Homecoming

Author's Notes: A fic written in response to the 31 Days LJ Community theme: "Dead cities, red seas, lost ghosts". Post-Shishio arc fic. Soujirou is perhaps the only character in Rurouni Kenshin I can fully relate to, strangely, which is probably why he was the one who came to my mind when I saw the theme. ;

Her days were becoming a mere cycle, now.

The mornings were becoming more and more difficult, with rheumatism and old age setting in. She would never have minded if she could have gotten just one good night's sleep, but the ghosts inside her home would not let her.

She would often wake in the night, sweating in the evening heat, yet shivering, and she did not know why. Then the wailings would begin: she heard them from outside the house, beside the well with the crimson water she never had the courage to drink; inside the old warehouse, spilling sacks and sacks of old rice onto the rotting floorboards; in one of the other rooms in the house, where she could hear them rattling the tables and chairs; and sometimes, they were right beside her, and she could feel their breath, cold upon her ear.

She could have left if she had anywhere else to go, but now that she was past forty and could no longer make a living out of her body, she had no choice but to stay. It belonged, once, to the family of a man who her sister had a child with—a foolish thing to do, for now that sister was dead, and of no use to anyone, especially to her.

So she had taken this home for herself, without asking. She deserved it, in any case, for all her sister's death had cost her—the burial expenses, the debts her sister had incurred during her pregnancy, and the compensation their employer demanded because of the loss of one of his best women.

They continue to haunt her, the people who once lived here, but she will never leave, never. She did not fear the dead.

It was raining hard now, drops running off in rivulets down her already wrinkling skin. She kept walking, her bare feet sinking down into the mud with every step. She carried a paper bag filled with vegetables in her hand, bought with money she found inside one of the drawers in her room.

She passed the old warehouse, and stopped, staring at the door. She heard steps from inside, wooden slippers hitting the floor, pacing, to and fro. The ghosts had come to haunt her again, but she bit her lip, so hard that they began to bleed, leaving a trail of red beneath her chin. She turned her back on the warehouse, refusing to give in to this haunting.

She heard the door of the warehouse open, creaking on its hinges, and still she did not look back. It was only when a voice spoke, Good evening, ma'am, clearly and audibly, that she dropped the paper bag in her hands, and shrieked with all the fear she had so labored to keep deep inside her.

"Forgive me, ma'am," said the specter, eyes widening," I really did not mean to frighten you."

She regained her composure, and reached to touch the specter on the cheek. It felt warm in her hand, real flesh and blood beneath its skin. "You're…you're not a ghost then?"

"I think so," said the specter, and it smiled—and she let out a sigh of relief at its smile, for she knew there was nothing to fear.

"I'm sorry." The young man before her—for it was only a young man, after all—was only a little bit taller than she was, with brown hair, and blue eyes which seemed to keep smiling, even when she had so shocked him with her reaction just seconds ago. "Can I help you, young man? Or maybe we should get inside the house first—wouldn't want to be out in this rain for too long, would we?" She picked up her bag from the ground, and the vegetables that had fallen out of it, and she led him inside the house.

She offered a chair to the young man and lit the lantern, and in its dim light she realized that his eyes reflected a certain sadness in them, despite his perpetual smile. She wondered, too late, if it was a good idea to invite this young man in—there had been talk of killings lately, murders of the unsuspecting.

"I really didn't mean to intrude," he said, looking up at her, and she looked away, cheeks flushing. "I didn't realize that someone already lived here. I'm really sorry for scaring you."

"It's really of no matter," she said, managing a smile. "You're not a thief or anything, are you?"

"No." The young man laughed softly, and shook his head. "Were you related to the ones who lived here before, then?"

She looked at him, blinking rapidly. "No—not really. My sister just knew them. How did you know about them?"

"The people from the village said they were murdered," said the young man, and somehow, she felt the room become a little colder, and the walls seemed to press down against her, trapping her within. "In a single night."

"They were rich," she said, sitting down on a chair across the young man, "Perhaps some man who wanted their money killed them for it. No one ever found out."

The young man shook his head. "But nothing else was taken. They just saw their bodies—right there, right outside this house—body parts everywhere, faces almost unrecognizable, blood mixing with the rain, forming puddles at their feet. Like a sea of blood, maybe, or a river."

"You speak as if you were there." She did not know why she was feeling afraid now, so she forced a laugh so the young man would not notice her agitation. "But you're too young, of course."

The young man continued smiling, and she looked away. She stood up, and grabbed a pot from beside the table, and some dried tea leaves. "I'll go fix you some tea. Is there anything else you would want?"

"That would be very nice," said the young man. "Thank you."

She filled the pot with water, and set it to boil by the fire. While she crushed the tea leaves with a pestle in a mortar, she kept glancing at the young man, who seemed to be looking around the room with an interest so keen it was almost suspicious.

"Did you know them when they were alive?" asked the young man, suddenly. "The people who lived here."

"No," she said, her eyes narrowing in memory. "But they weren't very well-liked—except for their father, or so I'm told. My sister loved him, as it goes, and was even foolish enough to bear him a child."

The young man stood up, then, and started towards her. She flinched, unconsciously, and held up a hand to protect herself, but why she suddenly feared this young man she could not explain. There were so many things she felt, these days, that she did not understand.

"I hear them sometimes," she blurted out. Maybe it was the terror, or the cold, but she felt the need to keep speaking. "The people who once lived here. They haunt me, each and every night—they terrify me, but I refuse to leave."

The young man stopped, and sat back down. She stared at him, her breath coming in gasps.

"Every night?" the young man said, and the smile on his face faded for a moment, but the next it was back on his face, all sun and cheer.

"Yes. But they are dead—they cannot hurt me."

They sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity, her heartbeat the only thing she could hear, and his breathing. She lifted the pot from the fire when she finished, sprinkled the ground tea leaves into it, and poured it into two cups from the table. She watched as he lifted the cup to his lips, and she paused for a moment before she did so.

And then, she heard a woman wail, softly at first, a mere whimper; growing louder until it became a shriek.

She put down her cup, spilling its contents onto the table. The young man looked at her, and she motioned outside, to the well beside the house.

"I hear them now," she said. "Right there."

She took his hand, and together they ran back in the rain, until they had reached the well. She looked down, shivering as she could hear a faint scurrying from beneath the darkness at the bottom of the well.

"There. Do you not hear them?"

"I cannot." Strangely, the young man's words carried a sadness beneath them, which did not match the smile on his face. The rain traced a narrow path down his cheek, like tears.

"Listen!"

"I still cannot hear them." The young man sighed. "These ghosts are lost, as it seems, at least to me. They did not even see me fit to be haunted."

"Why would you want them to haunt you?" she exclaimed. "It's horrible, so horrible!"

"Maybe if they did, I would feel a little bit of remorse," the young man said, "For what I have done to them."

She shivered, suddenly, and took a step back.

"I am not going to hurt you." The young man shook his head, but his smile cannot reassure her anymore.

"Why did you come here?" she whispered.

"I don't know." The young man looked at the evening sky, devoid of stars. "I ended up here, somehow. But I don't think I will find what I was looking for here."

He ran a hand over the gray stones of the well, and he looked down at the bottom of the well, then at the ground. "I used to cry a lot, back here, when no one can see me. But I cannot remember anymore why I did so—not exactly, at least." He laughed softly, again. "These memories, they're lost to me forever. I do remember that they were never really nice to me, though, and probably deserved their fate.

"They did," he murmured, smiling at her, "But still, it was wrong."

The young man began to walk away, and she watched his retreating back. She suddenly thought of her sister's eyes, blue, like this young man's—and the way she smiled, even when she was dying, the way this young man was still probably smiling right now, despite everything. It had been a long time since she had thought of her sister.

She started towards the young man, and stopped. She was afraid of him, and she did not fear the dead...what was there to think about? And, yet…

"Wait," she called out. She ran up to catch up with him, and held his shoulder. "You still did not finish your tea, young man. There is still more inside the house."

He turned back, and smiled back at her—and she let out a sigh of relief. Maybe this was a bad idea, but his smile, and her feelings, told him otherwise. There really was nothing to fear—not the dead, not this young man. Nothing.