Length/Rating: 1183 words, Gen
Pairings/Warnings: Death? Although that’s pretty much a built-in warning for this ‘verse.
Summary: It was a Listener’s job to put the dead to rest, no matter whose
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It was a Listener’s job to put the dead to rest, no matter whose dead they were.
“I’m so glad you’re home,” her mother said, meeting her at the gate to the farm, tired and still covered with mud from the barns. She wiped her hands against her pants and gave her daughter a tear-stained hug. “He won’t listen to me, I’ve tried everything. I can’t do this anymore– please.”
Pel’s been out on the trail for months hunting down a missing tinker, but she knows the bundle of bones murmuring quietly from its perch behind her saddle wasn’t the ghost her mother meant.
They talk of other things while Pel helps her mother put away the horse, bring in the traveling packs, and stoke the fire. It’s a normal homecoming, as much as it can be, until Pel runs out of things to do, save one.
The trees are slowly greening again, but the late snows have kept the grass in check and the paver stones are still peeking through the winter moss. Pel knows the way by heart, even in the dark, but this is the first time in years she’s come down to the graveyard alone.
Listeners are born, not made, and ever since Pel was a little girl she’d come down that rough stone path to listen to the dead. The gift doesn’t normally run in families, but she’d pulled the short straw and been born a Listener’s child.
Her father’s awake when she gets there, muttering to himself and pacing around the graveyard.
She’d known he’d be here, she’s known it since her mother’s letter a month ago, but it’s still a shock to see him. The limp is gone and he looks decades younger– but there’s no mistaking his silhouette among the stones.
“Pel!” He’s seen her now, too late to hide. Too late to sink back into her pretend world where the letter was just some big misunderstanding.
He was real here, as solid and present as he’d been in life and he scoops her up in a hug that makes her forget for a moment what she has to do.
“Ah, my little bird, I’m so glad you’re home.” He sets her down on a headstone and steps back to look at her, that same proud smile he always wears is no less dim or hesitant. “You found the tinker?”
She nods, finally able to find her voice. “Yeah, he wandered a lot farther into the woods than we thought, but he’s on his way home again.”
“And so are you!” He grins.
Except she wouldn’t have been, if she hadn’t gotten the letter. “Is that why you’re waiting?”
He didn’t lose his smile, not quite, but leaned back against his own gravestone with a sigh. “I don’t want to go,” he said after a moment. “She’ll be alone.”
“She’s alone now,” Pel drummed her heels against the rough old stone, feeling like she was a child again but also so very old. “She can’t hear you Dad, you know that.”
“But she can tell I’m here.”
“Yeah,” she stopped swinging her feet and hopped off the stone in a sharp unhappy motion. “Yeah, she can, and that’s why I’m home.” She looked up at him, frustrated and angry that he’d do this to her after he’d spent his whole life teaching her to play by the rules.
“Oh.” He looked lost. “I thought–“
“It’s not comforting, it’s creepy. You know that Dad– how many times have you said it to someone else?”
“I thought it would be different,” he said, the jovial confidence he’d always had stripped away. “She’s not like everyone else.”
“But she is.” Pel said. “She tried, because she loved you– loved us, but she can’t be what we are.”
“She really doesn’t want me here?” He looked up the hill to the house.
“She wants you safe.” Because not all Listeners held to the oaths he’d taught her and the restless dead made powerful pawns.
There was a long pause.
“I could go with you.” He said, not asking, just a bland statement of fact. He still hadn’t looked away from the house.
And that’s what she’d been dreading since she first realized she’d have to come home, because there was only one answer she could give.
Ghosts aren’t meant to linger, but some are stubborn enough to ensnare the memory of life. They haunt their resting places, clinging to the bones until they lose interest… or find a Listener.
Most of the dead can be coaxed into letting go, but some choose to travel with Listeners instead. In return for mobility the ghosts offer companionship on the long lonely roads, help lay less obstinate souls to rest, and lend Pel what sparse power they have left in the waking world.
A lifetime ago her grandmother had clung fast to the world and her orphaned son, becoming the first bones in an armband he’d woven over decades of service– but when Pel took over the mountain patrols after his accident her Father’s ghosts had chosen to leave with her.
He looked down at her armband with a tired sigh. “Dammit Mom.”
Pel could hear the rising murmur of her grandmother’s stubborn muttering from the bones. She was still too faint to make out the words, but they’d had this argument before, about legacies and living forever and just how far an oath should take you.
One parent in the armband was enough.
“So that’s it then,” he said after a moment. “Oh my little bird, I’m going to miss you,” and he swept her up in a one last bear hug– if there was crying they were both too proud to mention it.
“Tell your mom I’m sorry,” he said once they were done. “I really thought–“
“She knows that,” Pel said, wiping her eyes on her sleeve and smiling, because her dad had always been an expert at turning good intentions into burnt pies and ruined carpets. “But I’ll tell her anyway.”
“See you later,” and there was his smile again, bright as the sun for one last moment, then he was gone.
Pel stared at his headstone for a few more minutes and then turned back towards the house, running her fingers over her armband and the interwoven bones.
Her grandmother’s muttering was still there, along with the twin’s singsong chatter and Ti’s bright cheerfulness. For a moment Pel wondered what it would have been like to have her Dad there too.
And oh does her grandmother have some choice words about that.
It’s a familiar rant, comfortingly so, and Pel mouths along with the ‘In my day’s and ‘I would never‘s. The ghost of a grin creeping through the tears as she heads back up the hill to home.