Trigger Warning

I have never included a trigger warning in a story, and I hate to give spoilers, so I don't do it lightly.

I began writing "Bonds of Friendship" before the coronavirus pandemic. Very early in the story, it deals with the loss of a loved one to disease. It is early enough that this isn't a major spoiler, but it is a key plot point that affects the entire story. If you are fearful of the effects of Covid-19 or are grieving a loved one, please consider whether you might prefer to avoid this story.

 


"They're good, Erin!" The voice from beside me gave me a start, as I was trying surreptitiously to sniff the contents of a crockpot.

I turned my head to see Krys, the wife of the pastor, and a good friend, her red hair and freckles a welcome sight at this as at any event. She was the organizer of the pot luck lunch, and she'd chosen a perfect day for it.

"Oh, did you bring them?" I asked. "Something around here smells spicy. I wasn't sure if it was..." I lifted the lid all the way off.

"Mmm-hmm," she replied. "They are that. No, Faye brought them."

I did a double-take at her words, and turned further around to see the short brunette behind me. Her face was a little flushed, and the look she gave me seemed mildly embarrassed.

"Faye!" I yelled, dropping the lid back onto the pot and turning to give my friend a hug. She returned it. "I wasn't expecting to see you for another week! Why didn't you call?"

"I wanted to surprise you," she said, releasing me. "I've been so looking forward to seeing you. Krys said you'd be here, so..." she spread her arms wide. "Look at me! Good as new!"

On the surface, she did look like she was doing well. She'd let her hair grow out since the first time we met. Now, lush straight hair fell to a V at the center of her back. Her narrow face was more open than it had been and as friendly as ever. But she was still distressingly thin, and I knew her well enough to see the signs of worry and sadness in her eyes. I tried to keep my tone cheerful for her. "I'm glad to hear it!"

Apparently my doubt was as clear to Faye as her tension was to me. We were too close to deceive each other. She sighed. "Yeah, well, there are still bad days, but they're fewer and further between. Do try the beans, though!"

"I'm so glad to see you," I told her. "You know I'm always happy to help with the bad days, don't you?"

Faye nodded. "Yeah, I do," she said, softly.

I lifted the lid on the pot again, took a paper plate and began to ladle beans onto it. "Just how spicy are we talking about here?" I asked Krys.

"They're wonderful," she replied, "but don't take any for Zoe."

"Oh, is she here?" Faye's face brightened. "I've missed her, too!" She turned to look around, and I waved towards my daughter, sitting with youngsters of other church families. "I won't disturb her with her friends," she said.

"Let me try these spicy death beans," I said, "then you can take her some ice cream."

Krys laughed at that, then smiled at us and excused herself to circulate.

Faye watched her depart, her expression more relaxed than it had been. "She doesn't change, does she?" she murmured to me. "If it hadn't been for knowing she would be here for me, I don't know if I could have come back." She flashed me a grin, craning her neck to meet my eyes, half a head above hers. "You too, of course, Erin."

I returned her grin. "I know what you mean," I said. "She's been there for both of us."

 

It had been a difficult year. Worse than difficult. I was finally getting my life back together, but Faye - her tragedy dwarfed my drama.

It was almost two years earlier that Krys had asked me to deliver a meal she'd cooked to Faye and her husband, Doug. It was a generous gift of her time, but it wasn't without calculation. I'm sure that she knew that when I spent some time with them I'd also want to help. Krys looked after the whole congregation, and recruited us, generally with great subtlety, to help each other.

Before the meal delivery, I'd known Doug and Faye to say hello to at church, but no more. Faye was a local girl, but she'd moved out of state for college, where she'd met Doug. They married right after graduating, then Doug had followed Faye across the country when she returned home to work.

Doug found a job in the area, and had just started working when he contracted mono. I've learned that this is usually a mild disease; most of us have had it, developed antibodies and thrown it off without even knowing, and even those who become aware of it usually suffer no more than minor aches for a short while.

Occasionally, though, it's debilitating. Doug was under a lot of stress; he and Faye both had student debt, expenses from the wedding, his move, setting up their apartment, and such. That might have contributed, or it might not. Sometimes mono just is that severe, even to a healthy immune system, according to his doctors.

So Doug lost his job and was confined to bed, feeling guilty and stressed because Faye was looking after him and working overtime to make ends meet. Krys's occasional donation of a home-cooked meal was a blessing for both of them.

And, as I suspect Krys intended, when I saw how much help they needed, I added my own contributions. I was feeding three, including a toddler, and making two extra portions wasn't hard. Faye and Doug were close enough to my age, twenty-three to my twenty-five at the time, and I enjoyed spending time with them, seeing the affection between them - joy that had left my marriage well before Zoe was born - and I liked to feel useful.

That's where my own troubles started, or at least began to come to a head. Jared, my husband, Zoe's father, was jealous of the time I spent with them. He refused to look after Zoe when I visited my friends, and I had to rely on my mother for babysitting. He became increasingly irrational, making snide remarks about how Doug must have acquired mono (there's a reason it's called the kissing disease, though there are plenty of other ways to catch it), and implying I was either having an affair with Doug or planning to. Which was not only insulting to both of us, it was ridiculous, given that he could barely get to his feet on most days.

I wasn't prepared to give up seeing my friends completely, and Jared wouldn't compromise; for him, I needed to be at home with no social life. He wouldn't agree to counselling, and at about the time that Doug began to recover from his illness, Jared left me and filed for divorce. I'm pretty sure that he'd been having an affair. He'd taken advantage of me being so busy that I missed the signs, and then used my absences as a justification for leaving me, but it was an excuse. He'd have left anyway. I was sure of that.

Things hadn't been good between us since I'd gotten pregnant, and wouldn't consider an abortion. He'd said we were too young, and we weren't ready to start a family, never mind that he'd said different when he'd pressured me into having unprotected sex. I had a decent income and a little money of my own, and we could afford a child. I realized I couldn't trust him to take responsibility, but I stood firm in my decision.

Perhaps if I'd been less tied up with Doug and Faye, with looking after Zoe and dealing with Jared's hostility, I might have seen the separation coming. I can't be absolutely, one hundred percent sure that he was having an affair, but the speed with which he moved in with someone else seems like a clue after the fact. So then I was dealing with the divorce. Getting Jared completely out of Zoe's life cost me his financial support, but it was worth it.

If that had been as far as everything progressed, my troubles would have meant an unpleasant year for me, but at least I'd have been able to feel that I'd helped Faye and Doug in a time of need. And as my troubles continued, while Doug finally threw off the infection, Faye said that she was looking forward to being able to give me some support in my dark times. It made my situation more bearable, and I felt at home with them. Often I'd take Zoe with me. She always liked to see "Ahfay" and "Undog", which was her rendition of Auntie Faye and Uncle Doug.

But there's another thing that I've learned about the virus that causes mono. Sometimes it triggers other problems. A couple of months after Doug felt he was almost fully recovered, the fatigue returned. But this time it wasn't mono. It was lymphoma. My mother acted as my unpaid babysitter for months as I stayed with Faye through Doug's treatment, while still working and spending time dealing with the divorce court.

Doug didn't make it to his second wedding anniversary. I held Faye through the funeral, and kept her together afterwards. Zoe helped, when she was around. Now three, she treated "sad Afaye" very seriously, holding her hand when she cried.

Necessities of life kept Faye more-or-less functional. She had bills to pay, and a job she - fortunately - didn't hate, giving her some grounding. I helped her try to put herself back together. She was grateful for that, but tired beyond reason. Her company's HR department was aware of her situation, and offered her extended leave, which she eventually took, travelling north to stay with her family. I hadn't seen her since she'd left, though we'd traded emails, and I knew she was heading back soon. I'd missed her.

 

The beans were as spicy as advertised, and very tasty. They went well with the slow-cooked barbecue pork that was the pastor's contribution, and my own potato salad. I studied my friend as she ate. She seemed shy. She'd been withdrawn from her friends for so long, I guessed. But she was clearly doing much better. She'd put a lot of effort into the subtle makeup tones, accenting her rich brown eyes, and her lips had just a touch of gloss. Her open shoulder lemon dress was low enough at the neck and high enough at the knee that it would have been out of place in a more conservative congregation than ours, but was gorgeous in the April sun.

"You do look like the break has done you good," I said, softly, "if it's okay to comment."

She smiled. "It is," she acknowledged. "Like I say, some days are not great, but most are okay." Her smile strengthened. "Some are better than okay. You're looking good, too, Erin."

I'd been keeping my dark blonde hair short, so that I could brush it out easily in the mornings. I'd have taken extra care if I'd known I was going to see my best friend, and I told her so.

"Then I'm glad I didn't tell you!" she interjected, though she seemed pleased by the comment. "I don't want you to go to any trouble for me."

"Well, I'm pleased to see you," I said. "Are you going back to work?"

She nodded. "Yeah, it's time. That and look for a new apartment. The lease is coming up, and I want to downsize." She sighed. "And there are too many memories."

"Yeah, I imagine," I said. Then a thought struck me. "Oh, hey, no. Don't get a new place. Move in with me." I glanced over at the table where Zoe sat, waving her legs to and fro. "With us. We have a spare room, and there's only the two of us there, now."

She frowned at me for several seconds, and I was sure she was going to turn the offer down. But instead she asked, "You're serious? That would be quite an imposition."

"It will be less lonely for all of us," I said.

"What about... you know..." she glanced around to see if there was anyone close. Even at a church like ours, there are some topics that merit a little discretion. "Your love life? Dating?"

I laughed. "That isn't going to be an issue in the short to medium term. Maybe never. I'm feeling a little burned by the whole relationship business."

She studied me for a time, then said, slowly, "You and me both, Erin. I guess my reasons are... probably the opposite of yours. But the outcome's the same. I don't... I don't want to replace him." Her eyes glistened, and I realized she wasn't entirely keeping herself together. "He was too special to me for that."

"Yeah," I agreed. "Then come be an old maid with me," I said.

She brightened again. "I don't think you can be an old maid if you were ever married," she said, with a grin. "The maid part, that is..."

I chuckled. "Whatever," I said, rolling my eyes.

"How much would it cost?" she asked, turning serious again.

I shook my head. "No rent," I said. "Help with the groceries, do your fair share of cooking and cleaning. It will only be until you've got your debts manageable and want to get back out on your own."

She thought for a time, then said. "Okay, if you're sure. But on one condition," Faye added.

"What's that?"

"You let me babysit Zoe whenever you need. Especially if you do want to try dating."

I shook my head, but grinned. "I don't see that happening, but sure. I know Zoe would love it. Why don't we take her that ice cream and see what she has to say?"

 

Zoe was thrilled, and within the month, Faye had taken our spare room. The arrangement worked well. Not being alone was definitely good for Faye. I hadn't technically been alone, since I had Zoe, but my situation still left me staring at the TV in the evening. Now we could... both stare at the TV! But with a friend, and a glass of wine. She admitted that she'd been overwhelmed with the pressure of debt. Now, with no rent, and a decent job, she was beginning to catch up.

We had many mutual friends at church, but we both had our own friends, too, and we made a point each to get out at least once per week, with the other staying home with Zoe.

Some evenings we'd play video games. That had been a shared pastime of Jared's and mine before our marriage, and in its early days, but my desire to play had waned with his obsessions and the attitudes of his online friends. Playing with Faye, without the negative outlook, rekindled my interest.

We didn't always play the same game, and weren't always on the same team when we did. One time our mock-belligerent yelling at each other woke Zoe, and we contritely quit the game, apologized to her, and Faye read her a story.

That was the evening she asked me again why I wasn't dating.

"Don't you miss the closeness?"

"I think your outlook is colored by your time with Doug," I replied. I knew talking about him was a risk, but she was coming to terms with her loss, and avoiding mentioning him wasn't helpful in the long term. Her face fell momentarily, but she didn't stop me. "Jared and I... I don't think we ever had what you think of as closeness. We married before college. I blame him for what happened later, but honestly, we were never compatible. After a few months there was nothing between us but sex, on his schedule, until I got pregnant. Then there wasn't even that."

"Don't you miss that part, though? You could at least have a bedmate occasionally."

I shrugged. "With what else comes with dating, I think I'll stay with my little friend."

Faye frowned at me in total confusion. "Who's that?"

I laughed. "Not who. My vibe!"

Her eyes grew large. "Oh! You have one?"

"Well, hell," I replied, "of course I do! You don't?"

She shook her head, looking uncomfortable.

"You should," I said. "It makes relieving your needs much easier. Don't tell me you don't look after yourself occasionally?"

Her embarrassment now showed in her red face. "Erin! I can't talk about that!"

I grinned at her. "Alright, we won't talk about it. But next weekend, you and I are going shopping."

"Erin!" she objected.

I nodded. "Oh, we are. I know just where to go."

 

Mom had never trusted Jared. She hadn't ever said she disliked him, as such, but she warned me before my marriage that it probably wouldn't last long. Of course, I didn't listen, and she never brought the subject up again after the wedding. She certainly didn't say "I told you so" after he left me. But, like Faye, she was apparently beginning to wonder if I'd start dating again. So she frequently offered to look after Zoe overnight. Occasionally, I'd take advantage of the offer, though not to cover a date. I did so on the following Saturday, so that Faye and I didn't have to schedule our shopping trip around collecting Zoe from her.

Faye wanted to shop for clothing, so we took care of that first, then took a cab to a hotel close to our goal, because she insisted on a drink. I don't know if it was mostly to cover embarrassment or to procrastinate - or maybe it was so that we didn't have to give our destination to the driver. Whatever the reason, I insisted we leave after a single mojito each, and soon we were walking the half block to the pleasant suburban strip mall that featured the adult accessory store.

It wasn't my first visit, but I was far from a regular. The saleswoman, whom I knew as Steph, welcomed me back with warmth, but without calling me by name - although perhaps that's normal, with customer confidentiality being important.

She showed us into a nook that afforded plenty of privacy before asking what she could help us with. I presented Faye, whose expression was more anxious than normal, and explained that she was looking for her first toy, and could use advice.

Steph put her at ease very quickly, and asked a few questions. I don't think Faye noticed her glance at me when she asked "Mostly solo, or for partner play?" I shook my head slightly at her implication.

She did try to upsell my friend beyond her first recommendation. Faye shook her head. "My financial situation's a work in progress," she said. "I can't really justify this, but someone" she inclined her head towards me "thinks I need to, uh, relax more. I'll come back. I will!" she added at my grunt.

Steph nodded, and added a small dispenser bottle of lube. "Would you like to watch a video on how to use it?" she asked. "There's a private room..."

"No!" Faye yelped, amusing Steph and me both. "I'll figure it out."

"Well, then, there's a card in the bag with a site where you can watch it online," Steph said.

"Can I get that second drink now?" Faye muttered to me as we left.

I grinned, but shook my head. "Nuh-uh. First we're going home to put your new purchase on charge. If you want, we'll go out after that."

 

In spite of her insistence on going to get food and drink at the earliest opportunity, Faye took some time looking over her new toy before plugging it in, and reading the instructions, which she found amusing. "If you took all of the euphemisms out of this text, it wouldn't say anything at all."

I leaned against the door frame of her room smiling at her until she finished her study and rose to leave. When Zoe was home, we had few opportunities to blow off steam together. Since she wasn't, we took this as one, taking a taxi to a local Irish pub so that neither of us had to play designated driver.

At the pub I stuck with mojitos, while Faye switched to some whiskey-based cocktail, and we split a steak-and-guinness pie. We fended off the attentions of two good looking guys. I have to admit, I could have weakened for a one-night stand, but it wouldn't have been fair to Faye, who would have seen even a temporary hookup as being unfaithful to Doug. Still, I took their numbers. Maybe one day...

The mojitos must have been made stronger than I was used to. I was definitely tipsy when we got back to the apartment. "I think I'm buzzed," I said.

"Me too," replied Faye.

"You'll be more buzzed soon," I said.

"Uh-uh," she objected. "Nothing else to drink for me."

"That's not the kind of buzzed that you'll be!" I retorted.

"What do you... oh!" She rolled her eyes, but her cheeks flushed. "I see."

"Get ready for bed," I ordered. "I'll help you figure it out."

"Oh, no," she said, "I really don't need help. That would be awkward."

I shook my head. "Who's idea was it? Who already knows what to do?"

Faye sighed and shrugged, then headed for her room.

I made my own preparations for bed, putting on my PJs, then knocked on the door of Faye's room, and entered at her invitation. She was sitting on the side of the bed, in a lightweight nightie, playing with the controls of her new vibe.

"I understand the intensity," she said, "but do the different patterns really make a difference?"

I nodded. "Yeah, but you have to experiment, see what feels good, and you'll probably find you have different preferences in different moods." I reached for the device, and she reluctantly handed it over. "Now lie down."

"Wait, you're not going to..." Faye's eyes were large.

"Oh, don't panic," I said. "I'm just going to show you a few things."

With resignation, she lay back, and I selected the lowest intensity steady setting. "You don't want to go straight for the payoff," I said. "Relax first. Play with yourself." I gently stroked the underside of her breasts with the toy. "Where do you like to be touched?"

"This is getting way too personal, Erin," she objected.

"Yeah, alright," I acknowledged. "This is okay, though, right?"

She frowned briefly. "It's ... well, I was going to say it just tickled, but yeah, it feels... interesting."

"I'm going to turn it up a little," I said. "How's this?" I pushed the control up one notch, then another.

"I can feel the difference," she said. "That's... it feels good. I don't think I'd like it too strong, though."

"Probably not," I agreed, "though after a time you might find you want to increase it some. I'm going to try the patterns now."

I gradually clicked through each. She didn't like the fast pattern, finding it irritating. The others she was indifferent to, though there was a slow smooth pattern that she thought she might learn to like. I set the vibe to that, and ran it around the sides of her breasts, holding it lightly but positively against her. She seemed pleased with the effect, her expression relaxed.

The thin nightie showed the shape of her nipples, which swelled as I ran the wand close to them. I circled the toy close to her right nipple, then against it. Faye's breath caught. I held the vibe in place for a little while, still using the slow pattern, before switching to the left nipple, which swelled to match the right.

I switched the pattern to one of the faster ones. Faye's belly seemed to tense under the thin covering of the nightie. "See, that feels better after a time, doesn't it?" She nodded.

After a moment I dialed the pattern back to the slower one and moved the buzzing device further afield. "You really can use it as a massager," I said, running it over her upper arms. "If you've had a stressful day, losing some of the tension can make your work more pleasant." Then I took her left hand, holding her fingers as I turned it palm up, and circled the vibe over it. She didn't draw her hand away, though she gave me a curious look.

Using the wand on her belly made her squirm, especially in the narrow band between navel and the barely detectable line of her panties. Then I drew it over the front of each thigh, moving it from the left to the right by drawing it up and along the panty line.

"Are you more relaxed now?" I asked.

"Mmhmm," she replied, a contented look on her face.

I slid the vibe down between her legs so that it lay lightly on the nightie over her panties. "How about now?"

"Hey now," she breathed, embarrassed, perhaps, but not objecting. I let the toy rest there. Faye's lips parted slightly.

Looking around, I located the bag that she'd brought her purchases home in. The lube was inside. I opened the box and removed the safety seal from the bottle. "What are you doing?" Faye asked, suspiciously.

"I'll show you," I replied, lifting the vibe. Turning it over, I moved it to her thighs, just inside the hem of her nightie. "How does this feel?"

She shrugged. "Okay, I guess."

Squirting a little lube into my palm, I let it warm for a few seconds, then held it against the wand to stay warm as I applied it. I held the toy in my left hand, moving it back to her thigh and caressing with its vibrating head. "How's that?"

"Hmm." She considered the question for a moment. "Definitely feels better. More, uh, more intimate."

"Yeah," I agreed, with a grin. "You can fantasize that it's a tongue." I drew the toy up and down her inner thigh. "Whenever it's against bare flesh, the lube helps. Sometimes it's essential." I pushed the wand all the way up to the top of her thigh and rolled it over, caressing the sides of her sex.

"Ohh.." Faye breathed. I pressed a little harder. "Ohh," she murmured again. "I don't think you should be doing that."

"It's fine," I said. "We're both too tipsy to get embarrassed, right?" I rolled the toy over and pressed it more firmly to her. "You need to know what's going to feel good."

"I already... know what feels good," she said, breathing heavily.

My belly felt warm, but it took me a moment to realize that her reaction was turning me on. I kept my breathing calm and ignored the feeling, even as Faye's hips moved slightly beneath the pressure of the vibe.

After a few moments I moved it away from her sex, then increased the intensity slightly, and adjusted the pattern as I drew it over both thighs, watching her face for reactions. She seemed to prefer the stronger stimulation now.

Sliding it higher, I found the top of her sex, and moved it until she gasped through rounded lips. I pressed it against her there, feeling her thighs lift against me as her hips tightened. Then they began to rock,and she moaned softly.

I flicked the control into a faster pattern, and her thighs began to rock more quickly. I followed her movements with my left hand, not pressing much harder, but keeping it solidly against her. Faye's moans grew stronger.

Her eyes were dark, and held mine as her breasts rose and fell sharply. I reached out with the fingers of my right hand and caressed her left breast. Then, as her moans grew towards a crest, I wrapped my palm around her breast and squeezed hard.

"Oh, god," Faye groaned. "Oh god, god...." She panted rapidly, her back lifting from the bed, then her face changed, pleasure shining from her eyes, her cheeks glowing, her lips parted and her breathing excited.

Suddenly feeling contrite and sheepish, I released her breast. She gave me a quirk of her lips, and I drew the vibrator back and held it out to her. "I... guess you should have this."

"Thank you," she said, dryly, and I backed out of the room, feeling my cheeks burning.