It was a long time before the snow-wet wood caught fire, but Kenshin refused to leave until he had utterly destroyed the old man's hut. He felt a certain grim satisfaction on watching the small orange flames creep along the wooden beams. Soon the bamboo panels were sending up curling black smoke. When the growing fire reached the inside of the hut, where the wood was dryer and the tatami easily flammable, the flames raced to engulf the house, and placed within, Tatsumi's corpse.

Turning his back upon the burning shack, Kenshin slowly walked to the body that remained. He knelt down beside it in the snow, stared long and hard at the pale delicate face, as if to imprint it upon his memory. He began to arrange the body for burial - reversed the kimono, folded the cold hands across the stomach, wrapped her carefully in his tattered cloak. He, who had known so many corpses in his life, shuddered violently every time he touched the cold, lifeless skin, the long dark hair. For long moments he stared blankly at the body before him. He tried to pray, but after a few brokenly whispered words he could not go on.

For a long time he knelt there, alone, oblivious to the cold wet snow that swirled lightly down to cover him and the body before him. Then, softly, he began to cry. His sobs rose to a harsh, almost hysterical weeping, moaning through the silent forest. He wrapped his tired arms around himself as tightly as he could, the knuckles on his hands turning white. He knew who it was he wished were holding him, knew she was dead. His shoulders heaved with his sobs, his slender body shook. Around him the wind sighed and slowed, as if stopping to pay its respects to the dead. "It's better this way..." She had smiled at him then. His poor beloved wife, one of the few times she had ever really smiled at him was when she lay dying in his arms. After he had struck her.

He clenched his fist. So fitting, he mocked himself. The Hitokiri Battousai to the very end. So now it seems not even love can change such a thing... "So please..." He could feel her soft hair falling over his arms, its warmth welcome to his cold-numbed skin. He had touched her face then, and he tried to remember how it had felt, so soft and smooth beneath his fingertips. Even then, even as his cold fingers had tingled with her warmth, it had been fading, the life seeping out of her as surely as the blood seeped out of her body. Hot, bitter tears made spots on his gi. "Don't cry..." He screamed then, thrust his tired, aching hands into the snow that was still red with her blood, raised his tear-streaked face to the heavens, and screamed. "TOMOE!!"

It was nearly dawn by the time he finally gathered the strength and will to move. Kneeling in the cold wet snow, his many wounds still unattended to, his body had grown stiff and weak. Kenshin inhaled sharply as he tried to rise to his feet and staggered, his legs buckling underneath him. For a moment his head whirled; he struggled to stay erect. Then, shaking his head to clear it, he straightened with a sigh and picked up Tomoe's body. A proper burial, he thought dully. What she deserves. After all that I have done, that is the least I can give her.

For what seemed like hours he plodded through the deep snow, trying to remember which way led out of Kekkai Forest. The trees rustled and whispered among themselves, nursing shadows amidst their bare branches. Snow had stopped falling, but the wind never ceased. Soon Kenshin was shivering again, his tired arms, carrying Tomoe, screaming for relief. But he would not think of laying his precious burden back down on the ground. Somehow he finally reached the outskirts of the forest. As he saw the pale light filtering through the tree trunks, he broke into an unconscious, frantic run, eager to get out of the hellish place. Tomoe's body felt like a thousand-ton boulder in his arms. He forged on hurriedly through the knee-deep snow until his breathing grew ragged and his legs felt like white-hot fire. Tears of pain, of gladness, of frustration streamed down his cheeks. Please, please, please, he prayed to no one in particular, gasping for breath, let me make it outside... Bursting past the last creaking, shadowy tree he cried out wildly, happy to see even the gray, overcast sky and the feebly shining sun after the terrifying shadows and uncertainty of the forest. He fell to his knees, exhausted and worn out. Gently he placed Tomoe's body, covered with his cloak, upon the new fallen snow. Then he collapsed.

How long he lay unconscious in the snow, curled up like a fetus in his mother's womb, he had no idea. His body had given out at last. The emotional strain, the many wounds he had suffered, the blood he had lost, the bone-freezing cold were too much even for him. He lay still, floating in the vacant blackness between waking and sleep. The thought of going back out into the world horrified him. The people he would have to face, those who would come and say sympathetically how sorry they felt, how if he ever needed anything he was always welcome to come to them. He would accept their proffered condolences as gratefully as he could, but he would know the sour truth that soon they would forget, as was the way of man. They would forget about Tomoe, about the beautiful young lady with the starry eyes, with the quiet, gentle ways and the tragic past, with the sweet scent of white plum that from now on would forever burn in his mind. They would forget about him, who *could not* forget, even if he ever wanted to. They would go on about their lives as usual, while he alone mourned. He would mourn forever.

The wound in his side hurt dully. Vaguely he realized he was aching all over, throbbing, pulsing soreness; he felt cold wetness beneath him and wondered if it were his blood. His ragged clothes had stuck to his wounds, forming makeshift bandages as the blood quickly congealed in the cold. He sighed, lying in the snow that was starting to seem almost warm. Perhaps I will die now... It's nicer here, he thought dreamily, here in the soft, peaceful darkness that swallows me. Not like that world of blood and violence, of blinding snow and chilling wind. Why go back? Nothing matters anymore. Tomoe is dead; the world will go on regardless of me. What worth am I, who cannot even protect the one person I care for? Who cares whether I live or die? What purpose do I serve? Just let me rest. I am so tired...

Perhaps, if he stayed there long enough, he would wake up to find it all a dream, all a horrendous nightmare. Perhaps he would open his eyes to the ceiling of their little hut in the village, the smells of tea and breakfast, and Tomoe watching him from the doorway. Even though her lips would not smile, her eyes would... "Good morning, Kenshin." She said it teasingly, watching him sit up in bed. This was a rare occasion, when Kenshin awoke later than Tomoe. As habit compelled him, he was usually up by daybreak. He smiled at her. She was exceptionally pretty this morning, it seemed. "I'm just finishing breakfast," she said, disappearing into the kitchen as he dressed. He walked out onto the porch. Everyone had remarked how odd it was for such a little cottage to have a porch in the back, but Kenshin merely smiled. He liked porches. He himself had broken open one of the walls of the bedroom and built the porch, so that he had a quiet, peaceful place where he could think or meditate. The porch faced trees and flowering shrubs. Tomorrow, he promised himself, he would start a proper garden. Tomoe was there again, coaxing him to eat breakfast. He smiled and allowed himself to be led, as she caught hold of his sleeve and urged him along, chatting comfortably. He stared at her in admiration, barely listening to what she was saying. Her eyes were full of light and energy, color enhanced her pale cheeks as she talked about what she would do that day. On impulse he kissed her on her full, soft lips. She kissed him back playfully, but pulled away sooner than he would have liked. She placed a finger on his mouth, whispered "Later" into his ear. He broke into a broad smile and she went ahead, looking back at him affectionately over her shoulder.

He followed agreeably into the dining area, where breakfast was already laid out. Before they could sit down, however, a gabble of small, cheerful voices sounded at the door, and hushed as there came polite knocking. Kenshin smiled; the children were eager to see him. He opened the door. Bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked, the little children swarmed around him the moment he stepped out the doorway. He smiled back, returning their affectionate greetings. They began tugging at him - on his sleeves, his hands, whatever piece of him they could reach, chattering eagerly about the games they would play. Kenshin was happy to oblige, but he looked back at Tomoe, who stood in the doorway, watching with merry eyes. "Come with us," Kenshin called out to her, smiling. But she shook her head cheerily. "It's all right. I'll stay here for now. You go with them. For now, they're the ones who need you." The children had halted when Kenshin had, and now they looked up at him expectantly. One particularly restless little boy fidgeted as Kenshin insisted to his wife, "But it won't be the same without you." "You'll be just fine." And - wonder of wonders - Tomoe actually smiled. It was a small smile, but it was genuine, and Kenshin's breath left his body with a happy sigh. "Are you sure?" he asked, still hesitant. She nodded. "I'll have dinner waiting for you when you get back." He smiled at her, she smiled back at him, and, satisfied, Kenshin turned back to the children.

Picking up one little bright-eyed girl who had difficulty keeping up with them, he sat her on his shoulders. "Where to?" he asked the children. Their only answers were to grin up at him and to tug even harder on his clothes. Laughing, Kenshin followed, pulled along by his persistent little friends. He looked back once, toward the cottage. The door was shut, but Tomoe could be heard inside, singing softly as she went about her chores. The smiling, chattering children led him on, deeper into the thin, sunlit woods that carpeted the foothills.

"Is he okay?" "He's pale!" "Is he going to die, Minomi-san?" "I'm still checking. Be quiet for a minute." The small, anxious voices subsided. Gentle fingers prodded him here and there, tested the joints and bones. An audible hissing intake of breath as the gi was lifted, the cloth sticking to the bloody wounds beneath. Kenshin struggled to awaken. "Who..." He opened his eyes, blinking against the pale, bleak sunlight. A large man's face hovering over his smiled soothingly. It took a moment before Kenshin recognized him as one of the miners in the village and a repeat customer of his. "Relax," said the burly man quietly. "You're pretty beat up. Nothing's broken, so I'll be taking you to the village doctor myself."

Kenshin nodded wordlessly and shut his eyes, but they flew open once again in a moment. "Tomoe!" he cried in alarm, sitting up so fast pain shot through his body and a groan escaped his lips. The man's expression was solemn. "She's still where you put her. Lie still for now." He looked away. "Good thing you covered her up; it's no fit thing for children to see." For there were children around, Kenshin saw now that he was coming to his senses. A horde of people crowded around him, the villagers he had befriended and the children to whom he had been such a treasured playmate. They watched him with faces shadowed with anxiety. Kenshin's eyes strayed to one small child in particular, a little girl with bright eyes, now filled with tears. "What are you all doing here?" he asked, turning back to his friend.

"The children found your house empty and felt something was wrong. So we all turned out to search for you, and - here we are. Now, put your arms around my neck. I'm carrying you." Kenshin didn't move. "Tomoe." The man sighed, shaking his head. "I'm sorry, my friend," he murmured. "I truly am." Kenshin shook his head impatiently. "I must go to the temple. Today."

"You're in no condition--" Kenshin's eyes narrowed. For a moment he forgot all about himself, his body, about his weakness and injuries, and rose to his feet, his left hand straying to the sheath of his sword. Startled, the man stepped backward. "Kenshin?" Tomoe, his mind whispered. Tomoe is all that matters. Kenshin clicked out his sword, his right hand grasped the hilt... and he staggered. The hot, metallic taste of blood filled his mouth, something trickled warm and wet down his chin. He slumped, letting go of his sword to support himself.

"Easy, easy," called out several voices at once, amid the rising wail of the children. His vision dimming, Kenshin felt hands support him, then he was lifted by strong, muscled arms onto a broad back. "Karashi, you and Mijiko take the body to the temple," a deep voice said quietly. "But tell them to hold the burial until Kenshin's recuperated. Maybe tomorrow afternoon." At that, Kenshin struggled to open his heavy-lidded eyes in alarm. Tomorrow is too long, he wanted to protest. Tomoe should be laid to rest right away...

A small hand slipped into his, and, startled, Kenshin turned his head weakly to see who it was. The little bright-eyed girl held his hand confidingly, looking up at him with concern. It was too much for him. Kenshin closed his eyes with a sigh, seeing Tomoe smile at him from the doorway, and let the darkness reclaim him.

notes: "nageku" means "regret, grieving, lamentation." (Grateful acknowledgement to Risu-chan for her beautifully made "Toki to ki to koneko kitto..." story, from which I got this term. Omedetou for getting nominated for the awards...! ^.^x) Comments and criticism gleefully collected at . disclaimer: To the nit-picking lawyers who are carefully scrutinizing this pathetic little piece, the characters (and idea) of Tomoe, Kenshin, and the adorable little children aren't mine. They belong to Nobuhiro Watsuki and his brilliant artistry, and Shueisha and Fuji TV and maybe Sony Entertainment and... well, whoever else owns them. (Not me.) This isn't making any money, so get rid of that nasty little gleam in your eyes already.