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.docx title: goth western nasty

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The pond, dark and freezing to the touch, should have been enough to pull Evelyn Love back into her body. She scoured her bloodied skin with the lye soap to make sure she could feel it, but her fingers moved too stiff and slow to keep up with her intentions, and pinprick nerves still riddled her extremities. Evie was too much in and out of body at once, and her mind seemed to be the same. She could carry a conversation with Jack and ask about the old gods, what exactly she did to make this deal that now bloomed across her chest, but at the same time memories floated in from the strange afterlife she’d just left behind.

This disconnect from her body reminded her of one memory that washed over Evie in a warm, guilty wave: the first night she and Jack spent together improperly. Evie had gotten drunk—far too drunk, which wasn’t that difficult for her despite being a bartender. Jack had been coming in for some time and made herself into a wonderful friend, lingering long after close. Jack would never ask for more drinks then, but that night…it was a slow night in the first place and Evie would look over and see Jack’s half-cocked smile at the end of the bar, which looked like her tapered hand resting lightly on the handle of her gun in its holster, flirtatious but with a jolt of danger to it. And Evie would smile and say yes to going shot-for-shot against Jack. Normally they’d just do one or two together, Jack wanting to be polite and make sure Evie stayed sober enough to keep her wits. But that night Evie was determined to fly, and Jack walked her home, and she barely felt her feet stumbling over the threshold, and couldn’t Jack just stay over tonight?

The touch of Jack’s hand and the brush of her mouth felt like the only real things in the world on a body that only realized them a second after they happened. But it was real and right and perfect.

Evie had been still and quiet for a long time as she remembered this. She’d gotten out of the pond and sat naked on the bank, shivering in the night, while Jack went to get something to dry her off. She stared at Jack, who was absently unfolding a blanket and staring at the moon. It almost made Evie laugh—she was right there, catching the same moonlight but so much closer. Why wouldn’t Jack look at her, really look with waking eyes? You sell your soul for a person’s life and you’d expect their attention, at least.

“Jack!”

Jack finally looked at Evie but didn’t even give Evie the satisfaction of a faint flush on her cheeks. Evie was standing upright in the open, naked as anything with her hands on her hips.

“What was the rest of your deal?”

A loose piece of raven hair fell over Jack’s eyes when she looked down to ready the corners of the blanket in her hands. “I agreed to take care of his business here in the mortal world.”

Maybe Jack didn’t always realize when she was being cagey, but Evie was starting to lose her patience for it. For a person who came back from the dead with a new tattoo, she felt she was being amazingly calm.

She inched closer to Jack. “What kind of business?”

Jack met her halfway and wrapped the blanket tight around her freckled shoulders. Evie couldn’t read her dark eyes.

“Revenge.”

Jack lingered with her hands at Evie’s shoulders for a moment, still wearing that unreadable expression, but quickly turned on her heel and murmured some explanation, and Evie finally understood. Jack was preparing to leave her, if necessary.

Jack sighed, arms folded tight, still with her back to Evie. “I understand if—"

“I’m coming with you.”

Whatever Jack did, Evie was in. She knew from the get that Jack had killed people, but by the way she disarmed that bully in her bar, Evie knew that Jack didn’t do it out of bloodlust. Jack was her family, the one who would really ride for her and protect her and see her as she was. Static still bristling in her skin, Evie brushed her hand across the proof branded over her heart.

“Everyone I’ve ever known thinks I’m dead. Never heard a better excuse to start over.”


 

Evie got to luxuriate on Jack’s bedroll and watch her poke around for fallen wood at the edges of the clearing and squat on her long trousered legs to strike the flint. Privileges of being recently deceased, Jack said. “You just lay there until you feel like yourself again, Evie.”

“But you’ll freeze without a fire same as me!”

It wasn’t much of a protest. Evie did love to watch Jack at work, propped up on one elbow. She seemed so right and confident in herself when she was preoccupied, not even aware of how completely striking she looked to Evie. To everyone, really, and not just because of how she dressed. Jack’s clothes were tailored to a slim, capable frame, not like she borrowed ill-fitting masculine hand-me-downs from a brother or her father. When she’d come over the horizon to meet Evie, even taller astride the horse, her black coat cut across a flat landscape like an elegant knife, and the whites of her eyes from under the brim of her hat gleamed like the knife’s pearl handle. Despite the cold night, her high collar was unbuttoned, and she’d rolled her sleeves up over her elbows. Jack crouched and cupped her hands around her mouth to blow on the cinders, but it didn’t really take.

“The wood’s all damp around here. I might have to scoot you closer. The fire won’t be too big.”

“That’s alright, Jack.”

Evie looked long at the rumpled pile of her bloodied dress slouched in the dirt. She was still cold, but it would be no good trying to convince Jack to come warm her up until she’d let her exhaust all her efforts on that woodpile.

The wood was too damp and smoked up a storm, stinging both of their eyes, but Jack kept at it even as tears clouded her view. Evie had rolled over and closed her eyes to keep the smoke out, but she bolted upright when she heard Jack fumble something and swear.

“Jack?”

Jack was staring dumbly at Evie and grinning like a fool, the flintstone dropped in the ashes of the fire. She swiped at her eye with the back of her hand. “I just…god, I just can’t believe it worked. I can’t believe I lost you and I can’t believe I got you back.”

Evie relaxed into a melting smile. The rush of warm affection she felt could’ve knocked her on her back. “I’m so happy you did.”

Jack’s face tightened and fell, but clumsily, unused to changing expressions this quickly. “But now—I can’t lose sight of you again or let you get hurt or anything and I can’t let you catch a cold on your first day back to life because I can’t build you a goddamn fire. I’m sorry, Evie.”

“I won’t get sick—aren’t I the toughest woman you know?” Evie scoffed, which made Jack chuckle.

“Did I say that?”

“Yes, you did. When I threw Evander out of my bar and didn’t let you help me grab his ankles.” Evie tilted her head down a bit to look up at Jack through her lashes. “Come here. You can warm me up.”

Evie finally got Jack to blush. She obeyed Evie’s command and huddled under the blanket. Usually Evie would curl straight up into Jack, fit neatly like spoons in a drawer, but she just wanted to trace her hand along the strong lines of Jack’s face. Though the fire was mostly smoke, it did give a bit of a yellow glow to her cheekbones and the tops of her ears. Jack lay in a trance as Evie’s fingers whispered down her jaw, the dark pools of her eyes wide enough that Evie could see herself reflected. The tip of Jack’s shirt collar ticked Evie’s wrist and Evie’s bare legs rubbed against the rough fabric of Jack’s trousers. Evie didn’t mind until she felt leather under her feet.

“You’ve still got your boots on!”

Jack seemed surprised at the news. She extricated herself from a laughing Evie to pull off her old boots and toss them aside but stopped before she could get back under the covers. Jack seemed content to sit with her knees tented and wrists draped over them, gazing. That foolish grin was back.

Evie chided her, “What’re you lookin’ at?”

“The prettiest woman I know,” Jack said back, too quickly not to have been planned.

“And the toughest, don’t forget.”

“That, too.”

Evie grew bolder by the second. Jack drew this out on purpose. She knew her eyes drove Evie crazy. “Well, lookin’ at me ain’t gonna warm me up, Jack.”

Jack raised her eyebrows in mock offense. “Do you have a better idea?”

Evie sat up and pulled the blanket with her. She drew herself into Jack’s pose between the walls of her legs and pulled the blanket around them both so only their heads stuck out. Her hand rested firmly at the nape of Jack’s neck where the soft downy hairs that fell out of her braid grew. Her other hand reached out to find Jack’s ribs and pull herself further in. Jack dropped her head and their foreheads bumped softly together.

Jack spoke so quietly, Evie nearly missed it despite being so near. “I’m glad I didn’t have to spend a whole day without you, Eve.”

She couldn’t take it anymore and tipped her chin up to meet Jack’s mouth. Her fingers furrowed deep into the roots of her dark hair, loosening the braid. Everything about Jack was so hard and lean but these, her softest parts, and Evie tore into them like she hadn’t eaten in days. Jack cupped Evie’s cheeks in her hands, her thumbs running lightly over the shells of her ears. She was still so controlled despite Evie’s enthusiasm, touching her carefully as if she might break apart. Evie broke away and leaned back to stare quizzically at Jack.

“You alright, Jack?”

Her throat bulged slightly with a gulp. Jack brushed a few auburn wisps back from Evie’s face. “I guess—well, I know the ritual worked, but I’m scared that there’s some catch. Like this isn’t the same old you in the same body. It looks like you and has your heart, but there’s something I don’t know yet.”

“Do I feel different?” Evie still felt a bit pins-and-needles in her extremities, but her body felt like the same one she’d lived and died in before. Besides the flower markings, nothing had changed.

“No. Same freckles, same figure.” Jack held Evie’s gaze steady for a moment but didn’t seem to find what she was looking for. “It just feels—I don’t know. Too easy.”

Evie pulled her brows together. “You pledged your soul to an old god.”

“One I’ve been faithful to for years, but…” Jack scratched the back of her head and stared hard at the ground, too shy to look at Evie. “Millustra is the god of star-crossed lovers. Everything about our lives kept us apart as hard as it could. And now I just ask a favor and I have you here with no obstacles left—I wonder if he can take you from me, too, since he gave you back.”

Evie drew her lips together. She could recall something brief from the world beyond the veil, but nothing that would indicate Jack couldn’t be right. But when Millustra offered his hands, they seemed willing, even glad to deliver her back. “I don’t think he will, Jack.”

“But we can’t be sure.”

“Jack—” Evie gripped Jack’s shoulders tight, pulling her eyes back to her face, “—we deserve something good. We had it already even when things were hard. We couldn’t…even if we couldn’t be together in public, I loved every second I got to stand next to you. I loved you when you couldn’t come see me because it was too far or too dangerous just the same as

I did when I got to see you. But we deserve a bit of something good after all we’ve gotten.” Evie choked on a dry laugh. “You’d always talk about that! You’d talk about your hometown where maybe we could escape and live a whole different life. And that’s what your god gave us. I can leave my town and my family that hated the idea of you and me and just be with you. If he didn’t want that for us, then he wouldn’t have brought me back.”

The dark folded in closer around Jack and Evie’s blanket nest—their shabby fire was finally sputtering out. Night birds sang in the distance, but no other sounds cut through the night. Beyond the clearing was nothing but open sky filling slowly with stars. By quiet moonlight, Evie could make out an embarrassed smile breaking over Jack’s face.

“You have more faith in Millustra than I do,” Jack murmured.

Evie smoothed back Jack’s hair. “I have faith in us.”

“Then we’re gonna be just fine.”

Jack pulled Evie’s hand from her head and pressed a soft kiss to her fingertips but drew back in surprise. “Your hands are freezing, Eve.”

Evie spat out a sharp laugh. “I’m naked and it’s cold outside! What did you expect?”

Jack dropped her knees to sit cross-legged on the bedroll. “C’mere,” she prompted with a new rumble in her voice, pulling Evie on top of her lap. Evie folded her legs around Jack’s waist with her elbows propped on her shoulders, and Jack’s long fingers planed at the small of her back. She sighed heavy with relief.

“You’re so warm…” Almost too warm. Maybe this was Jack’s mark of rebirth, a newly hot-blooded killer for the god of ill-fated love.

Evie nipped at Jack’s mouth again, growing more eager as Jack ran her hands up and down her spine. She shivered at the friction of Jack’s trousers against the tender insides of her thighs. Jack burrowed her face into the crook of Evie’s neck and squeezed her tight, which always made Evie feel like she was spilling over, a taut hemp cord cutting into her pale softness. Jack’s hands traveled down her back and to Evie’s thighs as she breathed her in, fingers digging deep dimples into yielding flesh. The blanket started to slip from Evie’s shoulders.

Jack laid Evie on her back, still so careful. Evie grabbed the back of Jack’s head to pull her back into a long kiss, the kind that sucks all the air from your lungs with the momentum of it. They both pulled away with a gasp and Evie laughed through it, almost embarrassed at herself, but mostly just impressed that she mustered that strength. Jack’s hair was already a mess, and her eyes flashed a grin at Evie through a thicket of fallen strands. She backed away from Evie to sit back on her heels and undid the tie of her braid, shaking it out of form. Evie watched in mild confusion until Jack reached back to re-tie her hair and she understood, and Evie ached with want. It must have shown in plain color on her face, because Jack’s smug smile as she pulled Evie’s legs up over her lap shone with wicked satisfaction. Jack hitched up Evie’s legs a little higher and bent down to press a teasing kiss to her inner thigh.

Evie spoke, more of an involuntary response than a cogent word. “Jack—"

Evie felt the tip of Jack’s hooked nose and inhaled sharp. From this inverted position, all she could do was stare up at the stars and grasp at the bedroll. The night air on her bare skin didn’t seem to have its sting. The thought jumped into her head of someone coming by, but she dismissed it just as quickly. What did it matter if someone saw? Evie was dead, and she could be anybody at all. Right now, she was buzzing with happiness and rich ecstasy like only this could deliver. The bleak life she might have had before she died—to marry whatever man irked her the least and bear his crude manners and his piggish writhing and grunting atop her—flung far into space. There was just her and Jack and whatever would happen to them both, always together.

Jack rode out the waves of Evie’s bucking legs with measured persistence, and when everything fell still again, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and spat on the ground. She clambered back beside Evie and rushed under the covers; they were both feeling the cold now.

Evie, still with a fog over her eyes, turned her mussed head towards Jack with a quizzical line in her forehead. “Wait, Jack, you don’t wanna—”

“Naw. You don’t have to,” she said with a soft smile.

“I’m not too tired.”

Jack snorted. “I am.” She pulled her arm firm around Evie’s waist. “Necromancy is hungry work.”

Evie decided she wasn’t gonna look a gift horse in the mouth. “I’ll bet.” She turned her back to Jack and bent her knees, so Jack’s could fill in to meet them with perfect alignment. They lay just like this for a long while, and with Jack’s hand steady at the round of her hip, Evie listened to the night birds and crickets and Jack’s deepening breath.

Jack might have been tuckered out, but Evie was still having trouble closing her eyes. “What’s gonna happen to us tomorrow?” she asked, not sure if Jack would answer.

Jack’s voice fell thick and slow with foggy weariness. “Well—we’ll wake up. You before me, probably, but once I’m up we’ll find breakfast. I’ll make a proper fire to cook it on. I’ll figure out what to do about your dress.”

“And for all the other hours in the day?”

“I have a plan; don’t worry about it. I’ve always got you, Eve.”

Evie knew this was half Jack just wanting to sleep, but the sentiment was true. She proved as much today once and for all.

Jack’s voice buzzed at Evie’s ear warm and sweet, surely her last words before she slipped under into sleep. “You oughtta be tired, too. You traveled a helluva lot farther than I did.”

Evie chuckled. “Well, when you put it like that…”

The afterlife is hazy, but not for the eyes. You recognize the shapes in it like a prairie and a riverbank, but all the sounds come from far away, and you don’t feel anything; it didn’t scare Evie outright, but the total lack of physical sensation tipped her off that something wasn’t right. She nearly waded into the water just to make sure she would feel it on her skin, clear and dynamic as it pulled on her weight and urged her along the current. But Millustra brought sensation back—his glow warmed her face like a candle and his hands were smooth but strong with the irrevocability of the divine. Now, fully settled back into the world of the living, Evie beamed at every sensation: her cold feet and curling toes, the scratch of Jack’s blanket, the lumps in the ground beneath the bedroll pressed to her arm, the light breeze at her face, and Jack wound fast to her back like the other half of a locket, limp with slumber and breathing into her tangled hair. The electricity of being so alive as this would keep her up all night, or at least for the next half hour.