(Story #4 in the "Land-Bridge" series)
Rock climbing, Joel. Rock climbing.
--Mystery Science Theatre 3000
"You're gonna kill us, you mad bastard!"
"Told you not to look down, Ray," Murphy replied placidly. He was finding the placing of the next piton a more absorbing and important task than responding to his partner's slur on his sanity.
The wind blew briskly against his windbreaker; the sky above and behind him a startling blue flocked by startlingly white clouds; the granite cliffside inches from his nose was a speckled granular grey. A beautiful day for climbing, and a beautiful place for it. The anchoring rope held both men firmly in place on the smooth curve of Eagle Peak as they made their way up the rock formation called Three Brothers.
"Cowley won't like you murdering me, Murph," Doyle called from below and to Murphy's left, accompanied by another grunt and scuffle as Ray scrambled up a little further. "Dunno about you, but he considers me a valuable agent."
"News to me, Doyle," Murphy replied in kind, content to let his acerbic partner bitch and moan his way up the cliffside, as long as he kept moving. He expected nothing less, after all. He wedged a rubber-soled foot into a crack in the granite face and hiked himself up another half- meter. "You knew what we were in for, didn't you?"
And to that there could be no reply. Ray could bitch and moan and grumble all he wanted -- but he did, indeed, know what the two of them had been in for...
"These flimsy little things'll never hold us!"
"I wouldn't have brought you along if the equipment wasn't safe, you clot," Murphy snapped without looking down the small abutment they were scaling. Doyle could and would slag 6.2 all he wanted all day long, but slurs on Murphy's climbing equipment would not be tolerated. "I wouldn't have brought me along with shoddy stuff!"
"We're not all billy goats, you know."
" 'S why you've got ropes tied around you, Doyle." Murphy turned back to yank a fragile looking skyhook -- a loop of metal thread attached to a tiny metal wedge -- from a crack in the rock and relocate it further up the face. "You slip, the ropes hold you safer 'n' your mum's arms. You can hang upside down from them--"
" -- With a bullet in you, yeh I've heard it's been done," Ray finished in a sour voice.
"Or even recuperating from a bullet in the leg." Murphy smiled at the growl from his partner at the reminder; Ray's injury to his femoral artery was months healed now and the leg sound as ever.
"What do I tell Cowley if I show up Monday in a body cast?"
"He'll know you spent the weekend with me."
"Christ, Murph, the Cow knows you're into rough trade?"
"Berk," Murphy said heatlessly. "Save your breath for the climb, Doyle. This is good for you. And who knows? A few more of these weekenders, and you might even be ready for some real climbing soon..."
Murphy let himself take a quick peek down where Ray was hoisting himself up the crevice -- correctly; for all his moaning, he'd actually listened to Murphy's explanations and had learned from the smaller weekend climbs he'd attended with his partner. But the cliffs and quarries they had scaled in England paled before Yosemite Valley's wealth of granite structures that made it a climbers' paradise.
"Can't bloody believe you, mate," Ray gasped. "Come all this way, one of the most famous parks in the world, an' we're climbin' bloody cliffs!"
"Rather be down there in big ugly shorts takin' snaps of deer and squirrels? Or better yet, takin' the shuttle to the shops for beer, and back to watch the box in the trailer like we never left home? Watching baseball?" Murphy made a rude noise. "That's for them, Ray. Not us. We work hard, we play hard. And we play for real."
"Rock climbing," Ray said in a resigned exhale.
"Rock climbing." Murphy clipped his line to the fine tungsten filament that didn't look strong enough to hold a picnic basket, and let it hold his entire weight as he reached for a higher foothold.
"Couldn't just go hiking and worry about getting eaten by bears?"
"More likely to get eaten by mosquitoes."
Ray made a surly sound of agreement. He was carrying the mosquito spray in his pack.
As far as Murphy was concerned, Ray could complain all he wanted and it wouldn't get him anywhere. After all, Ray had agreed to come along on this holiday. Well, all right, he'd been a bit reluctant at first. Well, all right, he'd been a bit reluctant up to the moment of departure. Well, all right, Murphy had had to cajole, bully and taunt his partner into going on this trip. And why not? he thought defiantly to himself. Raymond Doyle was a stroppy little sod that sometimes needed to be cajoled, bullied and taunted into doing something.
There were times Ray'd been desperately grateful to be bullied out of his black moods. Bodie used to be able to do the job with his ghastly gallows humour, changing Ray's mood from gloom to a good healthy desire to belt his partner a good one. Murphy didn't have the late agent's gift for tastelessness, however; he'd had to resort to plain browbeating at times to deal with the temperamental Doyle after a bad day at work or during one of his fits of bereft despair.
This hadn't really been a browbeating, though. More like a friendly persuasion coupled with a subtle taunt.
"Got a prezzy for you, Ray," Murphy beamed beatifically at his partner. "Looks like all those trips Cowley sent me on 'ave paid off." He tossed two plane tickets into Doyle's lap. "Managed to wangle our holiday time together, and look where we're going."
"San Francisco?" Doyle goggled at the destination. "Your frequent flyin's got us to San Francisco?" A broad ugly grin spread over his face. "You mad bastard, they'll know for sure--"
"Not stayin' in San Francisco, Ray," Murphy added blandly. "That's just the airport we're using. Getting a hire car, and we're going here."
A hiking map of Yosemite Park landed on top of the plane ticket still in Doyle's lap.
Doyle stared for a moment, bewildered. He opened the map and surveyed the contents, looking at the points of interest. "Yeah. Nice. But it's a bit far to go for a camping holiday, innit?"
"We're stayin' here, Ray." Murphy tapped a finger on the map area marked "Yosemite Valley."
"Yeah, well, that's where everybody goes, don't they?" Ray responded. "That's where Half Dome is, isn't it? Big attraction."
"And El Capitan," Murphy added deadpan. "And Three Brothers. And..." He grinned as he watched the penny drop.
"You're insane!" Ray snapped, whipping his head up to glare at his partner.
"...and the finest cliff-climbing in the world," Murphy concluded.
"Listen, Murph, I've gone with you on those little weekend scrabbles in the countryside--"
"And enjoyed yourself, or so you said--"
"This is different! This is--"
"Commitment?" Murphy asked lightly, one eyebrow rising. He met the wide and angry green eyes with his own, dancing with merriment and the challenge. "This is the test, Ray. This place is the Holy Grail for climbers."
"This place. Not the Alps." Ray's voice echoed his complete disbelief.
Murphy dismissed his own scaling of Eiger with a wave of the hand. "Mate, that was the warm up. Any idiot can scale Everest."
"Yeh, it would take an idiot to do that," Ray repeated hotly.
"Everest and Eiger and the rest of the big lads require years of preparation, months of planning, sherpas, suppliers, base camps, the lot. All backed by a Swiss bank or its equivalent. This," Murphy indicated the circled rock formation on the map, "is the playground of the solitary climber -- the amateur with the true love of the craft. Just you, and the rock." Murphy smiled with his quiet deadly humour. "And this trip will mark our second year as partners. The second anniversary gift is granite."
A snort. "Berk." A long pause." 'S dangerous." But Ray's voice was not censorious, merely a request for information.
"Yes, dangerous enough. And it's a challenge. And there's nowhere else like it in the whole world. And who knows? Might have a few days left over to spend in San Francisco, too."
Murphy left it at that. He moved away from Doyle. He got himself a cup of tea, collected the discarded sports supplement and settled himself on the threadbare settee.
Halfway through the football scores, he heard Ray's voice on the other side of the paper.
"We're not goin' up Half Dome, are we?"
And Murphy smiled.
No, they were not climbing Half Dome, though hundreds of tourists did that every day -- using the railing and steps built into its nice safe curved backside. Eagle Peak was good enough for them right now: broad and wide, offering its kilometer and change face to them and begging to be climbed. This was a comfortable ramble for Murphy and a good outing for Doyle's first major assault.
And Yosemite Valley was beautiful in early September. The air was cold and crisp as an apple; the sun beat down, tempering the cold air. Granite walls nearly two kilometers high enclosed a glacier cut valley less than a kilometer wide -- walls punctuated by some of the most notorious stone faces in nature. The valley's call was a unique one to climbers and daredevils everywhere, just as its incredible beauty had been a siren song to the likes of John Muir and Ansel Adams. It was a sightseer's paradise.
Granted, it was a little hard to do much sightseeing when you were more interested in not falling 800 meters to the valley floor...
The daylight would be gone early -- the sun leaving the high-walled valley in late afternoon -- and they had to reach the top before then. They were to spend the night atop Eagle Peak, the main granite lump of the three that gave the formation its name, and make their way back down the next day. Wouldn't be the most comfortable of nights for the two of them -- strapped to the rock, living cold -- but nothing a couple of Macklin-trained agents couldn't take in stride.
And it would be far preferable to their previous night...
That fucking idiot in the lot next to theirs wouldn't shut the fuck up with his fucking guitar. Obviously drunk. Louder than shit. Thought he was Waylon Jennings. The drunken arseholes in the other adjoining campsites who hooted and screamed at every marijuana reference in the songs he bellowed weren't helping any by encouraging him. It was well past midnight and the Waylon wanna-be showed no signs of slowing down.
Now Murphy wished he'd paid the little bit extra for a full campsite rather than the cheap bare patch of ground for a tent set-up for hikers and people on a budget. At least the people in the rest of the valley were quieter than this shithead...
They had to make an early start. They'd take the Valley Shuttle to the base of Three Brothers, and go from there. But how the hell were they going to get any sleep?
Doyle's coldly-polite request for quiet had produced roars of drunken rage at the "fuckin' limey" and a slew of profanity in vicious parodies of English accents. Murphy had stopped Doyle's rising up to do damage by hissing "Ray, this is America -- there's a good chance some of them have guns." That had stopped Doyle cold; slowly, seething with rage, he'd lain back down in his sleeping bag, fuming but silent. Neither man had brought his CI5 hardware along, thinking firearms inappropriate for a climbing holiday.
But as "Waylon" loudly announced the title of his next opus, Ray nudged Murphy hard and pointed out what he himself had seen.
A round fat furry shape waddled into "Waylon's" tent, which was close enough for the two of them to hear the thumps and scratches the animal made inside as the owner obliviously howled his songs not three meters away, his back to the activity. For a moment, Murphy thought the animal a bear cub, and worried about the location of its mother. But the striped tail and black mask of another fat little bandit joining its compatriot identified the two prowlers.
They'd been told to "shut the fuck up."
So Ray and Murphy lay in perfect silence together, and watched the two raccoons neatly and methodically clean out "Waylon's" unattended food box and ice chest over the space of an hour. Every laugh was muffled in their arms or against each other. The activity was augmented with whispered comments to each other on the possibility of awarding OBEs to foreign animals.
"God, I wish Bodie coulda seen this," Ray giggled as one of the raccoons emerged dragging an entire package of bacon by one plastic corner.
"Who d'you think sent 'em?" Murph whispered back, and they nearly ruptured themselves suppressing that laugh.
The schadenfreude more than made up for the drunken prick's bleary caterwauling. It was enough to eventually send them to sleep with minds full of blissful imaginings of "Waylon's" reaction to finding nothing for breakfast the next morning -- and nothing to douse his hangover with.
Murphy whistled tunelessly as he anchored another skyhook and clipped the line. He was having far more fun than could be explained by the outing. After all, he'd gone climbing by himself often enough, had scaled some of the finest faces in nature; this was what he did with his savings, where he went on his holidays. This wasn't even the first time he'd come to Yosemite valley for a--
The stone under his foot slipped out from under and went tumbling towards Ray. His foot scrabbled to regain the crack and missed. His chin banged hard on the stone face. He fell.
And jerked to a stop in less than a meter, dangling from the anchored rope, staring down a kilometer's worth of rock face. Hold, oh hold, hold, hold, his adrenaline charged stomach chanted in prayer to the tiny skyhook that bore him as Murphy hung suspended, dazed, his chin tingling. Calm, calm calm yourself, he automatically chanted to himself, regain your footing slowly, surely. It was the way he'd always worked in these little panicky moments on the rocks. He lifted his head and reached out to stop his swaying.
Then there was another presence beside him, and an arm was around Murphy, steadying him, stopping the swinging motion. " 'Sall right, Murph, I've got you," Ray was saying calmly and quietly. "Steady, mate, get the foothold."
Murphy's feet moved, regaining the crack that had held the treacherous stone; his hands reached for the holds he'd already sized up. His partner's soothing voice bore and sustained him as much as did the strong arm around him.
"That's it, mate, you've got it, slow and easy. That's it. That's good." Ray's arm fell away as soon as Murphy pulled himself toward the tiny tungsten loop, but a hand stopped Murphy's motion for a second. "Hold it, your chin's bleeding all over you."
"Scrape." Murphy had had enough of them to know how fiercely small facial wounds bled. "Be all right, Ray."
"Yeah, hang on."
Murphy took the proffered handkerchief and mopped at his stinging chin, bemused, as Ray clung one handed to the anchor line, fishing for the pack at his belt. He produced a small bottle of spray disinfectant and grinned. "Grit your teeth, sunshine."
Murphy bared them at his partner before pulling the sticky kerchief away from his chin for the application of the ice- cold sting. Applying the bandage took a bit longer, and Ray had to hang in the ropes for a moment as he wrestled the bandaids free of their sterile wrappings one after the other. He sucked his teeth in a fashion Murphy had grown to find extremely irritating. "Not big enough. Well, 's better than nothing. Get that fixed when we get back down. Want me to put some bug spray on you before I close the pack?"
"Spray you if you don't quit messin' with me, Doyle," Murphy growled, and Ray laughed as he closed the small first aid kit. His chin still tingled a bit and felt stiff from the two bandaids wrapping it, but the analgesic spray was numbing the worst of the impact. He sobered and smiled. "Thanks, mate, good job."
Ray nodded, looking very pleased with himself. "Made sure I didn't look down this time, dinn' I? Me first midair emergency."
"The first of many."
Ray gave him a bad look. "Just get your arse back up there and make sure we don't get to me second one anytime soon. And quit kickin' rocks at me, I'm climbing fast as I can."
Doyle certainly had to have been, to scale the distance between them between one breath and the next.
Murphy turned back to the line and regained his ground at a good steady pace. He found that such slips sharpened him more than anything else the clean little knife edge of fear made him more aware, more alert and better at handling himself, the way a shoot-out or similar dangerous situation on the job did.
That was certainly true now; the burst of adrenaline was still working and giving everything a sharper edge. But now...
Now the ice of fear that had honed his abilities on his solitary climbs was replaced by something stronger, and warmer.
Murphy beamed at the tiny loop of tungsten thread that had saved his life as he yanked the skyhook from its mooring and reattached it to his belt, fumbling for a larger one for the next wedge in the cliff face. He found himself humming a tune that seemed to go with the breeze and the clouds and the stolid granite he embraced -- he was absurdly happy in spite of what had just happened. Well, to be truthful, he was absurdly happy because of what had just happened.
Assurance, that was it. It was the exact same feeling he had on the job -- a bone-deep knowledge that his back was covered. But for the first time on his climbing expeditions he bore inside him that same assurance that his partner wouldn't let him fall, that Ray would be there if anything went awry, even a little midair slip like that one.
He had two skyhooks keeping him safe now, didn't he?
Murphy turned back to the business at hand, looking up towards their eventual goal and knowing that Ray was looking there too. A foot set firmly in the crevice, a rope tautened, and another meter of ground was gained. Despite his aching chin, the tune kept tumbling out past his lips. He was absurdly happy -- the operative word being "absurd."
Went both ways, didn't it? Murphy had been a skyhook for Ray during the blackest period of Doyle's life.
Two and a half years since the Townley operation that had killed Bodie. Two and a half years since Cowley had ordered Murphy to take Doyle home from the hospital and stay with him to prevent the anguished survivor from ending his own misery at the death of his partner, best friend and six- years lover. Two and a half years since Lone Wolf Murphy, the singleton agent who would someday replace Cowley, disappeared forever; his buried and atrophied compassion wakened into clumsy life by his desperate need to comfort Doyle that terrible night.
Two years since Murphy acquired his first working partner in Doyle, who now could work with no one else.
Not quite two years since Murphy and Doyle had become lovers as well as working partners.
Cowley's order to Murphy that day in the hospital -- to stay with Doyle -- had never been remanded. It had changed both of them. Murphy was no longer an island who stayed safely away when the others mourned their losses; he had grown a land-bridge to the continent where his fellow agents lived, and had learned how compassion could make him a better agent and a better CI5 controller.
Murphy smiled a little bit as he heard snatches of his own tuneless air rumbling from Doyle's pipes. He wasn't the only one feeling good today.
Doyle was now safely out of the morass into which he had sunk for months after Bodie's death. Ray laughed and joked in the rest room with no reservations, and often made rude and outrageous comments at his deceased partner's expense; his alertness and efficiency were back to their usual superb levels; his psychs were as clean as anybody's could be who shared this insane job; he slept soundly at night, as Murphy could well attest. And his dreams were kind.
"Saw him last night," Ray murmured tenderly, kissing the back of Murphy's neck and nudging his swelling damp cock into the cleft of the other man's buttocks. "Told 'im about us."
"Come after me with an armalite, did he?" Murph murmured sleepily, settling his arse into a better position to accept his lover's cock and groaning blissfully at the deft touch of the long fingers playing with his nipples.
"Nah. Just nodded. Called me a randy little bugger." Ray's fingers became busy on Murphy's cock and balls as his mouth moved down to slide open wet kisses all along the broad shoulders.
"Well, you are a randy little bugger," Murphy agreed in a throaty growl, arousing under the expert touch, rising to his elbows and knees. "Christ, Doyle, did your mum give you oysters for breakfast when you were growing up?" His words ended in a soft, choked wail as he was gripped and stopped up hard at the arse with his own breakfast, full of cock. When teeth clamped into his collarbone and arms like steel bands wound round his ribcage, he knew he was lost once again and fell into the whirl of sensation as Ray rode him at his leisure. Every taut sinew from neck to shoulder was chewed, his tits were ruthlessly pulled and twisted by his lover, and the cock moved bluntly within him, fucking him with the ease and assurance of the journey's end.
"Yeah, Murph," Doyle growled over him, rutting, "and they'd keep sendin' me home from school for doin' the nuns in me classes. The way I'm doin' you, Murph. The way I'm fuckin' you, fillin' you with me cock, full of me juice. An' you've gotta hold still and let me cos you want it so bad, Murph, don't you, don't you?"
Murphy squealed as the little bastard jutted his hips just a little harder to drive precisely that sound from him, and heard Ray laughing like a satyr; his cock pounded at his belly, swollen and neglected, as the other cock insolently claimed him, parting his rump with every forward thrust of bony hips battering his buttocks, sliding wet and free through the clasping cheeks that sought in vain to hold fast to their beloved marauder, plunging in again while Ray's voice growled obscene language to its rhythm.
"Fuck you," Ray snarled, slamming hard and short now, close. "Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck--"
Coming was long and hard and sweet for both of them.
Finally Murphy curled around the quivering, damp Ray, stroking the man's long bald sternum scar as was his wont; he was replete and aching and very pleased. It was good to be the one Ray was fucking these days, and not a ghost; Doyle no longer called him Bodie in the thick of things. Murphy buried his nose in the fragrant curls where the scent was strongest and sank into the sleep of the dead.
Just as Murphy heard Ray's sharp cry of panic, he felt the line snap taut on his own harness, felt the skyhook beside him tense and hold, creaking. "You're safe, Ray, you're very safe," he called before looking toward his dangling partner, ready to descend and offer aid. But it was only a minor slip; Doyle was already reaching for new foot and handholds, slackening the line as he reclaimed his place on the rock. He'd learned his lessons well in the little weekend scrabbles. "Good lad, Ray. Foot up. Yeah, there. Any damage?"
Doyle clung to the rock, taking deep breaths to calm himself. He shook his head. Murphy couldn't see his facial expression very well from his position, but he fancied that the fine little ripples the wind made over Doyle's windbreaker could very well be shudders.
"Want me to come down there?"
" 'M okay." But Ray still hadn't let go of the rock.
"All right, then climb up toward me, I'll wait."
The fingers tightened their grip.
"Climb, Ray!" Murphy snapped. "Now!"
"Don't think about it, just do it, Doyle!"
One foot reached for a hold in a crevice, found and tested. One white-knuckled hand loosened its grip and seized the line, letting the other white-knuckled hand grope for a higher ledge. Step by step, Doyle made his way up to where Murphy waited for him, his eyes wide, his face so white and taut that the skin shone over his damaged cheekbone. But when he anchored himself beside Murphy, his breathing was slower and deeper; and he looked calmer, his eyes brighter.
"Safer than your mum's arms," Murphy said, indicating the tungsten wedge in the fissured rock that held both of them without budging.
Doyle nodded a little, still wide eyed. "Fall off a horse, you get back on," he murmured.
"Exactly." He reached for the thermos clipped to his pack. "Now we can stop and have our tea. You handled that very well, Ray." Murphy handed Ray a steaming cup.
Doyle rolled his eyes and hoisted the cup. "Cheers." He drew in the hot liquid like a vampire getting his first meal of the evening, and about as noisily.
"Second midair emergency," Murphy said blandly.
Doyle glared at him over the rim of the metal cup. He lowered the cup and exhaled in a long blow of steam laden breath. "Scared the crap out of me for a second. Ticker's still goin' a mile a minute."
Murphy nodded. His own heart was still going like clappers, too, adrenaline sending ice sheets of fear through him in a force identical if not stronger than his fear for his own life in his earlier slip.
This was the flip side of partnering -- feeling that self- preservation terror for someone else, that responsibility for someone else's life. This was the fear that had helped keep Murphy unpartnered for years.
Murphy suppressed a smile as he reached up to pluck a pine needle from Doyle's curls and send it on its way to the valley floor a kilometer below; Ray snorted at the gesture, and Murphy felt warm and pleased inside. He had chosen; and he was still learning the rewards of that choice.
Doyle drained the cup, handed it back and wiped his mouth with the back of a hand, the fingers of which were scraped and red. Murphy refilled the mug and drank from it himself; the hot fluid began to warm him from the belly outward. He watched Doyle look around them at the granite face, then up toward the top of the valley wall, sprinkled with trees here and there, and the broad expanse of granite they had yet to climb. Then Ray's head lowered slowly to look down; he shuddered lightly all over, one hand knotted around the line and one gripping a crevice. It was obvious that Ray was making himself look down. The hand in the crevice loosened and went to his middle; Ray's fingers brushed lightly against the array of skyhooks clipped to his belt. It was exactly the same way he often stroked Murphy in bed.
Doyle met Murphy's eyes, looking a little sheepish at having his reconnaissance witnessed; but he responded to the warmth of Murphy's gentle smile with one of his own that lit the green eyes. They understood each other.
That understanding was underlined when Ray gave Murphy's shoulder a thump. "Come on, Skyhook, let's get to the top."
Murphy rolled his eyes at his partner's sudden exuberance; Doyle only laughed filthily as his mate once more set the pace of the climb.
"Christ," Murphy muttered darkly as he set the next piton.
"Christ," Ray said softly and very reverently. Murphy nodded. They stood atop Eagle Peak, feet braced against the pitons they'd just laid down, and looked upon the whole of Yosemite Valley laid out before them, and did not say another word for a very long time.
The light of the setting sun fell squarely and solely upon the broad black-streaked sheer face of Half Dome, bathing it in red gold. The light gradually slipped away as the high granite walls blocked out the late-afternoon warmth.
The warmth inside Murphy was an odd mixture of tenderness and exuberant pride. It was a splendid feeling to achieve a climb, to finally have nothing above you but the sky, the entire mountain below you. And he was pleased he'd been able to introduce Doyle to this wonder that was completely new to the man.
Only the two of them, Doyle and Murphy, would have appreciated this, in precisely this fashion. Bodie had spent too much of his life outdoors to go in for climbing for climbing's sake, or for the sake of looking at pretty vistas. But for a couple of city-bred people like Doyle and himself...
The last of the rose-coloured light vanished from the lip of the demisphere. The cold picked up or they only then began to notice it.
Doyle's lean shoulders moved in a shrug. "Yeh, well. S'pose it was worth the slog up here," he said indifferently; but his eyes were still wide with the memory of that glory, belying his voice tone.
Murphy grunted in the same tone of voice. He was sure his own eyes told a similar story to Doyle's.
They finished setting up the tent between the pitons, lashing down everything as well as they themselves were anchored. Ray opened his pack. "So, what's on offer?"
Murphy held up a couple of foil packets from his gear. "Cold rehydrate. Hand me the canteen."
Doyle took one of the packets as if it were a fresh roasted rat on a stick -- he knew, intellectually, that it was nourishing... "Stopping at the first burger place we hit on the way out," he said, squishing the water through the packet to mix the dry contents thoroughly.
"Stop at 'em all if you like," Murphy said, and they set to. Their hunger performed the deed that the manufacturers of the packets had failed to do -- it made the contents palatable and desirable. Dinner could have been filet mignon and Chardonnay or sawdust and paste for all their stomachs cared at the moment.
"Have to send Cowley a postcard," Doyle said with his mouth full.
Murphy nodded and swallowed. "Picture of this mountain, make an X at the top and show him where we slept."
"Nah. Was thinkin' of the one with the banana slug on it."
Murph nodded solemnly. "What, put 'Thought of you' on it?"
"Yeh. Still want to ask him to recruit those two raccoons."
"Invent a CI5 animal division?"
"No good, mate. American animals. NATO, maybe."
"Turn 'em loose in Willis' fridge."
Amid such lofty dining conversation, the packets were consumed. "Got a long way to slide down tomorrow," Murphy said when their stomachs were appeased.
Doyle nodded. "And San Francisco the day after," he said.
They got into the tent, zipped together in a doubled sleeping bag for extra shared warmth through all their climbing clothes; neither man so much as removed his rubber soled climbing shoes. It wasn't warm, but the nylon tent broke the wind, which raised the temperature considerably in comparison. Their shared body warmth soon had the tent in a sleepable condition. Murphy closed his eyes, deliciously weary and ready to sink into oblivion.
It wasn't important enough to wake up for. "Mmm?"
"There a Mile High Club for climbers?"
Murphy's eyes opened slowly. He turned his head and stared at the bleary-eyed Doyle with a mixture of awe and disgust. "You're kidding. Ray, after what we did, you've still got enough-- Bodie was right, you are a toad!"
"Just askin'," Ray mumbled and nestled into Murphy's neck. "Can't even keep me eyelids up right now."
Murphy exhaled in long suffering. Two and a half years, and he was still getting used to being partnered to that exasperating sod. He managed to find enough energy to raise a hand and cuff his partner. "Go sleep, Doyle, or I'll push you off."
"Mph. Had fun t'day Murph."
" 'S good. Did good. Good climb fer b'ginn'r."
A snore was his only answer.
Murphy sighed. Exasperating sod. Ought to have an owner's manual for Raymond Doyle -- Must be cajoled, bullied and taunted frequently to maintain peak efficiency.
Still, they had done well today, the two of them. Eagle Peak now lay entirely below them. A good climb for a beginner. Doyle had the ability to climb, as well as a level head when it was needed, and an ability to overcome his own fear during hazardous moments. Look how fast Ray had shinned up the rock face when Murph had slipped free...
Doyle had the knack. And Ray hadn't been the only one who'd thoroughly enjoyed the day. This was a whole new experience for Murphy, too -- climbing with a friend, purely for love of the climb.
The wearying day, the warm heavy body beside his, and the silence of the valley night wrapped tendrils of sleep around Murphy, coaxing him to join Doyle in snoring the peak apart...
And his last coherent thought was of the great flat rock face that had caught the last light of the setting sun as it had for millennia; the formation that loomed over the valley like a crippled king for 2.7 kilometers; that splendid 90 degree jut from the ground. The ultimate challenge. Murphy had never even considered Half Dome for a climb before -- it was no place for a solitary climber.
Next time, Murphy thought contentedly, his bandaged chin resting in a nest of curls as his workmate, friend, lover and now climbing partner drowsed in his arms. Next time.
-- THE END --
Originally published in Murphy's Law, Satyr D'Nite, 199.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: The raccoon incident actually happened -- I was there.