Disclaimer : I own nothing but the plot.

Note : AAAAAGHHHH! I was wondering why I'd gotten so many reviews saying the changes in plot were confusing! Ffnet took out the dividers I had placed in between the changes in POV… Grrr

Italics indicate flashbacks or thoughts

Cleaning House

It's the first of December, almost two years from the day I met Himura. A lot has happened since then, a lot has changed. But some things stay the same. Okina is still a lecherous old man, Aoshi-sama still meditates in the temple everyday… and I, Misao Makimachi, still hate cleaning.

It's the annual spring cleaning of the Aoiya and we've closed shop for three days to really turn everything inside out. A few retired members of the Oniwabanshuu have even been brought in to help with the ordeal. I of course, am generally being used as a dogsbody. If it keeps me running errands and away from any actual cleaning, I'm never ever complaining… One of the old hands who came to help, Honda-obaasan, is sweet, but she seems to think it is her duty to teach me the ways of behaving like, in her words "proper young lady" I've lengthened my daily outfit, what more do they want from me? Decorum? Bzzt… ain't gonna happen.

"Misao-chan!"

Here we go again. Running down to the kitchen, I poke my head in, glancing inquiringly about. Okon and Omasu are there, along with Honda-obaasan and Shiro. Okon is slaving over the stove, cooking what looks like Hiko-san's favorite dish. If the man doesn't buck up and marry her I'm going to go over there and kick some sense into him myself, Hiten Mitsurugi master or not.

"Was there something?"

"Yes, dear"

Honda-obaasan bustles over, hustling me out of the kitchen and over to the supply closet. Opening it, she begins rummaging through, taking out what seems to be an array of cleaning supplies.

"Misao-chan, I've sent Kuro and a few others over to the other properties of the Oniwabanshuu over Kyoto to clean them. Only after I'd sent them did I realize I'd forgotten one. Would you be a dear and go up to the old lookout and clean it up?"

I almost drop the bundle she handed me. Go up there? I haven't been there since I saw Aoshi-sama almost kill Jiya. I don't know if anyone else has been up there either. For all I know I'll have to scrub blood off the floor! What is she- I look up into her innocently smiling face and realise that she has no clue about what took place in that shed. The exact events of that day have not been spoken of… except to reassure Aoshi-sama that he's been forgiven, something I don't quite think has sunken in yet. I thought the man was supposed to be a genius. Apparently not. He still hasn't figured out that I love him, the stupid, moronic,… Halting my little mental tirade, I smile ruefully at her and agree.

-…-…-

Surprising… Misao hasn't brought me tea today.

Feel something's missing Shinomori?

Ignoring the irritating mental voice, I stand up and walk over to the temple entrance, heading back out to the Aoiya. Ever since I took over my duties as Okashira once more, in between training and administrative work, I've made sure to spend 2 hours meditating a day. At first, those hours were to think on my past and my sins. But of late, I've found my thoughts going in a different direction.

Misao.

She's grown. The 8 year-old I left behind had matured into the willful 16-year old who led Kyoto against the forces of Makoto Shishio. Then barely a year back, I see a calm 17 year old walk into my room and hand me a scroll, naming me the Okashira of the Oniwabanshuu once again.

"Your ki is calm once again Aoshi-sama… Please, become the Okashira once more. It's what they would have wanted…"

I caught a glimpse of the mischievous 8 year old when she turned at the door and added impishly "Of course I'm second-in-command, above Jiya." before skipping out. And she's been an able second-in-command too, eager to learn and to offer input. Anything to get out of the "womanly duties" that Omasu and Okon have been trying to push her into. She's not a child anymore… no matter how much my mind tries to deny it. Walking into the kitchen of the Aoiya, I see Okon busily packing something I'm sure is for Hiko (If the man doesn't buck up and marry her I'm going to go over there and beat some sense into him myself, Hiten Mitsurugi master or not) and I ask for some tea.

"Misao-chan didn't bring you any Aoshi-sama?"

"Sorry Aoshi-sama! I sent her over to clean up the Oniwabanshuu lookout hut… It's not-"

I don't hear the rest of the sentence. I'm too busy sprinting out the door.

-…-…-

I struggle up the mountain, burdened under the weight of a bucket of water and a lifetime of memories. That hut had been my playhouse when I was younger, a place where my five protectors and I could be away from the eyes of outsiders. A place where they could be themselves… with me.

"Hannya-kun, make those shadow puppets for me! My hands are too small!"

"Bullying Hannya again are we Misao-chan? Who am I going to bully then?"

A six-year old child laughed with joy as she was gently lifted up and spun around by the muscular, scarred man.

"You can't bully me Shikijo-kun! Aoshi-sama won't let you!"

It was also the first place I learnt to throw kunai, the reasoning being that here all I'd hit was trees, no matter how badly I threw.

Cold steel being placed into a five-year-old's hands. Stubby fingers that were struggling to clutch the smooth metal. She scrunched up her face into a frown of intense concentration, unaware of the calm gaze fixed upon her from afar, ready to remove the blades at the slightest nick. Suddenly she looked up and the frown turned into a dazzling smile.

"Aoshi-sama! Misao-chan can hold the kunai!"

"I can see that Misao…Come, let me show you how to handle them."

My steps grow slower as I near the hut, as fresher, darker memories race through my mind.

"Never show your face to me again"

Blood so much blood there aren't enough bandages in this place what am I going to do so much blood Jiya don't you dare don't you dare die on me now I swear I'll raise you and kill you again Kami help me don't you dare

Shuddering, I step inside. It's dark and musty, but thankfully someone must have come in and cleaned it after that day because there isn't any smell. Relieved, I push open the windows, the late morning sun shining in and giving me a clearer view. The place was cleaned well, and only has dust and cobwebs for me to take care of… but if I look closely I can still make out a faint stain upon the floorboards. Blood is hard to wash away in more ways than one.

Quickly I begin cleaning, wanting to finish the job as fast as I can. There are too many memories in this place. Too much blood and tears shed, warring with the laughter and joy that this place once knew. Every box I carry out seems to weigh more and more, until it feels like I've carried three times my body weight. I drop to my knees after the last box, overwhelmed by the shades of years gone by.

She used to hide. Whenever Okina scolded her or she'd been naughty, she'd run up to the hut and hide. Then one of the five would come up to get her. It was their secret. Their hideout from the rest of the world. No matter how scared or ashamed she was, she knew everything would be all right when she heard one of those voices calling her name.

"Misao-chan, come home."

That day when she woke up, and found her world ripped apart, she ran. She ran as hard and as fast as she could up the mountain. Hoping, waiting for one of those voices to come get her once again. The rest of the Aoiya searched high and low for her for two days, when finally someone thought of the lookout. It was Okina who found the weeping, shivering eight-year-old.

They never speak of it, but he'll never forget the haunted look in her eyes when she looked up and whispered "They didn't come for me Jiya. Did I do something bad?"

I curl up in a ball, shivering, weeping silent tears. All those lonely years, watching, waiting, and I'll never hear four of those voices again. I'll never feel their rough hugs, or have them wipe my tears away. And the one voice that's left to me seems locked away forever. And I don't know how to get him back. All I wished for in all those years was to one day hide away and have them find me. Find me and never leave me again.

The hill-top seems to ring with echoes, taunting her with their voices.

"Misao-chan, don't cry. Look, I'll breathe fire for you."

"Misao-chan you want to disappear like me? You can't, then poor old Beshimi would be left all alone."

"Misao-chan cheer up. Hannya won't let Okina scold you anymore."

"Misao-chan, look what Shikijo brought you. Cherry blossoms!"

"Misao-chan."

"Misao-chan."

"Misao"

Wha-?

"Misao, come home."

"Aoshi…sama?"

I look up, and there he is, kneeling in front of me. For long moments all I can do is stare at him, wondering if somehow after all these years I've finally gone mad and am imagining him. Then I see the pain deep within his eyes and realise that this is no phantom memory. The Lord Aoshi of all those years ago never had scars on his soul to match the ones on his body.

My voice is low and raspy, even as I gasp out the words.

"Can-..Can I do something?"

Mutely he nods, probably thinking I've gone off the deep end. Slowly, haltingly, I reach up a hand and cup the side of his face, smoothing my thumb over his cheekbone. I trace his features, and with the feel of his warm skin beneath my fingertips, finally convince myself its really him.

He's found me.

His gaze is calm and accepting, not understanding why I feel the need to touch him but allowing it anyway. I open my mouth to try and explain but all that seems to come out are broken, incoherent phrases.

"You... You're real. You're really here, and- and you've found me and oh Kami, you're really here and I can't-"

I burst into tears again, great wracking sobs that shake my body and make it seem like my throat is going to tear apart. All I can do is cry in relief and thankfulness and I feel him gather me into his arms like he used to and he's stroking my hair and murmuring into my ear and oh how it hurts. How it hurts to have a piece of you that you thought lost forever suddenly come back and slot itself back into place like its never been gone. My arms are wrapped so tightly around his neck that I might be strangling him and my face is pressed so hard into the crook of his neck that I wouldn't be surprised if I left a little Misao shaped imprint.

"You can't leave me again. I won't let you. I'll follow you I swear. You're stuck with me. Now and always"

"Aa."

-…-…-

Suddenly I realise what she means by me finding her and my heart wrenches within my chest. I've committed more than one sin up here it seems. First by leaving her with the memories, and secondly by leaving her with a bleeding Okina. She's clinging onto me like a limpet and I let her, slowly rubbing her back to calm her down. Finally her sobs die down and I lean back, taking a handkerchief out of my pocket and gently rubbing her face. Because it always used to calm her as a child, I cup the base of her skull and massage gently, allowing her to gain control of her emotions.

Even as she's catching her breath, I look at her, actually just take a mental step back and look at her and she's beautiful. She's grown into a striking 18-year-old who is certainly not a child. Scrubbing at her eyes with the cloth, she shakes her head and looks me in the eye, as if daring me to refute her. Instead I simply take her hand and place it back on my face, reaffirming my presence.

" I am here Misao,… And I'm sorry for leaving you before."

"You should be."

A slight smile is startled out of me at that matter of fact statement, and her eyes widen. Her fingers slide down my face, delicately tracing the curve of my lips, and I can feel my body tighten.

"You smiled. Aoshi-sama, you actually smiled!"

"Is that such a surprise?"

"I've never seen you smile before!"

Brushing my fingers over her face, I reply softly, "I smiled because you stopped crying."

I didn't think it possible but her eyes widen further, until they appear two pools of shimmering blue.

"You don't like seeing me cry."

"No. We all agreed Misao,… that you were meant to face life with a smile on your face. And we left to protect that smile. Somewhere along the line, I forgot what that smile meant to me, and I apologise. But now I am here, and I will try to protect that smile once more."

I can understand her shock. I am rarely this open with her, more often than not limiting our conversations to matters strictly related to the Oniwabanshuu. But of late she has become an adult, and our conversations are beginning to reflect that. She is no longer Misao, the genki teenager, but Misao, the woman. And I treat her as such. I know of what she considers her feelings for me to be, and I know I feel strongly for her… but I don't want to bring her into a union with a man as scarred as I am. A man whose soul is wounded. She deserves more.

"You want to protect me don't you Aoshi-sama."

"Yes…"

"Then don't push me away."

Now it is my turn to be shocked. She speaks strongly, her tone firm and adult.

"You're trying to push me away. To deny that I love you. Jiya has spoken to me about getting married. I am of the age when I should be thinking about a life with someone. Yet the only one whom I will ever marry is you Aoshi-sama."

"Mi-"

She silences me by the simple method of covering my mouth with her palm.

"I have loved you from the moment I saw you. Yet you turn me away? You want to protect my smile, but you would push me to live with another man I could never love? How can that be?"

"Aoshi-sama! Where are you going? You promised me you'd teach me kempo today!"

"I'm sorry Misao. I'll be back in 2 hours. I'll teach you then. First, I have to attend a wedding."

"A wedding?"

"Hai. Just for a-"

"When Misao grows up, she'll marry Aoshi-sama! Aoshi-sama will marry her won't he?"

"I…"

"Aoshi-sama doesn't want to stay with Misao forever?"

"Yes Misao… I do."

My thoughts go back to that long ago conversation, and I realise what Misao's known all along. Aoshi-sama does want to stay with Misao forever. She looks like she's about to say something more, but now it's my turn to cover her mouth.

"We'll take our time about it Misao… but we'll be together. Alright?"

Eyes shining, she nods, and the glade is quiet as we embrace. Lifting her up to carry her down the hill, I murmur into her ear,

"I've found you Misao… And I'll never let you go."

-…-…-

A.N : First fanfic people. So reviews and CCs appreciated. Written in an hour in response to the December challenge at Shinobi Love.

The challenge was "cleaning…" I just sat down with the barest hint of a plot in my head, and this fluff was churned out. No revision

whatsoever, so I'll go over it again when I have time. Ja ne!