In three centuries, Sarah Alder couldn’t remember the last time she’d been on a date.
If she ever had then she’d certainly never called it one. ‘Date’ sounded so – juvenile - almost, something for the naïve young witches in their shiny new cadets’ uniforms to giggle about when their sergeants weren’t looking. Not something for General Alder, commander of the armed forces and oldest known living witch in the world to lose her composure over.
Except, lose her composure she surely did. Especially when her first few attempts at a ‘date’ were…somewhat less than successful.
Sarah broached the topic with Tally at the end of a quiet evening spent by the fireside in her office one night, both of them loose-limbed and relaxed in their seats, and Tally practically lit up at the idea.
That Sarah had never been on a date didn’t seem to bother her. The girl was ever a romantic at heart and Sarah’s almost halting suggestion that perhaps they ought to do something together, off base and away from prying eyes, brought a fresh flush blooming rose-pink to Tally’s cheeks.
Sarah had always known that these clandestine meetings late at night, after the work of the day had been dispensed with and the rest of base safely abed were never going to be enough to satisfy Tally’s romantic side for long. She longed to be swept off of her feet like in tales of old and if Sarah were honest, she found it rather sweet how terrible Tally was at hiding such desires.
So, Sarah suggested a day out to Salem on a weekend when they’d both have some free time away from the base. She never called it a date, not in so many words, but the way Tally grinned bright and wide with those blessed dimples on show was enough to know she understood it as one anyway.
They set aside a day at the end of the month and Sarah diligently marked it down in her diary amongst a hundred other notes about upcoming meetings and appointments that needed remembering.
Tally all but glowed with excitement every time Sarah saw her in days before that otherwise unremarkable Saturday and she idly mused on more than one occasion, that if the rest of base hadn’t already figured out that their General was carrying on with a cadet, then they soon would.
Of course, Sarah would never admit to anyone except perhaps Tally alone that she was looking forward to the weekend just as much. She’d decided on all of the places around Salem that she wanted to take Tally and the prospect of showing her the place that Sarah still remembered from hazy girlhood memories did wonders at improving even the dullest of meetings.
To say Sarah was looking forward to her first proper date was a fact, even if it was one that you’d have to prise from her cold, lifeless lips.
Which meant fate, of course, had other plans.
That Saturday morning rolled around and Sarah had already spent longer than she’d ever want to admit convincing herself that no, uniform probably wasn’t an appropriate choice of attire for the occasion. Not that it likely mattered what she wore anyway because Tally had seen her in just about everything from her Beltane best to her dress blues to absolutely nothing at all by then, and enjoyed every single look just the same.
She’d been halfway out of her quarters and off to pick up Tally when the farspeech message came through. The officer on the other end had barely finished speaking when Sarah both felt and heard the biddies collectively cringe at the fury that flashed through her like lightning and lit a fire in her belly at the officer’s words.
It took several long minutes to get her temper under control before Sarah could open her own mouth without growling or perhaps, spitting fire.
“Feeling dramatic are we Sarah?” one of the biddies piped up, Louisa, famous for never knowing just when was a good idea to shut up and keep her nose out of other people’s business.
“I wouldn’t go there if I were you Lou,” said Corinne, ever the voice of reason and her every word shot through with dark warning.
Sarah didn’t deign to respond to either of them. She focused on deciding what she was going to say to Tally instead and tried very hard not to think about the disappointed look she just knew was going to ruin her when Sarah was confronted with it.
On another day it might’ve been funny. Sarah Alder had been both conqueror and kingmaker in her time. Had toppled nations and won more wars than any other soldier in history and yet, the very prospect of disappointing this sweet-faced girl with stars in her eyes was enough to bring Sarah metaphorically and almost literally to her knees.
Tally took the news well, like a soldier, in fact, and even amongst the regret at having to do it in the first place Sarah couldn’t quash her own bit of blooming pride at the fact.
They tried again, a few weeks later and set another date when Sarah’s schedule would allow for some downtime and the cadets were free from training for the day.
Tally had been equally as excited that time too and Sarah spent the whole week long putting out fires and beating any issue that came across her desk firmly into submission so that it might just possibly not ruin her weekend.
It hadn’t worked.
That time they made it all the way to Salem, seated together in some quiet booth in the back of a coffee shop that was a little too modern for Sarah’s taste but which Tally had been instantly enamoured by.
Sarah had drunk half of a coffee with far too much sugar in it and what seemed like suspiciously little actual coffee when a crackle of white noise in her ear heralded another incoming farspeech message.
This time more urgent and thankfully so for the officer delivering it. Because otherwise, Sarah would have thought very long and hard about just telling them to shove it and to sort things out themselves. Alas, there’d apparently been a breakdown in communication over a treaty currently being debated at the Hague and Sarah’s presence was simply essential to help smooth things over.
So for the second time in only a few weeks Sarah apologised to Tally as best she could and swallowed hard around the rock in her throat when Tally pasted the brightest, cheeriest smile she could muster onto her face and told Sarah that it was fine.
It clearly wasn’t fine and Sarah could see as much but duty beckoned and much as she wished she had the time to wipe that horribly fake smile off of Tally’s face, she didn’t. Instead, she had to settle for pulling Tally in with both hands tangled in freshly curled and made-up red hair and kissing the girl breathless to make up for all the things Sarah wanted to say but couldn’t.
The flush in Tally’s cheeks when she pulled away almost made up for the disappointment lingering heavy in her eyes. Almost.
So Sarah tried again. And again. And then after the fourth failed attempt at planning a date, Tally apparently decided that enough was enough.
Sarah was up late in her office, working again, poring over a stack of reports that never seemed to get any smaller and pondering the wisdom of allowing herself a glass of whisky so late on in the evening.
She knew who was hovering just beyond the threshold before Tally ever even knocked. Besides the fact that nobody else would dare disturb the General at this hour unless it was absolutely imperative, Sarah still felt the phantom pull of some lingering connection that bound her at all times to the young cadet. Not as strongly as before, and certainly nothing like the biddy link but it was there nonetheless.
An awareness that orbited Sarah’s absent and unconscious thoughts at all hours of the day. A spot of sunlight on darker days and a welcome warmth when the nights grew cold. She wondered at times if she ought to press Izadora into finding a way to sever the connection entirely but then there were nights like these, nights when Sarah clung to that bit of familiar sanctuary as though it were the only thing that kept her afloat.
When Tally stepped into the office she was smiling, shy and secretive, and although this was what Sarah noticed first, the next thing was that she was carrying something in her arms. Something boxy and heavy looking, wrapped up in a worn tartan blanket.
Sarah cocked her head and set down the report she’d been examining, “Well now, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
Tally ducked her head and grinned again, the one she sometimes levelled at Sarah when she was feeling in the mood for mischief. Sarah usually delighted in wiping those impish little smiles off of her face with the help of hands, teeth, and tongue alike and while she wasn’t opposed to doing so tonight, it seemed apparent that Tally had other ideas just yet.
“I have a surprise for you,” was all she said, eyes dancing and that uncharacteristically enigmatic smile giving nothing away.
“Oh?” said Sarah as she got to her feet and rounded the desk with slow, sure bootsteps before coming to rest at the edge, a scant couple of feet separating them, “What kind of surprise?”
“If I tell you, it won’t be a surprise, will it?” Tally said with more bravado than the girl was usually given to. Sarah couldn’t help but smile, it was hardly the first time in recent weeks that she’d noticed her own habits rubbing off on her after all.
Sarah looked back at the array of documents still sitting on her desk and then back to Tally in front of her, still holding her prize in her arms and trying and failing to disguise the hopefulness with which she was regarding Sarah. She’d let her down far too may times of late, one night away from work surely wouldn’t hurt?
“Well then, I am at your disposal Cadet,” she said finally and couldn’t quite suppress her own smile at the way Tally’s face lit up fully.
“Good! Then I just need you to follow me,” Tally said and beckoned Sarah to her side as she turned to leave, “And no ‘Cadet’ either, not tonight.”
Sarah nodded her acquiescence readily, she’d meant it in jest certainly, as she almost always did these days, but if Tally wasn’t in the mood for it tonight then Sarah was hardly going to argue.
They wound their way through the darkened halls of the administration building and out into the crisp fresh air of the Fort Salem grounds. A clear night and bright moon casting long shadows across the lawns as they walked.
Tally obviously knew exactly where she was going. Striding a step ahead of Sarah with purpose and looking over only now and then to shoot more conspiratorial little smiles at her before ducking her chin and looking away again.
A few months ago, Sarah might’ve objected. Would almost definitely never have agreed to go haring across base at a quarter to midnight with a cadet on a mysterious mission but well, things change. There are a lot of things she probably wouldn’t have done before Tally Craven came crashing into her life, turning everything Sarah Alder thought she knew upside down and inside out.
After several long minutes of walking first through the dense forest that surrounds Fort Salem and then a few more climbing the gentle slope of the hill on the other side, they came to a stop.
The view from the hilltop was hardly the best Sarah had ever had the privilege to take in but it was pretty all the same. Fort Salem laid out before them in all it’s stately splendour and beyond it, a forest of trees older than Sarah herself spreading out in almost every direction.
Tally laid her cargo down on the grass between them and set about arranging the blanket neatly. It was then that Sarah realised what it actually was that she’d been carrying. A little wicker basket, the most important element of any picture-perfect picnic and only then did Sarah finally understand what Tally had dragged her out here in the middle of the night for. Their date.
When she looked down at Tally, sitting on the blanket with her legs curled beneath her and gazing up at Sarah like she’d personally hung the moon just for her, Sarah all but melted. So much for the woman who’d toppled nations and decimated armies now. The soft smile and adoring eyes of a girl a mere fraction of Sarah’s years was apparently more than enough to fully unravel her.
Tally opened her mouth to say something but at the same time Sarah sank to her own knees and pulled her in for a kiss that left them both reeling. All these months and Sarah never did get tired of kissing Tally Craven.
Nor of the way she curled her hands in Sarah’s hair, the way she rocked forwards as though no amount of contact would ever be enough, and she certainly never tired of the way Tally made her pleasure blissfully and unashamedly vocal.
Whether it was whimpering into her mouth or keening when Sarah drew back and began scattering a patchwork pattern of gentle kisses and teasing nips across Tally’s jaw and bared throat, Sarah revelled in every sound that tripped from those lips.
“I see you grew tired of the constant interruptions then, hm?” Sarah murmured, voice gone gravel-rough and husky when she eventually pulled back and gestured to the wicker basket and what looked promisingly like a bottle of wine poking out from the top.
Tally laughed and shook her head with an exasperatedly fond sigh, “I just thought maybe it was time to take things into my own hands,” she said and reached for one of Sarah’s hands to turn over in her own, “I figured maybe if I made it a surprise, we couldn’t be interrupted this time.”
She sounded so wistful, so full of hope that Sarah deliberately didn’t point out that it probably mattered little who did the organising. The army could require Sarah’s immediate attention at any time, night or day. Instead, she simply smiled indulgently and laid another lingering kiss to the corner of Tally’s lips and hummed in agreement.
If Tally wanted just one night, then well, who was Sarah to deny her anything?
Tally smiled again, Sarah’s favourite one, all dimples and sunshine, and turned away to busy herself with pouring them both glasses of a red wine that Tally knows is one of Sarah’s favourites but which she certainly shouldn’t have been capable of procuring as a mere cadet. Sarah had her own suspicions about how she might’ve gotten hold of it. All of them involving nosy biddies being incorrigible busybodies but those thoughts could wait for tomorrow.
Tally handed her a glass and then shifted over to curl herself in close at Sarah’s side with one arm wound about her waist and, after only a beat of hesitation, her head laid gently on Sarah’s shoulder.
Even though the night was cold and it was long past the hour for them both to be in bed Sarah couldn’t help the sigh that heaved its way out of her chest as Tally relaxed against her, and she relaxed into Tally in turn.
In the skies above a blanket of stars twinkled away in timeless familiarity and amidst the forest below, Fort Salem sat steadfast and stalwart as always. With Tally at her side, Sarah almost didn’t notice herself begin to breathe easier than she had for many, many long years.