It's been five months since Kenshin and Tomoe escaped the chaos of Kyoto for the safety of Otsu, but Kenshin has found they can't escape the war.

There are quotes from the manga in this chapter, all from the wonderful translations of Maigo-chan (all hail Maigo-chan!); there are also quotes from the OAV. To all those who only know the OAV version of this story and not the manga, please note that this epilogue follows the manga version, and that is significantly different from what happens in the OAV (but you'll love my story anyway, I hope!).

For the final time I bow and scrape to our hero, Watsuki Nobuhiro, who created and owns the wonderful characters of Rurouni Kenshin. I do not bow and scrape to Sony, though I will to Jump Comics (for being smart enough to publish RK!); they hold the copyrights (and I, needless to say, don't make a dime off this story!).

Descent into Madness

Epilogue

Yoshida had been on the road for two days, and he was dog-tired. There wasn't much that could convince him to leave his new wife Eiko on short notice and travel through the cold and snow, but the message he received two mornings ago by carrier pigeon had done it. It was short and to the point:

"Himura attacked, gravely wounded; wife dead. Go to Otsu, find him. Will meet you when traitor dealt with.—Katsura."

Yoshida knew, of course, all about what had been going on with his young friend Himura. The two had exchanged a few letters over the past year, ever since Yoshida had become head of the Ishin Shishi waystation in the mountains. It was the job he had taken after his own grievous battle injury the previous winter, when it became clear he could not return to Kyoto as a fighter. As various men passed through on their way from Kyoto to Chousu, they would, of course, give Yoshida all the news.

That was how he had heard about the woman Kenshin brought back to the inn, and when he heard that the two seemed to take a liking to each other, he had let out a sigh of relief. Kenshin was only a boy, after all, but he had been saddled with a job that had made grown men go insane. So, it had been comforting to know that someone was there now to keep that from happening. And when he heard that Katsura had sent the two into hiding together, he knew that with luck, Kenshin might find the same kind of happiness he had found with Eiko.

Then had come the news. An attack on Himura? Himura gravely wounded? He couldn't imagine any human fast enough to touch Kenshin, let alone gravely injure him. And Himura's wife dead? What had happened? His own wife knew all about Kenshin, of course—well, not quite all about him, for Yoshida never would divulge even to her that his friend was the feared Hitokiri Battousai. When the message came, she immediately set up a small memorial shrine for the wife of her husband's friend. Eiko's father, the village doctor, even lent Yoshida his fastest horse and put together a satchel full of medicines and salves to take, along with detailed instructions on how to use each one.

Luckily, winter hadn't been too harsh up in the mountains and the passes were still open, so Yoshida had managed to make it down to the valley without much trouble. Now that he was nearing Lake Biwa and the Otsu vicinity, however, the snow was getting very deep. He had lived near Lake Biwa shortly before joining the Ishin Shishi in Kyoto, and he remembered the short but fierce snow squalls that would dump inches and inches of snow in a matter of hours, only to melt away in a day or two. That, he guessed, was what must have happened here, and he and his horse were not happy about it.

It was nearly nightfall of the second day by the time he finally reached the town. He took out the little map Katsura had drawn on the back of the note and followed it to a tiny farmhouse several miles out in the countryside. A flag warning of the dead fluttered from the gatepost; a small box of salt to prevent defilement by contact with the dead sat nearby. He flicked some salt over his shoulder, rang the small bell at the gate to alert the house of his presence, and went up the path, fearing what he might find. A farmer met him at the door, clearly relieved to see someone not from the village.

"You come for the boy?" the farmer asked gruffly after the customary bow.

"Yes," Yoshida answered. "Is he…."

"He's still breathing, if that's what you want to know," the farmer interrupted. He was clearly antsy, anxious to be away from this place.

Yoshida walked in and caught his breath. There was Kenshin lying on a futon, pale as death but clearly racked with fever. He raced over and felt Kenshin's forehead, which was covered in sweat. Then he lifted the blanket and gasped when he saw the dirty and bloody bandages covering his body.

"What happened to him?" Yoshida practically shouted. "Didn't you get a doctor to help?"

"No doctor for miles around here," the farmer replied testily. "It's an old man down in Otsu—wouldn't come out in the snow. This boy here, he's the medicine seller—closest thing we have to a doctor." He shrugged as if to say that explained everything.

Yoshida pushed past the man as he ran out to his horse to gather up the satchel of medicines and bandages, then dragged the man over to Kenshin's bed to help change the dressings. The farmer looked desperate to get away.

"What's your problem, man?" Yoshida yelled. "He'll die if we don't do something quick!"

The farmer shuddered, then shrank back. "Kenkaku-sama, we're simple folk here. He might die, then I'd be tainted twice, and…."

Now Yoshida understood. The warning flag, the salt—these people were more Shinto than Buddhist. The man presumably felt defiled already from having dealt with the body of Kenshin's dead wife and would be forbidden contact with his family for at least a week. If Kenshin were to die, especially while the man was touching him, it would be for even longer.

"I'm sorry," Yoshida said quietly. "I didn't realize. His wife…?"

"Out back," the farmer said, clearly relieved to see that the stranger understood his predicament. "I wrapped her up and packed her in snow. I'm the one who found them."

"Found them? Where were they?" Yoshida asked as he started cutting off the first bloody bandage. He was relieved to see there was no infection.

"It was three days ago," the farmer explained as he moved farther away from Kenshin. "It was snowing real heavy, and it was real quiet, like it gets when it snows heavy, but then we heard this kind of explosion. My wife and I, we didn't know what to think, but it was close by. Then we heard a second explosion. When the snow let up some, I went out to see what happened. I found footprints, then lots of blood, like some kind of fight happened, and a bit further on I found the medicine seller here with his wife in the snow. She was dead—huge gash down her front. He was all bloody, too, with horrible wounds all over. I think he was trying to carry her back here. I followed the trail of blood a bit further—looked like they went to that little shrine out in the forest. Buckets of blood there, just buckets! And a dead soldier. Why they went there in a heavy snowstorm I don't know. Maybe that soldier was some deserter or bandit or something. Looks to me like they was attacked. Didn't care much about the soldier, I left him there, but these two—they was our neighbors! So I ran and got some friends to help bring them back to the house here. I carried the woman back 'cause I was already tainted, see, so I ended up staying here with him, in case he died, too…."

Kenshin was stirring, tossing and turning his head and crying out. Yoshida fished around in his satchel until he found a small bottle of sake. He managed to get some down Kenshin's throat, which seemed to settle him somewhat.

"So how did you know where to find us?" Yoshida managed to ask as he put a cold compress on Kenshin's forehead.

"Well, we didn't know what to do, really," the farmer said. "They was real quiet-like, no family around here or nothing, so we went to the owner of the house, down in Otsu—nice fellow. He said he'd take care of it, and now you showed up!" The farmer smiled broadly at that.

Now Yoshida understood what happened. Katsura had said something about a traitor in his note; this soldier must have been sent to kill Kenshin. But why was the woman there with him? The fact that this was an Ishin Shishi safe house meant the landlord in Otsu was Ishin Shishi as well and knew to contact Katsura. And Katsura knew about Yoshida's friendship with Kenshin because Yoshida had asked him to carry a letter to Kenshin the previous year. Yes, he was glad Katsura had thought to send him on this trip.

As he finished changing Kenshin's bandages, Yoshida said, "Tokunouka-san, I can never repay you for the kindness you have shown in taking care of my…brother…and his wife."

The man beamed.

"I'm sure he would have died without you, and for you to be so thoughtful about taking care of his wife's body…" —Yoshida had to struggle to maintain his composure. "If there is anything I can do in return…."

"No, no," the man said, "it was what had to be done. They was good folk, kind to us, and our children enjoyed coming here to play…."

"Play?"

"Seems your brother there taught them games—hide and seek in the woods, dueling tops, that kind of thing—they thought he was the best," he said. "Wife didn't talk much, they say, but she gave them treats." He looked wistfully at Kenshin, then at the yard. "Ain't got no priests around here for rites, 'ya know."

"That's okay, someone will be joining me here shortly," Yoshida said. "Why don't you go on home now, get the defilement period over with as quick as possible."

The man bowed low, obviously relieved to be sent on his way. "I'll have the wife leave some food for you at the gate every day," the farmer said as he backed out the doorway. "She'll ring the bell so you'll know it's there." Then, with another flurry of deep bows, he was gone.

Now Yoshida had a chance to assess Kenshin's condition. It was clear he had lost a lot of blood just from the two deep wounds to each shoulder. One of them looked like it had been made by an animal's claws, but the farmer hadn't mentioned anything about animals. There was also a severe gash on his neck, not to mention dried blood in his ear canals and a black eye. His stomach and abdomen, although not wounded externally, showed signs of severe bruising, and when he pushed there, Kenshin cried out in pain.

Then there was the new gash on his left cheek, joining an older gash he had heard about last spring. It had been the talk of all the men passing through the waystation that someone had actually been able to touch the Hitokiri Battousai with a sword, though Kenshin himself never mentioned it in a letter. How odd that this new cut crossed exactly over the older one, almost like a perfect 'X.' No matter—it wasn't a life-threatening injury. He guessed that if it hadn't been for the cold and the snow where he fell, Kenshin probably would have bled to death from his other, more serious wounds. As it was, the snow had probably helped ward off infection, for surprisingly, the wounds seemed fairly clean. He concluded that the fever was probably due to the loss of blood and that Kenshin would most likely recover.

If only he could keep him calm! but Kenshin seemed to be delirious. The little bit of sake he had managed to get down Kenshin's throat hadn't lasted long, and now Kenshin was once again thrashing and crying out. His nightmares, it seemed, were as bad as ever. Yoshida rummaged once again in the satchel until he found something marked "sedative." He mixed it up with water and sent it down Kenshin's throat, then held him down until it took effect. Only then did Yoshida dare to look out in the yard.

The body was behind the house, in a mound the farmer had constructed from the snow. Being a soldier, he had, of course, seen many dead bodies in his day, but still he instinctively recoiled at the idea of viewing this corpse. He had no idea what Kenshin's wife looked like, had no idea what to be prepared for, so that when he did look, it took his breath away. She was beautiful, with small, delicate features. Considering how she died, she seemed to have a peaceful, even contented look on her face, which surprised him. The blow that had killed her was deep—it must have severed her aorta, he concluded—and it had been no accident. That was a blow meant to kill. But what of those explosions? And considering Kenshin's godlike prowess with a sword, how could just one man, or even several men, for that matter, have done this? Only Kenshin could answer that, he figured, so he'd just have to wait.

He went back inside and now looked around the small house. There was a good store of vegetables and cured meat put away to tide the couple through the winter, Kenshin's chest of medicines to sell, an extra set of clothing for him and, in a small box, his Chousu-blue gi and gray hakama. There was also a small, neatly folded pile of her belongings. Her—Yoshida realized he didn't even know her name. A futon lay untouched from when its occupant had gotten up that fateful morning, and nearby was a small black book that had apparently been thrown hastily to the floor. He glanced at it, saw that it was some kind of diary, and then put it on the little writing desk in the corner. It was all so sad. It made him long for the company of his Eiko.

After bedding his horse down for the night, Yoshida went back to the house to see what he could possibly make that Kenshin could eat in his weakened state. As luck would have it, the farmer had left some tofu. Perfect! He took the tofu and some soy sauce and started grinding them together. It was not the tastiest concoction, as he vividly remembered from being force-fed this very mixture last year as he recovered from his own nearly fatal wounds. "Tofu for strength, soy sauce for salt!" they kept telling him over and over until he felt like jumping up and belting them in the mouth to shut them up. Well, it had worked for him, it would work for Kenshin. He put a bowlful near Kenshin's futon for ready use as soon as Kenshin woke up. Then he laid out his travel bedroll and prepared to turn in. It was late by now, and he was more than ready for sleep. He supposed he could have used the futon he saw earlier, but he just didn't feel right about that. What if it had been the one she had used? He didn't consider himself a particularly superstitious man, but sleeping in the bed of a dead woman? No, his bedroll would do just fine.

He was awakened sometime after dawn by low moans. The sedative was wearing off, and Kenshin was starting to wake up. Yoshida quickly got up and lit the fire, then set a pot of water over it for tea. Then he went over to Kenshin and felt his forehead. Good—the fever had gone down a bit. He put on a fresh cold compress and said, "Himura? Wake up. It's me, Yoshida. Remember me?"

Kenshin slowly opened his eyes, clearly working hard to focus. He looked at Yoshida, but Yoshida could tell it wasn't registering. Suddenly, Kenshin let out what sounded like a battle cry as he tried to break loose from Yoshida's grip.

"Calm down, kid, calm down!" Yoshida shouted. He pinned Kenshin down as best he could without hurting his injuries.

Now Kenshin looked again. He had been dreaming. No, dreaming wasn't the right word—he had been in the midst of the longest nightmare he had ever endured. In the nightmare, he was hungry, thirsty, burning hot, and in unbelievable pain, yet he knew he had to go on. Tomoe was in danger, but as soon as he would find her, there would be explosions, a battle, a spray of red; then she would disappear. The nightmare seemed to be on a continuous, never-ending loop. He was so tired of it, he was in such pain…. All he wanted to do was die, but somehow he knew that Tomoe had told him he had to live, and so the nightmare continued on and on.

Until now. Somehow, in the midst of this recurring horror, he heard someone call his name. It was a man. Why wasn't Tomoe calling his name, he wondered in his dream? Then something cold and wet was on his forehead—blessed relief from the burning heat he had been feeling. Now someone was touching his neck and shoulder—searing pain! Attack! Someone was attacking him, wounding him! With all the strength of will he could muster, he forced his eyes to open. A man trying to hold him down! Where was Tomoe! Then a voice seemed to float into his consciousness.

"…It's me, Yoshida! Your old buddy! Yoshida!"

Yoshida? Kenshin remembered that name. His friend, his one and only friend who stuck by him until a serious battle injury had prevented him from returning to Kyoto. But where was Tomoe? Slowly, slowly he started remembering the answer to that question. The snow, the explosions, the battle, Tomoe—she was dead. His eyes flew open as he tried desperately to focus on the man talking to him. Yoshida? Yes, it was him! Kenshin started crying as recognition set in. He had to tell him, had to confess what had happened….

"I killed her, Yoshida," Kenshin sobbed, "I killed her…."

"No, no—it was a soldier," Yoshida said gently, but Kenshin shook his head and squeezed weakly on Yoshida's arm to stop him.

"No," he sobbed again, "I killed her!"

The anguish in Kenshin's voice was heartbreaking. Yoshida stroked Kenshin's head as he would a child as he tried to calm him down. Then he reached over to the bowl of tofu and soy sauce and said, "Here, eat some of this."

He lifted Kenshin's head just enough for him to swallow and forced a spoonful of the watery concoction down his throat. Kenshin grimaced and tried to turn his head away.

"Tofu for strength, soy sauce for salt," Yoshida said as he forced a second spoonful into Kenshin's mouth. Never in a million years did he ever think he would hear himself say those blasted words to anyone! He chuckled briefly at the thought.

Kenshin was now quietly weeping but otherwise calm, so Yoshida went to brew some medicinal tea, following the directions his father-in-law had given him. He cooled it down to lukewarm, then made Kenshin drink it. The taste must have been awful, for despite his condition, Kenshin nearly spit it out. Yoshida was insistent, however, and made him drink the whole thing.

Suddenly, Kenshin tried to sit up, and he started looking wildly around the room. "Her book!" he cried out. "Where's her book?" Yoshida had to restrain him once again.

"You mean that thing over there?" Yoshida hurriedly reached for the little black book and gave it to Kenshin, who grabbed it from his hands and hugged it to himself. Just holding it seemed to calm him. Yoshida sat next to him a little longer until he was sure Kenshin would remain calm, then he went to fix himself some breakfast.

When he finished eating, he saw that Kenshin was sleeping once again. What was it about that book that had been so important to him, Yoshida wondered? He knew he probably shouldn't do it, but he carefully pulled the little book from Kenshin's hands and opened it, this time reading what was inside. It was a diary, all right, the diary of Kenshin's wife. "Yukishiro Tomoe," it said on the inside front cover. So, her name was Tomoe.

He started reading, and as he did, he found his stomach tying itself in knots. This woman—she had been the traitor! She had come to Kyoto to avenge her dead fiancJ , who had been killed by his friend Himura! No, he thought, not by Himura—by the Hitokiri Battousai, and that was an entirely different matter altogether. But as he read, he realized he was wrong about her, for he saw that this woman, Tomoe, had come to see what he himself had known all along—that Kenshin was a good person who really didn't want to kill. She had come to love him and at the end was ready to lay down her own life to save him. How much of this did Kenshin know, he wondered? He carefully placed the book back in Kenshin's hands.

Kenshin didn't sleep long, soYoshida managed to feed him more of the tofu concoction, and by midday he could tell that Kenshin had turned a corner. He had a feeling the farmer hadn't really fed him—or perhaps he had tried but was scared away by Kenshin's forceful thrashing—for it was clear that just by eating the tofu and drinking the medicinal teas Yoshida fixed that Kenshin was regaining his strength. It was time, he decided, to talk. So, as he started changing some of the bandages, he said, "Can you tell me what happened?"

Kenshin closed his eyes. How to explain? Their flight together to Otsu, then learning to live together, learning to love one another, his promise to protect her…. He looked over to the cooking area, remembering everything.

"We were sitting over there, the night before…," Kenshin began. He could see it all as if it were happening as he spoke. "We were talking about our pasts. She had a fiancJ once, but he was killed in Kyoto…."

'So, he doesn't know,' Yoshida thought.

"…I told her I'd protect her, I'd protect her happiness…." Kenshin stopped as he squeezed his eyes shut. "That's when… it was the first time we…." He couldn't finish.

"What happened then?" Yoshida prompted gently as he continued to change the bandages.

A hardness seemed to creep into Kenshin's eyes, which were now staring straight at the shoji. "When I woke up the next morning, she was gone," he continued. "I looked outside for her and saw her footsteps in the snow. I didn't know where she went or why, but I sensed that the answer might be in her book, her diary." He stopped and looked at Yoshida as he said, "Women do have a ki, you know."

"Never knew that," Yoshida replied, somewhat confused as to why Kenshin thought to mention it.

"I was just about to open her diary when a note was shoved under the shoji. I grabbed it and looked outside to see who had brought it. I couldn't tell because it was snowing so heavily, but I could have sworn it was that boy, Tomoe's brother. He found us the day before, you know—he came to visit."

"What? But I thought no one knew where you were!"

Kenshin sighed deeply. "I don't know, but I knew when he came that we probably didn't have much time left at this house." He stopped again, then said, "We were so happy here…."

"You don't have to go on if you don't want to," Yoshida said.

"No—I need to tell you everything," Kenshin said with a sudden burst of determination. "The note wasn't signed, but it said they had Tomoe and that they'd kill her if I didn't meet them at the little shrine in the forest."

There now followed a story of two ambushes in a forest of barriers—a forest in which a magnetic field prevented one from sensing ki, as one of the ambushers had told him boastfully. Without his ability to sense ki, the attackers had been able to seriously wound him, even though he was ultimately victorious. But there were also two explosions, one that robbed his sense of hearing and one that nearly took away his ability to see. It was after the second ambush and second explosion that Kenshin came upon the third and final attacker.

"It was a soldier," Kenshin said in a grim voice. "I told him I was there to take Tomoe back. I couldn't sense ki, I couldn't see well, but I knew she was in the shrine at the end of the path. He was strong, a master of his style. I was so weak, I had lost so much blood, I couldn't withstand his attacks…. I knew I was going to die, but I knew that if I could just concentrate my strength on one last attack, maybe I could kill him even as he killed me—at least then I would save Tomoe! And that's what I did—I prepared myself for a final attack. I closed my eyes, focused what strength I had left into this one final blow… then I swung."

Suddenly, Kenshin stopped. An ominous silence descended punctuated only by a deep, shuddering sigh.

"I felt my sword connect," Kenshin said softly. "I thought at least I got him, but when I opened my eyes, Tomoe was there…." He shuddered again. "Tomoe was standing between us…." He started crying. "While my eyes were closed, she must have seen us and run out. She was trying to kill the soldier with her tanto—trying to save me!—but I couldn't stop my swing in time! I killed him, but I killed her, too. Her blade hit my cheek as she fell back into my arms…."

The second slash of the 'X!' Yoshida thought.

Now Kenshin put his head in his hands and started crying uncontrollably.

"It wasn't your fault," Yoshida said softly, "it was an accident."

Kenshin shook his head and took a deep breath. "I held her as she died," he continued, his voice growing stronger. "She told me not to cry, that I needed to live, but it shouldn't have been her, it should have been me!" He lifted his head and yelled at the heavens, "I was the killer! I was the one who should have died!" He sobbed again. Then he turned to Yoshida and said, "I loved her."

"I know," Yoshida said. He stopped, wondering if he should admit to what he had done. Then he said, "I probably shouldn't have, but I had to know why that little book was so important to you. While you were sleeping last night, I read it. You need to read it, too."

He heard the little bell go off at the farmhouse gate, so he stood to go out. He put the book back into Kenshin's hands and watched as Kenshin opened the diary and started to read. Then he went out to the gate.

It was the farmer's wife who had rung the bell. She had left two big baskets of food and some silage for his horse to eat. When he reentered the house, he saw that Kenshin was still reading, so he started unpacking the baskets. In one of them was a note from the landlord. "A priest will arrive today to take care of the funeral rites," it said, "Everything is taken care of."

Funeral rites! Yoshida had been so preoccupied with Kenshin and his injuries that he hadn't given any thought to that! This was going to be a difficult topic to bring up, he knew, but it had to be done. He waited until he saw that Kenshin had closed the book.

"Himura?" Yoshida said carefully.

Kenshin didn't answer for several seconds. Then he looked up and said quietly, "You read the diary, so you know—she came to Kyoto to kill me."

Yoshida nodded.

"What you don't know is that it was her fiancJ who gave me the cut on my cheek."

"What? That was her fiancJ ?!"

"I remember it now—he was a bodyguard for a Kyoto judge," Kenshin continued. "Before I killed him, I heard him talking about how he was about to get married. He had such a strong will to live, I remember being annoyed that he wouldn't just hurry up and die. I had such nightmares after I killed that man…. When he died, he murmured a woman's name. I realize now that he said 'Tomoe.' Her tanto cut me right where his did. I guess now they're finally joined…."

Kenshin squeezed his eyes shut as he put his hand to his cheek. Then he said, "I never knew any of this. All I knew was that somehow she…" —he struggled to find the words— "…she brought me back to life. I was losing myself, and she brought me back…. She came wanting to kill me, but something happened—I don't know what—that made her care about me, made her… love me."

Yoshida watched as Kenshin closed his eyes once more, tears trailing down his cheeks. He waited until Kenshin had calmed down, then decided he'd better discuss what needed to be done.

"Himura," he said cautiously, "we need to discuss Tomoe-san's funeral…."

Kenshin's head shot up. "Her funeral? She's here? Where is she!"

"Outside, packed in snow," Yoshida said. "Your neighbor, the farmer, brought her back and wrapped her up…."

"Please!" Kenshin said as he tried to stand, "I need to see her!"

It was against his better judgment, but Yoshida helped Kenshin to his feet and helped him walk outside. He turned back the wrap that was covering Tomoe so that Kenshin could see. Kenshin just stared quietly, then took a deep breath and turned to go. "Thank you," he whispered as they walked back inside.

The priest arrived shortly before noon and ordered them out of the house while he prepared the body. Kenshin felt like his own body weighed a ton, and his legs felt like jelly, but still he insisted on walking around outside, so Yoshida took him to the shed to see his horse and just to chat. He told Kenshin about Eiko, about the comings and goings at the waystation, anything to take Kenshin's mind off what had happened. Finally, after nearly an hour, the priest signaled for them to return. He had laid Tomoe on the spare futon and had dressed her in her sleeping yukata. It was appropriate, Yoshida thought, for she now looked like she was, indeed, sleeping, with her hair brushed and placed neatly around her face.

Kenshin knelt next to the futon with his head to the floor. He could barely come to grips with it. She was dead. The woman who had brought him back from the brink of madness was dead. A chance encounter had brought her into his life, but that one chance encounter had changed his life forever. It was Tomoe who had made him question what he was doing, who had made him realize the depths to which he had sunk, who had become his spark of hope in the darkness of his world. When they moved to Otsu, it was Tomoe who had taught him what most people took for granted, but that he himself had never really experienced—the happiness of knowing that someone loved him, that someone would be there to come home to, that someone would help him in bad times as well as good. And now she was gone, killed by his own hand. The pain in his heart was unbearable.

The priest started lighting incense at Tomoe's feet as he announced, "We cremate tonight." He produced an urn decorated with white plum blossoms from his bag of funeral objects and placed it near the incense. Kenshin stared at it for several moments. Then he said, "How did you know?"

"Your landlord was very particular about that," the priest grumbled. "It was white plum blossoms or I'd be in trouble! In a small town like Otsu, that's not so easy, you know." He stood and opened the shoji. "I'll just go out for awhile, let the neighbors know, leave you with your wife." Then he was gone.

Now Kenshin reached over to where the priest had placed Tomoe's belongings. He carefully took her blue shawl and put it around his shoulders, lifting one edge to his nose in an attempt to smell her scent one more time. He remembered that day last spring when she had tried to place it around him while he slept. He almost killed her that day, he was so startled. Hadn't he said then that he could never kill her? It was all too much for him. He was so tired now… He quietly walked over to his futon, wrapped himself in the shawl, and fell asleep.

As he slept, Yoshida stared at his scarred cheek. What was it the Buddhists said about karma—that your karma was determined by how you lived your previous lives? What kind of karma was it that led Kenshin to be scarred not just by Tomoe's blade, but also her fiancJ 's blade, and at exactly the same spot? What kind of karma was it that led Tomoe to Kyoto for revenge but then led her to fall in love with her fiancJ 's killer? How would a 15-year-old ever make any sense out of this? Hell, it was more than he could figure out, and he was 23!

The bell at the gate rang again close to dinnertime, announcing the return of the priest. Kenshin was surprised to see that he was accompanied by a small crowd of men. It had never occurred to him that any of his neighbors would care, but there was the farmer who had brought him back, the old man who had been so grateful for his stomach medicines, the man who had been so happy with his salve for healing cuts, and several others. They all came up to him to express their sorrow at his loss, and they all insisted on helping Yoshida and the priest make a pyre for the cremation.

Kenshin now realized that these would be his last moments with Tomoe. He sat staring at her, memorizing every detail of her face, remembering the sound of her voice and the soft touch of her hand. They were all gone now, gone forever. He didn't know how he would be able to keep on living.

"Oh, Tomoe," Kenshin moaned softly, "I've lost you! Now I know how much you suffered—it must have been so hard for you. You should have hated me, but you protected me instead." He heaved a huge sigh. "At least now you're free from your pain, you won't suffer anymore…."

He touched her cold face, wishing with all his being that somehow just his touch could bring the warmth of life back to her body.

"I've lived such a hard life," he said to her as if she could hear him. "How could I know what happiness meant to people if I never experienced it myself? But you taught me that—you taught me what happiness really is! And now you're gone… my happiness is gone…."

He broke down in tears, his whole body shaking with each cry. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Yoshida. He knew what that meant—they were waiting for him outside.

"Tomoe," he whispered, his heart breaking, "the time has come—I must leave you now." He bent forward to press a last kiss to her cheek. Then he reluctantly stood, took a last long look at her, and joined the others outside.

Now a last mourner arrived, a samurai. It was the owner of the house. As the villagers all bowed low, he took Kenshin and Yoshida aside and said, "Your friend has arranged for burial in Kyoto. He expects to arrive within the next few days and asks that you wait for him." Kenshin and Yoshida knew he referred to Katsura, and they nodded their acknowledgement.

Now Yoshida helped the priest carry Tomoe's body outside, and the priest started the cremation ceremony. Kenshin could barely stand to look as a large, white column of smoke rose to the sky. Then it was over, and the priest placed the ashes in the urn and handed it to Kenshin. He felt like he was in a bad dream—this wasn't real, he would wake up, he would be holding Tomoe in his arms, not this urn! But as he turned to walk back to the house, he knew it was no dream. Now he would have to learn to live with the emptiness.

The next morning Yoshida was awakened by the sound of wood being chopped. Kenshin? How could he chop wood so soon after badly injuring his shoulders! But there he was, chopping away. The ax swung slowly, and there wasn't the expected power behind the swings, but he was chopping wood nonetheless.

"Here, Himura, let me do that!" Yoshida said as he rushed out into the cold. When Kenshin showed no inclination to stop, Yoshida added, "You're a better cook than I am—you fix breakfast, I'll do this!"

Kenshin gave a weak smile. He knew Yoshida was right—he was a better cook—so he handed over the ax. Now he saw the extent of Yoshida's own injury from the previous year—Yoshida could barely raise his left arm above shoulder height, though he could still swing an ax with some power. It was true, then—Yoshida's days as a fighter were over. Kenshin went on inside and did as his friend asked.

The meal was taken in silence, grief hanging over the two of them like a cloud. As they finished, it was Kenshin who finally spoke.

"You know," he said quietly, "when Katsura asked me to deliver heaven's justice to the enemies of the Ishin Shishi, he warned me that killing a man was the hardest thing a man could do, and he was right, but not entirely. Even harder is knowing that bringing death to someone, even an enemy, also brings unbearable grief to others. I've known that almost from the beginning. I've tried to ignore it, but I can't anymore, for now it's touched me as well…."

A heavy silence descended once again as Kenshin stared at his hands.

"That night before I… before Tomoe died," he continued, "I promised Tomoe that once the war was over, I'd never kill again. I meant it."

"What will you do, then?" Yoshida asked.

"I don't know," Kenshin said. "The war's not over, is it. I already have so much blood on my hands from this war…. I guess I talk to Katsura when he comes."

Now Kenshin started regaining his strength, and as the days passed, he progressed not only to chopping wood and bringing in water, but also to practicing at least the beginning kata of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu. Yoshida tried his best to take Kenshin's mind off his grief, even to the point of showing how he had almost learned Kenshin's technique for predicting dice. "I had a lot of time on my hands to practice while I was recuperating last year," Yoshida explained, but he still lost every time to Kenshin, which elicited at least a weak smile and chuckle from him.

It was at the end of the second week that Katsura finally arrived. Yoshida met him at the gate and filled him in on Kenshin's condition.

"Katsura-san, please, whatever you do, don't send him back to being a hitokiri!" Yoshida pleaded when he had finished cataloging Kenshin's injuries and recovery. He proceeded to tell Katsura the whole story of Tomoe, her fiancJ , and her final sacrifice out of love for Kenshin. Katsura seemed shaken by the account.

"Takasugi warned me about this," Katsura said, "but I didn't listen." His shoulders seemed to slump as if the weight of the world were upon them "He told me it would ruin the boy's life to make him a hitokiri. I guess he was more right than he knew. Now I'm responsible for Tomoe's death as well." Then he suddenly straightened up. "Well, no sense putting this off…." and he proceeded to the house.

Kenshin was standing in the doorway waiting for him. He bowed low, saying, "Katsura-san."

Katsura bowed back. "I'm glad to see you're well and that you've recovered."

"Katsura-san," Kenshin began, "Tomoe…."

"You don't have to tell me," Katsura said. "I've heard all about it, and I've sent someone to deal with the traitor who betrayed you. It was Iizuka, you know."

"Iizuka?" Kenshin snorted.

"What, you don't believe it?" Katsura asked.

"No, I should have guessed," Kenshin said. "He told me once that he'd make sure he was on the winning side. After our defeat at the Imperial Palace last summer, I guess he decided our side wasn't it."

If Katsura was surprised by this information, he didn't show it. "Well, nevetheless, I've sent a fellow named Shishio Makoto to take care of him."

As he spoke the words, Katsura realized he had come to a decision—he would no longer burden Kenshin with the hardship of being a hitokiri.

"He's a dangerous man," Katsura continued, "but his skills are on a par with yours. I've decided he will take care of assassinations from now on."

"So, I'm being fired?" Kenshin asked. He didn't know whether to feel elated or insulted.

Katsura was startled by his assumption. "No, no, not at all! Himura, I almost hesitate to ask at a time like this, but you must continue to wield your sword for us! The patriot-hunting in the capital has grown worse. If no one stands up to them, total destruction is inevitable! Himura, we need you to protect the Ishin Shishi as a mobile attacker. It's cruel of me to ask you, but there is no one else I can think of, no one else with your skill. Can you do that? Can you once again wield the sword that soars to the heavens?"

Kenshin remained silent. No longer a hitokiri! But still he was needed to kill. He had made a promise to Tomoe, but the war was still going on….

The silence was interrupted suddenly by the sounds of Yoshida yelling and children running up the path to the house. Kenshin realized he hadn't seen the children in a long time—the defilement period must be over, he thought absently.

"Katsura-san," he finally said, "I understand. If I abandon the sword now, all the lives I've taken will be for nothing. Tomoe taught me the many small happinesses people live for. Until there can be an age lit up by these small happinesses, I will wield my sword. But when the new age comes…."

"You'll throw away your sword?" Katsura asked.

"I don't know," Kenshin answered truthfully, "but I know I'll never kill again. Never again!"

Katsura watched as Kenshin now went out to join the children. It looked like they were used to coming over to play and were disappointed that he wouldn't play with them now. 'Takasugi was right,' he realized. 'He really was just a boy, and I've deprived him of his innocence.'

It was time to go, but before he did, he needed to take care of one last chore. He gently pulled Kenshin away from the children and said, "Himura, I've arranged for Tomoe to be buried at the monastery you took the Kaminaga family to last year. If you'd like, I can take care of that now…."

Kenshin thought back to that day—it seemed so long ago. He had saved a woman and her two small children from assassination; the monk there, Toshiro, had been so kind to him. He looked up and said, "Yes, I would appreciate that very much."

He took Katsura back inside and slowly handed him the urn. "And thank you, Katsura-san, for taking care of everything."

Katsura took the urn, made his farewells, then headed down the road back to Kyoto.

"He took the urn?" Yoshida asked as he returned to the house.

"He's arranged for her burial," Kenshin said, "and I'm no longer to be a hitokiri."

"Then what will you do?" Yoshida asked, relieved to hear the news.

"Until the war is over, I will remain a fighter for the Ishin Shishi," Kenshin said, "but after that, I plan never to kill again." Then he went back outside to play with the children one last time.

The following day saw Kenshin and Yoshida leave the small farmhouse, both mounted on Yoshida's horse. It had been such a happy five months, Kenshin thought as they rode away; he wondered if he would ever have such happiness again. He doubted it. The gods had once again had their fun with him. They had allowed him to taste peace and contentment, only to shatter it all in the cruelest way. What else could a killer expect, he thought bitterly.

Towards the end of the day, they reached the crossroads where Yoshida's road to the mountains split from Kenshin's road to Kyoto. As he helped Kenshin down from the horse, Yoshida handed him an envelope—a souvenir, he told Kenshin. The two embraced, then parted ways. When Kenshin stopped a little later to rest, he took the envelope out and opened it. Inside was one of Yoshida's pictures, of dark clouds with a sun breaking through, but it wasn't just a sun—it had a face that looked like Tomoe. Below it he had written:

"When things are darkest,

Know that she'll shine through the clouds.

Her love will not die."

Kenshin choked back his tears, then slipped it into his sleeve pocket, right next to Tomoe's diary. Then he continued the walk back to Kyoto.

The End

_________________________________________________

Japanese Terms:

Kenkaku-sama: Lord Swordsman. The farmer is being overly polite by using '–sama' instead of the more usual '-san.'

Tokunouka: outstanding farmer. Yoshida is repaying the compliment.

Ishin Shishi: nickname for the anti-Shogunate rebels.

Tanto: short dagger.

Kata: prescribed moves for practicing a martial art.

Takasugi: Takasugi Shinsaku was the Chousu samurai who created a private militia of peasants and merchants, called the Kiheitai.

Author's Note: This epilogue is the result of CoConspirator begging me for more about Yoshida as well as more about Kenshin and Tomoe, and this is what I came up with. After writing this, though, I realized that some of you might be upset that I didn't write an account of the time in Otsu, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. So, if you'd like to know what I think went on, take a look at Tomoe's diary entries in chapter 3 of my previous story, In Search of Family. Then there are probably some of you who wish I had skipped this whole Otsu bit and written instead about what Kenshin was like when he returned to Kyoto. However, others have done such a superb job with this that I could never improve upon it. I highly recommend Haku Baikou's Soul of a Hitokiri, which takes place right after Kenshin returns to Kyoto, Naga's never-completed (but very gripping) The Darkest Shadows, the Brightest Lights, Emiri-chan's Rended, and Hitokiri Gentatsu's Shadow of Shadows, which also is awaiting completion (hint, hint!).

I know that according to the manga, Kenshin does not look at Tomoe's diary for two weeks. I can't believe he's so dense that he'd wait that long, so I hurried things along a bit. As for the customs surrounding death and funerals, I based my descriptions on information I found on the web about Shinto and Buddhist practices in 19th-century Japan, as well as on descriptions from The Tale of Genji. The manga says nothing about a funeral for Tomoe, but obviously some kind of funeral happened because she ends up in a cemetery. As for tofu and soy sauce being good for strength and salt, I made it up (it sounds plausible, after all)—do not try this at home!!! : )

To all you fans of the OAV, there is no bigger fan of the OAV than myself (I cry every time I see it), but it is significantly different from the manga. For one thing, Iizuka does not show up at the house telling Kenshin that Tomoe's a traitor, nor does Kenshin burn the house down with Tomoe in it. So, please forgive me for following the manga, but rest assured that I love the OAV as much as you do.

And for CoConspirator's sake, because she's been dying to know, I will tell everyone that the name of Yoshida's horse is Shishi—Patriot. Do I have a thing about horses? Well, that crazy Episode 22 did put a bug in my bonnet… !

It's been an honor to write for you all—your support, comments, and criticism have really helped keep me going. I look forward to reading your own contributions to RKdom in the future!

CoConpsirator's Note: Well, there you have it, the epilogue. It took us three tries to get it right—once from Yoshida's point of view, once from Kenshin's point of view, then we finally just smashed them all together. Well, whatever works….

Those darn farmers, they wanted to have a pyre so bad, but in the OAV Kenshin just burned the house down, didn't invite anybody over or anything, so let's invite some people, invite the whole village over, have some tears here. And of course we had to customize the urn—it was a very special urn. We heard it was made by Hiko Seijuro himself!! [Co-C. is falling apart in hysterics here….—C.]

I hope you liked the story and thanks for all the support. Don't forget to keep an eye out for anything new. Ja ne!! *wanders off into the distance*