by Togi Kayako (土宜草子)
From a distance, the Vessel of the Goddess looked proper fancy. The afternoon sunshine turned her white robe and tall headpiece into a beacon as she wound her way through the tilled fields.. It wasn’t that glow, nor the shine of all the bits of metal and glass she was weighted down with that kept Frida’s eyes locked on the woman.
When the Vessel passed by her, Frida noticed that she looked about two quick breaths away from keeling over. Her bare, pale toes curled into the earth with each unsteady step she took. Sure, she had something like a benevolent smile on her face, but her jaw was tight and the lines around her brown eyes were nothing but pain. In Frida’s professional opinion, the Vessel needed water, some rest, and to stop letting superstitious folk make her anoint their fields with her blood.
As nobody had asked for her opinions, professional or otherwise, Frida kept her thoughts to herself. Folks in the crowd weren’t so circumspect. An older man with fur silvering near his drooping ears nudged the woman next to him and said, “Vessel looks like she’s about empty, yeah?”
She hummed her agreement. “Yeah. Doubt she’ll make it to the next planting, poor thing. But really, only a handful of years at it and she’s done already?” The woman wasn’t even looking at the Vessel as she spoke, but gazing back along the path winding up to the hilly village.
The uncaring tone of their voices grated on Frida, and she turned her head away from the pair as she gritted her teeth. Even a small slip of fangs big as hers tended to set people on edge, and Kol would be disappointed if she stirred up trouble before they even had a chance to barter for provisions.
Frida took one more glance at the Vessel, patiently dripping more blood onto the earth every few steps for people who didn’t seem to give a single fuck about her. Ducking her head, Frida shouldered her way out of the crowd with a bit more force than she really needed. Small as she was, she packed a lot of muscle from all her time on the road.
Kol had set up their wagon on the outskirts of town, on the inside of the line of trees that kept the wasteland dust at bay. Their brightly-painted signboard was propped up against a nearby bush. She marched over and flipped it around, hiding the text offering her services as a medic and Kol’s as a general fix-it. “I don’t know about this place,” Frida said.
“Already?” Kol asked, mild and calm as he was about everything except people who were careless with his tools. “Can we wait until evening at least? I just cleaned the harness.” He tipped his broad, dark-furred head toward a collection of leather straps and buckles draped over some branches.
“I wasn’t saying we need to leave,” Frida said, thunking her back against the peeling paint on the side of the wagon. Her weight wasn’t even enough to make it wobble; without Kol pulling the wagon, she wouldn’t be going anywhere. “I didn’t even pick a fight.”
Kol shook his head, not even glancing over as he pulled out his tool case and started carefully inspecting each spotless piece inside. “I wasn’t saying you pick fights,” he said. Only years of reading Kol’s minimalistic expressions let Frida catch the slight curve of his mouth under his focused expression. “What’s the matter with this town?”
“Not sure they’re treating their ‘Vessel of the Goddess’ too well. She looks… tired.” She looked full-on dead behind the eyes, really, but Frida tried her best not to fall into dramatics. There was no hope of her matching Kol for sheer pragmatism, but that was why the two of them made such a good team.
Kol’s hands paused with a delicate screwdriver balanced on two of his massive fingers. “Let me guess: She’s real pretty, besides the tired?” He turned and very pointedly hefted both of his thick brows at her.
Frida made an obscene gesture at him and went to reorganize her stores in preparation for doing some actual work later in the day.
↻ ⟳ ↻ ⟳ ↻
Once the ceremonial blood-letting had ended, it seemed like half the damn town came running to see Frida, Kol, or both. The evening passed in a blur as one person after another came to tell Frida about what ailed them. She offered a lot more advice and a lot less medication than some medics, but most folks went on their way content with what they got.
As the flood of customers slowed, Frida spotted a figure in a shapeless black hooded jacket hanging around just far enough away for plausible deniability. Almost nobody after Kol’s services was shy, save for the rare times they had something for very personal use to get fixed, so Frida knew the straggler was probably angling to see her.
Sure enough, when Frida saw the last person in line off, the figure started meandering in like a tumbleweed caught in a gentle breeze. They came up to the back of the wagon where Frida was perched and asked softly, “Are you still seeing people tonight? It’s fine if you’re done — I can come back another day, I mean, if you’ll be around for a while yet. Sorry, I don’t mean to assume.”
Frida ducked forward a little so she could get a look under the stranger’s hood. Without the distance and the ceremonial clothes, the Vessel really looked like shit. She was sickly pale, which made the slight yellowing of her eyes even more noticeable. “I’ve got time yet,” Frida said, light and casual. “If it’s a delicate matter, we can hop inside the wagon, get some privacy?”
“Yes, please,” the Vessel said. Frida offered her a hand and needed to do a fair bit of hauling to help her get up. The Vessel’s hand was chilly to the touch, and the dull gray fur poking out the edge of her jacket cuff was patchy.
There wasn’t a lot of space in the back of the wagon, but Frida nudged a pair of storage crates out to give them somewhere to sit, lit the lantern, and pulled the back door shut. The privacy didn’t seem to help. The Vessel perched right on the very edge of one crate, hunched in on herself under the loose fabric of her jacket. With her legs tucked to the side and her hands folded up tight in her lap, she looked like she expected to be yelled at for taking up too much room.
“So then, what seems to be troubling you?” Frida asked. She took her own seat casually, kicking one leg over the other and putting on her best doctoring smile. The shorts she had on undercut the image a bit, but her sandy leg fur was too thick for her to tolerate pants in the late spring heat.
“I’ve been a little tired lately.” Understatement of the season, no doubt, but Frida nodded along pleasantly. Contradicting a patient right out the gate was no way to build trust, and the Vessel clearly had more than a fair share of people telling her what to do already. Frida wasn’t minded to add herself to the list, especially when she didn’t even know the woman’s name yet.
The Vessel paused long enough that it stretched out into a clear stop. “Are you getting enough to eat?” Frida prompted. “Do you feel more rested when you wake up?” It was easy enough to fall back on the usual sorts of questions, pretend like neither of them knew exactly what the problem was.
“I have food, but I don’t seem to have much of an appetite.” The Vessel shrugged her shoulders up a smidgen and then left them there. “Mornings aren’t any better or worse.” She held up one thin hand to stop Frida from replying, and Frida saw that several of her blunt nails were broken off unevenly. “I know this can’t be fixed, not as things are. All I want is to make it through the next moon or so.”
Frida’s professional smile wore a little easier with that realistic goal on the table. “A short-term boost is something I can help with. We’ll get you through the planting and then I trust they’ll have someone else take on all the ceremonial bleeding?”
The Vessel let out a very undignified and not at all Goddess-like snort of laughter. “Yes, I can’t imagine they’d try to get another season out of me. So what do I need to do?” Even the bitter smile she had on brought a bit of life to her face. Frida felt some of her worries settle with the proof that they hadn’t managed to drain away everything into the damn fields.
“Would be much obliged if you’d give me an actual name to call you, first off. I’m Frida.” Frida held her hand out low enough that it could be plausibly missed if the Vessel wasn’t minded to shake hands.
She hesitated, but reached out and took Frida’s hand in a surprisingly firm grip. “Call me Jass.” Jass tugged her hood back, revealing more patchy fur where it faded into the deeper brown of her hair. Two ridges near her hairline rose up into a set of small, hooked antlers that looked in at least as bad shape as her nails.
Frida ruthlessly squashed down her desire to go yell at the rest of the town and focused on what she could do. “Alrighty then, Jass. Tell me, how do you feel about liver?”
↻ ⟳ ↻ ⟳ ↻
Frida passed the next few days spending less time on the dwindling number of customers and more in the smallish shack that served as Jass’ home. The space was gloomy, even with the drab, undyed curtains tied back, and the room managed to be both sparse and cluttered. Jass had few belongings of her own, with all of her ceremonial garb and tools being stored elsewhere, but what little she owned seemed to be housed on the floor.
In trying to nudge a coarse towel aside with her foot, Frida found a dirty plate hidden underneath and couldn’t help pulling a face. Jass looked away sharply and started hunching in on herself like a wilting flower. “Sorry, it’s a mess, I know. I should clean up, but….” She shrugged, but her hands were balled into fists. “Doesn’t feel like there’s any point. I’m usually the only one here.”
Frida returned the shrug. “Your space, your rules.” She hadn’t been that tidy herself, back before she went on the road with Kol. He needed to have everything in one place that didn’t change, and she’d warmed to his system over time. The ability to grab something on muscle memory alone was comforting and it made the wagon feel like home in a way no other place could when they spent so much time on the move.
“Anyway, everything going well so far? I assume no one had issues with you switching up what you’re eating a bit,” Frida said. She casually booted the towel into a pile of what she hoped was laundry and scooped up the plate.
“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” Jass said. She all but yanked the dish out of Frida’s hands, then sheepishly set it on an unsteady pile of several others. “You’re already doing so much for me, please don’t bother with the mess.”
Not for the first time, Frida bit back the urge to ask why nobody was taking better care of Jass. Religion as a whole made little sense to her, but she knew better than to bandy her opinions on the subject around without being well and truly sure of the welcome she’d get. “Fair enough. Didn’t mean anything by it, just had idle hands.”
There was a trick to smiling at Jass, Frida had found — she couldn’t be too direct about it or Jass would curl up like a poked armor bug. Instead, Frida dusted her hands off and smiled while she looked out the window. “Besides, I’ll take any excuse I can get not to tidy up. Just ask Kol. I swear he’s got a mental list of every time I’ve tried to charm my way out of the cleaning up.”
Jass let out the smallest, sweetest little breath of laughter and Frida fought back the urge to scoop her up and run off with her immediately. Kidnapping a religious figure would probably guarantee a bounty on her head, and she couldn’t in good conscience get Kol mixed up in that much trouble. Still, what was wrong with this town, that they couldn’t be bothered to treat Jass right?
A knock on the door cut off Frida’s rising temper quicker than a dunk in a lake. Jass outright flinched, but slapped on that awful, placid working smile and went straight for the door. On the other side was the town baker, a plump woman with a sleek, silver-spotted pelt and dark, gentle eyes.
“Blessings to ya, Vessel. Got the first of the flour for the coming week here.” She patted the thick bag tucked in the crook of her arm, sending out a puff of white. “Can I come in?” Her eyes fixed on Frida and went a bit wide. “If I’m not interrupting anything, mind,” she added.
“No, of course not. Please come in,” Jass said, sweet and soft like she was welcoming an old friend. “The doctor was just checking up on me.” Frida clenched her jaw tight, but managed a civil sort of nod in the baker’s direction as she brushed by Jass.
The baker glanced around the room, clearly looking for enough clear space to set her bag down. Jass kicked the door shut and bustled around to clear some discarded clothing off of a low wood table and the chair tucked beside it. The table wobbled on uneven legs as the baker set down the flour and opened up the bag.
When Jass went toward a small knife block — one of the few meticulously clean things in the whole room — a quick growl slipped out of Frida’s mouth. She cleared her throat and muttered, “Would really be better if you kept the blood loss to a minimum. Medically speaking.”
“It only takes a few drops to do a blessing,” Jass said calmly, hands steady as she pulled out a thin, gleaming blade. She didn’t even flinch as she rolled up her sleeve and pricked the thin-furred underside of her arm. The skin was speckled with scar tissue, more than Frida had ever seen on someone who wasn’t a mercenary or a serious body mod enthusiast.
Three drops of Jass’s blood thunked down into the flour like raindrops onto the dusty earth of the wastelands. Maybe the theory was the same — as the rain brought life, so might the blood of the Goddess’s unlucky vessel. Frida took in a couple good, slow breaths as Jass murmured some sort of benediction and the baker offered a ritual thanks.
It got easier as the blood, Jass’s arms, and the knife all got tucked away out of Frida’s sight. The baker got to her feet with a huff and a bright smile. “Thanks much, Vessel. I’ll bring you the first loaf — unless the doctor doesn’t want you having bread?”
“Bread’s fine,” Frida said, sharper than she wanted but not half as harsh as she felt. “If you’ve got any iron pans you can make it up in, all the better. Iron’s good for the blood.”
“Is it now?” the baker asked, mild and uninterested like everyone else in the damn town seemed to be about anything relating to Jass’s care. “Now, that gives me a thought — could I ask you to walk with me a ways, doctor? If you can spare a moment or three.”
Jass was already nodding and waving them away before Frida could ask if she minded. With no graceful way left to decline, Frida went. The baker didn’t say a word until they’d gone a good dozen paces away from Jass’s house, where she paused and stepped off the path. “What seems to be the trouble?” Frida asked, cordial as she could muster.
The baker set her gaze off at the horizon. “This may be overstepping on my part, doctor. Your business is yours and all, but I have to say you’re wasting your time and supplies if you’re trying to get the Vessel back to good health.”
“I’m well aware she can’t recover effectively so long as everyone keeps bleeding her dry,” Friday said, patience too frayed to word it any nicer. “Jass told me she’s looking to get through the next moon or so. I assume after that point someone else takes over as the Vessel?”
The baker flinched at the use of Jass’s name — Frida had just blundered into some stupid taboo, no doubt, but it was what it was. “Well, yes, I suppose you could say so, but by then her health will hardly matter, really.” Her eyes flicked down to Frida’s face and off again, skittish.
Frida had to ask the question, even if she had a sinking feeling the answer would just make her angry again. “Why do you say that?” She shifted back a step and jammed her hands in her pockets. No more taking swings at people who didn’t swing first, that was what she’d promised Kol and herself.
“I suppose there’s no reason you’d know, is there?” the baker said, absent, like she was talking to herself. “When a body’s chosen as the Vessel of the Goddess, it’s Hers for life, doctor. Like… if you have a water jug and it breaks, you don’t keep the pieces around, right? You get a new jug.”
“Right,” Frida said, giving the baker a curt nod. “I’ll keep that in mind.” She turned without another word and stormed back to Jass’s house. Blind rage sunk in down to her bones at the sheer unfairness of it all — it felt like her first months away from the shelter of her well-off commune, where she’d snarled at every little injustice.
Her claws nicked a few spots in the wood around the door handle, but Frida managed not to slam the door open or closed. Jass glanced up from the plate she was scraping off and froze in place at whatever Frida’s face was doing. “Are you all right?” she asked, whisper-soft as ever. “She didn’t say anything rude to you, did she?”
Frida bit back a growl and did her best to tuck her fangs away. “Were you planning to tell me that you only need to make it a little longer because then you’ll be dead?” She was too loud, voice ringing against the closeness of the walls, but against all odds, Jass didn’t flinch.
“I wasn’t trying to lie,” she said, slow and plain like she was talking to a child. “I figured you knew. I’m sorry if that makes a difference for you and it’s fine if you don’t want to do anything more. You’ve already helped me so much.” Jass’s smile was genuine, Frida could see the crinkle at the corners of her eyes. The gratitude made her stomach roil.
“You’re just going to lay down and die,” Frida said. She couldn’t even make it into a question. “Does your Goddess mean that much to you?” There were a thousand other objections at the tip of her tongue — you’re not even that old, you deserve better than this — but Frida swallowed them down along with the sour taste at the back of her throat.
Jass licked her lips and shrugged one shoulder up in a motion almost invisible under her usual baggy jacket. “I don’t know about the Goddess,” she admitted in a whisper. “But I’ve never been much use, so when I was chosen, I didn’t mind. It was something useful.” A hollow laugh rattled out of her and she added, “Of course, it turns out I’m not even much good at being a Vessel.”
“Don’t you talk about yourself like that,” Frida hissed. “Nobody’s a lost cause. If you think you’re not good at anything, you probably just haven’t tried the right thing yet. Even if somehow you’re shit at absolutely everything on this barren heap of dust, you deserve better than bleeding yourself to death for a bunch of assholes who don’t even appreciate it!”
Jass set down her washing-up and eased over to rest a cool hand on Frida’s arm. “You’re very sweet,” she said, looking at Frida with her big, dark eyes. It felt like Jass was the one looking up somehow, never mind that she was half a head taller. “Maybe you’re even right and there is something I’d be good at, but it doesn’t really matter. I’m here now, and there’s only one road forward.”
“If the road doesn’t go where you want, you find another way around,” Frida said. The anger was draining out of her, replaced with a cold, horrible certainty that usually came with watching a patient slip away despite her best efforts. She curled her hand over Jass’s and held it tight. “You could come with us, when we go,” she offered.
“I don’t think you want dead weight in your wagon,” Jass said, giving Frida another sad smile that ripped her heart into even smaller pieces. “And even if you somehow did, I know you don’t want the village to put a bounty on the lot of us.”
Frida shook her head hard, hanging on to her last flicker of hope. “Say I found a way to get you out safely. Would you come with me then? Give me two, three moons and I swear I’ll have you convinced it was the best choice you ever made.”
Jass held her tongue for long enough that Frida started to feel numb behind the eyes from staring and wishing so hard. “I’ll travel with you for one or two moons,” she said at last, “if you can make sure no one here will be coming after us. And if it doesn’t work out, you have to drive off and not waste another thought on me as long as you live.”
The wave of relief hit Frida so hard she had Jass scooped into an embrace before she even realized what she was doing. Jass startled at first, but before Frida could apologize, Jass had already tucked in close and dropped her head on Frida’s shoulder. “Even if I’m right, it’ll be nice to pretend for a little bit,” Jass said.
“You’re wrong,” Frida said, putting every fiber of her certainty into the words. “You’re wrong, and I swear by anything and everything I’m going to prove it to you.”
↻ ⟳ ↻ ⟳ ↻
Frida poked her head into the wagon and said, “Kol, I need you to help me fake somebody’s death.”
“Hello to you too,” Kol said. When Frida impatiently waved off his conversational niceties, Kol sighed his usual resigned sigh. He did it every time she brought some fuzzy little bit of trouble home in her teeth and dropped it at his feet, and then he helped her anyway. “Suppose I don’t need to ask whose death it is, do I?”
“You’re the best,” Frida said, miming a big hug in Kol’s direction. “How soon do you think you can manage?” He rolled his eyes at the question, but didn’t even bother to hide his fond smile that went with the gesture.
↻ ⟳ ↻ ⟳ ↻
When the sun came up the next morning, the villagers found one of Jass’s knives and a spray of something red-brown at the edge of a narrow ravine. Once the sun was high overhead, someone might get a glimpse of a scrap of white fabric caught partway down. Frida doubted anyone would care enough to go looking for a corpse. Even if they had, the rushing river below would have long since washed away any body, hypothetical or otherwise.
She and Kol watched the villagers don their mourning clothes, offered their condolences, and rolled out of town with their wagon shut tight against any prying eyes.
↻ ⟳ ↻ ⟳ ↻
The first days on the road, Frida felt like she had no chance to make any progress with Jass. She was too weak to spend the whole day walking, so she mostly rode in the back of the wagon while Frida walked alongside. They spoke a little after they made camp for the night, but Jass was usually the first to fall asleep, leaving Frida to toss and turn and try to figure out what to do next.
In the end, it turned out she didn’t need the perfect plan after all. The sun started slanting into their eyes and Kol hauled the wagon over to a line of stunted trees that was their best option for making a camp in the vicinity. Kol unbuckled his harness and stretched out with a huge sigh. “We should reach that commune with the big screen tomorrow or the next day.”
“Shouldn’t be too far off a harvest, if we’re lucky,” Frida said. “You ever had melongrapes, Jass? They grow the best ones there.”
Jass shook her head from her perch on the back of the wagon. “Don’t think so. We didn’t plant much fruit.” She hopped down and handed Frida her fire-starting kit, a habit she’d picked up as soon as Frida had asked her for it once. “Do they have nice beds there, at least?”
“Not a clue,” Frida said absently, poking around for a good spot to set the fire. “We don’t stay in towns unless someone offers us a place free of charge. No reason to waste good barter when we can sleep anywhere.”
Jass let out a small, pained noise, and Frida’s head swiveled to her like a lodestone. “Don’t you get sick of sleeping on rocks though?” she asked, glancing between Frida and Kol with a plaintive expression.
“We’re used to sleeping on the ground,” Kol said, proving his point by spreading out his bedroll and plunking right down on it. “Gets easier the longer you do it.”
“You have been clearing the ground before you pick a spot to sleep on, right?” Frida asked. Jass’s expression was locked in a sort of horrified disbelief as her eyes slid back to Frida and she slowly shook her head. “The rocks won’t make a fuss if you toss ’em out of the way, you know.”
Frida caught Jass’s hands curling into fists, and that was all the warning she got. “Why would I know that?” Jass yelled. She was pulled up to her full height and loud like Frida had never heard her. “I’ve never spent a day on the road in my whole damn life before I met you. Am I supposed to just magic up the right way to sleep on dirt without anyone telling me?”
A laugh slipped out of Frida’s throat, even though she knew it might get her even more well-deserved hollering at. Jass only stared at her like she’d lost her mind. “Sorry, sorry,” Frida said, fighting the words out through the last of her laughter. “That’s me properly told. You’re right, and I didn’t even think to ask. Just shoved a bedroll in your hands and called it good enough.”
“You’re… not mad I yelled?” Jass sounded lost, and she was back to her usual barely more than a whisper. She leaned back against the side of the wagon with a heavy sigh.
“Lady, I wasn’t even sure you could yell until that very moment,” Frida said with no small amount of pride. She abandoned starting the fire to walk over and rest a hand on Jass’s shoulder. “It does my heart good to know you’ve still got some fire in there, and hey, I deserved to get a bit of sense knocked into me anyhow.”
Jass set her hand on Frida’s arm, hesitated for one long breath, and then thunked forward all at once to give Frida a tight hug. She mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like, “Why are you so nice?” into the rough wool of Frida’s jacket.
Frida held her as long as she was minded to be held, smoothing one hand up and down between her bony shoulder blades. Jass’s eyes looked a bit too shiny in the evening light, but Frida wasn’t going to make a fuss about it. “So, how about I show you the way I pick out a spot for my bedroll and set it up?” she asked.
“And from here on, ask if you don’t know something,” Kol said from his spot beside the fire he’d just gotten going. “There’s no shame in it. We all had to learn at some point.”
Jass nodded good and hard, tucking her chin almost to her chest at the end of the gesture. “Thank you, both of you,” she said. “Give me a few breaths to get myself back together here, and then I’d appreciate the lesson.”
“In your own time,” Frida said, ambling over to warm her hands by the fire and offer Jass some small measure of privacy. Her face was doing something compromising too — she could feel the broad, goofy smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. Kol shook his head at her, but he kept his peace, and that was all Frida could ask for.
↻ ⟳ ↻ ⟳ ↻
Jass’s recovery wasn’t always a smooth road, but as one moon passed and the second started to wax toward full, Frida was at least sure they were heading in the right direction. Jass was picking up the skills she needed to get by and a fair helping of confidence alongside them. It turned out she had a natural sense for what things in their stores tasted best together and she had happily taken over keeping them all fed.
The night of the second full moon, they pulled to a halt near a small riverside settlement, one of the many places someone in Kol’s massive network of extended family had settled. Frida couldn’t remember who exactly it was, nor the last time they’d been through, but she was glad to see Kol’s smile as he laid eyes on it.
Kol unhitched himself and rolled back his shoulders a few times, but didn’t go for his bedroll. “Got a cousin here,” he said, tipping his head toward the scatter of low buildings. “May stay with him tonight, don’t worry if I’m not back.”
“Will do!” Jass said brightly, faster than Frida could even get her mouth open. “Have a good time.” Kol gave the two of them a personable nod and strolled off into the growing twilight. It was an odd exchange, even with how much sunnier and outgoing Jass had gotten. Frida’s gut instinct said there was more going on than she knew about, but given that it was Jass and Kol, she couldn’t bring herself to suspect foul play.
Jass had their cook-pot out so fast Frida had hardly gotten the flames stoked, and she bustled through her dinner preparations humming softly to herself. “Do you think there’s somewhere around here we could take a bath?” Jass gestured toward the river with one hand without breaking the rhythm of stirring the food with her other.
So that was what she was after. With Kol gone, there was a bit more privacy to be had. “There’s some quiet bends in the river, but the water’s gonna be real cold for you, city girl,” Frida said, her smile turning the dig into more of a pet name.
“You really think I bothered to heat enough water for a bath most of the time?” Jass asked. She’d perfected a snooty little gesture for when Frida teased her, somewhere between a roll of her eyes and looking up to beseech a higher power for patience. The smile that came after damn near melted Frida’s knees every time she got to see it.
They dug through dinner without much chatter and headed for the river. Jass let Frida lead the way, but fidgeted at her side the whole way, twirling a corner of her towel round and round. Frida found a nice, slow-moving pool, sheltered from the town by a thick stand of trees. The far side of the river only had some stumpy bushes, so there was plenty of moonlight to see by.
It was so well-lit that Frida couldn’t have missed Jass pausing by the riverbank and shimmying her shirt off over her head. The off-white fabric seemed bright as a beacon while Jass worked it over her antlers and dropped it to the ground. Frida realized a few breaths too late that she was staring, and turned away. “Sorry, I suppose you’ll want some privacy. You go on in, I’ll keep an eye out.”
“I wasn’t looking for an apology,” Jass said. Her voice was closer than Frida expected, and her hand curled over Frida’s shoulder. “And I wasn’t looking to be alone, either.”
Frida’s breath caught at the low, warm tone. She turned around nice and slow, but Jass didn’t stop her. Instead, Jass skipped back a few steps, thumbs hooked teasingly over the waistband of her trousers to show off a sliver of skin. “Well, I think I could be decent company, if you’re minded to have me around,” Frida said. She popped the top two buttons of her shirt open and Jass froze in place, eyes locked onto the tiny motion.
Jass broke into a grin, teeth bright in the moonlight. “Best get to the rest of those buttons, then,” she said. She shucked the rest of her clothes as Frida wrestled free of her shirt. Frida got distracted as Jass turned away, showing off the long, lean line of her back. There was a bit more softness to her now, with a dose of good meals and blood staying inside her body. Frida wanted to get her hands on every last stretch of Jass’s bare skin.
A seam or two complained as Frida rushed out of the rest of her clothes. Jass tossed herself into the water and ducked under the surface, then came up with a shouted curse. “Okay, fine, it’s too cold,” she called back to Frida, “but don’t you dare say you told me so.”
Frida sloshed in after her, only laughing a little. Jass brushed the uneven edge of her hair back from her face, still smiling wide enough that Frida knew she hadn’t taken offense. A little drip of water caught the moonlight as it curled down the sharp line of her jaw, and Frida reached over to follow it with the pad of her thumb.
Jass leaned into the touch and Frida closed the space between them. She tipped her head as she stretched up on her toes, watched Jass’s eyes flutter closed, and then whispered, “I told you so.” She got dunked for her trouble, but she went down laughing.
The ensuing splash fight got them both good and warmed up enough to ignore the cool water. “Truce, truce,” Jass panted out the words, still laughing faintly. “I do really want to wash up.” She slogged her way to the bank and went for the pile of their discarded belongings.
Frida whistled good and loud when Jass bent over, and happily managed to catch the chunk of soap Jass lobbed at her head. “If you wanted me to wash your back, you only had to ask,” she said. A little eyebrow waggle at the end made Jass half-heartedly splash her as she swam back over.
“I would like that, if you don’t mind.” Jass had a hint of hesitation to her that Frida hadn’t seen in days. She stopped the slow tuck of Jass’s chin to her chest with one finger along her jaw.
“It’s no bother at all to get my hands on a pretty lady,” Frida said, shooting for breezy and hitting a bull’s eye on plain wanting instead. “As much or as little as you want them there, mind. Don’t you dare be shy about telling me to keep them to myself.”
Jass nodded, tucking her cheek into Frida’s palm with a solemn smile. “I promise. Definitely don’t mind you helping me wash up.” She shut her eyes and sped through her next words: “But you should give me a kiss first!”
“You’re right, I absolutely should,” Frida said. “Need to be a bit careful with the kissing, though. I’m a bit sharp.” Jass peeked one eye open and Frida bared her teeth, miming a little chomp toward Jass’s nose.
“Can’t say I’m too worried about those,” Jass said, reaching out to get a hand on the back of Frida’s neck. “If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that there’s no way you’re gonna let me bleed for you.”
Frida let out a brief, unhappy growl. “Damn right, I’m not—” Jass cut her off with a delicate little peck right at the corner of her mouth, and then a second, slower kiss square on. All the tension rolled off Frida faster than river water. Turned out she didn’t need much persuasion to decide there were more important things to focus on than past wrongs.
Things like gentle kisses and running her thumb back and forth along the soft curve of Jass’s cheek were high on the list. Jass fumbled a hand down Frida’s arm and broke away with a giggle when she managed to grab the soap Frida was still hanging onto. “Right, washing up,” she said. “I got a bit distracted.”
Frida was half-minded to distract her all over again, but she held her peace. It wasn’t any hardship to work her fingers into the short, uneven strands of Jass’s hair and listen to her sigh happily all the while. Each of them snuck another kiss or three along the way, but they did manage to get clean in the end. The wait was no bother for Frida — if anything, it kept her interest at a nice simmer that felt right for the calm, moonlit night.
Jass had come prepared with a thick blanket for them to stretch out on after they toweled off the worst of the damp. She had gotten real quiet, like she was chewing something over, but Frida’s gut told her to leave Jass to it. The sky had been clear all day and there was still some heat lingering in the air, so it was pleasant enough to lie back and watch the stars for a spell.
Frida snuck a small glance over after a good while and found Jass watching her with her eyebrows furrowed together. Clearly whatever she was mulling over wasn’t going to work itself loose in any hurry. “If I’m playing any part in what’s troubling you, don’t be afraid to tell me,” Frida offered quietly.
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Jass said. She spread a hand over her eyes and let out a sigh too heavy for any small sort of hurt. “You’re kind to me, you’re good company, you’re gorgeous — this should be easy, and it’s not, and I just keep thinking it must be me that’s the problem. Maybe something got broken back in… all that.”
“I’ve seen some bad breaks mend with enough time and care.” Frida reached over and eased Jass’s hand away from her face, twining their fingers together. “And sometimes things heal crooked, but most folks learn to carry on one way or another.”
There was a definite shine to Jass’s eyes, but she mustered up a hint of a smile. “I suppose you’d know best, being a medic,” she said. “But ‘might be okay someday’ doesn’t help me now. I wanted this to go right.”
“Hasn’t gone wrong so far.” Frida reeled Jass in for a quick, sweet kiss. “There’s plenty of ways to have a nice evening, even if it’s not quite what you had in mind.”
Jass rested the downy ridges below her antlers against Frida’s forehead. “I wanted to do something nice for you,” she murmured. “And I want you. My body just doesn’t seem to have gotten the message.” She let out a faint laugh, breath warm on Frida’s cheek. “It’s been so long since I got off I’m not even sure I remember how it works.”
Frida hummed thoughtfully and said, “Well, I’ve got two hands and a free evening — be happy to demonstrate, if you like. On myself, to be clear.” She wouldn’t have minded getting her hands on Jass, but that was clearly off the table with her wound up tight as she was right now.
“You’d… let me watch that?” Jass barely squeaked out the words, but Frida caught her glancing down toward their tangled legs with a sharp, hungry interest in her eyes.
“Happily, and you’re welcome to do more than watch if the urge strikes,” Frida said. She got an enthusiastic kiss for her offer as Jass all but pounced on her. After they pulled apart, Frida tugged the blanket over toward one of the broader trees so she had something to rest her back against.
Jass tucked herself up against Frida’s side with one hand around her waist. “Is this comfortable for you?” she asked. Frida nodded and leaned her head against Jass’s shoulder. The body heat along one side and the cooling air on the other made for a nice contrast.
It wasn’t going to take much to rekindle her earlier arousal. If Frida had been on her own, she would’ve dropped a hand right between her legs, but this was something shared and she wanted to give it a bit more time.
“You want me to talk about what I’m doing, or only show you?” Frida asked. She dragged the back of one one hand idly over the juts of her collar bones, keeping the sharper ends of her claws curled away.
“I’d like it if you talked to me,” Jass said. Her voice was sliding huskier and her eyes were locked on Frida’s fingers. “I want to know what you like.”
When Frida reached down and gave her nipples a gentle tug, Jass’s hand clenched tighter on her side. “Like having these touched. Not too rough, but if anyone touches me too light anywhere it just tickles.” Frida let her eyes drift close and listened to the soft sound of Jass’s breathing. The little hitches every time she rubbed her fingers over her nipples was damn flattering.
“Can… can I try?” Jass asked. Her hand inched up Frida’s side, stopping just under the curve of her breast until Frida nodded. Jass’s touch was gentle, but not as hesitant as Frida had expected. She dragged the pad of her thumb over Frida’s nipple and Frida shivered all over.
“Mm, good, just like that,” Frida said, arching up into Jass’s hand as extra encouragement. With her own hand freed up, Frida gave up on trying to pace herself and reached down to trace a careful circle around her clit. Her claws grew fast and she never got around to trimming them often enough, so she’d learned caution from an early age.
Frida knew the very moment Jass noticed where her hand had gone, felt her tense up and heard her soft, startled, “Oh.” Her hand stilled for a quick breath or two before she managed to go back to touching Frida, a little firmer than before. “Are you— I can’t really tell what you’re doing,” she said.
“Suppose I need to get more talkative then.” Frida chuckled, low and a bit growly. “Got two fingers working around my clit. I’m not too patient with getting off, most times. Both of us keep on like this and I’ll be done before you know it.”
Jass took in a shaky breath and said, “Maybe I should stop, then? Wouldn’t want to rush you.” Unsteady as her words were, it was clearly meant to be a tease and Frida broke into a huge grin.
“Night doesn’t have to end that early,” Frida said. “I’m good for two rounds at least, sometimes three or four if I get ambitious.” She squirmed up onto her knees so she was facing Jass, putting her hands firmly back when she started to pull away. “Don’t want you to stop, I want to kiss you too.”
That brightened Jass’s expression right up, and she leaned in to kiss Frida straightaway. It took her a few tries to get the hang of using both hands and kissing, but Frida couldn’t complain about a bit of start and stop when the end result was so damn good. She brought herself off in no time, moaning deep into Jass’s mouth as her body shook through her peak.
Frida slumped back with a heartfelt curse that set Jass off giggling at her. She was still catching her breath when Jass’s fingertips landed on her knee, light as a feather. “If you were serious about going again,” she said slowly, “I’d like to touch you more. If you want. I’ve been taking care of my nails, like you showed me, so… no rough edges.”
“Offer like that, I’m not sure I’d ever be too done to go once more,” Frida said. The thought alone was enough for her to skip straight over any cooling-off period and go directly to wanting. “How do you feel about getting a finger or two inside me?”
Jass’s hand clamped down on Frida’s knee as she said, “Yes, absolutely yes, as long as you tell me what to do. It’s been a while for me.” She started to duck her head, but Frida struck first and tugged her into a kiss before she could manage. Turned out a few good, solid kisses were all it took to distract Jass from a bout of shyness.
Frida curled a hand around Jass’s wrist, stroking gently with her thumb. “How about you hold your fingers nice and still for me, and I’ll take them in at my own pace?” Jass’s eyes were as wide as Frida had ever seen them, but she nodded and let Frida rearrange her as she saw fit. “Now just let me get these wet to ease the way a little.”
When Frida leaned forward, Jass went so still that Frida suspected she’d stopped breathing entirely. She still managed a short, startled moan when Frida bobbed her head forward and took two of Jass’s fingers carefully into her mouth. Frida marked it down as something to try more of another time if Jass would let her try.
Tonight, she wanted Jass in her and now. Frida pulled back with one last flick of her tongue that got her more pretty noises and stretched up tall on her knees. One orgasm under her belt had her relaxed enough to ease down onto Jass’s fingers in one smooth glide. She let out a happy sigh and rocked her hips.
“You’re so warm,” Jass said breathlessly. Her fingers twitched, but she bit her lip and went back to holding still as a statue. “Sorry, I’m trying not to move, I swear.”
Frida reached over and tapped her on the nose. “None of that apologizing here. You can move a little, just not too fast. Try curling your fingers a touch—” Frida broke off with a groan as Jass did exactly as she was told. “Yes, right there. Not any harder, but keep going.” Clearly she’d found another area that Jass could excel in, but Frida decided to keep that thought tucked away until she was sure of the welcome it would get.
Distracting herself was no trouble at all with the perfect slick slide of Jass’s fingers in her cunt. It was so good that Frida thought she might be able to reach her peak from that alone, given enough time. Time, and patience that she still had in too short supply. Frida got her hand back on her clit, skipping straight to the speed and pressure she liked best.
Jass was watching her like she was something awe-inspiring. Frida had seen the same expression on her a few times, like when a storm broke and golden pillars of sun came down through the clouds. It was too intense; Frida had to close her eyes, shift her focus to her pleasure and the sound of her own ragged breathing loud in her ears.
Frida came hard so hard she felt lightheaded and reached out to steady herself on Jass’s shoulder. “Ease out slow,” she murmured. Another shudder hit her as Jass’s fingers slipped free. She was breathing heavier than she ever did, save for the rare times she had to actually run for her life.
Jass peppered kisses along her jaw, delicate as flower petals. “Would you keep your eyes closed?” she asked. Her breath was barely warm against Frida’s overheated skin. “I think I want to try— But I’m not up for an audience.”
“Whatever you want,” Frida said. She folded her free hand over her eyes but kept her hold on Jass’s shoulder so she could at least feel her moving. “Wait, are you using the same hand?”
“Should I not?” Jass asked, going taut under Frida’s grip. “I just thought, since it was already slick….”
Frida let out a breathless laugh and shook her head. “You should, you very much should — hell, take more if you need it. Even thinking about it has me running hot again.”
Jass laughed too, throaty and happy in a way that was hitting distinctly above the waist for Frida. Not that she hadn’t already been head over heels for Jass, but watching her come into her own made the feeling sink in deeper with every passing day.
It was strange to sit in the dark, slowing down her breathing so she could listen to Jass touch herself, but it felt right. Peaceful, even, to let herself float along in a warm haze with Jass’s narrow shoulder to anchor her. Jass’s breathing picked up a few times, but she let the last breath out in an annoyed huff.
“Don’t think I’m getting anywhere,” Jass said. Her shoulder slumped and she reached up to pull Frida’s hand away from her eyes. “I really thought it might work. Sorry.” Frida gave her a pointed look until Jass groaned and said, “Fine, I’m not sorry, but I am frustrated.”
“Now that’s fair.” Frida gave Jass a quick kiss for her troubles that multiplied into two or three in short order. “Want to give it another go, or wind down and try some other night?”
“Wind down, I think,” Jass said. She let Frida tip them both over onto the blanket again and settled happily into her arms. “This is something you want to do again, then?”
Frida hummed her agreement and nuzzled up to Jass’s ear. “Very much so, unless you don’t, of course,” she said. Her arms curled tighter around Jass as a thought struck her like the first drops of an icy winter rain. “You weren’t meaning to make this some kind of send-off before you left, were you?”
“No,” Jass said, hands gripping tight over Frida’s arms. “Honestly, I haven’t thought about leaving since I yelled at you and you didn’t bat an eyelash. Turns out you were right — it really was a good choice.”
“That’s a relief,” Frida said, “since I was never going to drop you at the road side and walk away anyhow. My backup plan was an auntie of Kol’s who wanted an extra set of hands around her house. That, or tie you to a storage crate so you couldn’t run off before you saw sense.” She said it light, like a joke, though it was nothing but unvarnished truth.
Jass laughed and relaxed back against Frida. “Well, shame we have to disappoint Kol’s aunt, but I’m planning to stick around. As long as you’re happy to have me here.”
Frida made an indignant noise and rolled Jass over so she could kiss away any possible doubts. It might not be the fastest-acting medicine in her arsenal, but Frida was content to keep applying it until the treatment was a success.