Elliot Vaughn's pre-expedition party was still going strong when Tom McLaren escaped. The reasons for bailing on his employer's bash were two-fold. First of all, it was likely that the thing would go on all night as the climbers who weren't going up tomorrow had no reason to cut their night short, and Tom knew he needed his sleep. Secondly, he had to make a call before he turned in.
The command tent was mostly empty. The pair of tech guys huddled around one of the monitors glanced up at Tom's entrance and nodded, then went back to their work, tracking and charting the fronts around the globe, feeding the information into the simulators to predict any possible changes in the near future. As long as the probabilities didn't change drastically overnight, the climb was a go. Vaughn could be a pushy bastard, but there was no way that Tom was risking his team, or himself, even for a million bucks.
Dropping into a chair on the far side of the tent, Tom booted up the satellite phone, waiting for the connection to complete before punching in a phone number. The circuit popped and hissed, then cleared, the ringing of the phone half a world away sharp and loud in his ears as he pulled the headset into place.
"Mr. Katsan's office. This is Lanie, may I help you?"
"Hey, beautiful, is Rob in?"
"Tom! I didn't think we'd be hearing from you until you were back! How are you?"
"I'm good, thanks. We're heading up tomorrow, and I wanted to check in with the boss one more time before I left."
"Well, let me see if he's available." Tom heard a laugh, and a click as she keyed another line, but still kept his open. "Rob, Tom's on line one. Do you want to talk to him?"
"What?!" Tom stifled a laugh at the series of small crashes he heard next. It sounded as if Rob had knocked his chair over in his haste to grab the phone and get the call off the speakerphone.
He waited until Lanie clicked off the line, then laughed aloud. "Having a little problem there, Rob-o?"
"Fuck you, McLaren."
Tom grinned, settling back in the chair and resting his feet on the table alongside the phone. "If you were here, I'd say go for it, but since you aren't..."
"What? You mean that you haven't managed to score up there yet? What is the world coming to?"
"Got too many things on my mind I guess."
"Like what to do with your millions when you get back?"
"Nah, like what to do with a certain blond pain in the ass when I get back."
"I've got some suggestions if you run out of ideas."
"I'm sure you do," Tom chuckled, shifting a bit as his body reacted to the hopeful expression in Rob's voice. "And it's not my fault that you're stuck in Denver rather than out here where you should be."
"Hey," the other man pouted, "like I wanted to break my arm. You think I like being here managing other people's money, more than freezing my ass off on the side of a mountain with a 10,000 foot drop at my back?"
"Hmmm, I'll have to think about that one. Give me a minute, okay?" They'd planned for Rob to be here as part of the base camp coordination team, but a slip and a fall during a climb in the mountains around Denver had put an end to that idea a month ago.
In all reality, it was probably better that Rob wasn't here. He didn't get along with his ex-boss at all and considering that this was Vaughn's trip... Tom didn't really like the man either, but a contract was a contract and besides, if it hadn't been for Elliot Vaughn, he and Rob would never have met.
"Done thinking yet?"
"You know I'd rather have you here too, but I'll be back in a couple of weeks. We can go off and waste the money you've been making me in Hawaii for a month or two."
"We might get bored by then, and don't you have a job you have to do?"
"I have a rich boyfriend, why do I need a job?"
"Remember to introduce me the next time he's in town, maybe he can set me up too."
"Why don't you just join us? I'd bet he'd like a threesome."
"May have to take you up on that, I need a little action since I haven't gotten any in a while."
"Prick," Rob grumbled, then made an annoyed sound. "God I hate this cast."
"Got it in one. Distract me, Tommy."
"With what? If you want me to talk dirty to you, you'd better remember there are other people in here with me and that Lanie's probably listening in on us."
"Damn, and here I was undoing my belt already." Rob sighed, and was silent a moment. "So, everything ready?"
"Checked, double-checked, and triple-checked, Boss."
"So I'm anal, shoot me. I just want you back in one piece. I worked for Vaughn, remember. He can be a pushy SOB when he wants something and he wants to be on that summit on schedule."
"I know. I can handle him, don't worry," Tom soothed. "He knows who is in charge of this climb. If I don't think it's safe, we're not going anywhere but back to base, okay?"
"I know, but - "
"Robert, do you trust me?"
"Yes, but - "
"No 'buts', do you trust me?"
A sigh, then, "Yes. No way I would have gone up Everest with you if I didn't."
"Thought you did that because you were told to check out my skills?"
"Enjoyed checking out your ass more, and you know it."
"Nothing like being hired as a guide just because a guy's hot for you."
"Just as long as Elliot only appreciates you for your climbing skills, got it?"
"Yessir. I understand, and I promise to be careful."
"Damn well better be." Rob sighed, and Tom could hear a scratching as he tried to reach the itch inside his cast. "And you can't be careful if you're half-asleep tomorrow morning, so go to bed - alone!"
"But I already asked Cyril and Malcolm..." Tom winced at the outpouring of profanity, and laughed to himself at the thought of the other man, who was probably dressed in a conservative suit and tie, shouting at the phone. "Easy, Boss. I'm saving up for when I see you again, don't worry."
Rob's growls subsided to a low mutter and he took a deep breath. "You make me crazy, McLaren, you know that? Just come back safe, and call me when you get down, okay?"
"I think I can remember that," Tom joked, before turning serious. "Wish you were here."
"I feel the same. Are you sure you have enough supplies?"
"Yes, dear. Rob, who's the guide here? I've go it under control."
"Fuck. Sorry, it's just driving me nuts to be half the world away right now. I just - I love you and I worry, okay?"
"Love you too," Tom smiled, "and I worry about you too. I know how that Denver traffic can be at rush hour."
"Go to sleep, Tom. Oh, and tell Elliot, 'fuck you' for me tomorrow, okay?"
"Sorry, Rob-o, but no can do. Not until we're back down again. No personal grudges allowed on the mountain, right?"
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Still would have liked to be there to tell him myself."
"How about I give him the phone when I call you and you can tell him yourself?"
"Always knew I was a reason I loved you other than that fine body, Tommy."
"It's my witty conversation, right?"
"That and the fact that you're hell on wheels in bed."
"Keep talking like that and I'm never going to get any sleep, not that I'll mind."
"But I will. It's - fuck, it's almost one there. Get off the damn phone and go to sleep, Thomas!"
"Yes, dear. I love you, dear."
"I love you too, now go!"
The hum of the broken connection filled the earpiece, and Tom leaned forward to flip the switch and turn off the device. Shaking his head, and grinning slightly, he reached inside his jacket, pulling a picture out of his inner pocket and unfolding it.
It had been taken last summer, not long after the move to Denver. They'd hiked up to the top of a near-by peak, and had been horsing around, snapping pictures of each other. One of them had come up with the idea of setting the timer on automatic and just letting it go until the film ran out. Most of the pictures had been distorted or off center, but this one was perfect.
Tom ran a thumb over the print, smiling at the memory. They'd both been sweaty and grimy from the hike, but when the shutter blinked, it had caught them half-turned toward each other, Tom's green eyes locked with Rob's brown ones.
There was heat in the picture, as well as love burning in their eyes. Remembering what had happened after they'd stared at each other like that, Tom supposed that it was a good thing the camera had run out of film or the developers would have been in for an eyeful.
Tucking the photo back into his jacket, Tom stood, running a hand through his dark hair before heading toward the entryway, calling out a casual goodnight to the techies who were still hard at work with their plotting. Sleep, even if it had to be by himself, was a necessity, and something he was going in search of right now.
Fucking bastard - oh, God, it hurt!
Fucking bastard wanted him to just lay there and die. Wracked by a coughing fit that felt like it was going to tear him apart from the inside, Tom missed part of what Vaughn was telling Annie, but he'd heard enough of it to understand exactly what the other man meant.
How convenient it would be if he just gave in, but goddamn if he was going to. There was a chance, a slim one, but still a chance, that Annie's brother would find them, and there was no way Tom was giving up fighting until he knew that hope was gone.
Lying there, tearing pain from his shattered ribs and legs eating at him, fluids from edema already building in his lungs, Tom knew that he'd made the wrong decision. Now he was paying the price, just as the other team members who had died in the avalanche already had, just as they all might.
The fact that he'd done just what he'd sworn he wouldn't, and let Vaughn bully him into going on when his instincts told him they needed to return to the base camp, ate at Tom. The guilt and self-recrimination hurt more then any of his injuries, but also gave the guide a fresh surge of strength.
The hell he was going to let Vaughn tell him when he was supposed to die! He'd make it out of this hole, then laugh in the other man's face when he passed along Rob's message to him.
Another coughing fit halted all thought, and Tom groaned; the grating of his broken ribs feeling like he was being ripped apart from the inside. Time blurred, only to clear somewhat at the sting of the needle, and the sudden rush of oxygen to his system with the injection of the Dex that Annie gave him. The glowering expression on Vaughn's face told him all that he needed to know about the situation, and he managed a weak smile at her.
She tucked the sleeping bags more closely around him, then shook her head when he tried to speak. "Save your strength, I think we're all going to need it." The slight roll of her eyes toward Vaughn made Tom want to chuckle, but he bit back the impulse, knowing that it would only lead to more pain. As he closed his eyes again, Tom slid a hand inside his jacket, closing his fingers around the picture in his pocket.
Promised you that trip to Hawaii, Rob-o, I'm not going anywhere, he thought, before drifting into a restless sleep only to be wakened some time later by the crashing of ice and rocks from another part of the cave.
"What..." Tom tried to sit up, then collapsed, groaning and sobbing as pain tore through him again. "God, oh God. Fuck, fuck, fuck." His hands clenched in the sleeping bag, Tom could only ride out the sickening waves of agony as he coughed and gagged, fighting to keep his stomach from expelling what little water he'd been able to drink so far.
"Annie?" His voice was appallingly weak to his ears, and he strained to figure out what was going on in the other chamber from the sounds alone. Reality felt warped, and he had to work to keep confusing this climb with others. Memories kept intruding, and he had to stop himself from calling out to people who weren't there.
Thank God you didn't come, Rob. The thought had just filtered through the haze in his mind, when there was a scream and the whole cavern shook. Chunks of ice and rocks rained down from the walls, pelting him with debris he was helpless to deflect. A sizable chunk struck his left leg, and Tom screamed, the pain sending him spiraling down into blackness once again.
He woke a short time later, to see Annie going through the contents of a pack, then heard her cry of triumph before she held up a case of syringes. More Dex, thank God. Maybe they still had a chance. She needed it as much as he did, and even Vaughn was starting to look unhealthy. They'd been in the kill zone for almost a day, and their bodies couldn't take much more.
"You're a life-saver," he rasped out, thankful that the exertion didn't bring on another coughing fit. "Remind me I owe you one."
She smiled, though the expression didn't reach her eyes. "I'll make sure you remember when we get back to base camp, I promise."
"Mmm, good." His eyes closed again, and Tom lost himself in dreams of other, more successful climbs.
"Rob?" Tom could barely hear his own voice, and he gasped for breath, fighting the fluid filling his lungs to give his body the oxygen it needed. The cave was quiet, everyone must be asleep, but then what... He heard a quiet scuffle of a boot on rock, and sat up as much as he was able, squinting to see in the dim lighting. Vaughn.
"You're going to kill me now." It wasn't a question; there was no doubt in Tom's mind that Elliot Vaughn was here for one purpose and one purpose only. He was going to survive no matter what it took. If it took killing someone, so be it. Well, Tom McLaren wasn't going down without a fight.
Drawing in a breath to shout, Tom felt it turn into a scream in his throat when the other man's weight fell on top of him, crushing his battered ribs as he slapped a hand over his mouth. The guide's eyes went wild when he saw the syringe in Vaughn's hand, and he tried in vain to buck the heavier man off of him.
Black spots danced in front of his eyes even before he felt the bite of the needle in his neck, and Tom thrashed about under Vaughn, past the point of pain, only wanting to live. God, Rob, I'm sorry. I'm -
He was falling, but it wasn't the terrifying experience he had always thought it would be. After the bone-chilling cold of the crevasse, the air around him was warm, and smelled sweet.
Tom twisted around in mid-air, so that he could see the ground below him. As the landscape got closer, he smiled. There, below, in a meadow on one of the lower peaks, his lover waited.
And he knew Rob would catch him.
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