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Respire

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Embers flare as a log collapses in on itself, ashes ascending into darkness and disappearing into the thick fog rolling across Fort Salem's grounds. Campfire smoke curls Sarah's nose; birchwood and kindling leaves, she thinks. Inexperience on the part of those responsible for building the fire — oak was always her preference. The campus bonfire itself, larger and unruly, is distant across the grounds, and laughter from the cadets celebrating their victories carries to her on the breeze. The shadow plane of living souls is lost to Sarah now, a reality she won't return to until the night commands it. The others celebrate their victories in numbers while Sarah quietly heralds her own. Here, she is alone.

Silence engulfs her surroundings and the fog closes in. Sarah watches the fire dance, flames licking at the edges of her memory-tainted eyes, and when a puff of air clears smoke from her vision, a shape takes form across the blanket of heat. She blinks in surprise, unaware at what point she was no longer alone.

"This again, Sare?" Batan's gazing back at her now, hunched forward and dangling both hands loosely between her legs, like she has all the time in the world. Already there's an air of challenge about her, the defiance of authority that refuses to leave even years later. She's staring at Sarah with an intensity only Nicte is ever able to get away with and it itches the back of Sarah's teeth. Nicte hasn't changed in thirty years of knowing her. Sarah wouldn't want her to.

Still, Sarah hides her smile, brittle and resigned, and dips her eyes to the rocks scattered along the edge of the firepit. She kicks one absently with her shoe, as though she's a jitter-filled cadet who doesn't know how to sit still. She's restless, and has been for nearly an hour.

"You sound surprised," she tells Nicte. "Did you really not expect me to follow through on our agreement?"

"Nothing you do surprises me anymore." Nicte's smile catches the light and Sarah finds herself rolling her eyes at the mockery in them. "Come on, you invited me here tonight, Sarah. Don't act like you're not happy to see this pretty face."

"You never change," Sarah quips out loud this time, and it's silly to think it would be possible now. Nicte has always been, well, Nicte. Stubborn, shameless, infuriating.

Sarah loved her for it once. Curses her for it now all the same.

"Still no Red, huh?"

Sarah hums. "Not tonight." She pretends she doesn't see the disappointment in Nicte's foggy expression, that she shouldn't be able to, lost here in the dark. Across the fire, Nicte shifts and the flames momentarily expand toward the sky. Sarah brushes a spark from the crest of her jacket.

Nicte frowns, so Sarah continues, "Give her time. It's still fresh." She watches Tally carry herself past the memorial of fallen soldiers at the gates of Fort Salem every morning and knows she's not alone in her misery.

Nicte makes a sound and settles again; there isn't much more she can do. Sarah pities her in some regard, then reminds herself Nicte didn't need pity before — she sure as hell doesn't need it now.

"There's not a lot left to talk about," Nicte says. She raises her head as Sarah leans in and it's just a wall of flickering warmth between them.

Sarah remembers when that warmth used to radiate from Nicte's skin pressed flush against her own, a gravelly laugh tickling the back of her throat and no care for Sarah's attempt at a late evening dismissal. Nicte was always supposed to leave in the night; Sarah woke up with her every morning regardless. Until, one day, she didn't.

"No, I don't suppose there is." Sarah catches her eye and aches for something that was doomed from the beginning. She regrets where it led them most days, misses it terribly others.

Nicte's mouth twitches at the corner. "You miss me," she teases, and not even death can unravel her hold on Sarah's past.

"I don't." Sarah's honest, yet lying through her teeth. "I mourn you."

Nicte's laughter fills the air and, for a brief moment, Sarah ignores the candle wilting at her feet.

"You took your time this year." Sarah casts her eyes back to the woman she could almost reach out and touch. "I was beginning to think you of all people learned how to avoid the Calling."

"Maybe one day." Nicte's amusement lights something inside Sarah that a wave of grief immediately pours out and smothers. Nicte moves on. "The others?"

"Ramshorn and family are fine," Sarah tells her. They go through the list of survivors one by one; Nicte asks the same questions every year. First Scylla, the one she felt responsible for, then Collar and their daughter. Finally, Bellweather and Khalida. Her charges, those she led with fire and fury until her penultimate curtain call. Sarah still hates her for it on some level. They were supposed to have more time.

Tally's never forgiven either of them — Nicte for choosing it or Sarah for letting her go. Sarah's heart aches knowing that's why Nicte's still around.

The candle flickers. Nicte's waited until the end of the hour to show her face. Sarah brushes her hands across her thighs and stands.

"You'll tell her this time, won't you?" There's a whisper of life in Nicte's eyes as she follows Sarah from her perch. "That you saw me again?"

The sadness in Sarah's non-answer reaches Nicte across the fire. Sarah swears it should be impossible to make someone's departed spirit ache, but here she is and there goes Nicte filling her with more guilt. The burden of leading their people is gone yet Sarah still carries those losses with her every day. She carries this loss like it's fresh. Nicte's death and Tally's grief settle on each shoulder now, grinding her boots into the ashes where she stands.

She hates Samhain, maybe even hates Nicte for forcing it on her. Sarah unleashes a sigh and lets that feeling carry away on the wind.

"She's not ready to hear it." Sarah's throat bobbles yet she holds her head high. It's been three years and Tally's only just piecing herself back together from the war.

"Is it for you, or for her? The secrets?" Nicte's tone is soft, unaccusing. "Or do you even know anymore?"

"I thought it was for her." Sarah's brow tenses. Every time she summons Nicte – a personal request should Nicte fall, almost a cruel joke after she did – there is less to say. She wonders how much longer she can keep this going. "Perhaps it's for us both."

"She'll figure it out eventually." A note of hope; no real gusto. Nicte doesn't believe Sarah will ever tell Tally she's here waiting and Sarah hopes her resolve holds when she returns to their quarters.

Tally should be here, for herself and for Nicte. For Sarah to release this burning hold in her chest and be free of Samhain like she was for two centuries. Three years running and she's still lighting candles, screaming for a time when she no longer feels the obligation. Nicte put this on her shoulders and sometimes Sarah hates her for making her care enough to follow through.

"Perhaps." Sarah's eyes lift from the blaze and Nicte's fainter on the outer edge of it now. The candle at her feet dims. "Perhaps some day she'll be ready to call you herself."

Something unrecognizable ripples through Nicte's spirit, though Sarah loses it when the fog behind her clears and the forest is visible through her fading form.

"I think I'd like that."

Pain takes hold of Sarah's ribcage and pries it apart. "You deserve rest, Sergeant Batan. Your sacrifice commends it."

It's more than amusement dancing in Nicte's distant grin now; Sarah swears she's mourning the life she could have had if things had been different. "I was always shit at taking orders."

And oh, how Sarah misses that grin in this moment, shameless and antagonistic. She wishes Tally would venture onto the grounds for this but she buried too many during the war and avoids this night like the witchplague itself. Sarah doesn't know which of them needs Tally here more, to release them both from this hell.

She watches Nicte now and yearns for a time when her spirit will be distant and aloof. Nicte's stubborn refusal to move on is why Sarah chooses her oldest living enemy to recall when the hearth is defended and she has four lifetimes of loved ones to pick from. Nicte teased it of her in her final days and Sarah's sense of obligation is greater than that of self-preservation.

It's Nicte's hold on this world that draws Sarah back year after year. She wonders sometimes if she really feels Nicte in the walls of Fort Salem as much as she thinks she does, or if the constant reminder creeping in the back of Tally's eyes is what makes the guilt run deep. She'd sat across a fire much like this one as the war for their people drew to a close and Nicte laughed for the final time.

"You'll do it, won't you?" Nicte had teased, bottle of whisky in hand and eyes blurred with the levity the drink granted her. "I will haunt your ass either way, Sarah. Everywhere you look you'll see me."

"Don't doubt it for a second," Sarah had mused, and how naive she had been to the truth of that promise. Nicte was everywhere while she was nowhere, and Sarah alone carries this burden.

Nicte doesn't have ethereal chaos to climb through, not like most spirits summoned to the grounds on Samhain. She's already here; she never really left. On nights like tonight, Sarah can pretend for a minute that nothing has changed since the witchplague was burned from this land and their people were given peace. On Samhain, for an hour or less, they're old enemies sharing parlay over the fire.

The candle sputters at her feet; she lifts her eyes as the last of the wick struggles to stay alight. Every year Nicte comes to her later. Sarah wonders if it's on purpose and what next year will bring.

Tally, she hopes. Maybe if Sarah finds the courage to tell her Nicte's refusing to move on, Tally's presence will settle her once and for all. It's Tally Nicte's waiting for. Sarah is just a friendly face to bide her time.

She still isn't prepared to say goodbye when the time comes.

"Rest in peace, Nicte." Sarah's eyes are sad as Nicte stands from the fire and fixes her with that all too familiar smolder. Nicte tips her head back in acknowledgement, an unspoken agreement for Sarah to take care of the others, to take care of her, and the fog begins to swallow her whole.

"Happy Samhain, General," Nicte says, "tell Red the new stripes suit her."

"I will," Sarah breathes, and Nicte's spirit echoes into nothingness.