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Booze, Beards and Beltane

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Tally brought the bottle to her lips and tipped her head all the way back as she took a long pull. The whiskey burned as it went down her throat, and she used the back of her wrist to stifle a small cough. Her head was spinning, and she frowned down at the bottle, which was still clutched in her hand. It was tough for her to focus, so she closed one eye and then squinted at it so she could assess how much liquor she still had left. Then she scowled. It wasn’t nearly enough.

“Uh, Tal?” Raelle said from the other side of the small table Tally was using to keep herself upright. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

Without releasing the death grip she had on the neck of the bottle, Tally pointed one finger at Raelle and hit her with what was meant to be a menacing glare. “I’ll tell you when you’ve had enough.” She paused as she considered what she’d just said. Was that right? Yeah, that sounded right. She wagged her finger again and glanced around.

“Okay,” Raelle said, not sounding convinced. “It’s just that you don’t usually drink quite so much, and I—”

“IT’S BELTANE, WITCHES!” Tally shouted, throwing her arms up in the air. A considerable amount of whiskey sloshed out of the bottle with her motion before she lost her grip on it completely and it went sailing through the air. It hit Anacostia in the back with a dull thud.

“Ow!”

Raelle put an arm around Tally and spun her around, holding her tight and still. Tally wriggled to break free. She was intent on turning back to Anacostia and requesting that her alcohol be returned to her post haste, but Raelle clamped a hand over her mouth. “Shhhh.”

Tally sighed and froze. Raelle still didn’t let go. So Tally licked the palm of her hand.

“Aahh!” Raelle shouted, bringing her hand away and wiping it on the leg of her trousers. “You licked me!”

Tally guffawed. “That’s what she said.”

“Okay,” Raelle said again. “I think maybe we should go. You don’t really seem to be up for this.”

Tally’s heart stuttered at the notion of leaving. “No. We can’t go. It’s manda…mand…man…we have to be here. It’s the rules.”

“Sure,” Raelle said patiently. “And I know you love following the rules—”

“Except for when she barges into Alder’s quarters in the middle of the night,” Abigail chimed in as she joined them at the table.

Raelle shot her a dirty look. “Not helping. Anyway. Tal. I think people would understand if we sat this one out.”

Tally’s heart stopped at the mere mention of Alder, but she tried to play it off. She blew a loud raspberry and started hiking up the hem of her floor-length dress. Raelle hissed at her to knock it off, and Abigail just laughed. Tally ignored them both and kept hiking. Then she started fishing around underneath the fabric.

“Well, this is new,” Abigail said, still laughing.

“Tally! People can see you.”

“Ha. Let them look. They’re just jealous because they can’t have any.”

That made Abigail laugh even harder. She held onto the edge of the table to keep herself up as she giggled.

After several failed attempts, Tally finally got her hand on what she’d been searching for. She closed her fingers around the silver flask and dislodged it from its holster, dropping the fabric in favour of clutching her prize. She held it to her chest and unscrewed the cap and then took a quick, tiny sip, hoping no one would notice.

Raelle frowned. “Is that a flask?”

Tally shook her head and brought her hand down so it would be below the table and out of eyesight. She shook her head. “No.”

“How many of those do you have?” Raelle wanted to know.

Abigail’s eyes lit up. “Is that why you were clinking when you walked?”

Tally shrugged and glanced around again. But she wasn’t looking for General Alder. Definitely not. It didn’t matter to her what the general did. She was just casually taking in the throng and soaking up the energy of the festival. She had been telling herself things like that since early this afternoon. She didn’t believe it any more now than she had then.

More and more people were arriving by the minute. The clearing was starting to get quite crowded, and everyone looked happy and eager to be there. She huffed and glared darkly at them all. Stupid Beltane. Her eyes snagged on someone very specific in the press of bodies, and she narrowed them even further. She drew herself up to her full height and pushed off the table with a purpose.

“Where are you going?” Raelle asked.

“To cause a scene,” Tally informed her.

A hand grabbing onto her hair stopped her before she got two steps. “Oh, no you don’t,” Abigail said.

Tally rubbed the back of her head and then pointed accusingly into the throng. “Did you see her? That witch! She’s wearing my dress! I’m the only one who’s supposed to be wearing this.” She waved her hands up and down in front of herself to emphasize the obvious point.

“What were you planning to do about it?” Abigail asked, exasperated. “Rip it off her?”

“If I had to.” She took another sip from her flask.

Abigail closed her eyes. “Dear, goddess.”

Raelle was searching the crowd. “I don’t think anyone is wearing a dress like yours, Tal.”

Tally whipped around to face Raelle, and her head continued to spin long after she’d stopped moving. “What?”

Raelle gestured toward Tally’s outfit. “You’ve chosen a very…distinct…shade of crimson,” she said slowly, as though she were choosing her words carefully. “Which looks lovely on you, by the way. But only one person ever wears that colour, and she’s not here yet.”

Abigail snorted into her drink. “Bet Tally still wants to rip the outfit off her,” she muttered.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tally said. “I didn’t choose any specific colour of dress for any reason.” She pinned Abigail with a dark look. “And don’t be crass.”

“Are you saying you don’t want to rip Alder’s clothes off?”

Tally shook her head. “ No, I’m not saying that I’m not saying that. I’m saying that you shouldn’t not be saying that.”

“Okay,” Abigail said, smirking. “I won’t not be saying you want to jump Alder.”

“Who wants to jump Alder?” a newcomer asked.

Tally froze, horrified that someone had overheard their discussion, and she turned ever so slowly to investigate who she’d need to silence. She blinked, startled, as she saw who it was. “Scylla!”

It was Scylla’s turn to look horrified, and Raelle and Abigail shushed her.

“What?” Tally whined.

Scylla held out her hand, as though introducing herself. “Hello,” she said through clenched teeth. “I’m Joan.”

Tally scoffed at her and shook her head, waving her hand dismissively. “No, you’re not.”

“Yes. I am.”

“Ppptthhh. No, you’re not.” Tally closed one eye, stared at Scylla with the opened one and pointed at her. “I can see you.”

Scylla’s expression was getting dark, and Raelle’s was getting worried. “Yes,” Scylla said, drawing out the word. “I. Am.”

Tally shook her head and tapped her temple as she took a long drink from her flask. She waggled her finger in Scylla’s direction. “You can’t out-know a knower, you know?”

Scylla opened her mouth to respond, and then frowned, confused. “What?”

“Exactly. You’re not fooling anybody. Well, except for all of them. But I can see through all your little disguises, and you still look all Scyllery to me.”

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that,” Anacostia said smoothly as she approached their table. She smiled at Scylla and then took the flask out of Tally’s hand and walked away without missing a beat. “Happy Beltane, ladies,” she called over her shoulder with a wave.

Tally watched her go for a second before announcing, “Joke’s on her. Its empty.” She started rooting around under her dress again for her second flask.

Scylla’s eyes widened, and Abigail and Raelle looked concerned.

“How many of those do you have?” Scylla asked as she eyed Tally up and down.

“After what happened last time, I thought you said you were going to water it down,” Abigail whispered.

“I did,” Raelle whispered back.

“I can hear you,” Tally sang as she took another drink.

The night air was cool and there was a slight breeze that ruffled Tally’s hair pleasantly. She closed her eyes to enjoy the sensation, but that just made the spinning in her head worse. She took a deep breath through her nose and opened them again, and when she did, her gaze fell on Witchfather.

Tally blinked a couple times to make sure she could trust her vision, and when nothing changed, she slammed her hands down on the table and hissed with everything she had.

Abigail, Raelle, and Scylla jumped, as much at the unexpected biddy impression as at the loud thump the flask made as it hit the top of the table with as much force as Tally could muster. Too bad the top was still off. Whiskey went everywhere.

“What the hell, Tally?” Abigail demanded, swiping ineffectively at the droplets of alcohol staining the front of her dress.

“Fucking Witchfather,” Tally muttered under her breath. She hissed at him again, but he was too far away to notice. He smiled at everyone around him and then turned and held out a hand, which was subsequently taken by General Alder.

Tally froze as she watched General Alder greet some of the other students. She was an absolute vision, and for a second, Tally forgot how upset she was with the general, how hurt she’d been. She also forgot how to breathe. It wasn’t until Scylla slapped her on the back – hard – that she took a sputtering gulp of air.

“I enjoyed that more than I should’ve,” Scylla said with a grin.

“Nah,” Abigail said. “I think you enjoyed it an appropriate amount.”

Tally was ignoring them in favour of watching General Alder and Witchfather make the rounds. Seeing their clasped hands made Tally’s blood boil. Seeing the general gaze at him with a fond smile threw her into a rage. She glanced around for something to break or throw, but there wasn’t anything within reach.

Raelle put a gentle hand on her arm. “Come on, Tal. Enough’s enough. Let’s just go. We can head back to the dorm and order some pizza and watch movies or something. I’ll even braid your hair for you, how’s that?”

“I’m a wiz at makeovers,” Scylla offered.

Tally narrowed her eyes at the general and Witchfather. Their talk of hair made her think about his beard. It was very lush and thick. It looked like it would be very scratchy to touch. Was that what the general saw in him? It had to be. What else did he have to offer? She turned to Raelle. “I could grow a beard,” she announced.

Raelle blinked at her, brow furrowed. “Huh?”

“I think I’d look great with a beard,” Tally went on.

Raelle glanced to Scylla and Abigail, who both shrugged. “Uh…okay. Sure. We’ll add beards to the makeover list.”

“I thought Gerit was Tally’s beard,” Scylla snickered to Abigail. Abigail laughed, and they high fived.

“She’d look great with a beard, too,” Tally said. “She’d look great in anything.”

“Why does anybody have to have a beard?” Abigail asked.

“Exactly. Although, the general’s beard would be as long and luxurious as her hair,” Tally murmured dreamily. She recalled the few times she’d handed the general a book while she’d been seated at her desk and had gotten a whiff of her shampoo. Apricots. Tally loved apricots.

“Sounds tough to walk around with,” Scylla said. “You’d constantly be buttoning it into your uniform jacket. Who has the time?”

Tally hummed to herself, but then she caught sight of Lieutenant Sergeant Tansey flitting by. Ah! She had a lot of questions, and they needed answering. She pinned Scylla with a look and pointed a wavering finger at her. “You. Murder smurf. Don’t kill anyone until I get back.”

“What?” Scylla asked.

Tally pushed off the table again and made a beeline for Tansey, swaying unsteadily on her feet as she walked. She bounced off a couple people on her way and made half-hearted, murmured apologies over her shoulder. When she’d finally caught up to the Lieutenant Sergeant, she felt flushed and out of breath.

“Hey,” Tally gasped. “Can I borrow you?”

Tansey seemed amused. “There’s always one. Every year. Though I didn’t expect it to be the same one. Craven, didn’t we already do this last Beltane? I told you to trust the dance.”

“I know. You did. But—”

“And didn’t I also tell you that it knows your pleasure and your heart?”

“Yeah. You did. Of course you did. But it’s not my heart I’m worried about.”

Tansey placed a hand on Tally’s arm and squeezed softly. “Then it wasn’t meant to be. Everything always works out the way it’s supposed to.”

“It’s Alder,” Tally blurted out.

Tansey froze. “I’m sorry. What now?”

Tally ducked her head and whispered. “The someone in particular for me this year. It’s General Alder.”

Tansey’s eyebrows went up as high as they could go, and the corners of her lips pulled up in a small, amused smile. “Well, well. You do keep it interesting, don’t you?”

“What do I do?”

“The same thing we all do. Nothing has changed. You have to trust the dance.”

“And if the general’s heart doesn’t know the same thing my heart knows? What then?” Tally held her breath, afraid of the answer.

Tansey smiled almost sadly at her. “Then as I said, it wasn’t meant to be.”

Tally stood there, dumbfounded and forlorn, as Tansey walked away from her. For a long moment, she struggled to think of something to say. Eventually, she settled for yelling, “Thanks for nothing!”

“Who are you yelling at?” Raelle asked as she popped up next to Tally from seemingly out of nowhere.

Tally jumped. “Ah. What are you doing here?”

“Checking on you. What are you doing here?”

“Getting some terrible advice,” Tally grumbled as they made their way back to the table.

“Oh. Uh…okay.” Raelle put a hand on Tally’s arm and tried to look into her eyes. “Are you sure you don’t want to go? I think you might be a little too drunk for this.”

Tally snorted. “I dance better when I’m drunk.”

“We all do,” Scylla chimed in, lifting a glass in salute.

“You’re not helping,” Raelle told her with a frown.

“Sure I am. I’m very helpful.”

“What’s the problem, Tal?” Abigail asked.

Tally frowned. Her brain was at least as fuzzy as her eyesight, and she was struggling to think of words. She spied the Witchfather whispering in General Alder’s ear, and something inside her cracked. She balled her hands into fists and glared, trying not to cry. The notion that what her heart wanted and what General Alder’s heart wanted were two different things was too much for her to bear. She’d known that, of course, when the general had told her they were going to be severing the link. But still…She sighed.

Abigail followed Tally’s gaze and clapped her on the back. “Ah. Tough break, Tal. We were all rooting for you there.”

Tally was too surprised to even think about pretending not to know what Abigail was talking about. “You were?”

“Of course we were,” Abigail said.

“I wasn’t,” Scylla said.

“Scylla,” Raelle hissed.

Scylla shrugged. “What? I don’t even know what’s going on. How can I root for anything?”

“What are we rooting for?” Anacostia asked, appearing out of nowhere as she was wont to do. She took a drink out of a bottle that looked to Tally suspiciously like the one she’d lost earlier.

Abigail jerked a thumb in Tally’s direction. “This one’s got it bad for your foster mom.”

Anacostia spit out the mouthful of liquor she’d just drank and started coughing and sputtering. Scylla patted her on the back sympathetically as she struggled to breathe.

Tally scowled at her. “You hit me harder than that.”

Scylla grinned at her. “I know.”

Once Anacostia had finally regained the use of her lungs, she stood up straight and stared at Abigail. “Come again?”

“You heard me,” Abigail said with a smirk.

“Damn,” Anacostia muttered with a shake of her head. She took another drink.

“Some people think she’s reaching,” Abigail went on. “You know, punching above her weight class.”

“What people?” Tally demanded. “How many people? Have you all been talking about this?”

“Alder is hot,” Scylla agreed.

“Excuse me?” Raelle said.

Scylla shrugged. “What? I’ve got eyes. Besides, you can’t tell me you wouldn’t—” She broke off as something occurred to her, and she reached into her pocket and held up her lighter, wiggling her eyebrows at her girlfriend. Raelle’s expression turned thoughtful.

Tally slapped the lighter out of Scylla’s hand and pointed at her. “No! Bad murder smurf. Just…no.”

Anacostia was ignoring them all as she considered Abigail’s earlier statement. Probably because the rest of it was just too much for her. “Hmmm… I mean, the general didn’t have her running laps or doing a zillion push ups for barging into her office in the middle of the night. That’s got to mean something, right?”

“You think?” Abigail asked, also clearly inclined not to think about Raelle and Scylla’s sex life and whether it may or may not include guest appearances by anyone they knew courtesy of Spree ingenuity.

Anacostia nodded. “Yeah. Plus, remember that one time where you all were doing your 10K pack run in the rain? You’d just come back, and you were trudging to your dorms looking tired and gross, and your uniforms were all stuck to you because you were soaked, when Craven walked past the general just stopped talking mid-sentence and watched until she was out of sight. Then she just went on talking like nothing had happened.”

“Ooohhhhh,” Scylla and Abigail squealed.

“You know I can hear you,” Tally grumbled.

“Shhh,” Scylla said, patting Tally’s hand without looking at her. “Sober people talking, honey.”

“Although,” Anacostia mused, eying Tally appraisingly. “Maybe this is all just a holdover from their connection when Tally was a biddy.” She shrugged. “It’s been known to happen.”

“Wait,” Tally shrieked. “What do you mean it’s been known to happen?!”

Abigail shook her head, remaining on topic. “They severed that.”

“Did they?” Anacostia asked.

Raelle nodded. “Izadora gave Tally some sort of potion. Between me and you, I think there were mushrooms in it for, like, no reason.”

“It tasted disgusting,” Tally added, rubbing her chest over top of her heart. The day the general had told her they had to sever their connection had been one of the most painful days of her life. She couldn’t recall a time she’d ever felt so rejected. She’d been avoiding the general ever since.

Tally glanced at the flask in her hand. Hmm. Maybe her friends had been right. Maybe getting blind drunk on Beltane in an attempt to drown her feelings of sorrow and insecurity hadn’t been her best plan. Oops. She wondered if there was still time to take Raelle up on her offer of pizza and beards.

“Besides,” Abigail said, breaking into Tally’s thoughts. “Tally’s been making goo-goo eyes at the general since day one of basic. No soup is going to put a stop to that. I don’t care how many mushrooms Izadora put into it.”

“Again,” Tally said. “Right here. Ears work and everything. And I have not been making goo-goo eyes at her! I have been looking at her with love and respect.” Tally clapped a hand over her mouth the instant the words were out.

Scylla and Abigail squealed again.

“Forget I said that,” Tally told them. She glanced back to where she’d last seen the general and Witchfather talking. Witchfather was nowhere to be seen, but the general was still there, and she appeared to be staring right at Tally. Tally’s body went completely still, and the chatter of her friends was eclipsed by the hiss of static in her ears underscored by the sound of blood thundering through her veins.

Tally’s mind was blank. She forgot herself completely – forgot about her pain and her pride and her vow to pretend the general didn’t exist – and just continued to stare. The air between them, even across that distance, crackled and sparked, and Tally could feel the power dancing along the surface of her skin. Her tongue felt too big for her mouth, and she suddenly wished she had some water instead of a flask full – well, somewhat full – of whiskey. She needed a drink. Something crisp and refreshing. Or perhaps what she needed was a cold shower. Parts of her body were definitely aching and on fire.

As if sensing her thoughts and without breaking their charged eye contact, the general slowly brought a gilded chalice to her lips and took a long, deep drink. The sight of the muscles in the general’s throat contacting as she swallowed was intoxicating. Was it Tally’s imagination or were the general’s lips wet with the ghost of her wine? It was impossible to tell at this distance, but Tally really, really wanted to find out.

She took a step, and someone reached out to her, but she swayed and spun and managed to avoid getting caught. Someone else’s hand wrapped around her waist and settled at the small of her back. Tally felt herself being pulled close then dipped and swung. She allowed it, but with each shift or move, she found herself searching through the crowd for General Alder.

The pounding was now outside of Tally’s ears instead of just inside her head as the drumbeats of the song synced perfectly with the thudding of her heart. Her limbs moved seemingly of their own accord, filled with the music, knowing the dance. Part of Tally felt entranced, under the spell of the reel. Part of her was focused on making her way over to her general. They were still separated by a press of bodies jumping and twirling, and Tally was only able to catch occasional glimpses now and again. It was maddening. It was exhilarating.

The music swelled, and Tally suddenly felt full. Of hope. Of joy. Of longing. Her bare feet slapped against the hard wood of the dance floor in a satisfying rhythm that reverberated through every cell in her body. The sting of her palms after each clap was gratifying and punctuated her laughter. She wanted the reel to go on forever.

When the music and the motion abruptly stopped, Tally’s head continued to spin. She staggered a bit and found herself caught and steadied by a pair of strong arms. Her breath was coming in short gasps from the exertion of dancing, and she gripped her saviour’s biceps with her hands as she glanced up.

General Alder was looking down at her, close enough for Tally to count her eyelashes. Close enough to kiss. The sensation of the general’s breath skating gently across her own lips was enough to make her swoon, and she squeezed the soft skin beneath her palms to ground herself.

Tally swallowed hard and licked her lips. Her pulse had been hammering before, but it was racing now. She couldn’t tell the individual beats from one another. It was just one continuous roar, which stopped suddenly and painfully when the general’s eyes flicked down to Tally’s lips as her tongue peeked out.

Tally’s mind was the one reeling now that her body had finally stopped. Tansey had told her to trust the dance. She’d said it knew her pleasure and her heart. And now here she was, in the arms of General Alder. Wait! Did that mean that General Alder’s heart…? Tally’s head had resumed spinning once more, and she also thought that she might need to throw up.

“Breathe, cadet,” General Alder whispered.

Tally hadn’t realized she hadn’t been, but on the general’s command, she let out a long, slow, shaky breath. Her vision was still blurry, but she was trying her best to memorize the features of the general’s face, the expression in her eyes. She wanted to remember this moment, this feeling, for the rest of her life.

General Alder lifted one hand and traced the contour’s of Tally’s cheek lightly with her fingertips. Tally felt that touch all the way to her toes, and her eyes fluttered. She smiled as she leaned into the caress,  her chest suddenly far too small to contain her heart.

Tally gazed up at General Alder, and she knew in that instant that if Abigail hadn’t been right before, she certainly was now. She could feel herself looking at the general with goo-goo eyes. Her insides were as squishy and sappy as they could get, and there was no doubt that everyone in Fort Salem would be able to tell that.

She ran her thumbs almost absently over the silky skin of the general’s upper arms. “Is this real?” she whispered, unable to stop herself.

General Alder raised an eyebrow, and the corners of her mouth twitched. “How much have you had to drink tonight?”

Tally thought about that for a long moment before coming to the conclusion that there was no way to know. She shook her head. “A lot. But my question still stands.” A beat. “I need to make sure.”

General Alder’s expression softened, which reduced Tally to absolute mush. She tightened the grip she had on Tally’s waist with one arm while cupping Tally’s cheek almost reverently in her other hand. “The reel knows your heart, Tally,” she said softy. “As it does mine.”

Whether it was the overall sentiment, the use of her first name, or some combination of the two, Tally couldn’t have said. What she did know for sure was that her knees went weak, and if it weren’t for the general’s strong arm holding her upright, she surely would’ve fallen. “General,” she murmured.

“Sarah,” the general corrected her.

“Sarah,” Tally repeated slowly, her voice nearly a whisper, as she rolled the name around in her mouth, trying it out for the first time. The general’s pupils grew wide, and her eyes darkened.

“Sarah!” another harsher voice interjected, shattering the beautiful exchange.

Both Tally and Sarah blinked and turned their heads without breaking the contact of their bodies to see who would dare interrupt them. Witchfather was standing there, his expression confused and a little irritated. Tally glanced past him to where she could see Raelle, Abigail, Scylla, and Anacostia watching the situation closely, as though preparing to step in if needed.

“Sarah,” Witchfather said again. He appeared uncertain whether to continue. “What’s going on?”

“What do you mean?” Sarah asked, the words coming out with all the smooth faux innocence of a politician.

Witchfather rubbed the palm of his hand over the top of his head. “Why did you finish the reel?” When Sarah merely continued to look at him without replying and without releasing her hold on Tally, he went on. “We start the reel. We don’t finish it.”

Sarah did move now to shift her gaze back to Tally’s face. She smiled. “I guess I was distracted this year.”

Tally shivered and nearly swooned.

Witchfather glanced from Sarah to Tally, and his expression turned borderline condescending. He smiled at her, but it was a dismissive sort of smile, and Tally felt an overpowering urge to reach out and rip that stupid beard off his dumb beardy face. When he put his hand on Tally’s arm, she nearly snapped.

“Okay,” Witchfather said to Tally, tugging on her arm to pull her out of Sarah’s grasp. “That’s enough now.”

The forced separation reminded Tally of when her link to Sarah had been severed. It was just as sharp and just as painful. It was an effort for her not to double over with the agony, and she was grateful both for the concerned look Sarah gave her and for the supportive arm Raelle suddenly offered. Tally narrowed her eyes at Witchfather, and Raelle squeezed her fingers.

Witchfather was still doing that thing some people do where they act jovial and airy as though their belief that something isn’t a big deal overrides everyone else’s feelings on the subject and makes it true. He raised his eyebrows at her before turning his back. He took a step toward Sarah and reached out to take her arm.

“Hey!” Tally shouted, firing enough of a windstrike at him to blow up his kilt and get his attention. “Don’t touch her!”

“Tal!” Raelle hissed in her ear.

Witchfather’s posture went rigid and the muscles in his shoulders bunched. He turned slowly, his expression not quite angry but well on its way there. “What are you doing, kid?”

“I’m reminding you of your manners,” Tally shot back.

Witchfather’s smile turned cold. Cruel. “Oh. I see. You think that just because you ended the reel in Sarah’s arms that means you’re headed for her bed? Ha. Cute.”

Tally sneered. “Don’t be crude. She’s a lady, and you need to treat her with respect.”

“You tell him, Tally!” Scylla called from the sidelines.

“Besides,” Tally went on, struggling to force her alcohol-addled brain to form a coherent and logical argument. “The reel put us together. It knows our hearts.”

Witchfather laughed. “Run along, cadet. You’re embarrassing yourself.”

Anacostia sidled up next to Sarah and murmured in her ear, “Are you gonna do something here?”

Sarah kept her eyes locked on Tally and held up one finger to Anacostia. “In a minute.”

Tally scoffed, and her whiskey muscles took over, and she stepped right into Witchfather’s personal space so they were standing nose to nose. She glared daggers at him as she said loudly with conviction, “Jìmò k’áì ákháshè yavaì shù t’oyè k’anéì.”

The words were out of her mouth before she could even being to think about what she might have wanted to say, let alone what she actually was saying. Huh. When she was drunk she could speak mothertongue. Who knew? She wondered what other hidden superpowers she had. Maybe she should drink more often.

Everyone gasped, and all around them eyes went wide, but Tally stood her ground and continued her staring contest with Witchfather. She refused to so much as blink. She wouldn’t even concede that to him.

“Now?” Anacostia asked Sarah, sounding a little more alarmed.

“Soon,” Sarah drawled folding her arms across her chest.

Witchfather blinked, startled, and took a step back. He glanced from Tally to Sarah and back again. “What did you just say?”

“You heard me,” Tally retorted. Partly because she thought it sounded tough, and partly because she wasn’t sure she’d be able to accurately repeat herself. Although she hoped that Witchfather just thought it was because of the first thing.

Witchfather smiled. Then he chuckled. Then he guffawed. Then he full-on belly laughed. “Are you kidding me?” he said, his tone incredulous.

Raelle tightened her grip on Tally’s arm and tried to angle herself so that she was between Tally and Witchfather. “I think things are getting a little heated. Witchfather, apologies. She’s had a little too much to drink. I’m sure you remember what it was like when you were still new to Beltane. It’s easy to get carried away.”

“I’m not carried away,” Tally shouted, lifting herself up onto her toes so that she could meet Witchfather’s gaze over the top of Raelle’s head. “I’m exactly where  I should be!” She used her index and middle fingers to point to her own eyeballs and then pointed them both at him in a clear sign that she was watching him.

Witchfather’s lip curled, and he glanced down at Raelle. “You’re going to want to get your friend out of here. Before she says something else she can’t possibly hope to back up.” He turned his back on her and stalked over to Sarah, once again reaching for her arm.

Just before his fingertips could make contact with her skin, lightning crashed into the ground just outside the dance floor. The smell of ozone and smoke filled Tally’s nostrils, and the air crackled with electricity. She balled her hands into fists and tried to control her breathing.

Witchfather had frozen with his hand outstretched, and once it became clear that another lightning strike wasn’t immediate, he slowly dropped his hand to his side and pivoted on the ball of his foot back to face Tally.

“You sure you want to do this?” Witchfather asked, his tone dripping with condescension.

Tally glanced to Sarah, searching for…she wasn’t sure what? Permission? Reassurance? Some sort of clue to help her decipher Sarah’s thoughts on all of this. She saw Anacostia whisper in Sarah’s ear, but Sarah held Tally’s eyes and nodded. Whether she was nodding at whatever Anacostia was saying or whether she was nodding at Tally was anybody’s guess. Tally decided it didn’t matter. Unless Sarah made an explicit move to intervene, she was going to assume that Sarah didn’t feel like Tally was trying to fight her battles for her and stay the course.

Tally shifted her attention back to Witchfather. She nodded once and lifted her hand in front of her, backs of her fingers pointing out, and flexed them all twice in a sort of bring-it motion. Witchfather’s fists clenched along with his jaw and he took a step forward.

“Holy shit!” Raelle whispered.

“Rae, I’ve got this,” Tally insisted.

Raelle rolled her eyes. “You’re so drunk you can barely stand up.”

Tally looked down and noticed that she was leaning rather heavily on Raelle at the moment. She staggered a bit trying to regain her feet.

Lieutenant Sergeant Tansey stepped between them then. She smiled at Tally, seeming genuinely pleased. “I should’ve known you’d be the one to shatter all the Beltane traditions.”

“Huh?”

“As I told you before, the reel knows your passion and your heart. You can always trust the dance to lead you to where you need to be. Where you should be.”

“Yeah?” Tally said. “Tell him that.”

Tansey’s smile widened, and she shot the Witchfather an amused look. “Oh, he knows. And yet somehow, you’ve manage to issue the first Beltane challenge in the history of Fort Salem. I can’t decide whether I’m surprised or impressed.”

That was a lot of words Tansey had just said, and Tally wasn’t certain she’d caught or understood the meaning of all of them. Or even most of them. “So we can fight?”

Several people nearby gasped. Several others chuckled. Raelle squeezed Tally’s forearm. Hard.

Tansey was one of the ones who laughed. She shook her head. “Not exactly. You’ll face off, if that’s what you wish—”

“Oh, it’s what I wish,” Tally said.

“—but it won’t be a duel in the traditional sense. This is Beltane, after all. It’s a festival rooted in optimism and growth.” When Tally frowned, obviously confused. “That means no killing or serious injury.”

“Oh.” A beat. “Then how will everyone know I’ve won?”

That elicited some more chuckles, and Tansey beamed at her. “One of you must submit. That is how the challenge will be satisfied. As for the rest of you, enjoy this rare treat. It isn’t every day that you get to experience this type of raw, unbridled passion.”

A hum of excited chatter rippled through the crowd. Some people wandered off to begin whatever the Beltane festivities had in store for them, but a number of people stayed, grouped together in twos or threes or fours, settling themselves down for the show of the season.

Tally was suddenly a little nervous. She’d said a lot of things in the heat of the moment, and while she stood by them, this small lull in the action meant she was losing some of her momentum. She needed to try to psych herself back up again or she didn’t stand a chance. She glanced at Raelle. “He’s an asshole, right? It’s not just because he’s trying to lay claim to my woman that I think that?”

Raelle nodded, frowning at Witchfather herself. “Yup. Apparently he can be an asshole.”

“Oh, good,” Tally said. “I mean, not good that he’s being an asshole. Good that I’m right about it. You know what I mean.”

Raelle hummed softly and patted her on the arm before taking a step back to join Scylla and Abigail. “Good luck,” she mouthed. Tally’s eyes followed Raelle until she made it to Scylla’s side. Scylla shot her a double thumbs up.

“Tha—.” Tally started to say, but a deafening crack reverberated through her skull and stole the words from her lips. Whatever breath she’d had in her lungs all whooshed out at once. She bent over, grasping her knees with her hands. Honestly, it was a miracle she’d remained upright. Through the pounding in her ears she thought she heard clucks of outrage from the crowd. What a low blow to hit someone when their back was turned.

Tally pushed through the dizziness to look up at Witchfather’s beardy smirk.

“What else, you got?” Tally asked him, pulling herself upright and squaring her shoulders.

He turned back to Sarah and Anacostia, scratching his beard in what appeared to be a thoughtful reflex. “You know, I like her. She’s feisty and cute. Maybe we don’t need to fight. I wouldn’t mind tasting some of that raw youthful energy. She’d be fun to break in. We could share.”

Bile rose in the back of Tally’s throat at the notion, and her eyes darted toward Sarah in time to catch the thunderstorm on Sarah’s face only a millisecond before the echo of it darkened the sky above. The sudden drop in temperature warmed Tally’s heart, and as the clouds rolled away, so did any doubt Tally had about the path she had chosen.

“Bring it, Beardy!” Tally growled, planting her feet and holding her arms in a defensive stance.

Witchfather set his jaw and sent a second blast of energy roaring towards Tally. This time she was ready, and her windsheer ground it down to a gentle waft of air that barely lifted her hair. She was busy congratulating herself when a third thwack caught her in the sternum and a fourth connected with her jaw, rattling her teeth. She managed to throw up her arms again in time to deflect another.

Goddess. Raelle had been right. She was far too drunk for this. What in the world had she been thinking? Witchfather inclined his head to wink at Sarah, and there it was. The rage from earlier. Tally reached deep inside of herself, right through her feet and into the Earth’s core. She channelled the power she found there into a lasso-like strike that wrapped around Witchfather and yanked him towards her waiting fist. The blow vibrated from Tally’s knuckles all the way up her arm. The shock on Witchfather’s stupid face was priceless.

As he was going down, Witchfather reached out a meaty hand to grab at Tally. She tried to dodge, but she wasn’t fast enough to completely evade his grasp. She squeaked in surprise when he succeeded in dragging her to the ground along with him. He wouldn’t have been able to do that if she hadn’t been quite as intoxicated as she was. Her left knee smashed solidly against the ground hard, and white hot pain bolted through her whole leg. She ended up keeling over and smacking her head on the ground as well, which resulted in its own jolt. She gritted her teeth and wrapped her hands around her knee, trying to soothe the agony.

Witchfather sort of rolled to the side and then catapulted himself to his feet. Tally was a little bit panicked with the ease with which he’d bounced back and also a little disappointed that her punch hadn’t knocked him for more of a loop. Her arm was still vibrating from that hit. Though she was satisfied with the ugly welt she saw on his cheek where it had collided with her hand.

Tally took a second to lay on the ground as she deliberated the merits of getting back up. Her knee was on fire, and she had various other injuries demanding her attention. Not to mention she was exhausted. And maybe a little bit dizzy. Admitting defeat would be the mature thing to do here, right? As embarrassing as that might be, it was something to consider.

I mean, who did she think she was, anyway? Getting drunk and picking a fight with arguably the second most powerful witch at the Belltane celebration. She wondered if Sarah was disappointed in her. She was starting to feel a little bit disappointed in herself.

Witchfather moved to deal the finishing blow, and Tally braced herself to take defeat on the chin. She only hoped her face didn’t project exactly how much she wished to the goddess that the ground would just open up and swallow her—

A lightning strike of inspiration ignited inside Tally’s brain. A millisecond before Witchfather released his final challenge, Tally placed both hands on the ground on either side of her from her seated position and poured everything into a seed that she had only discovered days before.

The ground rumbled, and Witchfather yelped in shock as a hole opened up and swallowed him to his waist. And just as quickly, the hole closed back up and clamped tight around Witchfather’s lower half. He struggled and cursed and clawed at the dirt encasing him, but he couldn’t move. Tally pumped her fist triumphantly and bit her tongue to keep from crying out as she struggled to get to a standing position.

“That’s what you get!” she said grinning. She brushed her hair back from her face as she tried juggling gasping for air, balancing mostly on one leg, and not passing out. She was grateful when Raelle and Abigail rushed to her sides and allowed her to lean on them.

Tansey was beaming as she approached. She shot Tally a knowing wink. “Very nicely done. And I’m loving the earth work. Nice touch. The goddess would be amused.” She turned to Witchfather. “Do you submit?”

Witchfather’s face was red, and the muscles in his arms were taut. Now he appeared to be the one debating the merits of being the mature one. There were a few long, tense moments when Witchfather seemed to still be trying to get free, but eventually he must have realized that struggling was futile because his shoulders sagged, and he nodded once curtly.

“Very well,” Tansey said. “The challenge is satisfied.”

“Now will you let me out?” Witchfather growled through gritted teeth.

Tally blinked at him, surprised. “Uh…I can’t.”

“What do you mean, you can’t?”

Tally rubbed her earlobe as she glanced around, not making eye contact with anyone. “Well…I haven’t actually learned how to reverse it yet.”

For a split second, Tally was convinced that Witchfather was going to explode and somehow shoot himself out of the ground like a bullet firing out of the barrel of a gun. He looked furious. But then, suddenly, he started to laugh. It wasn’t hysterical. Not quite. But it wasn’t too far off.

“He’s lost it,” Abigail muttered under her breath.

Tally held her breath as she waited to see what Witchfather would do. Once his laughter subsided, he just shook his head. “You’re a piece of work, you know that?” he said to Tally, something not unlike admiration in his voice. “I’m not sure even the goddess could help our enemies with you around.”

“Uh…thank you?”

Everyone seemed to sense that the drama had come to a close, and people began talking amongst themselves as they started wandering off. Tansey and Anacostia moved to help excavate Witchfather from the ground, and Tally breathed a sigh of relief.

“Very nicely done,” a low voice said from behind her.

Tally’s heart leapt, and she craned her head as far as it would go to try to get a look at the expression on Sarah’s face. She had to admit that she’d sort of been running on instinct and adrenaline as the situation with Witchfather had been building up steam, so she hadn’t thought a whole lot about what Sarah’s take on the whole thing had been. And by the time it had occurred to her, it was too late. The train had left the station. Now that it was over, she was half afraid Sarah would be upset with her.

Sarah took her time walking around the press of bodies that was the Bellweather unit until she was standing directly in front of Tally. Next to her, Tally could feel Raelle and Abigail tense and hold their breaths as they, too, waited to see what Sarah had to say.

No one was more surprised than Tally when Sarah’s face softened into a warm smile, and she gently caressed the sore patch just above Tally’s eyebrow. Tally thought she might have heard a tiny squeal – thought it might have been Scylla who was wisely lurking behind a bush several feet away – but as her brain turned to mush at Sarah’s touch, it was tough to know for sure.

“You fought well,” Sarah said softly, still staring into Tally’s eyes, her expression proud.

“Thank you,” Tally breathed.

They stood there staring at one another for a bit before Abigail started to fidget uncomfortably, and Raelle cleared her throat. Sarah blinked as though only just remembering they were there. She straightened her spine and tried to adopt some of her normal commanding air. “Collar. Bellweather. Thank you for your assistance. Go and enjoy your Beltane. I can take it from here.”

Tally heard Scylla snicker from her bush and say, “Ha! Yeah, you will.”

Tally shot her a dark glare, and Scylla flashed her a toothy grin and that thumbs up again. Tally rolled her eyes as Abigail and Raelle reluctantly released their supportive hold on her and took a step back.

Sarah smirked in the direction of the bush Scylla was nestled in and then glanced at Raelle. “Collar. I trust your guest will be departing Fort Salem the second Beltane has commenced.”

Raelle’s face became ashen, and she nodded vehemently.

“Good.”

The conversation finished in her mind, Sarah wrapped one arm tightly around Tally’s waist, and she was watching Tally’s face with concerned eyes. After giving Tally a second to get adjusted to their position, she helped Tally limp away from the rest of her classmates. Sarah seemed to understand that Tally needed to walk away from the altercation under as much of her own steam as she could, and Tally was grateful to her for facilitating that.

Tally was breathing hard, and her vision was still a little fuzzy. Was it all the liquor she’d drunk that was making her head spin or was it the exertion of the fight? Maybe it was the searing pain shooting down her leg with every step she took. Tally shook her head, not sure why it even mattered enough for her to be thinking about it.

When they had made it far enough away that even the noise of the revelry barely reached their ears, Sarah bent down and scooped Tally up into her arms. Tally let out an inelegant shriek and reflexively grabbed onto Sarah’s shoulders tight. Sarah chuckled at Tally’s reaction.

“I could have made it the rest of the way,” Tally protested, feeling a bit foolish.

Sarah hummed softly and lifted Tally higher, bringing her impossibly closer for just an instant in order to get a better grip, and Tally decided that protesting anything right now was foolish. She had an excuse to hold onto Sarah as tightly as she wanted, and she was surrounded by the intoxicating scent of Sarah’s apricot shampoo. Suddenly, her pride was what felt foolish.

“I know you could have,” Sarah agreed.

Tally’s eyes were getting heavy. The adrenaline was starting to wear off, and that coupled with her little bender left her about thirty seconds away from sleep. “Huh?”

“Walked,” Sarah clarified. “I know you could have walked the rest of the way on your own. And I’m happy to put you down, if you wish. I was just eager to get to our destination.”

Tally was fully awake now, and her entire body was humming. Could Sarah feel it? She had to be able to feel it. Tally’s fingers thrummed and danced across the bare skin of Sarah’s shoulders as she struggled to compose herself. She didn’t think the hitch in her breathing was doing her any favours in that regard, but she couldn’t help it.

As frustrating and annoying as the pain was, Tally was grateful for it in some small way. This whole night – ending up in Sarah’s arms, being literally swept off her feet and carried away – felt like some kind of dream. Tally kept having to remind herself that it was real, and the pain was good for that. It was helping to keep her grounded. Plus, when day broke and she and Sarah were back to being near strangers, it would help remind her that this had actually happened. She couldn’t imagine a world where she would incorporate a leg injury into a fantasy.

Tally shivered, and Sarah clutched her even closer. “Are you cold?” Sarah asked, her voice low, her breath stirring the wisps of hair brushing against Tally’s cheek.

Tally shook her head as she fought the urge to shiver again. “No. Quite the opposite.”

“We’re almost there,” Sarah told her.

“Where are we going?”

Sarah only smiled at her, and Tally smiled in return, leaning to rest her head on Sarah’s shoulder. She played with the loose strands of Sarah’s hair with the fingers of her free hand, and the soft gasp Sarah let slip when Tally accidentally grazed the skin of her collarbone was delicious. Tally bit her lower lip and wondered what she’d be able to get away with under the guise of innocence before Sarah caught on.

She didn’t get to find out. She was distracted as Sarah suddenly took a sharp turn and walked them down a narrow, hedge-lined path. Tally lifted her head and looked around. “I’ve never seen this before.”

Sarah chuckled softly. “You weren’t meant to.”

“So it’s been here the whole time?”

“It’s been here the whole time.”

“What else have you been hiding?” Tally asked playfully.

“Perhaps one day you’ll find out.”

Tally tried not to let herself get carried away with the implications of that statement, but it was tough.

The path had a few twists and turns, and Tally glanced up in an attempt to catch sight of some landmarks so she could get her bearings. It didn’t help. The outer walls of one building looked much like the next, so she had no useable frame of reference. Even trying to look into nearby windows didn’t help. All of them were dark.

Tally was unprepared for the hedge path to suddenly open up into a spacious, beautifully manicured, secluded garden. The entire space was lit up by soft, white fairy lights, giving the flowers and trees and bushes an almost ethereal glow. The sound of running water – a fountain? a brook? Tally couldn’t tell – was soothing and somehow underscored the romantic scene perfectly.

Sarah carried Tally through to the centre of the garden where there was a cosy looking arrangement of blankets and pillows laid out underneath a sprawling tree whose branches were decorated with colourful lanterns. A fire crackled in a nearby hearth, and Tally caught sight of a decadent buffet nearly spilling out of a picnic basket.

Tally swallowed hard as her mind flashed – unbidden – on what this scene might’ve looked like if Sarah had ended up with Witchfather the way she normally did. The lump in her throat was painful as she blinked against the prickling behind her eyes.

Tally needed to lighten the mood, needed to not picture Sarah and Witchfather together ever again, let alone picture them here in this intimate setting, so she squeezed Sarah’s arm lightly with her fingers. “I never figured you for a romantic.”

Sarah smiled as she laid Tally gently onto the blanket. She helped Tally get comfortable and then used some extra pillows to prop up Tally’s injured leg. Once she had made sure Tally was settled, she situated herself on the ground at Tally’s side. Close, but not quite touching. “I confess, romance isn’t my forte. I’m much better with strategy and tactics than I am with hearts and flowers.” A beat. “Did I do okay?”

“Oh, it’s lovely,” Tally assured her, tangling their fingers together.

“So you like it?” She sounded both tentative and relieved.

It took Tally a second to realize what Sarah was telling her. “You did this for me?” she blurted.

Sarah took a deep breath and nodded, watching Tally carefully as though wanting to ensure she caught every single one of Tally’s micro expressions.

Tally didn’t think she’d ever seen Sarah so uncertain and vulnerable. The general persona she normally projected was unbelievably hot, and Tally often got worked up just thinking about it, but this, being allowed to see this softer side of her made Tally’s heart melt. She squeezed Sarah’s hand in what she hoped was a reassuring gesture. “I love it. Thank you so much. No one—” the words stuck in Tally’s throat. She had to force herself to finish. “No one’s ever done anything like this for me before.”

Sarah put her other hand on top of their clasped ones. “I’ve never done anything like this for anyone before, either. So I guess that means we’re both having new experiences.”

Tally wasn’t sure if it was the word itself or Sarah’s timbre as she said it. Or maybe it was their proximity or perhaps the way Sarah was looking at her. It definitely could have had something to do with the whiskey. Either way, Tally’s body was suddenly humming, and the silence between them felt charged and intimate. Tally licked her lips nervously, and her heart stuttered painfully when Sarah’s eyes flicked down. It reminded Tally of the reel, and she struggled to organize her thoughts.

Tally’s stomach growled loudly, shattering the tension between them. She blushed and ducked her head, and Sarah gasped. “I am so sorry. I should’ve offered you something to eat straight away. Please. What can I get you?”

Tally’s gaze turned to the feast that was laid out nearby, and her eyes widened. There were different kinds of breads and meats and cheeses as well as some fruit and a few delectable-looking desserts. She had no idea how to decide where to begin. “There’s so much food.”

Sarah’s brow knitted as she surveyed the meal. “Is it too much? I wasn’t sure what was your favourite, so I wanted to have a little bit of everything.”

Tally laughed, giddy at the notion that Sarah had gone to all that trouble just for her. “It’s lovely. Thank you. And I’m sure that whatever I don’t eat the biddies will enjoy.”

“The biddies are asleep.”

It wasn’t until Sarah said that that Tally realized she hadn’t seen the biddies all evening. She hadn’t given them a second thought, either, if she were being honest. But now that Sarah had assured her they were nowhere around, Tally’s mind reeled with the possibilities.

Sarah fixed Tally a plate with a little bit of everything and then poured both of them glasses of water.

“I thought you preferred wine,” Tally said, stuffing a hunk of cheese into her mouth like a savage.

Sarah smiled at her eating habits and took a delicate sip from her glass. “I do. But I think you could do with the hydration, and I didn’t want to drink wine when you aren’t having any.”

“Fair enough.” Tally gratefully accepted the offered glass and took a long swig. She hadn’t realized how thirsty she was until the first droplets touched her lips. She guzzled it down and then wiped her mouth with the napkin Sarah had placed on her lap.

Sarah refilled Tally’s glass and set it down beside her. Then she crossed her legs and settled in to watch Tally eat.

Tally was surprised by how normal it felt to be sitting there with Sarah in her garden sharing a meal and chatting about everything and nothing. She’d never allowed herself to imagine it before. She wouldn’t have even known what such a thing might look like. But being here, making Sarah laugh, learning more about one another felt wonderful. It felt right.

When Tally had finally eaten her fill, she set her plate to the side and leaned back on the nest of pillows Sarah had so thoughtfully arranged for her. Sarah took the plate and the glasses and moved them well out of the way before settling herself down beside Tally. The two of them looked up at the night sky, and the fairy lights and lanterns in the garden dimmed and then went out.

Tally nudged Sarah playfully in the ribs. “Was that you? Show off.”

“I thought you might want to see the stars.”

Tally smiled and snuggled in closer, taking Sarah’s arm and draping it over her shoulders so that she could rest her head on Sarah’s chest. She draped her own arm across Sarah’s stomach, feeling the muscles there contract, which reminded her of the gasp she’d managed to elicit earlier. Tally grinned wickedly to herself and started tracing patterns on Sarah’s abdomen while trying to pretend the gesture was absentminded.

They lay there together, watching the stars, Sarah’s hand caressing Tally’s upper arm and shoulder, and Tally’s hand trying to caress everywhere. Sarah was alternating between wire-tight tension and nearly boneless relaxation. Some touches elicited a sigh, others a sharp intake of breath, and still others a moan that Tally felt everywhere. She wondered how far she could push this before Sarah put a stop to it.

As it turned out, the answer was not too far. The thought had barely formed in Tally’s mind when Sarah’s free hand closed gently over Tally’s roaming one and stilled it. Tally tilted her head up so that she could meet Sarah’s gaze. Her blue eyes appeared impossibly dark, and a shiver went up Tally’s spine as she realized how close their lips were.

“Tally,” Sarah murmured. The air around them was quiet enough and Tally was close enough to hear Sarah swallow. Then Sarah’s eyes flickered down to Tally’s lips.

Tally felt that gaze light up various parts of her body like an electric shock, and her own gaze dropped to Sarah’s lips. Her heart was pounding, and her brain wasn’t producing any coherent thought at all. Her fingers bunched in the material at Sarah’s ribs as their lips finally met for the first time.

The kiss was achingly soft and sweet at first. Almost tentative, as though neither was really sure this was what the other really wanted. They took their time. But when Sarah’s lips parted and the tip of her tongue brushed against Tally’s lower lip, Tally groaned and decided that the time to be cautious was over.

She shifted her position so that she was propped up on one elbow and tangled her other hand in the long, dark hair at the nape of Sarah’s neck as she deepened the kiss. Sarah hummed and rolled them so that Tally was on her back. Tally gasped into the kiss and smiled, scraping her nails down Sarah’s shoulder blade.

The kiss seemed to go on forever, and Tally was so drunk on the sensation of Sarah’s lips against hers, of Sarah’s weight pressing down on top of her, of Sarah’s soft skin beneath her fingertips, that she almost missed the crackling in the air around them. Once she became aware of it, she wanted more, and she lifted her thigh slightly to press between Sarah’s legs and brushed her palm against the bare skin of Sarah’s lower back where her shirt had ridden up.

Sarah groaned and broke the kiss, dropping her forehead onto Tally’s shoulder. Tally turned her head so that she could place kisses on Sarah’s collarbone and neck, and when she grazed her teeth against Sarah’s pulse point, Sarah jumped and rolled off of her, panting.

Tally put a hand to her mouth, horrified, as her heart sank. “Oh, goddess. Sarah. I am so sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“Sshhh,” Sarah hushed her and gathered Tally into her arms, pulling her close. “Please don’t apologize. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Tally’s heart was cracking, and she was struggling to make sure her voice didn’t do the same. “I thought that you…that we…and Beltane…” she trailed off not knowing how or even whether to complete that sentence.

“Shhh,” Sarah said again, placing a gentle kiss on the top of Tally’s head and running her hands up and down Tally’s spine, confusing her all the more. She pulled back so that she could look Tally in the eye, and when Tally refused to look at her, she used one finger to gently lift Tally’s chin. “Listen to me. I do want you, Tally Craven. So, so much. But not when you’ve had so much to drink. It doesn’t feel right or honourable. If we’re ever…when we’re together, I want it to be when you’re fully sober. Fully present. I want to know that you’re in a position to be able to experience everything.”

Tally nodded, relieved. It made sense. She was a little disappointed, sure, because her body was humming like the live end of a scourge at the moment, and she was having a tough time thinking about anything except her hands on Sarah’s body. But she understood where Sarah was coming from. And if waiting was what Sarah really wanted, then they would wait.

Tally leaned into Sarah to place one more tender, lingering kiss on her lips before snuggling back down into Sarah’s arms. She let out a shaky sigh as she attempted to get her body to calm down and looked up at the night sky. The heavens above were blanketed with dozens of shooting stars.

Tally gasped and gripped Sarah tighter. “Is that your doing as well?”

Sarah chuckled softly under her breath and dropped another sweet kiss on the crown of Tally’s head. “No. Not my doing. Our doing. The best and most powerful work happens on Beltane. And not all workings are meant for war or destruction.”

“Wow,” Tally breathed, in awe of the beautiful scene above them.

They lay there together enjoying what amounted to their own private light show and just basking in one another’s company, but eventually, Tally’s eyelids began to flutter. It was late, and she’d had so much whiskey, and both of those coupled with everything else that’d happened made it tough for her to stay awake. She was trying, she really was, but she was fighting a losing battle.

“Tally,” Sarah murmured the fourth or fifth time that Tally startled herself awake. “It’s okay. Go to sleep.”

Tally shook her head, nuzzling her face into Sarah’s chest. “Uh-uh. Don’t want to.”

“Why not?”

“Don’t want to miss anything,” Tally mumbled.

“You won’t. I promise.”

Tally sighed. “You might push me away again.”

Sarah was quiet for a long time, and Tally had almost drifted off despite her best efforts when Sarah spoke softly. “It wasn’t my intention to push you away, Tally. I just didn’t want you to have to experience my nightmares anymore.” A beat. “I’ve missed you.”

Tally smiled, and her heart fluttered. “Missed you, too.” She squeezed Sarah’s waist. “You’ll be here when I wake up?”

Tally thought she felt Sarah nod into her hair. “I will.”

“Promise?”

Sarah laughed softly, gently. “Of course.”

“The reel will be mad at you if you leave,” Tally said.

“Well, we can’t have that, can we? Not after it went to all the trouble to bring you to me.”

“Nope.”

Tally thought she heard Sarah say something else, but between her exhaustion and the exquisite sensations Sarah was eliciting in her with those gentle touches on her back and arms and the scent of apricots in the air around her, it was really hard for her to follow. The last coherent thought she had was that she was glad the reel brought them together. And then she stopped thinking altogether.

 

********

 

Tally was beyond disoriented when she awoke the next morning. She was a lot warmer than usual, and the room seemed much, much brighter. She squeezed her eyes shut tight and buried her face in her pillow, intent upon going back to sleep, but then she heard birds chirping, and she sat up, surprised and confused.

Tally’s head darted back and forth as her eyes tried to look everywhere and take in everything all at once. She was outside in some sort of garden on some sort of soft, downy blanket. She frowned as she struggled to piece together the events of the night before.

She thought there was dancing. She knew there’d been whiskey. Her brain was still a bit sluggish, and it took a few long moments for bits and pieces of the evening to start trickling back. Scylla. Anacostia. The reel. Sarah!

Tally’s heart sputtered, and she looked around for Sarah. For an instant, she was borderline crushed to realize that she was in the garden alone, but then, as if called forth by her thoughts, Sarah came striding into the garden from her quarters – which Tally only just this second realized were adjacent to where they were sitting – her arms laden with a large tray. Sarah’s face lit up upon seeing Tally awake, and any doubts that Tally might have had about anything evaporated completely.

“Good morning,” Sarah said brightly. “How did you sleep?”

Tally yawned and stretched as she considered the question. “Surprisingly well, thank you. And I don’t have a headache this morning, either, which is something of a miracle considering how much I actually remember having to drink last night.” She watched Sarah put the tray down on the blanket next to her, and something occurred to her. “Did you have something to do with that?”

“Your lack of headache? Maybe. I’ve never been much of a fixer, but headaches I can handle.”

“Thank you,” Tally said. She glanced at the tray. “What’s all this?”

Sarah removed the lid. “I thought you might be hungry. I’m sorry. I thought I’d be able to make it back before you woke.”

Tally snagged a crisp piece of bacon off the tray as Sarah poured her a cup of coffee. She chewed it thoughtfully as her brain continued to throw random images at her from the night before. Talking to Tansey. Throwing a bottle at Anacostia. Dancing with Sarah. That one made her smile. Witchfather.

Tally almost choked on her bacon, and Sarah looked concerned. Tally coughed a few times, and Sarah handed her a glass of water. “Are you okay?”

It took a few long moments for Tally to be able to speak. “Did I really have a duel with Witchfather?”

Sarah grinned. “Well, it was more of a challenge than a duel, but yes.”

Tally’s cheeks burned, and she put her face in her hands. “Oh, goddess. I am beyond mortified.”

Sarah gently removed Tally’s hands from her face and held them in her own. “Why are you mortified? It was amazing. You were amazing.”

“How can you say that?” Tally was distraught. “I threw down with the second most powerful witch at Fort Salem like some sort of jealous neanderthal.” Her eyes went wide, and her heart flipped inside her chest. “Do you think he’s mad at me? What kind of problems will that cause in the long run? Oh, I have to figure out how to fix this.”

“Tally, relax. Don’t worry about it. I’ll handle Witchfather. It’s going to be fine.”

Tally shook her head. “I can’t believe I did that. You must think I’m an idiot.”

“Actually? If I’m being honest, it was kind of hot.”

Tally narrowed her eyes and studied Sarah to try to determine whether she was telling the truth or just attempting to make her feel better. “Really?”

Sarah nodded seriously. “Really. In all my years, I’ve never had anyone want to brawl for me. It was very flattering.” She stroked Tally’s knuckles with her fingertips.

“Oh. Well, okay, then. I would fight the entire base for you if I had to.”

Sarah smirked. “Good to know. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Tally helped herself to one of the pancakes that was on the plate in front of her and rolled it up so she could dip it into the ramekin of syrup. She was thinking about what she’d been doing at this time the day before and how life took some very unexpected twists and turns on occasion.

“So,” Sarah said, looking uncharacteristically nervous. “I was wondering whether you had any plans for today.”

Tally shook her head and swallowed her mouthful of pancake. “No. Not that I can think of. Why?”

“Well, I was thinking maybe we could go into Salem together. It’s market day, so they’ll be a number of fun little stalls set up all over town. And we could look in some of the village shops, as well, if you wanted. And then I was thinking we could have a picnic by the river.“

Tally’s eyes went wide at the implications of that statement.

Sarah’s face fell. “We don’t have to.”

“No,” Tally said, grabbing Sarah’s hand with her syrup-sticky fingers without thinking. “I would love to. It’s just that half the base is bound to be there today. Are you sure you’re okay with people seeing us? Together?”

Sarah smiled at her affectionately. “Tally. The entire base saw us end the reel in each other’s arms. And a good percentage of those people also saw you challenge Witchfather for my hand. After that, we left together. I don’t think that us spending the day in town is going to cause too much of a stir.” She paused. “Besides, they should probably get used to seeing us together.”

Tally’s heart swelled at the thought of there being a them for people to see together. She got swept away on the tide of emotion and surged forward to capture Sarah’s lips in a kiss. She’d only meant for it to be quick, but as seemed to be the case with them, they got a bit carried away and the kiss deepened and went on longer than expected.

When they finally pulled back, they were both smiling. Sarah cupped Tally’s cheek with her palm. “Can I trust you to go back to your quarters and not consume pints and pints of whiskey?” she teased.

Tally laughed. “Very funny. Yes. You can trust me. I’ve been told it’s in my best interest to remain sober.”

“I’ll definitely make it worth your while.”

“Consider it done.”

“Then hurry up and get changed. I’ll meet you in front of your building in half an hour.”

Tally jumped up to go, but then rushed back to kiss Sarah once more. Somehow she did manage to keep this one relatively short, although that was mostly because she knew that if she didn’t, they’d never get out of the garden.

Tally had made it to the doorway to Sarah’s quarters, which had seemed the easiest way for her to leave since she knew her way back to her room from there, when Sarah called after her. She paused and turned back to look at her, nearly blown away by how breath-taking Sarah looked all dishevelled sitting in the garden. Tally smiled. “Yes?”

“The reel…”

“What about it?”

“I’m glad it was you.”

Tally smile widened. “I’m glad it was you, too.”