Disclaimer: Neither Rurouni Kenshin nor its characters belong to me. Sigh.

AN: I'm so sorry for the delay, my dear readers. I had to move about 350 miles away, I'm in the middle of some HUGE personal upheavals, and I've also been having a bit of writer's block.

Um, so there really isn't that much on this section of the Nakasendo, so, as I have been the whole way, I'm fudging travel times. Whatever, the whole thing is fiction.

As always, please forgive typos.

Terms used:
Hinokigasa – wooden conical hat (from this region, made with cedar)
Jizo statues – protective statues carved for travelers

*A note on Kan'non: It's usually written as Kannon. In fact, I can't remember why I wrote it as Kan'non in earlier chapters, but since I did, I ought to stay consistent. Silly me; who knows what my past self was thinking. Honestly, odds are good I was just tired and did it temporarily and then forgot to go back and fix it. Meh.

Chapter 16

Once they returned to the carriage, Aoshi opened the door and offered a hand to help Kaoru up. She took it, grabbed the carriage handle with her other hand, stepped up into the small doorway, and lost her footing when her hat banged against the doorframe. A startled gasp escaped her lips as she fell back, but Aoshi stopped her fall, bracing her back with his other hand.

"Sorry!" Kaoru laughed as Aoshi pushed her upright. Steadied, she tilted the hinokigasa and slid through the doorway.

Aoshi tilted his own in the same manner and followed her in. Inside the carriage, they discovered that the hinokigasa had to come off; the brims kept hitting each other in the enclosed space. Though amusing at first, tapping each other constantly quickly grew tiresome. Kaoru stacked them together and set them aside.

"So, Aoshi, since you're no longer the leader of the Oniwabanshuu, what do you do to keep occupied?" Kaoru asked, honestly wondering. Aoshi did not seem like the kind of man to be idle for very long.

"Though I no longer lead them, I still accept… let's call them 'jobs'… on a regular basis. Our information network is vast, and we must always keep abreast of any and all political and underworld machinations. This is a peaceful era, and Misao is using our resources to help ensure that peace." Aoshi answered. "And once in a while I help out at the Aoiya, but the others have that fairly under control most of the time."

Kaoru had a little bit of a hard time imagining someone like Aoshi running an inn, but decided not to say so. Instead, she turned to the window, watching the world roll by outside.

Aoshi watched her contemplatively. He longed to brush some of her errant hair behind her ear, but was unsure if such an action would be welcome. A moment later, Kaoru ended up tucking the stray hair behind her ear absentmindedly, anyway, so it was a moot point.

In the end, Aoshi was content with simply watching Kaoru enjoy the scenery. She revealed her thoughts plainly on her face, and Aoshi spent the companionable silence studying her expressions. Amused, he watched as Kaoru's gaze grew languorous as she fought the rocking lull of the carriage. Her eyes kept drooping shut, head tipping forward against the window glass. Bouncing over a bump in the road, Kaoru's forehead banged into the window sharply and she jerked her head back, startled. Aoshi fought hard to stifle a laugh.

Kaoru rubbed a hand against her forehead, muttering, "Ouch!"

"It's all right if you want to take a nap, Kaoru. We should arrive in Nakatsugawa by evening, and there isn't much to look at between here and there." Aoshi said.

Kaoru nodded, settling back into the cushions of the carriage bench, still rubbing her forehead slowly. Aoshi reached out and pulled Kaoru to him, arranging her so that she leaned comfortably against his shoulder.

"Aoshi, uh…" Kaoru stuttered.

"It's fine, Kaoru. This will be more comfortable for you." Aoshi patted her head. "Don't worry, it doesn't bother me."

"Mm… all right," Kaoru responded, already on her way to falling asleep. Aoshi looked down at her sleeping face fondly. He stroked her hair abstractedly with his free hand before he turned his gaze to the window, his hand falling still in his lap.

# #

# #

When Kaoru next opened her eyes, she saw the sunlight slanting through the window, the soft, red-gold hue indicating that twilight was at hand. Blinking, she sat up and looked at Aoshi, only to find him watching her.

"I trust you slept well?" Aoshi inquired.

Kaoru answered cheekily, "Yes, I did, ninja pillow. Where are we?"

"We're coming upon Nakatsugawa now. You've impeccable timing when it comes to waking up in the carriage."

Kaoru smiled a little sheepishly in response. "I suppose I do. So! What's the plan?"

"We'll check into our inn, explore a bit, and find a place to have dinner?" Though the last part was sort of phrased as a question, it was really more of a statement.

"Sounds good," Kaoru answered. "I wonder what this town will be like."

"We'll just have to find out, won't we?"

As they checked into their lodgings for the evening, sure enough, there was a message waiting for Aoshi. Curious, Kaoru watched as Aoshi accepted the letter from the innkeeper and tucked it inside his gi without opening it. Aoshi caught her staring and said, "It's something I was expecting. I'll read it later."

# #

# #

"To the north of here, the Kiso River runs through some of the steep gorges of Mount Ena. Many walk alongside to gain a measure of enlightenment and peace. In this area, Kan'non, the Goddess of Mercy, is heavily favored. There's a statue of Kan'non somewhere around here dedicated to the safety of travelers, and especially to the spirits of horses since they are often used for the really steep sections of road." Aoshi explained to Kaoru as they wandered the town in search of a place to have dinner.

"That's fascinating, Aoshi. Do you think, if we have time, we could look for that statue?"

"I think it's getting too dark now for us to be looking, but we should have time tomorrow morning."

"Great! I look forward to it." Kaoru smiled.

Kaoru glanced around. "Wow, Nakatsugawa is so much busier than a lot of the towns we've passed through. There are tons of shops everywhere!"

"Yes, this is probably one of the busiest towns. It stretches along the Nakasendo for almost a whole mile, and, since there are sometimes problems with thieves, the town and immediately outlying areas have tried to make it safer for travelers by having nearly all necessities right on the path. If people don't have to walk away from the main road to get to an inn or a restaurant, then there's less of a chance of getting caught alone by a thief."

Kaoru nodded. "That makes sense. Thieves don't make it a habit to try anything where it's busy. The risk of getting caught is extremely high in crowded places. And I'm sure there are more police officers around, too."

"Of course." Aoshi agreed.

Arm in arm, they walked the lively streets of Nakatsugawa as darkness descended completely. Not only were there many, many restaurants and shops selling food and wares, but also clothing stores. Kaoru thought of the lovely silk handkerchief Aoshi had purchased for her, presently folded neatly and tucked inside her obi. She always kept it on her, either in her obi or in a sleeve, but always with her. To her delight, the steep hills and rainfall made Nakatsugawa and the cities beyond a prime location for tea plants, so many shops sold locally grown teas and tisanes. Kaoru purchased some for both the trip and for home. She asked Aoshi if he had a favorite flavor and was unsurprised at his simple answer of green tea. She bought a tin of the local favorite for him, despite his protests.

"Please, take it. You've done so much for me. It's just a little token of my appreciation." Kaoru insisted.

Aoshi accepted the tea, his large hands enclosing over Kaoru's smaller ones that held the tin of tea. A faint smile hovered at the corner of his lips as he murmured, "Thank you."

Kaoru smiled in response. Aoshi took the tin, his fingers trailing across Kaoru's hands, leaving a tingling, fiery wake. As he pocketed it somewhere on his person (magical ninja hiding abilities, Kaoru mused,) he continued, "Whenever I partake of this tea, I will surely think of you, and this moment."

Kaoru couldn't stop the warm feeling that burgeoned in her chest at his words. It would be so easy to be with Aoshi, Kaoru thought. So easy, but in some ways, so hard. But would it really be that hard? Well, there was distance, for starters. Aoshi was based in Kyoto, and her whole life was in Tokyo. How would that work? And of course, there was Misao. Kaoru really, really didn't want to think about Misao's reaction just now. Still, she knew what it was to be so in love. Emotions were uncontrollable and irrational, and she knew that someone was going to end up getting hurt, regardless of the best intentions.

Shaking her head, she took Aoshi's arm again, and they continued their leisurely perusal of the town.

To Be Continued…

AN: it's a little short, but at least it's an update, right?