Once upon a time, a young man and a young woman fell in love. Oh, not so easily as that, and not so quickly either, but in the end, it was love. But their happily ever after was stolen from them, and the young man was left alone in a world without her laughing, without her scolding, without her love. After a time, his broken heart stitched itself back together, but it did not knit properly. He tried to patch it over with little else but wishes and hopes, and he thought he was mended, so he set out to find a new love.
And first there came Helena.
The cemetery was well-kept, on the whole. Most of its inhabitants, so to speak, had left enough loved ones behind that their tombs were tended with care and devotion. He came to talk to her with less frequency than once he had, and not at all since he'd met Helena. Things had progressed so swiftly that he had told himself there hadn't been time, but in truth he had avoided this. It should have been done. Now he was paying it an entirely different sort of a visit than the one he'd dodged.
“Hello dear,” he said, kneeling down to run a hand over the smooth marble of the headstone. He moved to sit at the foot of the grave, his legs propped up in front of him, arms clasped around them. His eyes roamed over the red climbing roses that grew over the headstone, larger every year.
Reid Akins was not the sort of man who often admitted his own mistakes, but here was one place, one person, to whom he must always confess. His eyes traced the contours of the carved name in the marble. He knew it as well as he knew his own face in the mirror, knew every nuance of the memorial, from the serifs on the letters to the tiny imperfections in the stone that had taken shape in the fifteen years since she'd been buried. Cecilia Arcadia Fletcher. Beloved daughter, but never beloved wife.
“I'm getting divorced,” he said eventually. “Never even told you I'd got married. It was a mistake, obviously. I thought it was going well, at least at first, but then things started changing, and we were at each other's throats.”
He shook his head. “I didn't know her very well, it seemed. And she didn't like me at all by the end of it. Anything I said, she took the wrong way. She was constantly jabbing at me. And then I'd snap back, and it was like setting off an avalanche. She filed for divorce yesterday.”
He had wanted someone to talk to, someone like Cecilia who would keep him in check, be the foil for his jokes and the companion to his genius. She had been so good at that – somehow managing to puncture his ego at every turn while still building him up. He knew he was over-the-top sometimes, and she had been too. They'd been strangely well-suited, even at such a young age; their hearts fit together like pieces of a puzzle.
No one else's heart fit him like that. He'd thought he'd found another, but he'd been very wrong.
He plucked a blade of grass and tossed it up, watching it settle next to the headstone, blown by the light breeze. “I miss you, Cilia.”
And then there came Acacia.
It was ridiculous. She would be annoyed with him, he knew, and grumpily, he knelt down to pat the headstone, then stayed there, crouched, next to it. He needed to keep this visit short. He had put it off for too long.
“Hello, dear,” he began somewhat haltingly. "Divorcing again. I don't think you'd be very pleased about this one. Not that I am either. You would've told me not to do it...
“I don't need your permission, you know,” he added, aware that he sounded like a petulant child. He was thirty-four years old, for the love of –
For the love.
“You always hated her,” he acknowledged gruffly. “I ought never have gone within twenty yards of the bitch. It's all your fault, since you weren't here to stop me.”
It sounded hollow even to his ears, and he stared at her gravestone. “I'm a bloody idiot,” he muttered. “We only made it three months, Cilia. She was miserable and she made me miserable as well. Worst three months of my life. Screaming rows every day, and me sleeping on the couch. She was all iron, unbending and hard and cold. I couldn't take it.” He shook his head.
Cecilia had been so fierce, blazing with passion. The memory of her rages, magnificent and incandescent in a way that only she could ever be, scorched him. He missed her fury, the white-hot fires of her soul.
She had loved him with that same passion.
“I really miss you.”
And then, quite possibly, there came Maruata.
If she hadn't thought him insane before, she was certainly going to think it now, he reflected wryly as he seated himself at the foot of the grave.
“You're not going to believe this one, dear,” he told her, scratching the side of his nose sheepishly. “I've actually been banned from a country. I bet you can't entirely say you're surprised, can you?”
He thought he could hear her laughter in the air, on the whisper of the roses in the breeze. He missed her laughter. She'd been so full of life, so spirited... The joy she had brought him, that they had shared, still colored his memories of her, sparing him some of the pain of her loss.
“I've received official notice from the government of Tahiti that I may never return to the island again. In fact, it would probably be best if I avoid French Polynesia altogether,” he added, “though I expect I can still return to France. I've always got on rather well in the French magical community.
“She was beautiful. Dark hair, dark eyes, and her chin, her cheekbones – looked just like you somehow. I didn't realize her father was such an important figure on the island, though. I certainly didn't think the whole thing was legal – I mean, once I sobered up enough to think about it – and then her father took one look at me and said it wasn't binding if we hadn't signed any papers, and well, next thing I knew I was being escorted to the airport and told it was best if I simply went home. I had to Confund ten of them to get away and catch a Portkey back to New Zealand. Insanity.” He grinned, reflecting on the rather embarrassing debacle of a holiday.
“You would have loved it,” he added. “I'm sure you would have laughed your head off at me being tossed out on my arse. I wish you'd been there. You would have laughed.”
He rubbed a hand over his forehead, pushing a lock of hair back. “God, I miss you.”
And then there came, this time quite legally, Margot.
He plopped down at her feet. “Hello, dear.”
Winter was setting in for the long haul, and ice was already frosting the tombstone, but he didn't feel the cold as he sat there in the dying grass, eyes focused on the name in the marble.
“You can guess why I'm here. I told her I didn't think it was working out, and she got the jump on me and filed for divorce. First time she ever got to anything before I did.
“There was nothing wrong with her, really. She just didn't have your fire. Long dark hair, tall and slender, not very smart but nothing to complain about. That was the problem, though. There was nothing to complain about, and nothing to rave about either. She was just... there. It seemed unfair to drag it out any longer than it already had, after I realized...” He couldn't say it aloud, and he was sure she heard it in his head anyway. After he'd realized he didn't actually love his wife.
Shameful, she would have said, with that severity that she had, that moral certitude. So few times he'd seen her off-balance or unsure of herself. Cecilia had always known her place in the world, and filled it with every fiber of her being.
He missed her spark and her certainty. She had known who she was, and he had loved it in her.
“I miss you still, fool that I am.”
And then there came Winifred.
It almost seemed routine at this point. She probably saw him coming by now, just waiting to see whom he would divorce next. “Hello, dear. No records set this time, I'm afraid. Five months in total.
“She had all the fire that Margot lacked, but none of the softness that – well, that you had, dear. You were hard, but you had your soft times too. Winifred was all sharp edges and screaming rows. I couldn't take it. It was like being married to Acacia all over again, and we all know how well that went.
“You wouldn't believe what she wants in alimony. We were hardly even married! Honestly, I've had food in my pantry longer than this marriage. Worst divorce of my life, I'm telling you.”
There was no making a joke of it, though. His divorces, all of them, left their scars, his failure ripping across his heart every time he realized what a huge mistake marriage had been, at every realization that the woman he'd married could never be his wife.
It was supposed to be her, and it never could be, and he gave up a piece of his soul every time he tried to force someone else to be her. It wasn't fair, to him or to them. He was forty-five years old, but his soul felt older than the stones, older than the earth, as he stared at the gravestone.
“I don't know if I can do this again,” he admitted softly. “Hattie said she ought to set me up next time, and I told her to knock herself out, but I don't think I can do it even if she finds someone. I feel old and broken, Cilia. I think I'm done with women. But you keep that to yourself.”
She had kept all his secrets, kept to herself all the darkest corners of his heart that he'd shared, never even a whisper to her best friend, even though he'd rather thought she told Siobhan everything. And now she was gone, silent as the grave. No more secrets to whisper ever again.
“I'm too old for this, Cilia, and I miss you.”
And then, finally, there came... acceptance.
This time was different, in so many ways.
Reid gave the headstone a pat and then moved to sit at the foot of the grave, his eyes settling on Cecilia's name, etched into the marble.
“Hello, dear,” he said, with a cheerfulness that did not require forcing. It had been so many years, and though he would always regret her death in the first blossoms of youth, he no longer felt the heavy blow of her loss.
She was, and always would be, the first woman he had loved. It came as some comfort to know that he had been her first true love as well. She had loved him, well and wholly, for only a year of his life. It had not seemed so short at the time, and they had not seemed so young, but looking back on it now, he thought them both impossibly young.
She had never seen her eighteenth birthday.
And he had now seen his fiftieth, over half his life gone since her death. It was hard to think of them both so young, hard to wrap his head around the fact they'd only been teenagers. He'd been incredibly stupid at that age, he recalled. Possibly he was still incredibly stupid, but somehow he was able to accept this about himself with greater equanimity the older he got.
“You probably recall my first four wives – five if you count that witch in Tahiti,” Reid began again. Talking with her had always made him feel better, and though his mind told him that she was not there, that she could not hear him, his heart had never believed this. “Disastrous, I think we'll both agree. Least said, best, I expect, and I know you'd be saying you told me so if you could. Cackling all the while, I have no doubt. You did love to be right.
“And now I must confess... Hattie is also right just as often as you ever were,” he said slowly, dancing around the subject. His talks with Cecilia often followed the non-linear paths of his thoughts. “Do you remember Oriana Daintree? She was in our year, you know. In Ravenclaw. Curly blonde hair, though she keeps it red now – it suits her. She's very smart, possibly smarter than I am. Hattie introduced us. And by introduced I mean set an appointment for me. I didn't go, of course. I don't need psychiatric care.”
He paused briefly and then said, “Do stop laughing, Cilia.”
There was no response, of course, not even a brief wind to tell him she was listening, but somehow he could feel her smile. Sometimes he missed her dry, sharp wit more than anything else.
“Well, whatever Hattie told her about me – about you, dear – it must have struck a chord, because she tracked me down at home. I told her I wasn't going to be her patient, so she told me we'd just be friends instead.” Reid smiled. “You would like her. I think you did like her, but I can't recall any longer your opinions on our classmates. Except Acacia. You were entirely correct about her, too. But Oriana is different.
“And since she had decided we were friends, we got to talking. About her divorce. About you. About her sons. About my divorces. About everything. And before I knew it...” A sigh dragged through him, leaving his body feeling tired, and he ran a hand through the salt-and-pepper of his hair. “I love her, Cilia. Not the same way I loved you, because we were different, and I'm different now, but I love her just as fully, just as thoroughly, just as madly as I ever loved you.”
His eyes traced the letters of her name on the headstone, smoothed now with the years that had passed, still trapping her youth forever in the stone, never to live the life she should have had. The roses, the blood-red climbing roses he had planted there so many years ago, had become an untamed beast of a thing in the corner of the cemetery where the Fletchers rested, grown huge and free. He liked to think she lived on in her roses, and the life she had there would go on far longer than his mortal existence.
It had been easier to wish her back to life before he'd met Oriana. There was some guilt over that, yes, because if Cecilia had lived, he would never have had a chance to love Oriana as well, and he felt strange that the wish for Cecilia that he'd lived with these past thirty years was faded now, slipping from his mind, as each day passed in Oriana's company.
“I'm going to marry her,” he said abruptly. “I haven't asked her yet. I don't know, I thought... I thought I should come talk to you first. I would have married you if I could, Cilia, but you're gone now and as much as you might not have shown it, I don't think you wanted me tortured the rest of my life over you. I've spent a lot of years being stupid, looking for you, and now I've found someone who's not at all like you and yet I love her just as much. It would have been us, but it couldn't be, so... I don't know that I can ask your blessing, but I hope you'll forgive me.”
Maybe it was his imagination, but the roses seemed to be watching him, waiting, holding their breath...
He shrugged helplessly. “I love her. I feel whole again with her. I haven't felt whole in a long time, dear.”
And then quite suddenly, he knew. It wasn't the roses, and it wasn't the wind, or anything else tangible, but he knew. She wouldn't have minded. She wouldn't have wanted him to spend the rest of his life wishing for her to come back when she never could. She had moved on, and so must he. And if it couldn't be her, at least it could be someone he'd love just as deeply. Not because Oriana was anything like Cecilia, but simply because Oriana was herself, just as truly and just as wonderfully as Cecilia had been.
“Thank you, dear,” he murmured. “I'll always miss you, but I'm not alone any longer.”
He pressed a hand to his lips, passing the kiss to her headstone with a small smile.