In the south, by the sea, there was a house that looked into infinity. A house that saved the memories of children and witches alike, and a house that now lay crumbling into the seawall, nothing more than a monument. A house that was already fading from history books, as those who could remember it waned in number.
It was in the house he found her, just as he expected.
"It's cold," he said, and paused at the thin line between seawall and what had once been a magnificent stone staircase. Her eyes remained locked on the sea.
He sighed, and stepped towards the rocks. "I know. It's always cold." This was a routine so old they'd almost worn a new path against the incline, each of them having long ago memorized the places that were safe to step. He grimaced at the familiar pain in his shin, and swore under his breath.
It wasn't supposed to end like this.
"Here," he said, finally reaching her, and wrapped a jacket around her shoulders. To his surprise she shifted against it, and she looked at it, confused.
"Thank you." She stared down at the fabric for several long moments, and then looked up at him. He waited, watching her, and counted down from ten in his head and she smiled right as he reached 'one.'
"What are we doing here?" she asked, and looked around them. "I've told you it's not safe here anymore."
He sighed, and her cheeks flushed.
"You've only been gone about an hour. I came in for a drink and you weren't there, so I came here first."
"I guess that's... Good."
Better than last time, he thought. Better than the first time.
"It's okay." He placed an arm around her waist, and leaned down to kiss the top of her head. "You don't need to explain anything."
"Thank you," she repeated, and they stood and watched the wind.
"I was thinking about tacos tonight." The silence was becoming too much for him, and food usually seemed to cheer her up.
"We had those Monday." She made a face and smiled, but a dark look crossed her eyes, and he knew what was coming. "If you didn't have such a craz-"
"-Don't say it." His voice was harsh and she winced, but he did not back down. "You're not... Don't say it."
Her eyes narrowed, but she held her tongue. "Fine. But not tacos. Spaghetti? It's cold. We froze that sauce last time, it'll be fast and warm. We can have toast."
She smiled again, and this time it was real. He smiled back at her, and let his hand trail across her back as he moved it towards her own, and laced his fingers through hers. "Come on."
She nodded and followed dutifully, both of them retracing the steps they knew so well back towards the shoreline that sat beneath the town. The town they built, the town they had called home for over a decade. They remained silent for the short walk back to their house.
"Squall," she said, pausing at the end of the bridge that led over the dunes.
He stopped, and let her take her time. The sun was almost completely gone, and Rinoa stared at the lighthouse, now a dark shadow against the pink sky, and then turned to watch the last light leave the clouds in the east. She whispered something he couldn't hear, didn't need to hear.
The stars were slowly emerging, and with her ritual complete, he lightly dropped his arm around her shoulders and steered her onto the bridge, towards the warm glow of the house that waited.
June, eighteen years past.
Rinoa stifled a laugh, and made her face as serious as possible. She took a deep breath, closed her hands in front of her, and said, "Little stars across the land, come down! and dance, within my hands!"
She spread her hands and arms open wide, releasing a cloud of stars that twinkled over the beach and left glittering dust across their path, and grinned at the excited squeals that followed. "Noelle, be careful!" she cried out to the girl who ran chasing the stars across the sand.
"That's a new spell." Squall took a seat beside her on the beach, and handed her a thermos. She breathed it in, the smell of orange peel and vanilla warming her in and of itself. He leaned over and kissed her temple, and she turned, catching his lips with her own.
"Eeeew!" Noelle cried, running towards them over the fading glow the stardust left in the sand.
"What do you mean, ew?" Rinoa asked, and let Noelle take the thermos, breathing it in just as she had.
"I mean ew! You were kissing!"
"And who told you that was gross?"
"'Veen." Noelle said, and burst into giggles.
Rinoa gave Squall a very firm sidelong glance, and he just shrugged. "You're the one who thought it was a good idea to let them babysit."
"Well, it's a lot better than the other things he could have said," Rinoa whispered, and took her thermos back, pulling it closer and further from her daughter, making a game of letting her chase the smell.
"Can I have some?" Noelle asked.
"Once it cools off," Rinoa told her, and waved her hand over the top to share the scent.
"Mommy made stars!" Noelle turned now to Squall, who raised an eyebrow that sent both Noelle and Rinoa into a round of giggles.
"Can you go bring us your stars?" Squall asked, and Noelle jumped up, and immediately took off towards the house.
"What?" Rinoa asked, and took a careful sip of her tea, and tried to look as innocent as possible.
"Oh come on, Squall, we're on vacation. And it's good for her to see it in a fun way. She's got most of her life to see magic as something dark, and violent-"
"-And healing. And protective-"
"-And dangerous, and necessary. If she grows up afraid of it..."
Squall shook his head, and Rinoa took another sip of her tea. "This is not a vacation conversation," she declared, and firmly took his hand. "Swear it. On the power of this wonderful tea you found."
Squall rolled his eyes, but lifted his hand anyway.
She raised a threatening eyebrow.
"Fine. I swear, on this wonderful tea-"
"-On the power of this wonderful tea-"
"-On the power of this wonderful tea, that I will not talk about..."
"Unfun things, while on vacation."
"Good. Now drink." She pushed the thermos towards him and he took a small sip, just as Noelle came skittering towards them, clutching three sticks topped with glowing stars. "Here, here!" she shouted, and handed off two of them to each of her parents.
"And what do the stars command we do?" Squall took the wand and stood, bowing slightly to Noelle, but stared over her head at Rinoa with a look that told her she wasn't getting off the hook that easily.
"Dance!" Noelle cried, and grabbed her father by the hand to drag him closer to the shore. "Come on, mommy! Dance!"
Rinoa took a second to wedge the thermos into the sand, and stood, her skirt blowing in the breeze as she skipped ahead to join her family. "There's no music," she said, and tapped Noelle on the head with her wand.
"It's the dance," Noelle paused dramatically, "of... The stars!" She giggled again and started jumping and waving her arms, showing her parents the dance they were to do.
"Well! The Dance of the Stars!" Rinoa looked at Squall and winked. "We know that one!" And she joined in, and finally he did as well, and the movements of their wands in the darkness blended in imitation of the stars Rinoa had earlier created.
Noelle was their conductor, letting them know when to speed up, and slow down, and finally, when song was over. They all three bowed to each other, and Noelle looked at Rinoa expectantly. "Is it cool now?"
Rinoa nodded, and Noelle ran towards the thermos, taking several eager drinks of the tea.
"Good find," she said, and nudged Squall with her elbow.
He shrugged, and let his hand drop down to find hers. "I know my girls," he said, and she smiled.
"Except," Rinoa nodded at the little girl holding the thermos and shaking in time with music only she could hear, "You still haven't quite figured out the concept of bedtime."
"Well, somebody told me we were on vacation." He raised an eyebrow at her. "Doesn't that mean the rules don't apply?"
Rinoa scowled and dropped his hand, and ran forward and scooped Noelle into her arms.
"Hey! I almost spilled!"
"Mommy will take her tea now, and someone needs to go to bed."
Noelle immediately dropped her lip into a pout, but handed over the thermos, which Rinoa immediately passed to Squall.
They walked the short distance back to the rental house, and to compromise, Rinoa let Noelle make a show out of shaking the sand from her clothes before ushering her inside.
"I want to hear it," Noelle said, once she was bathed, and in her PJs, and snuggled in bed.
"No, from daddy."
"If you insist." Rinoa kissed her forehead then took a step back, and let Squall take his place beside the bed and start the rhyme.
"Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight-"
Rinoa stepped softly towards the door, and let their voices echo in unison, as she walked down the hall and into the living room. She picked up the thermos and took another deep breath, and stepped out the house and onto the balcony.
"It's cold," Squall said, and closed the door behind him as he joined her.
"Good thing someone made tea." She passed him the thermos, and he put his arm around her waist.
"I told you. Not while we're here."
"We can't avoid the subject forever."
"Do you want me to say I'm sorry? That I regret showing our daughter every once in awhile that magic isn't something to be afraid of?" She sighed, and leaned her head against his shoulder.
"I just... Wish she never had to learn about it at all."
"I know. Me too."
The tide was coming in, and Rinoa closed her eyes and listened to the waves. She felt Squall lift his hand to take another sip of tea, and caught the scene of orange peel and vanilla as he lowered the thermos and she breathed it in, breathed in the sea air, and relaxed into him. He let his chin rest on top of her head, and they stood for a long while, and watched the moon rise over the ocean.
Squall woke up alone. The room was the dim grey of early morning, and the bed was cold. He turned, steeling his hopes, and lay with one eye still crushed against the pillow and looked at the rest of the empty bed.
He shut his eyes, and listened.
There was a gap in his mind, and in the darker moments, alone, he yearned for the thing that once filled it. For a time when he could wake up alone and know, without truly knowing, where she was. Now he was left with whispers, a phantom's hold on something that had been a part of him, of them, for their entire lives together.
He slid his arm across her side of the bed, traced his fingers across the space she should have occupied, and tried not to worry.
He'd spent half a century trying to learn that trick, and he doubted he'd ever figure out how.
Squall drew his fingers into a fist and pushed himself up in the bed, swung his legs over the edge, and let his right leg take the weight first. He got dressed slowly, and felt himself relax when he opened the bedroom door to the smell of coffee.
He climbed the stairs and there she was, sitting on the other side of the sliding door, looking at the sea. He filled a mug, and walked out to join her.
"How long have you been up?"
She brought her mug to her lips before answering, which told him it had been awhile. "The moon had set," she finally answered.
They owned no clocks; those had been the first things to go. He found life without them far easier than he would have imagined in his youth, and when they were out (when he was out, at least), the sight of them gave him chills.
This time of year the sun was just over the east end of the ocean, and it cast long shadows over the dunes.
"I'm sorry I left last night," she said, and he turned to her, surprised. She looked up, greying hair waving in the morning breeze. "It's not my memory that's the problem."
He gave her a hard look, and finally took a seat beside her. They had a small table on the upper balcony, and started most of their days sitting at it, watching the sun rise as they drank their coffee. Before, and...
"Today's the end of term, right?"
Squall nodded. "Half-day for the students. I'm going to try and leave early as well. Do you want to go anywhere tonight?"
Rinoa paused, her coffee mug pressed lightly against her chin. "Maybe."
"Well, think about it while I'm gone. We could..."
They hadn't left town since it happened, and he wasn't sure he could, even if she wanted to.
"I'll let you know." He felt her hand on his and she gave a small squeeze, and smiled.
Squall smiled back, and pulled her hand up and kissed it. "I have to get ready now. Are you going to stay out here?"
She nodded, and he turned. By the time he came back upstairs, the sun was hitting the upstairs windows, and through them he could her long hair reflecting the orange morning light.
He stepped outside again, bag slung over his shoulder, and leaned down to give her a kiss.
"I'll try and stay put today," she told him, and kissed him again when he frowned at her in response.
"I love you."
"I love you, too."
He took the side staircase down to the street, and kept his eyes on the sky for most of the short walk to the school. No red in the sky today, which he noted with relief.
Maybe she'd be okay today.
Maybe they both would.