"But that doesnt mean the faster climbers have to hold up for the slower ones, right?" Kevin MacBride frowned.
"We stick together." Jim regarded him levelly. "There are gonna be a bunch of teams like us, all trying to squeeze through the same damn window. We do this as a team, unless special circumstances warrant something different."
"And what would a special circumstance be?" Phil Christy asked, casting a sideways look at his buddy, Kevin, unaware of the hooded blue eyes of the mountaineer boring into his back.
"Team leaders discretion," Jim said, a smile playing at the corner of his bearded mouth.
"And well have to carry two canisters of oxygen each on the final push?" Mike Donaldson had a sour look on his face. "That seems like a lot, considering everything else well be carrying."
"Theres no other way, Mikey," Paul Andersen told him, grinning broadly. Thanks to the chang hed been consuming, the young man was perhaps a bit more pleased than he should have been to deliver that piece of news. "You need three bottles of g gas," he burped, "to get up and down."
"As it is," Dr. Ortiz quickly cut him off, shooting him a warning glare, "the Sherpas will be carrying their own Os, plus your third. There will be total of nine liters available per client. More than enough."
"And those extras will be kept for us at the South Summit, right?" Patsy Donaldson asked, her fingers fluttering nervously in her red hair.
"Ready and waiting," Jim said confidently, "for all you conquering heroes! Okay, people," he clapped his hands. "Tomorrow morning. 5AM sharp. Be there!"
"Im outta here," Lou Silvers said tiredly, waving good-bye. "Catch you in the AM."
"Good night, Lou," Allison said, and she moved to follow him.
"Aw, sleep is for wusses!" Kevin MacBride took another sloppy drink of his chang. "Why, I may not go to sleep at all. Next rounds on me," he bellowed, slapping Phil on the back.
"One more bro." Phil Christy smiled weakly, running a hand through his thin dark hair. "And thats it."
Ricky looked at the men distastefully. Shed seen it before, climbers whod had too much to drink the night before a big push, and who ended up paying for it the next day. A hangover at sea level was one thing. But to tie one on at 17,000 feet, well, the results could be exquisitely excruciating. A wicked grin crept across her face. Drink up, bro.
"You coming?" Allison whispered ventriloquist-style as she passed by the mountaineer.
"Uh-huh." Ricky whispered back. "Just let me grab us some more waters and Snickers or Milky Ways?"
"Both," the smaller woman muttered back through clenched teeth, not breaking her stride as she exited the tent into the cold night.
Ricky moved over to the snacks table and began to gather their supplies.
"How bout you, Paul my man!" MacBride was trying to convince Paul Andersen to stay for one more drink. The young guide had already had his share of chang for the night, Ricky had observed, and then some.
The tall, lean guide wavered, and then, "Aw, what the hell. One more," he laughed, his pale blue eyes taking on a glassy hue. "But first I gotta take a leak." He pushed away from the table and got unsteadily to his feet, just as Ricky was making her way by. He followed her out.
"Need some help there, Ricky?" He asked her, acknowledging the load in her arms.
"No." She gave him an arch stare. "Do you?"
"Whaoh, Im fine," he replied, stumbling after her over the loose stones.
"Riiight. Look, Paul, why dont you just go back to your tent and sleep it off? Weve got a big day tomorrow." The mountaineer had serious doubts as to whether the guide was capable of making to the latrine in his condition, let alone getting back to the dining tent for another round. And God knew, she had no intention of escorting him to either.
"Aw, cmon Ricky!" He pouted, his breath pluming in the frigid air. "Why dont you stay and have a drink with us?"
"Because Im going to sleep," she said tightly, continuing on her way. What the hell. Let him freeze his nuts off if he wants to.
"Sleep." A sniggering laugh sounded behind her. "Thats not what I heard."
Ricky stopped dead in her tracks and slowly spun around. "Pardon me?"
The young guide laughed again, oblivious to the danger. "You know what I mean!"
"Why dont you tell me." Ricky stepped closer, the blood pounding in her ears, her eyes two narrow chips of stone.
"You and Alllieee," Paul sang in a stage whisper, smirking. "Making the sauce!" He stirred a finger into a circle hed formed with his index finger and thumb, using a vulgar Sherpa expression and gesture.
Water bottles and candy bars tumbled forgotten onto the rocky scree. Ricky grabbed the unsuspecting guide by the scruff of the collar and slammed him into the side of the British teams Puja altar, sending smaller stones and prayer flags flying.
"Where did you hear that?" Ricky demanded, her voice colder than the night.
"Whuh whuh" Paul was blubbering now; his lassitude and inebriation replaced in a blur of furious mountaineer with uncertainty and abject terror.
"Tell me." She shook him bodily, her head buzzing, unsure of whether her violent reaction was because of what hed said, or how hed said it. And thinking that either way, it didnt much matter. Because it was none of his God-damned business anyway. She would not allow Allison to be hurt by this. Not here, not now, not in this place.
Ricky tightened her grip.
"II dont know!" came a high-pitched squeak. "M-m-maybe it was the Sherpa who who works with Lopsang. He s-sssaid Allison was n-never in her tent in the morning. Hell, Ricky," he wheezed, "Im s-sorry. I never meant anything ."
Ricky took several deep breaths, reining in her galloping temper. Paul Andersen was not the enemy here, she thought. The bloodred lens covering her eyes drained away, and she was able to take in his trembling form. Get a grip!
"What you heard, or think you heard?" she growled, "You forget all about it, you got me?"
The senior guide bobbed his head up and down in the affirmative.
"You forget you heard it," she released him, smoothing out the collar of his jacket, "and Ill forget you ever said it. Do we have an understanding?"
"Good." A flash of teeth in the dark. "Ill hold you to that."
Ricky turned, scooped up her water and snacks, and struck out towards her tent.
Ignoring the splattering sounds of Paul Andersen regurgitating and God knew what else behind the Puja altar.
Frozen puke and piss, Ricky considered wryly, as the pounding in her chest slowed. She let her eyes track up the Icefall, over the Cwm, and up, up towards the hidden summit. Mother Goddess, can you ever forgive us?
Allison Peabody had already tucked herself into Ricky Bouchards oversized goose-down sleeping bag, kicking at the bottom of it with her feet to generate warmth. Hurry up, Ricky! she thought grumpily, waiting for her human furnace to arrive. Trying to keep her teeth from chattering, Allison lay in her cocoon, reflecting on the day on the weeks that had brought her here to this point.
Tomorrow was it. And she was ready, she was sure of it; never more so than she was right now, with Ricky Bouchard as her partner. Both in life, and on the rope.
Allison burrowed deeper into the sleeping bag, breathing in hints of the mountaineers distinctive, heady scent. The stockbroker smiled. Ricky was such a complicated woman, on the one hand, and so difficult to get to know. Yet on the other hand, there was not a trace of guile to be found in her at all, no posturing. What you saw was what you got.
Very different from the people Allison had known back home in her world, and only now was she coming to understand that she was the lesser person for it. Been a lesser person, living in that same orbit as one of them. She could never go back to that, never. She understood that now.
No, it was high time to unclutter her life. To return to the simple things. The simple values. The simple pleasures. And to strive to become the best person she could be in the midst of all that.
With Ricky Bouchard by her side, she had no doubt she could get there.
Theyd both grown up so differently, and to hear Ricky tell it, hers had not been an entirely idyllic upbringing. But at least shed had parents who loved her, and who had managed to tell her so once in a while. Shed felt the mountaineers pain today when shed told her about her family and how shed dealt with Jean-Pierres death. And Allison knew from experience that to feel that kind of hurt still so raw meant that on some level you still cared a damn. And that meant that there was still hope.
For Allison, it had been a long time since shed felt anything for her parents. Confronted by their chilling indifference day after day, year after year, coupled with the side-show aspect of the cultured, doting family that was their public face, it had made her blood run cold and then finally run dry.
She was immune to it all now. Nothing her parents could ever do or say would ever hurt her again. Shed been closed up and closed off for so long that shed fairly forgotten how to feel at all, until Ricky Bouchard had stomped into her life in the airport at Kathmandu. The first emotions the mountaineer had triggered in her were the ones she was more familiar with; arrogance, anger, dismay. But how quickly all that had changed, and shed been powerless to stem the tide; the grudging respect, the growing appreciation, the love say what?
Allison pushed herself up onto her elbows, startled.
No! How could it be?
Was it possible to love someone after only a matter of weeks? That happened only in storybooks, right? Shouldnt there be more of a getting to know each other period? Allison lifted up the top of the sleeping bag and gazed down at her naked form. Well, I suppose we know each other well enough, she rationalized.
The young blonde fell back into her goose-down nest and stared at the tent ceiling, baffled. Her analytical mind, the one that had made her one of the best traders on the Street, began to take inventory. You get all tongue tied every time you see her. And you cant think of anyone else when shes not there.
No one has ever made you feel the way she does, and theres no one on this earth youd rather please more.
A life without her, is no life at all.
Well . An exasperated breath blew fine strands of hair off her forehead.
Allison, you fraud! Admit it you fell for her the minute you first saw her at the airport. When she played pack-mule with all your baggage while you took off hell-bent-for-leather for the hotel.
At that moment, the tent vestibule unzipped, and after a moment Ricky Bouchard flopped inside, laden with water and candy bars sprinkled with tiny pellets of ice.
"Ricky!" Allison sat up, clutching the sleeping bag to her chest, grinning broadly. "Ive got something to tell you." News this good, that a girl only discovered once in a lifetime or so, was simply too good to keep to yourself.
"Ive got something to tell you, too." Ricky set down the supplies and began tugging off her fleece jacket.
"Paul knows about us," Ricky said darkly. "Or at least he thinks he does."
"I love you, Ricky."
"Dont worry, I straightened him out." Ricky folded the jacket carefully behind her, and started to shrug out of her thick red sweater. "Hes not a bad guy." Her mind was clearly back at the Britisher's puja altar, with Paul Andersen. "Hed just had too much to drink, I think."
Allison sighed. Boy, for such a smart person, Ricky could be a little thick sometimes. "Ricky, I love you."
"Plus, hes out of his league when it comes to swimming with some of the sharks around here." Ricky pulled her dark hair free and ran her hands through it, thinking. "Anyway, I told him to drop it and forget the whole thing."
"Ricky ." Allison began to look around the tent for something heavy to throw at the mountaineer.
"Boy, will he ever be a hurtin pup tomorrow."
The mountaineer finally swung in her direction. "What?"
"Did you even hear a word I said?" Allison demanded, idly wondering what the signs were that someone was falling out of love.
"You?" Ricky cocked her head to one side, studying Allison intently. "You said ."
A twitch, and then a flicker of understanding skipped across her face. The muscles in her jaw began to work; her eyes started to blink uncontrollably, and she swallowed, hard. "You said ." Her voice was a hoarse whisper, and then the words would not come.
"Im trying to tell you I love you, you big idiot!"
Allison instantly found herself thrown flat on her back, completely blanketed by one joyous mountaineer. Kisses rained down on her face and neck like the unbounded affections of an over-eager puppy dog.
Not necessarily a bad position to be in.
"I love you, Ricky," Allison said again, running her hands through Rickys silken hair. "I never knew there could be anything out there like this for me." She felt the warmth of the taller woman envelop her, claiming her, a beacon of light in the emptiness of her world. "I couldnt wait," she said, feeling the tempo of Rickys breathing increase. "I just had to tell you. If you dont feel the same way thats okay."
A tightness formed in Allisons chest.
Shed said what she wanted to say. If Ricky wasnt ready, well, she was willing to wait. She inwardly groaned. No matter how much it killed her. "After all, we havent known each other long, and theres usually a getting to know each other period, and"
Fingers pressed against Allisons lips, silencing her.
Blue eyes gazed down at her, sparking with fire. "I dont know what I ever did in my sorry life to deserve you. Youre everything that Im not." She dipped her head low. "But I do know that no matter where you go or what you do, youre not getting rid of me, Allison Peabody. Youre stuck with me forever."
"Forever?" Allison croaked, scarcely believing her ears.
Ricky tightened her hold and kissed Allison lightly on the nose. "Forever. Thats how it is, when you love someone."
Allison closed her eyes then, feeling the tears of joy leaking down her face, and not caring a whit about it. She loved Ricky Bouchard! And she didnt care who knew it. And by some blessed act of a higher power, Ricky Bouchard loved her back. God, shed never felt so good in her whole life! It was simply impossible to feel any better than she did right now!
And then she felt Rickys hands begin to roam, running up and down her body, stroking, caressing, seeking out and finding the heat within herself that she hadnt known she was capable of. Skin sliding against skin; contact. Feeling herself respond to that touch.
Once more she was being transported, carried away, and she let herself go, every nerve in her body standing on end, begging, pleading for the release that only one woman could give her. And when it came, and she cried out with the sheer joy of it, it was only then that she realized what words had guided her there, hotly repeated in her ear over and over again, echoing down into her very soul, searing it forever.
"I love you, Allison. I love you."
The moonrise was only a few hours old when Ricky and Allison arrived at the official Peak Performance Adventure Company puja altar. No expedition with Sherpas along was without one. For the western climbers, they viewed it benevolently as a quaint local tradition. For the Sherpas themselves, they would not go up the mountain unless a puja altar was properly in place. And as for Ricky Bouchard, she intensely valued the Sherpa customs, respected them, and looked forward to showing that respect by witnessing to the puja.
Weeks ago, when the Base Camp altars had first been constructed, a Llama from a monastery down the Khumbu valley had officiated at the opening puja, a morning long affair where the holy mans thick maroon robes had billowed in the wind as he chanted and blessed their altar over and over, lighting a juniper fire in the hearth, and throwing rice and tsampa on the flames while the chang flowed.
The puja altars were very distinctive, visible from a distance. Piled high with stones that were flattened by travel along the glacial moraine, and framed by tall posts festooned with many-colored Sherpa prayer flags. As long as an expedition had members climbing high on the mountain, the Sherpas kept scented juniper branches burning on the altar; an offering designed to invoke the good will and blessing of the mountain gods.
This morning it was still early, a little after 4AM, and most of the Peak Performance members were still trying to shake life into their cold-stiffened limbs, grab a last hot meal before heading out into the dark, or else frantically trying to cure a hangover.
A canopy of stars sparkled above, a testament to the promised weather window. The moon reflected off of the mountain and the glacier, casting a dim, unearthly glow where people moved about in shadows and half-light. Gathered at the altar were Ricky, Allison, and a barely awake Lou Silvers. Lopsangs nephew Dawa Sherpa was there; once more he would be heading up with the team as the Advance Base Camp cook. The climbing sirdar Jangbu stood at the altar, surrounded by Pemba, Dorje, and the rest of the climbing Sherpas.
There was a light wind in the air, and it was cold, but inside, Allison Peabody felt warm.
For the first time, she hadnt left Rickys tent in the pre-dawn as was her habit, not caring what anyone thought. It was her life, to live as she pleased with whomever she wished, and that was exactly what she planned to do.
Shed been pleasantly awakened by a soft kiss on her shoulder, and Rickys request: "Do something for me?"
"God, name it," shed groaned, wrapping her arms around the mountaineers shoulders.
And there it was, dangling in air in front of her. Her eyes had adjusted to the dark; she was easily able to make it out: a knotted red braid.
Rickys protection cord.
"Wear this for me."
"Ricky, no!" Allison had pushed her hand away, alarmed at seeing the protection cord off the mountaineers neck for the first time.
"Ricky, I cant! Its yours!" shed protested. "Its supposed to keep you safe"
"And it has. Now its your turn." Allison had felt warm hands brush lightly against her throat as Ricky secured the braided cord.
"But what about you?" shed said weakly, after Ricky had sealed the transfer with a kiss.
"Ill be fine. Ive got this." The mountaineer had reached for her white silken khata, and draped the prayer scarf around her own neck. "Youve got one, too. Dont forget it."
And Allison hadnt. She was wearing it now, along with the protection cord, as she watched Jangbu chant and place juniper branches in the fire. An offering for good luck. The flames crackled and popped, throwing sparks up into the night sky on a plume of white smoke.
The wind lightly played with the colorful string of prayer flags, sending them fluttering. In the darkness, Allison felt Rickys gloved hand reach for her own.
She took it.
"The Sherpas believe," Ricky whispered quietly, "that each snap of a prayer flag in the wind sends a wish for a blessing to the Mother Goddess."
"Thats beautiful," Allison softly replied, overwhelmed with the simplicity, the sacredness of the ceremony she was witnessing.
Jangbu bowed and rang a small copper bell. The puja was completed. The Sherpas filed past the altar, and Lou Silvers followed them; each one leaving a small offering or tapping the altar for good luck. Ricky and Allison filed in behind, and when the mountaineer arrived at the altar, she lifted her ice axe and lightly tapped it against a facing stone. She stepped aside, and let Allison do the same.
The younger woman was mesmerized by the flames. She watched them burn skyward, imagining in the sweetly scented smoke the restless ghosts of climbers past. Blurred images of a future unknown. She felt in a way as though she stood on the brink of some great discovery. A testing of the mountain, and of herself.
Allison felt a firm hand on her elbow. She looked up to find Ricky staring down at her. Her partners eyes glinted glacier blue in the firelight; the planes of her face, half hidden in shadow.
"Youre ready for this. You know that."
Allison slowly returned her gaze to the flames. "Im ready."
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