Cassie snuggled deeper into the warmth of her sleeping bag, it may be approaching spring but it was still cold enough to frost the new grasses daring to grow through the patches of winter snow each night. Nessa seemed similarly inclined and curled tighter around her, tail tucked tightly against Cassie's side. The extra heat from sleeping alongside the Tokota made even the harshest of nights bearable, despite being a shifter herself the lack of insulation in a human body made for surviving these cold climates a bit more challenging. Though the trade off was seeing the beautiful scenery in all it's glory during every season, just last night Cassie had seen the Aurora Borealis spreading it's multicolored fingers across the inky sky. The ever changing hues bringing a smile to her face, and even the memory caused a slight grin to curve her features. That is until a certain someone decided to lurp her cheek coating it in a veneer of slobber. Jerking upright Cass rubbed the offending moisture off her skin with a growl of disgust. “I was awake, you didn't have to remind me to get up and feed you.” Nessa merely panted back at her tongue lolling sideways out of her mouth.
A crooked grin tipped her lips and she sighed giving the Tokota an eye roll and an affectionate pat on the shoulder. “Alright let's see about getting some breakfast, yeah?” Her fluffy head perked up at the mention of food, and Cassie couldn't help but laugh.
Crawling from her warm spot in the bag she stretched upon standing, arms up, back arched, legs taunt. Ness followed suit and with the standard downward dog pose, a loud yawn rolling out of her wide mouth. The pops of Cassie's vertebrae realigning felt amazing to her stiff body, though she was knocked over when the yeti maned oaf next to her began to shake out her fur and stumbled sideways. “Oomph!” Nearly making a face plant into the snow Cassie barely managed to catch herself in time.
“Do we need to do that every morning? You'd think after trimming those bangs of yours you'd gain a better sense of balance.” She said with a wry look over her shoulder at the goofy Toko.
A Tokota who seemed to find a twisted sense of fun at tipping her handler over at least once every morning and again during the day trying to get her to play. The overgrown pup. When the female merely sneezed in reply and went to snuffling the food pack looking for a meal, Cass shook her head in exasperation and climbed back to her feet. “Get out of there, I'll get your breakfast don't you worry.” She chided.
Snagging the bag from her wayward nose, the woman pulled a few strips of caribou jerky out for herself and three dried salmon for Nessa. Upon seeing the meat in her hand Ness immediately flattened her chest to the ground, hind end to the sky, and tail wagging so hard her entire body wiggled. Pup indeed. “You really are such a goon.” She said before tossing the salmon to her.
One was caught before it hit the ground and half gone in a matter of moments, Cassie left her alone to eat in peace before they set out for the day. Taking a bite of jerky Cassie kicked the embers of last nights fire making sure there were no surviving coals, granted the chance of a fire actually trying to spread over the snow and wet grass was almost nil, it was still a good practice to do it. Looking to the east she watched the sun begin it's assent skyward, almost snow-blinding her with the brightness off the ice. Shielding her eyes she gauged today would be a good travel day, they had been doing a kind of northern walkabout and today was the last day before they headed home. Cassie then planned to give the two of them a week off before heading back out for bear hunting, now that they are coming out of hibernation they'd be surlier than normal, but they'd also be lethargic from sleeping for months. A small advantage, but an advantage just the same. The feeling of a furred head bumping into her shoulder signaled Nessa had finished her breakfast and was now ready to get going. “You ready to pack it in? Alright, go take care of your business and when you get back we'll go.” With a happy bark Nessa bounded off, leaving Cassie to deconstruct the campsite.
Rolling her eyes at the seemingly boundless energy of the fluffy Toko Cass folded her sleeping bag as small as possible and tied it back on the sled. The food packs were next along with the tarp used as protection from the snow on the ground and cover against slush being kicked back from running paws. It took maybe five minutes to break camp, but Nessa had yet to return from her venture out and now a feeling of wrongness settled in Cassie's stomach. “Ness?” Silence met her call.
“Nessa, where'd you go?” Still nothing, and the feeling in her gut grew stronger.
Pulling her heavy outer parka over the thick fleece sweaters she slept in Cassie set out following the prints Ness had left behind. The wide spaces between sets said she had been moving at a brisk pace at least a trot if not a canter. They led into the treeline where the snow was still heavy in places no doubt Nessa was looking for fresh water, eating the surrounding ice was good enough but running water was better for drinking. Taking another look at the tracks Cassie saw that the gait had changed yet again, now the prints were more exact, like she had caught sight of or scented something that required her to move in silence. Each step slow and precise, Cassie now hunkered down adopting her Tokota's desire for stealth. Wishing she had grabbed her bow from the sled Cassis moved slowly, eyes and ears open for any danger though sensing nothing out of the ordinary. Another twenty feet ahead the trees broke at the top of an embankment, and the sounds of running water and crunching ice flows alerted Cass of a fast moving river not far from where she stood. She began to wonder if she should call out for Nessa, but thought better of it. If Ness was hunting or wanted to avoid something, yelling out into the woods could cause more trouble than she was prepared for with no weapons at hand and a MIA Tokota.
Edging towards the bank, Cassie could now see the river that was breaking free of it's frozen prison. Jagged chunks spiked in every direction as the lower temperatures forced the water level higher breaking up the ice on top. She could see where the river had begun to refreeze in open areas leaving premade fishing holes which it appeared was taking full advantage of. Or trying to anyway. Breathing a sigh of relief Cassie straightened and watched the fluffy monstrosity dunk her head into a open space and snap at a fish swimming beneath the surface. “What do you think you are doing?” Nessa jerked her head out of the water and turned to look at Cassie.
Her head hung low in reproach knowing she was in trouble. “If you were still hungry I could have given you some of my jerky.” She scolded whilst making her way down the bank towards the shoreline. “That ice is rotten get off of it before you fall through.”
And just like that, no sooner had the words been spoken the ice under the heavy Toko groaned and before she could leap from the unsafe spot gave out under her weight. “Nessa!” Cassie screamed watching her companion fall into the frigid waters with a yelp.
Now thrashing to get out and not get sucked under the still solid flows around her Nessa scrabbled to get her claws deep enough to pull herself out. Cassie almost ran to her in her fear, but remembered how she too could end up struggling to survive if she found a soft spot and fell through. Getting to her hands and knees she copied the great polar bears and belly crawled as fast as she could out to reach the stranded animal. “C'mon love, you got to keep trying! You can do this, now get up!” She yelled hoping her encouragement would help her.
Nessa whimpered, but continued to fight the strong current that was sucking her down. Finally making it to her Cassie could only watch in horror as the Toko slipped once again back into the black waters. “Come on lovely you have to do better than that, you have to keep trying!” With a determined growl Ness heaved herself upward, finally catching a hind foot on the ice and hauling out of the river.
“Good girl, good, now stay down and crawl across like I did.” Cassie scooted back making room for Nessa to do as instructed.
When they made it back to shore Ness stood and shook out her fur, flinging moisture in every direction spraying Cass with a fine mist. The adrenalin fading from her system, the shifter's breath came in ragged pants as she tried to calm down. Seeming to be equally exhausted Nessa practically fell over next to her companion, soft whines escaping her with each exhalation. Reaching over and running a soothing hand over the distressed females wet face, the sounds quieted. “You're alright.” She repeated this a few more times, running her numbing fingers through soaked fur and scratching gently at the skin beneath.
After a few minutes of this both their breathing patterns had settled, and Cass was ready to try getting up. Sitting up she checked the ice for blood, but saw none. Ness was less inclined to move and stay put on her side, slight tremors running down her body. Doubting that it was from cold Cassie chocked it up to shock and leftover adrenalin. Murmuring gentle words she stood on wobbly legs and moved to check on her chest and belly. Broken ice could be as sharp as any blade and despite all the insulating fur on a Tokota she could still be hurt and not really know. Easing her hands through Nessa's thick coat she found no evidence of any blood or wounds, and felt another relieved sigh slide past her lips. “I think that's enough trouble for one morning, don't you think?” Cassie stood once again and moved back starting to climb the embankment back towards their camp.
“You ready to go home?” Nessa grunted in reply as she rolled to her feet and gave another firm shake of her pelt before joining Cassie on the jaunt back to the sled.
Once they were back Cassie took a spare blanket from the sled and began to use it to “towel” dry Nessa. The Tokota groaned and leaned heavily into her touch, the brisk rubbing a kind of massage to her muscles leaving Cass to push back to keep both of their balances. Which was a bad idea since that made Nessa lean even further, and with over eight hundred pounds of muscle and fluff it wasn't long before Cassie was flat on her back trying to remember how to breathe when the air was forcibly removed from her lungs. Ness immediately rolled off of her and nosed Cassie's face with a curious whine, her head tilted to the side watching the shifter cough and wheeze oxygen back into her body. “Oh that hurt.” She groaned when she got her breath back.
Ness licked her cheek again as a way of apology, no doubt hearing the pain in her voice and knowing it was her fault. A reproachful glare sparked in her eyes as she slowly sat up holding her aching ribs. “Was that really necessary?” She growled.
The big Tokota lowered her head and body at the angry tone and made her best effort to appear ashamed. Cassie couldn't stay mad for very long when she looked so pathetic and sorry, but kept her face impassive as she got to her feet and moved to the sled to gather the leather harness for Nessa. Ness kept her head low and tail tucked in submission as she ambled over and moved into position to be strapped in. Cassie kept her hands gentle as she fastened the harness to her, but never spoke or patted the Toko in assurance while she did so. When the straps were secured she moved to stand in front of Nessa, who would not even look her in the eye now. Unable to take it anymore she forced her head up and placed a playful kiss on her muzzle. “I can never stay mad at you for long, you know that. Let's go home.” Ears made a full rotation forward and her bright blue eyes glowed now knowing Cassie wasn't angry with her. Before she could go to the back of the sled Nessa gave her a huge wet slurp to the side of her face. “Ack! Stop that!” She crowed smile still on her face as she wiped the drool away.