Author's notes: I hadn't really intended this to take so long but between starting this chapter and finishing it, the eldest of my two collies became quite worryingly unwell. She's 15 so when she does show signs of ill health it's a concern and to be honest all thoughts of RK and fan fics fled from my mind. The old lady is back to usual self now thank goodness.
Anyway, what with all that, I've done my best on this chapter but I think it might well be a little choppy in places, as I had a lot of trouble concentrating at times. Also I know someone will mention the scene in the ova of Kenshin cremating Tomoe (presumably anyway) by burning down the house they were living in. That scene doesn't fit well with me, somehow, as much as I love the ovas I just find the idea of Kenshin being that disrespectful hard to swallow. It's not as if he owned the house and I don't think Katsura did either and I just can't see Kenshin torching such a valuable thing when it doesn't even belong to him. Still that's just my view hence the difference in this fic. Also although this is the final chapter I'm planning an epilogue as well, but it might not be what you'd expect. Thank you all so much for your encouragement and input, I certainly hope this chapter doesn't disappoint anyone. Please do read and review.
The scent of stale incense, cold ashes and death, lingered on the cold air all but over powering the distant fragrance of white plum. Sunlight slipped through the thin gaps in the walls and darted across the floor but did little to warm the room. The weather was changing, but it was still cold enough for your breath to hang in the air. Kenshin shifted his cold, stiff body and pushed his tangled red hair out his eyes. He noted the new warmth in the sunlight as it shone across his toes. In a tree, somewhere close by, a bird sung out of season. It's voice rising hesitantly but clearly into the still morning. Kenshin raised his head from the hilt of his short sword and sighed. He looked across at Tomoe over the darned sleeve of his haori. As the weather grew warmer, her body would start to bloat and decompose. A quiet, rather strange resolve settled in his mind, he knew, however unwillingly, that the time had come for them to be parted. Tomoe would have to be buried or cremated before the weather grew any warmer.
Kenshin scraped the snow off of the ground with a wooden hoe, a scowl carved into his face. Beneath the snow, the ground was hard and half frozen. His breath hung on the air like thin clouds of pale smoke. His wounds ached and after a short burst, his breathing quickened. Unbidden tears slipped past his lashes and trickled down his cheeks only to dissolve on the cold ground below. The cool breeze rippled around clothes, and slowly, a long shallow trench appeared beneath his hoe.
His clothes grew damp both inside and out. Sweat ran down his back plastering his shirt to his body and making the deep slashes on his back burn. He didn't mind, he didn't care, it seemed fitting some how that he should suffer this way so Tomoe could rest. Image after image of his sword sweeping through men's' bodies flickered through Kenshin's mind. The blood pooling across the cobbled streets and filling the gutters. Of eyes filled with pain, horror, and surprise. Kenshin ground his eyes shut and shoved the memories aside. Beneath him, the half frozen ground where only a few short weeks ago cabbages had grown seemed barely touched. His face set itself in grim determined lines, the timber hoe clawed at the ground driven forward by the desperate stubbornness of Kenshin's thin arms. Hard and cold, it stubbornly resisted his determined assault. He tried not to think, tried to fall into the steady repetitive rhythm that so reminded him of his kata. If he didn't think, he would be alright. Even so, tears kept finding their way past his eyelashes and down his face. They surprised him seeming to appear suddenly from no where without him noticing. He rubbed at his eyes irritably with the sleeve of his haori. Slowly, steadily, a trench appeared in the deep brown earth. A slightly wonky imperfect shallow ditch with rough sides surrounded by an ocean of snow.
He threw down a pile of firewood. Neat, carefully quartered logs he'd chopped with his own hands. He stared at it piled up haphazardly in the ditch, wood that had been intended for their fire not a funeral pyre. He smoothed it out lining the trench with it and topped it with the charcoal from the fire pit. He gazed down at his hands feeling strangely calm and emotionless. For once, they weren't stained red. Now they were black and grey from the ash. He stared at them, his mind rolling the thought over and back and forth like a kitten with a ball. He shook his head abruptly, making his hair flash across his eyes, telling himself that it didn't make any difference in the end. He dusted his hands off against his hakama, leaving deep sooty smears in their wake. He straightened his back and gazed up at the mountains that towered around him. White peaked, blue monoliths which encircled him like some giant monarch's crown. He'd seen Tomoe do this often, just standing out in the field her eyes gazing up at the ring of mountains above. He wondered what she'd though of. Had she felt as small and insignificant as he did? The breeze blew his hair into his eyes. He sighed and turned away.
It was only when he was standing above her that he realised that there was nothing to wrap her in. No shroud, no coffin of any sort, not even a pristine roll of tatami. Only the sheet from her futon and a roll of bamboo matting he'd bought her in Otsu. She'd never used it, it leant against the wall still rolled up, clean and unused. He felt guilty. As he had long ago, when he'd buried the three women from the slave trader's caravan. They had been so kind to him, those women. He'd cried when he hadn't been able to find nice stones for their graves and now he felt the same rush of frustration and guilt. They had deserved better, just as Tomoe did. Like Tomoe, all three had lost their lives trying to preserve his. He crouched down beside Tomoe screwing up his face in an effort to restrain yet another flood of tears. The women in his life, the women he should have protected, always seemed to die trying to protect him.
In the end, he wrapped her up in the sheet, putting her hands on her chest and her hair over her shoulder. He smoothed her hair with regretful, trembling fingers, noting the way the light shone on it. He couldn't look at her face, bruised and distorted as it was. He wrapped her tightly, folding the fabric here and there. Pulling it firm with clumsy fingers, while cold drafts of air blew his hair into his face. He tried to do her justice with what little that he had. But the breeze seemed to conspire against him, toying with his long hair and thrusting his thin wispy fringe into his smarting eyes.
His feet sank into the snow, slowly beneath the soft, yellow light it was melting. He carried Tomoe awkwardly. She had gone from a soft pliant woman to a stiff unwieldy bundle and even now in death, she was still taller than him. He laid her atop the bamboo matting then on the pile of wood and charcoal. It was unceremonious, almost undignified but it was the best he could do and all the while the little greenish bird sang and sang.
The charcoal embers glowed and the dry bamboo matting with it's sprinkling of sake kindled, sending thin tendrils of pale grey smoke spiralling into the air. Tomoe's body wrapped in its sheet and woven bamboo matting slowly disappeared behind a wall of smoke. Kenshin stood, he watched the flames flickering around the dry timber creeping ever closer to the roll of bamboo matting. A dry lump forced its way up his throat. Thin shafts of sunlight forced their way through the heavy grey clouds. All around him there was only the soft sounds of Japan sleeping beneath her mantle of snow. The soft rustle of bamboo, the groaning of tree branches, the steady singing of the little warbler in his tree. He watched the slender spirals of smoke gliding up to the grey clouds, and understood why Katsura had picked this spot for them.
There was no one here. Down in the valley a good few hours walk away was Otsu the bubbling hub of Lake Biwa. Here though, all was silent. There were only a few small farms, the tiny village below, the mountains, the trees, the birds and an all encompassing silence. Here, where few people came they should have been safe. Just another young couple driven from Kyoto by the war to the relative safety of the country side. They should have been safe, but somehow it hadn't worked out that way. With a weary sigh, he sat down in the snow and stared into the flames. Flames that slowly, moment by moment, were devouring Tomoe's earthy existence.
Katsura looked down at the worn folded paper. A week ago, a trembling and exhausted messenger had thrust it into his hands. Its contents had shaken him no end, but he was never one to sit back and let things go. Even now, Iizuka was paying the price for his treachery. All the same, he was worried about Himura. The tough brown pony beneath him was tried. He had driven it hard for two days with only short breaks over night until its thick winter coat was soaked with sweat. None the less, it continued forward at a brisk walk its ears flicking back between himself and the road ahead. Katsura couldn't help but feel worried. Kenshin with his swordsmanship and his inherent honesty was one of the Ishin Shishi's most precious men. He felt guilty too. Shinsaku had warned him that he would be sacrificing Kenshin's soul for the sake of his own desires, he hadn't listened. It had seemed a small price to pay.
He had a certain affection for the youngest and most dangerous of his men. When Kenshin spoke which was rarely, there was never any doubt about the honestly of his words. Never any need to pick through bravado or ego to find the truth. Kenshin had always kept to his duty and his word. It was himself who had failed, leaving the boy in the hands of a traitor. Anxious and worried he clapped his heels to the pony's sweaty sides and cantered on.
It seemed hours before Otsu came into view. A large bustling harbour town thrown against a backdrop of deep, blue water and snow capped mountains. Beautiful, beautiful Otsu he'd never been so relieved to see the place in his life. The breeze brushed at his clothes and rippled through the pony's coat. The sweet smell of clear fresh water, of bamboo and snow filled his lungs. He'd leave the pony here and continue on foot, to do other wise would only draw people's attention. He stroked the pony's neck in gratitude. He only hoped Himura was still alive.
Kenshin stared moodily down into his reflection on the surface of the sake. He didn't like the silence, and even the smooth repetitive action of his kata had done little to quieten his nerves and restlessness. A gentle breeze broke his reflection into a sluggish ripple. He didn't even want the sake really. He tilted the pale liquid back and forth in the shallow cup. His mind quietly going back and forth over the morning in the forest. No matter how he looked at it, no matter what he thought it made very little sense. 'It's all right. So please, don't cry…' He frowned down at his reflection. Tomoe's final, soft pained words made even less sense. It wasn't right at all. If someone had had to die, Kenshin was sure that it should have been him. After all, he was the hitokiri. He closed his eyes, tired, sore and puzzled. He put the sake down, leaving it in the darkness to gather a thin flim of dust.
The clay urn stared back at him from across the room. He'd gotten up automatically, pulled his hair up into the ponytail in which he'd habitually worn it since he was a child. Every action had come from a well conditioned habit which was just as well for his mind was else where. He thought and puzzled over the whole incident with an almost religious ardour. It still didn't make any sense. Why had Tomoe even gone up the mountain and into that forest? Why? It nagged at him. He dropped the remaining fire wood in the fire pit and crouched down to light it. The flint struck in time to his unanswerable question, why, why, why? The kindling took crackling and sparking beneath his hands. He stared at it, his violet blue eyes troubled.
His straw sandals whispered against the road as Katsura strode along. His deep brown coat and straw hat were intended to shield him from inquisitive eyes, but he could not hide his walk. The smooth, swift, sure stride of a man on a mission. Nor could he hide his carriage. To those who knew it was easy to see past the clothes and see the samurai beneath. The breeze whisked his coat about and made him grasp the edge of his hat in self defence. He paused half way up the mountain side to gaze back at Lake Biwa with Otsu nestled at it lower end.
The wind had picked up, after a few days of snow melting sun. It fanned the flames in the fire pit making them flicker and flare before his eyes. The deep blue of his eyes reflected the red and yellow flames as Kenshin sat hunched over, his eyes fixed blankly at the dancing flames before him. Even now, that single stubborn endless question clawed away at his mind. The breeze slipped past him fluttering his fringe around his face and making the fire spark and flare. He didn't notice. He frowned, baffled and unhappy into the bright light. The sound of rustling paper came to him from somewhere far away. He blinked and gazed around as another wayward draft of air fingered the pages of Tomoe's diary. He stared at it, breathing slowly. He got up stiffly and put his hand out towards it half expecting Tomoe to appear out of no where and snatch it away. His fingers trembled faintly as he lifted it. They tightened around the card cover. The answer was in there somewhere. It just had to be.
He drew the precious thing close to his body and fingered the pages. Beyond the neat plain cover was the answer, somewhere on the pages inside covered by Tomoe's neat well ordered hand. His eyes hurried over the pages devouring the words almost frantically. Until he came to the name…. Kyosato. It leapt out at him, at once familiar, yet unplaceable. Kyosato. An image came up into his mind, a young man lunging at him desperately. Of the same man lying in an ever widening pool of blood, gasping out a name that was all too familiar. Kenshin felt his world tremble. The precious diary slipped from his fingers and fluttered weightlessly to the floor.
"Your misfortune in killing her fiancé. Her misfortune in falling in love with you. It was just two pieces of very bad luck. It's not your fault. I heard all about it. I've already sent someone for the traitor."
The voice made Kenshin jerk up his head. Sending his pony tail flicking about his face. He stared into Katsura's eyes, white and shaking from shock. Later Katsura would see that face, white, as it was, the pupils in the very blue eyes dilated, and filled with shock and pain, in his sleep. Forever after when ever he had to place someone else on the line for Japan, he would dream of Kenshin's eyes.
Kenshin walked down the road, his feet as always nearly silent his ponytail swinging behind him. Below him gleaming like a jewel lay Lake Biwa, its surface reflecting the mountains that encircled it like a deep blue mirror. He paused only once to look back at the house before the curve in the road hid it from view. It sat small, brown and inconspicuous in the lee of the mountain, forests and fields surrounding it on all sides. For a moment he though he could see Tomoe gazing out after him as he stood in the road. He blinked and the image was gone. He turned, his red hair streaming out behind him and strode towards Otsu his swords brushing against his hakama with each step.