Disclaimer: I don't own Rurouni Kenshin characters or plot

A/N: At long last, the solution to the mystery. This chapter is dedicated to Heather Logan, whose guesses are always insightful.

CHAPTER SEVEN

The trip back was easier in the light. Only once did Kenshin have to leave the road to hide in the trees as the magistrate and his men passed by escorting their shackled prisoners. They'd requisitioned a wagon for the ones with broken limbs, but the rest shambled along, docile and miserable. He saw the bandit he'd bandaged glaring at the others in the wagon. The rest of them seemed cowed, and Kenshin knew he'd made a good choice when he'd told the wounded bandit to keep the others quiet about Hiroshi. He was obviously a leader. The others wouldn't talk.

After they passed by, Kenshin got back on the road and made it to the outskirts of town just as the daylight began to soften into early evening. He was just coming towards the first few buildings that marked the beginning of the town when motion caught his eye. To his right, a man was setting out down a path that led away from the road and up a ridge. It was Fukashi Tanaka.

Kenshin opened his mouth to call out, then closed it again slowly as he noticed Fukashi's manner. The man glanced back at the buildings and paused to be sure no one saw him as he hurried down the path into the trees dotting the ridge. Why would Tanaka be going into the forest? And why would he care if anyone saw him?

Without realizing he'd made a decision, Kenshin found himself leaving the road and hurrying after the innkeeper. He caught sight of him in minutes, spotting Fukashi's kimono disappearing between some bushes to the left of the path. When Kenshin got to the spot he saw that while the path continued up the next ridge, the bushes that Fukashi stepped behind led to a dry streambed. He'd left the path.

Wary now, Kenshin left it as well, but instead of taking the rock strewn route Fukashi had taken, he paralleled it, keeping to the foliage on the bank of the streambed. Thankful for the deepening shadows which provided cover, Kenshin followed.

In Spring, the stream was likely torrential, judging by the way the banks towered above the dry channel. Kenshin wondered if the streambed connected to the same stream that wound its way past the ruined tavern where he'd found Mikio, crying his eyes out for his father and his lost dreams.

Eventually, the stream leveled out by a flat meadow area, and Kenshin had to hang back further as Fukashi trudged up the sandy incline way from the streambed and into the grassy clearing.

Keeping to the higher ground, Kenshin pulled back and crouched low as he made his way up one of the hills surrounding the meadow, retreating as Fukashi advanced. At first it seemed that Fukashi was headed straight for him, but then the older man angled over to the hill next to Kenshin's and knelt.

A clump of bushes obscured the man now that he was closer to the ground, and Kenshin crept forward until he left his hill and was between it and the one Fukashi was paying obeisance to. For the innkeeper was sitting still, head bowed reverently, with his lips moving silently as if praying at a shrine.

Then suddenly, Fukashi lunged forward, and his upper body disappeared from view. The movement startled Kenshin, and he pulled back instinctively before leaning forward again as Fukashi stood up, a long rectangular bag in hand. It was a sword bag, and Fukashi undid the ties onehandedly, holding the concealed sword awkwardly with the thumb and forefinger of his wounded hand. Once it was undone, the bag slipped off the sheathed katana, and Fukashi let it fall to the ground.

He unsheathed the sword with his left hand, knelt to set the sheath down, then turned his back and walked to the center of the meadow and began practicing. Kenshin watched and assessed. Fukashi wasn't up to the standards of Saitoh Hajime or any of the other left handed swordmasters of the Shinsengumi, but he knew what he was doing. Coming to the meadow for solitary practice was something Kenshin understood. He hated it when other people watched him, though he suspected Fukashi's desire for solitude stemmed more from embarrassment over his ruined right hand than anything else, given the way he constantly tried to hide it in public. He must keep the sword hidden in the meadow so that Mikio wouldn't stumble across it in the inn. Since Mikio told Kenshin that Fukashi couldn't even hold a sword anymore, he realized that Fukashi hid his practice sessions from his nephew also.

Deciding to get a better view, Kenshin started up the back of the hill where Fukashi kept his sword. He was nearly at the top when the ground beneath his feet gave way.

He scrabbled at the dirt and grass as he fell through, but it crumbled even as he grasped it and the rough edges slipped through his fingers as he disappeared into the darkness at the center of the hill.

He landed with a thud that jarred his teeth, and fell back onto a knobby, uneven surface, covering his face with his arms as pebbles and bits of earth rained down on him from the cave in above. As soon as the dirt stopped falling, he lowered his arms and looked around. He was in a small, circular cave. Light poured in dimly from the hole above, but also from an aperture off to his left.

As he looked around, Kenshin noticed that he wasn't alone. Bodies lined the sides of the cave. They were skeletons now, the bones showing white through the ruins of their clothing, and with a start, Kenshin realized that the knobby surface he lay on was one of them. He rolled immediately forward and knelt in the center of the cave, directly under the hole above.

He had no thrill of fear or revulsion, for the dead were neither a matter of fear or horror to him anymore, and these bodies had been in the cave for several years. Dispassionately, he counted them. There were six skeletons in all, neatly laid out, with their arms crossed over what had once been their chests. His landing had disarrayed one of the skeletons, and he wondered if he should straighten it, then dismissed the notion as foolish.

Fukashi Tanaka was still outside, and unless he was deaf, he couldn't have missed the sound of Kenshin's fall. Even as he thought of the man, Fukashi's voice came to him, low and panicky.

"What's that? Who's there? Come out!"

Kenshin sighed and made for the cave's opening to his left. "I'm coming out," he warned, and placed his hand on his sakabatou's hilt.

There was a flat rock by the cave's entrance that held a bowl of sand and the burnt remains of a stick of incense stuck in it. There was also a plank of wood someone had shoved deep into the earthen wall of the cave to act as a shelf. That was where Fukashi must keep his sword. Kenshin reminded himself that the man now held that sword in a manner that bespoke years of practice. He sighed wearily over the coming confrontation as he ducked his head and pushed aside a branch obscuring the low entrance to the cave, and stepped out into the meadow.

Fukashi stood there waiting for him, sword held tip down in front of him. Kenshin kept his own sword in its scabbard at his side, and shook his head to dislodge a few clinging particles of dirt from his bangs. If there was to be a fight, the last thing he needed was dirt falling into his eyes.

As his head stilled, Kenshin's eyes dropped to his opponent's sword, which was still pointed towards the ground. Then his eyes traveled further, past the sword, to the man's legs. Fukashi had kilted up his kimono by tucking in some of the fabric by the side seams into his obi belt to shorten it in order to get it out of the way as he practiced. Even in the fading sunlight, Kenshin could see the tell-tale bruise on the man's shin.

Suddenly, it all clicked. The man in the bathhouse, the one who'd swung his sword downward at Kenshin, was Fukashi.

Kenshin raised his eyes to the man's face. "Why did you try to kill me?"

Fukashi glanced down at the bruise on his shin, then back up at Kenshin. His face tightened. "I'd kill anyone who threatened Otsune and the children." He stared back at Kenshin, eyes level and determined, and Kenshin knew at last the answer to the mystery he'd promised to solve.

"Including your brother?" he asked softly.

A flash of emotion, strong and indescribably painful to watch, passed over the man's face, before his eyes deadened and took on a bleak expression.

"How did you know?" Fukashi asked, not bothering to deny it. "Most people would assume a cripple like me couldn't use a sword anymore." He said it without bitterness or self pity, and Kenshin respected that.

"Hisroshi Tanaka could have been killed by either a right or left handed swordsman, depending on if the killer was standing in front or to the rear of him. I've fought left handed swordsmen before," Kenshin told him, his mind flashing back to several duels he'd had with the shinsengumi and their signature left handed thrusting techniques. "I know what they can do."

Fukashi took his right hand off his katana's hilt and held it out for Kenshin to see. His thumb and forefinger, the missing digits, and the weblike scar tissue were clear to see.

"This was once the best sword arm in three villages. I was going to be the next master of the dojo when my uncle retired. Even Hiroshi couldn't beat me. One night a fire started in our uncle's house where we were staying. I woke to smoke, and pain. Hiroshi pulled a burning beam down on top of me and ground it into my hand. He would've run away and left me there, but everyone showed up just then, so he pretended he was pulling the beam off of me instead. He told me he'd finish the job if I ever said anything."

Fukashi let his hand drop to his side. "I was thirteen, he was fourteen at the time."

Kenshin swallowed, and tried to imagine what it would be like to have your own brother try to kill you. Fukashi went on.

"He married Otsune, the prettiest girl in town. He had the love of my father, he charmed everyone he met, but it just wasn't enough. There was something twisted in Hiroshi. When Otsune went to him that first night they were married, she was a happy, smiling girl. When she came out the next day she was…different. He'd killed all the joy in her. Once the twins were born he left her alone, and I was grateful, for her sake, until the girls started disappearing."

"Girls?" A memory tugged at Kenshin's mind, of a comment made by one of the old men in town, of young people who'd left never to return.

Fukashi nodded gravely. "He was clever about it, always warning the pretty girls about the perils of life in the big city, but managing to make it sound exciting. Eventually he'd get them to agree to run away with him to Tokyo, but then he'd take them out here and…" The man's face became even more bleak and disillusioned as he nodded towards the cave behind Kenshin. "Well, you saw the bodies."

Kenshin swallowed hard as an ugly thought crossed his mind. "How do you know all this?" he asked roughly.

Fukashi laughed mirthlessly and stuck the tip of his sword in the ground, leaning on it as he would a walking stick. "How do you think? I found him shoving Mitsuki's body in the cave one night, when he'd…finished with her. Mitsuki was the cooper's daughter, his latest conquest. I haven't been able to look her father in the face since then. Because of that, I think he's guessed what happened to her. Hiroshi bragged about it to me, he bragged about all of them, all his victims starting with the merchant's wife he seduced. He killed her husband, made it look like bandits did it, and promised her he'd take her away to Tokyo, but instead she ended up like her husband, and Hiroshi ended up with the merchant's gold. He hid it, the gold I mean, in the bathhouse."

"Why didn't you stop him?" Kenshin burst out, and was surprised at how much he sounded like his younger self, arguing with his master, Hiko. He thought he'd outgrown that idealist, naïve tone of voice.

"Stop him?" repeated Fukashi blankly. "I spent most of my life terrified of my brother, but after I found out what he'd done to Mitsuki, and saw that he was planning to do the same with Hideki's wife, I told him to leave town or I'd tell the world what I knew about him."

Fukashi fell silent, and Kenshin waited a moment before speaking. "What happened then?" he asked.

The man grimaced. "At first he didn't believe me, then he told me that if I said anything he'd take it out on Otsune. She belonged to him, he could do whatever he wanted to her, especially since her parents were dead and she had no one to turn to."

Fukashi drew a shattered breath then went on. "I said that if he hurt Otsune any more that I'd take the money from under the floorboards in the bathhouse and throw it all in the river. He was furious, but right about then we got word that the shogun needed samurai to come and help him. Hiroshi made sure that he was the town's golden boy, so how would it look if he'd stayed behind? He went off to join the shinsengumi, and I made sure he was never alone in the bathhouse before he went. That gold was the only hold I had over him."

Fukashi looked away towards the mountains. "I hoped he'd get killed in the war, but he came back instead."

"So you killed him," Kenshin stated.

Fukashi glanced back at Kenshin and kept talking, his thumb moving restlessly across his sword's hilt. "He found me here. He knew I practiced here sometimes. He said if I just got him his money he'd be on his way and he'd never come back, but I knew he was lying. He let slip that he'd been traveling with some ronin, bandits, that he was meeting up with later, and I thought, why stop at the merchant's gold when he could steal from the whole town? And he would have too. Hiroshi always wanted more."

The man stared at Kenshin intently, as if it mattered what he thought, as if he were waiting for a response, so Kenshin nodded gravely. It seemed to satisfy Fukashi, who continued on with his story, never breaking eye contact.

"I killed him," he said softly. "I dragged his body away from here, down the streambed and covered it with dirt."

"Why not put it in there?" Kenshin asked, gesturing behind him at the cave. Then he thought of the careful way Fukashi had laid out the bodies, and remembered the stick of incense in the bowl at the cave's mouth.

"It didn't seem right to put him in with the others," mumbled Hiroshi's brother. "I couldn't give them a proper cremation, but at least I could keep him away from them. I thought it was over, but then you showed up."

Fukashi shot him an accusing look. "I thought he'd told you about the gold, that he'd sent you to get it if he didn't come back, but you never went near the bathhouse the first night. But the second night…"

Fukashi grimaced and pulled his sword tip from the ground. Kenshin tensed, but the man simply wiped off the dirt on his kimono and walked past him to pick up the scabbard and sheathe the blade.

"I'm sorry," he said softly, not looking at Kenshin. "I realize you aren't like Hiroshi. Mikio told me what you said to him." He turned and held the sheathed katana out to Kenshin. "I'll go quietly. Just please, promise me you'll stay and look after Otsune and the children. They'll have no one left after I'm gone."

Reaching out, Kenshin closed his hand over Fukashi's where it gripped the sheath, and held it there. Fukashi's eyes searched his questioningly when Kenshin didn't move to take the katana away from him.

"Look after them yourself," Kenshin said, then pulled his hand away and stepped back.

"What? I don't understand." Fukashi shook his head from side to side, protestingly, lowering the sword to his side.

Kenshin smiled sadly. "How can you ask me to judge you? I've killed men too. Maybe they deserved it, like your brother, and maybe they didn't, but they're all just as dead. I can't stop you from feeling guilty about it, but I don't think leaving Otsune and the children alone will make anybody happy. In fact, I think it would make them very unhappy to know you sacrificed yourself for them."

"Sacrifice? I killed my own brother!" The words came out in an anguished growl.

"Yes, to save your sister-in-law," Kenshin said forcefully.

Remembering the way the man looked at Otsune, the way he cared for her children, Kenshin knew it was true. He knew as well what would've happened to the woman if Hiroshi had lived to loose his bandit friends on the town.

Fukashi reddened and looked away.

Kenshin sighed and took a step back. "I can't stop you if you really want to turn yourself in for murder," he told the man. "But I can tell you that the bandits have been captured, and the town will likely believe that they were responsible for Hiroshi's death. That is what I'm willing to let them believe. If I were you, I'd use the money to fix up your inn. Otsune and the children need you alive, not dead. Sometimes the best way to atone for something is with your life, not your death."

A memory came to Kenshin of Tomoe, and his promise to her, and his heart ached with it, but he kept the pain from his eyes and smiled at the man gaping at him with what looked like hope dawning in his eyes.

"Come on, it's dinner time, and I'm looking forward to a last bowl of Otsune's miso soup."

"Last bowl?" Fukashi repeated slowly.

"I'm a wanderer," Kenshin told him. "After I tell Shinohara and the others about the bandits being captured, I'll be on my way. Forgive me, Fukashi, but I don't think I'll be coming this way ever again."

They exchanged a look, Kenshin's steady and kind, Fukashi's confused yet grateful. He'd do as Kenshin suggested. Kenshin could only hope that it would work for both his sake, and the sake of Otsune, who, unless Kenshin missed his guess, loved him as much as he loved her.

"Yes, I think that would be best," he agreed dazedly.

Kenshin thought of Mikio, and his hero worship of his father. If all went well, that hero worship would be restricted to the sort of qualities he thought his father had, and might one day transfer to his uncle, once Mikio had grown up a little and learned more about true heroism. It would be easier if no more of his father's old 'comrades' showed up. Miho would be alright, since her mother seemed to have shielded her from her father's evil, as well as his devastating charm.

"Then let's go," Kenshin said.

Fukashi bent to retrieve the discarded sword bag. He slid the sword back inside and placed it back in the cave, then rose.

"Thank you," he said softly as he bowed low before straightening to look Kenshin in the eye.

Kenshin nodded, and they turned as one to follow the streambed back towards town.

THE END