Last Time of My Life

And so the end has come at last. It's kind of hard to believe that I actually finished a twelve chapter story in less than a year. That's gotta be some kind of world record (for me anyway).

Oh, and OMG (yeah, I said it), as of last chapter, this story has officially hit 50,000 words. Wow.

Disclaimer: I do not own Peacemaker Kurogane or its characters.

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"It was a cough, apparently--a man's cough...a cough devoid of any zest for life or love, which didn't come in spasms, but sounded as if someone were stirring feebly in a terrible mush of decomposing organic material." (Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain)

Chapter Twelve: July

Okita lied still on his futon, curled into a tight ball in a poor attempt to block out the pain. His breathing came in small, tired-sounding gasps, and his will to keep himself alive slowly began to ebb away. Yet, despite his deteriorating body, he now slept soundly, too exhausted to do anything else.

A year came and went in the blink of an eye. In that time, no one had really seen how much Okita's health had deteriorated except for Okita himself, but he tried only to remember the good things about the past year. He was reunited with his childhood friend and he had gotten the opportunity to fight alongside Kondo and the others, which was something that always made his day.

At the beginning of the month, he had requested that his Shinsengumi haori and his katana and wakizashi be brought to Matsumoto's hospital in Edo; they were the last and only materialistic things he had to remind himself of the life he had before the disease. If he'd had the stamina to he would have stared at them for hours, eager to remember what it felt like to be a swordsman and to be well again, but unfortunately he was only able to keep his eyes open for a few minutes before they grew heavy with sleep.

These days Matsumoto rarely left his side, and when he did, he was not gone long. No longer able to ignore Okita's painful cries, Matsumoto reverted back to a treatment he had often used with Amaterasu; there was now a single stick of opium incense constantly burning in a corner of the room. The drug both eased his pain and quieted his coughs, which in turn, allowed him to rest easier, but in order to keep himself sane, Matsumoto refused to enter Okita's room without some sort of mask to block out the scent of the drug.

He looked down at Okita's sleeping form, watching as his chest stopped mid-rise causing him to wake suddenly, his lungs starving for oxygen. Okita sat up in a panic, clutching his chest, his eyes wide with fear.

"Shh, it's okay," Matsumoto said putting his hands on Okita's shoulders. "See, you're all right; just calm down and take some deep breaths."

Okita sat there panting, trying to do as Matsumoto instructed him. He breathed in deeply through his nose, filling his lungs with the one thing they craved. Within a few seconds he was breathing easier.

"Feeling better?" Matsumoto asked him.

Okita nodded, not wanting to open his mouth for fear that the episode would start all over again if he let any air escape him. He saw Matsumoto's eyes shine--he was smiling behind his mask. He felt Matsumoto grab his hands. It was only then that he realized they were shaking badly.

"There, there," Matsumoto said patting his hands. "I know that was scary, but you're all right now."

But Okita's trembling did not cease. "I thought I was going to die," he whispered. His whole body shook as he coughed, a wet cough alluding to the condition of his lungs and confirming Matsumoto's secret suspicions.

Matsumoto patted his hands again, his smile no longer reaching his eyes. "Let me take a listen to your lungs."

He reached for a peculiar instrument around his neck. If stretched, the instrument would have taken the shape of a Y. The head of the instrument were plugs to be placed into both ears, while the tail was used to listen to the patient's lungs. The instrument was called a stethoscope. Matsumoto had heard of these instruments before, but the design was changed often, eventually reaching perfection about ten years earlier. He had finally saved up enough money to buy one.

Okita's lungs sounded horrible. If he were to ask the doctor, Matsumoto would have told him just that; there was just no other way to explain it. When Okita breathed, Matsumoto listened to his wheezing during both inhaling and exhaling. Matsumoto also heard a crackling sound in his lungs--something that couldn't possibly be any good. Okita complied readily when asked to cough, gasping suddenly soon after.

"What's wrong?" Matsumoto asked, looking up at him.

"My sides hurt when I cough," he said, trying to hide as he winced.

Matsumoto sighed, beginning to collect his things. He knew what it meant. Just as Hijikata had developed a stress fracture on his foot due to over strenuous exercise, Okita too was more than likely experiencing this with his ribs. There was nothing Matsumoto could do to help ease the pain in his sides for Okita's new pain was brought on by his constant coughing, and he was already using opium incense to help with that.

"Why don't you try resting for a little bit longer?" Matsumoto suggested. "You look like you could use it, and you won't be in as much pain if you're asleep."

Okita nodded, yawning. He was tired, and he always was these days. With the help of his doctor, Okita managed to lay back down on his futon beneath his thick layer of blankets. He watched as Matsumoto replaced his incense with a fresh one, finally standing up to leave. It did not take much longer after that before the drug had lulled him into an uneasy sleep.

Matsumoto exited the room looking worn. He wiped his hands on a dampened towel that he had taken from Okita's room, drying his hands on his pant legs, and then removed the paper mask from his face. He saw Hijikata sitting on the raised deck just outside the room, waiting for him.

"How is he?"

"He's sleeping..."

Again, Hijikata thought, frowning. Since the departure of Takeuchi's relatives, Okita seemed to be sleeping more and more each day. As a former student of medicine, he knew that it was just another morbid sign that Okita's body was giving up.

"His lungs are failing him."

"What?" Hijikata exclaimed, pulling away so as to get a better look at Matsumoto's face. He was completely serious.

"Not so loud, he's only just fallen asleep," Matsumoto said turning to him. "But yes, his lungs are slowly filling with liquid and now it's only a matter of time before they collapse altogether. I witnessed it myself; he stopped breathing, but only for a moment. And his cough...he sounds horrible"

Hijikata sighed. He knew what that meant, but he hated thinking about it. He had known Okita for so many years, had practically seen him grow into the great swordsman he was before he had gotten sick. Now, he was going to have to see him die.

He had seen a great deal of death during his time with the Shinsengumi, and even before when he had studied medicine. But the soldiers he'd slain in battle had died as warriors, proud and honorable, whereas Okita was going to die as a sickly man confined to a room in a hospital.

"Is there anything we can do for him?" Hijikata asked standing up and extending his hand to help Matsumoto.

Matsumoto took the offered hand, but would not meet his gaze. "We can try to make him comfortable."

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"My haori," Okita said suddenly as Matsumoto wiped sweat from his brow.

He shifted his gaze to the side and looked longingly at his Shinsengumi haori hanging casually on the wall. He had been so excited the first day he'd received it and remembered wearing it with pride during his happier, healthier days.

"What about it?" Matsumoto asked. He rinsed the towel in a small wooden basin before folding it and placing it on Okita's forehead.

Okita slowly turned his eyes to look back at the doctor. Even a simple task such as eye movement took so much effort and caused him to sigh wearily as his body fought against the strain. "I want to wear it," he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

A sad little smile crossed over Matsumoto's aging face and he shook his head. "You know you're too weak to get out of bed."

Okita sighed again, but this time it was in frustration. He stiffened and winced as a stabbing pain ripped through his chest causing him to forgo a much needed inhalation of air. When he saw this, Matsumoto combed the ailing man's hair away from his face, offering him a few comforting words.

He shuddered against the doctor's touch, his cool hands a temporarily relief as they brushed across his fevered skin. An increasingly dense fog seemed to be settling in on the cavities of his mind, causing him to grow sleepier with each passing second, but the irritating sound of his breathing, his wheezing, was enough to keep anyone awake.

There was the sound of a shoji opening and closing beside him, and he wanted to look, but he was so weak that he could only wait until the visitor was directly in front of him. He could feel the vibrations against his skin as they made their way across the room to sit beside him.

"Hijikata-san," Okita said for he could now see his visitor. He tried to smile, but even that hurt too much.

Hijikata did not speak to him, and although he was wearing a mask that covered half of his face, Okita could see the sympathy in his eyes. No, it was pity. Pity for the feeble lump of flesh lying before him. Okita knew Hijikata would never think of him that way, but there was still no denying the look he saw in the man's eyes.

"You can remove your mask," Matsumoto said turning to Hijikata. "The incense has burned out."

Okita coughed loudly, nearly choking on what could only be blood rising up from his lungs. His coughs produced pain shooting down to the tips of his toes, and he knew they could see the movement in his chest hitch as he tried to maintain the correct level of oxygen.

"Are you in great pain?" Matsumoto asked reaching for a fresh stick of incense.

Okita considered that for a moment. He was not usually the sarcastic type, and he wasn't sure he could find the strength to even think of anything witty to say anyway.

"I'll manage," he said eventually. "I don't want to use it anymore."

Matsumoto looked down at him, his face very grave. For anyone else it would have been difficult to tell, but with Matsumoto's experience and skill, hearing Okita speak then was his very own acceptance of death. He felt incapacitated enough and the use of drugs did nothing but hide his symptoms, making it seem like everything was going to be fine. Matsumoto knew that by denying the opium showed that Okita didn't want to pretend anymore--he knew what was coming and he didn't want to see it any other way.

"Very well then," he said sighing. It didn't matter how many people he treated, having a patient die would always be something that was difficult for him. "Let's listen to those lungs."

Okita steeled himself against the pain as he started to sit up, but Matsumoto gently pushed him back down. He smiled warmly at him. "You're fine; you don't need to get up."

Okita closed his eyes, relieved. The cold metal of Matsumoto's stethoscope startled him at first, but he waited patiently and did what Matsumoto instructed him to. When he was asked to take a deep breath, he coughed, the aching at his sides almost unbearable.

"What's wrong?" he heard Hijikata ask.

When Matsumoto was silent, Okita opened his eyes and looked up at him. He still had his stethoscope pressed against his chest, his face hard. Okita coughed piteously, a disgusting frothy sound that not only alerted him, but also Matsumoto and Hijikata. Although he had been coughing for months, he had never once sounded the way he did now.

"Sit up," Matsumoto commanded him, an unnerving urgency to his voice.

"What...?" Okita began as both Matsumoto and Hijikata worked to lift him into a comfortable sitting position. He was in agony as he was moved, but that did not stop him from wanting to know what was so important.

Okita was about to begin his question again, since no one had yet answered him, when he suddenly cried out, his chest flaring with an insufferable amount of pain. It was like no pain he had ever experienced, and when he began feeling faint he fought to keep himself conscious. He felt himself begin to gag as he coughed, and it was only when he expelled a great amount of blood from his mouth did he realize that Matsumoto was holding the small wooden basin used to dampen his washcloths just beneath his lips.

The room was silent save for Okita's labored breathing. There was a large quantity of blood in the basin before him, flecked with yellow-green blobs that were only God knows what. The sight of so much of his own blood made him dizzy and he swooned.

Exhausted, he slumped forward into the waiting arms of Hijikata, who helped him sit back and lean against the wall behind him. He opened his eyes and noticed a small spot of blood that was already starting to stain his kimono and the used towels in the wooden basin that were now soaked in red. Hijikata left quickly to replace the water and spoiled rags. Okita turned to Matsumoto, an awful dazed look on his face, yearning for an answer.

"Believe it or not," Matsumoto said suppressing a smile, "but that was actually a good thing." Okita said nothing and waited for him to elaborate. Matsumoto's expression turned grave. "As a result of your illness, your lungs have been slowly filling with mucopurulent (mucus) and blood, which essentially means that you are drowning in your own bodily fluids."

Okita sat motionless, absorbing Matsumoto's diagnosis. He had learned to accept blunt answers devoid of any kind of emotional attachment from when he had had Yamazaki as his primary physician, so hearing Matsumoto's professional description of his condition didn't necessarily bother him as much as it probably should have. But his chest was burning. He noticed that Matsumoto was eyeing him suspiciously, probably wanting to know what he was thinking.

"You only have one year left..." That's what Yamazaki had said. Okita closed his eyes and sighed. It hadn't seemed very long since he'd heard those words, but he did know that his time was up. In a way, he was almost glad that he was going; it meant that there wouldn't be anymore pain.

He opened his eyes when he heard the door to his room being opened. Hijikata was back with a clean water basin, fresh water, and towels. He walked over to Matsumoto and placed the items on the tatami beside him. Matsumoto used one of the towels to wipe Okita's chin free of any remaining blood.

"Why are you smiling?" Matsumoto asked him.

"It's funny," Okita said. He knew he had been thinking it, but he had had no idea that he was giving himself away by actually smiling. "I can't even wipe my own face. That's proof of how pathetic I've become."

"Don't say that," Hijikata said speaking up for the first time. Figures; it would be to scold him.

Okita shook his head, his smile fading. "I'm nothing like I used to be. Someone this weak doesn't have the right to say they were ever a member of the Shinsengumi."

"But you are still a member," Hijikata said. Okita looked up at him, his eyes giving away his puzzled thoughts. "Just because the name has been changed to Koyo Chimbutai, doesn't mean that you, Okita Soji, are not still the first unit captain of the Shinsengumi."

"No," Okita said, shaking his head again. "I was discharged long ago--"

"You weren't." Hijikata waited for Okita's reaction before continuing. He expected to see surprise on his face, but Okita was just watching him warily. "Kondo never wanted to admit that you were really gone for good, so he never reported your absence to Katamori-sama."

Okita's face had changed very little after that bit of news. At first, it had been one of awe, and Hijikata couldn't help but notice how Okita had turned to his haori that still hung against the wall. He look he gave the garment was enough to tear at anyone's heart.

Hijikata looked over at Matsumoto who only nodded. Hijikata gave him a small smirk in thanks, and then got up to retrieve the haori. He pulled it delicately off its hanger and folded it over his arm before carrying it back to the others. He held it out in front of Okita, who had been following the haori with his eyes as if afraid it might disappear if he didn't keep a constant watch over it.

"Here," Hijikata said. He helped Okita slip his arms into the sleeves. "You look great."

Okita raised his arms as high as his weakened body could possibly make them go, which was just a few inches from where they currently lay at his sides, and inspected himself, now dressed as the warrior he had once been in what seemed like a completely different lifetime.

He leaned back against the wall, covering his mouth with his hands to muffle the sounds of his coughs. When he brought them away from his face he realized that they were covered in blood. Matsumoto took a damp towel, thoroughly wiping his hands.

"Thank you, Matsumoto-san," Okita said. His voice was lazy, tired-sounding. He got what had wanted--the chance to wear his haori one last time--and now he just wanted sleep. He wanted it all to be over.

Matsumoto looked at him curiously, taking in Okita's new facial features brought on by the disease. Okita was a pale person by nature, but throughout the course of his being sick, he had developed a sickly-ashen complexion. His eyes were bloodshot from the constant coughing, which also deprived him of much needed sleep, resulting in the dark shadows beneath his eyes. Okita's limbs had become nearly skeletal due to his lack of appetite, his fevers were at a constant high, and his lungs sounded worse than ever.

"Why don't you lie back down?" Matsumoto suggested. "I think you've gotten rid of a lot of the junk in your lungs that I think it will be okay," he added, giving a small reassuring smile.

Thankful to rest his tormented muscles, and with the help of Hijikata and Matsumoto, Okita snuggled back beneath his blankets, feeling the warmth slowly creeping back into his body. He closed his eyes and became still for a moment, listening to the things around him, although the arduous sound of his breathing was the loudest and most irritating noise he heard.

He opened his eyes and looked down at his haori, thinking he could almost see himself, centered between Kondo and Hijikata, swinging his katana and fighting for the beliefs engraved into his mind by Kondo himself.

He turned his chin slightly so that he was looking up at Hijikata. He frowned, realizing what he had missed before; his vision was beginning to grow dark around the edges, giving Hijikata's stoic face an almost hazy appearance.

"How is Kondo-san?" Okita asked casually.

Although his face remained unchanged, Okita noticed Hijikata's shoulders stiffen at the mention of their commander. His eyes bored into Okita, like he was thinking of exactly what he should say.

"He's...," Hijikata struggled to find the right word, a pause that was long enough to make Okita feel suspicious. "He's well."

He saw as Hijikata exchanged a quick glance with Matsumoto before returning his gaze to him. When Okita sighed it sounded like a loud wheeze, producing a rattling in his diseased lungs. He closed his eyes again, his blurred vision making him feel dizzy. He concentrated on inhaling and exhaling in the correct fashion, hoping to free the tightening in his chest.

Matsumoto prodded him gently, concerned.

"I thought so," Okita said finally. He sounded tired. "When did it happen?"

"So, you knew all this time...," Matsumoto said quietly, more to himself than to Okita.

"Back in May," Hijikata said. "He was tried and found guilty for the murder of Choshu's Sakamoto Ryoma."

There was no need to say what happened next. It was clear to assume from Hijikata's tone that Kondo had been executed that day for his crime. Okita bit down on his lower lip in an attempt to free his mind from the other pains he was feeling. Kondo's death was a tragic blow to him, but he was sure it was an event that strengthened the Koyo Chimbutai, which in turn, eased him because it ultimately helped Kondo and everything he had been fighting for. Okita would have done anything for him, even if it meant admitting that he had been responsible for Sakamoto Ryoma's death, but alas, he was being held up in a hospital room, dying.

"I wanted to tell you as soon as I came back to Edo," Hijikata continued, playing with the folds on one of Okita's blankets, "but I could never find the time. There was the matter of you getting sick, and Yamazaki's letter. After that, Takeuchi's family came to visit. I'm sorry, Soji."

Okita partly opened his eyes; they were so heavy that it was hard to keep them open. Tears were forming at the corners of his eyes, but he tried his best to blink them away. "No, Hijikata-san, please don't feel sorry," he said smiling weakly. "I fully understand your reasons for keeping this information from me. Somehow, I think I'd known for some time about Kondo-san's fate, I just tried to ignore it."

Hijikata watched the single tear that had managed to slip past Okita's defenses, catching it before it slid down to his ear. He brought his hand over and ruffled Okita's hair, frowning at how warm his forehead felt. Okita whimpered softly, tilting his head skyward so that he was just under Hijikata's cool touch. Hijikata looked over at Matsumoto who was already preparing a washcloth.

Okita sighed as the dampened towel made contact with his skin--it was a relief to ease the burning sensation. He turned his head away from Hijikata and Matsumoto to protect them from his infectious coughs, wincing as his diaphragm shuddered painfully. Everything hurt so much.

The older men watched as Okita closed his eyes, steeling himself against the pain. His body was drenched with sweat, and as he continued to struggle to breathe, his wheezing began to increase in volume.

"Okita?" Matsumoto started, forgetting his formalities in his haste. When Okita would not open his eyes, Matsumoto turned to Hijikata. "Did you hear that?" Hijikata only nodded, his face troubled.

The sound that Matsumoto was referring to was one that he should have suspected, for it was probably Amaterasu's undoing as well. It was the flopping sound of a pneumothorax, or collapsed lung. Before, Matsumoto had been able to treat the symptoms of tuberculosis, but with a pneumothorax, there was no longer anything he could do. Okita Soji was dying.

Okita's chest continued to rise and fall, but his whole body shuddered when he tried to inhale. With only one working lung, breathing became more painful than ever, and usually left Okita gasping. Aside from this, he was relatively quiet and had still not opened his eyes.

Finally, he looked up at his visitors and said, "I-I'm not ready to go."

Hijikata's breath caught as he noticed how strangely dull and lifeless Okita's eyes had become. He took Okita's hand in his, flinching; his hand was so cold. He didn't know what to say, he was just as helpless to do anything as anyone else in the room.

"Don't worry," Matsumoto said when Hijikata remained at a loss for words. "Everything will be all right."

No one spoke after that. Okita grew weaker with each passing minute, and his breath began to grow shallow. He kept his eyes open most of the time, but he was never actually looking at anything and his eyes remained unfocused. His mind grew cloudy and he found it difficult to even focus on the people around him. He tried to think of many things, but was unable to a majority of the time.

"I'm not...afraid," he said quietly after a while. "I'll be able to see...Kondo-sensei and...Amae-chan."

"Please don't talk," Hijikata begged him. It was the first time he had spoken in a long time. Because of Okita's collapsed lung breathing and even talking become a task, and Hijikata was concerned that talking would lessen his remaining time.

"Hijikata-san," Okita said. Every syllable was enunciated. "I bet you've been a wonderful commander in Kondo-sensei's place."

Okita gasped suddenly, his chest on fire. To help ease his pain, Matsumoto replaced the washcloth on his forehead with a fresh one. His fever continued to climb and the cool towel was the only kind of remedy that he would allow.

"Matsumoto-san, you've been a great doctor," Okita continued, gritting his teeth against the burning in his chest. "I also want you...on behalf of...on behalf of Yamazaki-san..."

Okita tried to smile, but his pain caused him to grimace instead. He clutched his chest, panting. His body felt so heavy, like he weighed as much as four men. Despite its difficulty, Okita raised both his arms and placed them on top of his chest as if cradling his ribs in an attempt to make the pain go away. To Hijikata and Matsumoto, Okita looked just about ready to be placed into his casket.

He tried to cough to loosen up the blood and phlegm from his other, functioning, lung, but it came out as a few muffled gasps. He closed his eyes and moaned, just physically and mentally exhausted from this entire ordeal. He felt Matsumoto readjusting the washcloth on his forehead, thinking it was the fever than plagued him now, but in reality, and he was positive that Matsumoto knew this already; he just wanted to rest in peace. Oh, why couldn't he just die already?

The pneumothorax was making it harder and harder to breathe. Okita could here as his breath grew shallower and shallower with each passing second. Although he had admitted earlier that he was no loner afraid, he knew that was also somewhat of a lie. He was definitely ready to rest, but in order for that to happen, he would need to stop breathing. That was a step that was crucial.

When Okita had fought alongside the Shinsengumi, death had not seemed like such a scary thing. Perhaps it was because Okita believed that he could control whether he lived or died; the better the swordsman, the better the chance for survival. Now, as he lay breathing his last, he realized that this retched disease was just like that better swordsman. He always knew that no matter where he went and how often he fought, there was always someone out there that was superior.

Okita opened his eyes, searching for a familiar face. His vision had gotten worse--he could barely distinguish colors and shapes.

"I'm ready," he said softly, his voice nearly inaudible.

"W-What are you talking about?" Hijikata stammered. Okita had never known him to stumble over his words. "There's no reason to talk like that."

Okita just smiled. "I don't want to delay this any longer....And even if I did, I really don't think I could."

"Stay safe," Matsumoto said, patting his shoulder.

Okita didn't know what the old man meant, but he appreciated his words nonetheless. "Thank you," he said, his tongue thick and heavy with fatigue. It made his words sound slurred. "I'm so tired..."

He saw Hijikata stiffen; the mere thought of what was to come frightened him. Finally, Hijikata's face softened ever so slightly. He smiled weakly.

"Then you should sleep, Soji. We'll be right here."

Okita closed his eyes, and the moment he did, he could feel himself slipping into another world. He felt himself steadily growing lighter, and the fire that was in his chest slowly began to ebb away until he could not even feel a dull ache. The fevers that had plagued him for so long also seemed to vanish, leaving him feeling cool and refreshed. He never heard when Hijikata let out what sounded like a choked-back sob, nor did he feel when Matsumoto covered his face with another dry washcloth, but all the same, there was the faintest trace of a smile on his lips.

Okita Soji was finally free.

º º º

Chapter Epilogue: Revisited

Hijikata sighed, placing the letter beside him. Now he knew how Okita felt during all the months that he had been away from the battlefield. With his fractured foot nearly healed his eagerness to return grew substantively. Fortunately, Matsumoto had said that he could be discharged as early as next month and Hijikata could only pray that Saito could hang on until then.

He couldn't help from smiling inwardly, his face remaining unchanged except for the sudden twinkle in his eyes. He would have been discharged weeks earlier, but due to over-strenuous training, he had reinjured his foot delaying his return to the Koyo Chimbutai. He kept telling himself, and Matsumoto even spoke of it once in passing, that Hijikata's sudden need to practice his kata was the method he used to keep his thoughts from straying to what had happened only days ago.

Hijikata had cried, he wasn't going to deny that. If he tried, his red-rimmed puffy eyes always gave him away. Hijikata was never known for showing any emotion other than an outward dislike for the world at whole, or perhaps the occasional glee he felt when perforating through an enemy's gut with his sword, but never would it be guessed that Hijikata Toshizo, "Oni" Vice Commander of the Shinsengumi, and now Commander of the Koyo Chimbutai (although the title was temporarily being covered by Saito because of Hijikata's injury) could actually shed a tear, regardless of the circumstances.

So what? he thought to himself. He was a human being, despite the gossip he frequently heard between the troopsmen, and he would cry if he damned well pleased. He had known Okita for most of the man's very short life, and could even go as far as calling him family. If having a close member of the family pass away was what it took to get Hijikata to shed a couple of tears, then so be it.

He wiped at his eyes furiously, once again feeling the familiar stinging sensation.

He picked up the letter again, unfolding it and rereading it for what felt like the hundredth time that day. Every time he read it, he couldn't help but notice how the usually small and ornate brushstrokes were now large and scrawly, giving them an almost childish appearance.

Hijikata-san, it read. I'm sure the reason you are reading this letter is clear; I wrote it a few days ago and asked Matsumoto-san to give it to you when the time was right. Since you are the only living person who knows where to find my family, I ask that you send my body to the Okita family shrine. Find my sister Mitsu (she looks like me but with a crooked nose from when we were little and I punched her in the face and broke it).

Here, Hijikata smirked, as he had all the other times he read through that part. He had met Okita Mitsu only once before, and had not remembered her because of her crooked nose, but rather because she was the wife of Okita Rintaro, a short-time member of the Shinsengumi and the now commander of the Shinchogumi.

Ask her to have my birth name inscribed on my tombstone, Hijikata continued. No matter how many times he read Okita's letter, the kanji for the last word of that sentence never got easier to read. It was obviously as hard for Hijikata to read it as it had to have been for Okita when he wrote it; it was nearly illegible and Hijikata could have sworn that there were spots of blood on the page.

Lastly, I want to thank you, Hijikata-san. The letter ended there. Somehow, it seemed incomplete, and it was possible that Okita's declining health was the likely cause of that. Finally, the letter was signed, Okita Sojiro Fujiwara no Harumasa: the name he requested he placed at his gravesite.

Okita, the free man.

º º º

You know what's sad? I've done so much research on tuberculosis and on the lungs in general, that I feel like some kind of amateur pulmonologist, or something. I feel like I should just give up my current major and just go straight to medical school. Haha, but I would never do that.

But enough of that, there are more important things that need to be the completion of this story! Ah, finally! I want to thank everyone who had a part in the overall production in this story; from Hellfire13 who repeatedly inspired me by giving me characters, ideas, and even written paragraphs to be added to the story, to the reviewers, whose kind words always brightened my day. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!

Next, the epilogue wasn't even supposed to happen. I didn't want the story to just end with Okita's death (a little too morbid for my tastes), and then it kind of just wrote itself, which might explain why it may have just ended a little odd. My fingers tend to type whatever's on my mind whether I want them to or not....

Also, I'm dreadly sorry about the tardiness of this chapter. I do realize that it's much later than my intended release date, but my life has been so crazy these past few months, that I just decided to put off writing for a few days. Those days turned into a few more days, which then turned into weeks, etcetera. But now it's out and hopefully to your liking, and now I never have to think about updating this story EVER AGAIN.

And another round of applause to everyone who made this story possible. I thank you from the deepest depths of my heart.