The cold seeped through the walls of the building, air drifting through the tightly-shut windows and crawling across the floor to envelop a large, warm hand. Late December had the Aoiya frozen, and no matter what the occupants of the restaurant did, the cold still found a way to sift through the cracks in the floors or through the large windows of the bedrooms.

He mumbled in his sleep, flipping over to pull his chilled hand to his chest. Even under the blankets covering his futon, he still felt the chill of the evening.

He himself was a cold man, an icy exterior that not even the brightest smile could crack. His frozen teal eyes stared impassively at anyone and everyone around him.

But that didn't mean he liked the cold.

On the inside, he embraced it- let it pull him into its icy depths, plunging into the river of unemotional living. He did not enjoy it, rather, he detested being the way he was.

.......Though, he never really was given a choice.

He'd always been serious. Even at the tender age of three, when his parents left him alone in the world, to deal with his sorrow and pain single- handedly, he hadn't shown anything.

But inside, he'd cried himself senseless.

Now though, he was different. Hai, he was still the same unemotional man he'd been before his departure from the Aoiya 11 years before, and, if anything, he'd only gotten icier.

When he was named Okashira at age 15, he remembered a small 5-year-old girl who clung to his leg and gave him loving glances.

"Aoshi nii-chan?" she had asked. "You'll be with me always, ne?"

Her wide ocean-sprayed eyes looked up at him anxiously, and he felt his face soften momentarily. "Why do you ask that Misao-chan?" he'd inquired.

"Well......." her lower lip had trembled. "Now that you're all leader-ish, you won't get to play with me so much.......ne Aoshi nii-chan?"

"That's right Misao-chan," he'd told her. "But I will be with you always."

"Hontou?" she'd asked doubtfully.

"Aa......."

Aoshi Shinomori felt his eyes snap open at the end of his dream. It had been three years since his return to the Aoiya, and three years since Misao herself had taken over as the Okashira.

He let his eyes slip closed again, turning his head slightly to the right to think. It had been almost a year ago that the nightmares had stopped calling to him during his slumber. And instead, he would always dream about his past.

His past before he'd gone away.

He'd dream of all of the old members of the Oniwabanshuu before the group had been disbanded, and he'd dream about little Misao-chan and old Okina, who still had yet to change.

But he would always awaken at his lies.

"You'll be with me always, ne?"

Misao-chan's words echoed back to him from the past. Well, he'd lied. He hadn't been there for her always. He'd left, taking with him her older, wiser friends, and he'd returned eight years later without them. Because they were dead.

They'd died for him, to save his worthless life, so that he could go back to Misao-chan again.

Hannya had once confided in him that they all missed little Misao dearly. And that, after they finished their work with Kanryuu, they all wanted to go back to her.

And Aoshi had agreed.

But he'd been the only one to make it back.

And he'd come back only to disgrace the name of the Oniwabanshuu and himself.

Yet, even after all he'd done, Misao still welcomed him back with open arms.

The others had had a harder time of it, especially old Okina, but Misao had not thought about it twice, she'd just run to him happily embracing him and welcoming him 'home'.

His eyes opened again, the icy teal depths reflecting momentary sadness and remorse before they flickered back to his usual masked indifference.

Home.......

A home was not a shelter, nor an abode. It was a place where one's family was. And if one had no family, it was simply where their friends were.

And, to him, the Aoiya was more than home. It was his life. His entire being would disappear if not for everyone at the restaurant.

Especially Misao.

She had grown, not Misao-chan any longer, but instead, the Okashira of the Oniwabanshuu at 19 years of age.

'And still unmarried.......'

His thoughts churned, and he blinked once, twice.

'And I know the reason why.......'

She loved him. She'd always loved him. Even when her father and mother passed on, and she refused consultation from Okina, she'd come to him, running into his arms and sobbing for all she was worth.

"They're g-g-gone Aoshi-nii-chan!" she'd wailed, clutching onto the fabric of his ninja uniform. "They left me a-all a-a-alone!"

He turned on his side and clutched one hand to his heart, remembering her small hands fisting in the fabric so long ago. The chill seeped into his bones, chilling more than his body, but invading his heart and soul.

He felt so empty.......

Whatever had happened to those times, so long ago? He sat up and rested his head on his bent up knees, allowing his muddled thoughts to sort themselves out.

They were gone, leaving him empty without a purpose.

He felt rather useless anymore.......

He went to the temple every day, trying to decipher the meaning of his life, and the meaning of existence itself. And every day, Misao brought him tea, and he always, always drank it.

He did admit that he loved seeing the genki ninja-girl with her cocky attitude and ever-smiling face. It was, in fact, the only thing he ever looked forward to all day.

He had yet to fall asleep. Not for three years had he been able to sleep in a restful slumber. He would always awaken for some reason, and he hated himself for it. He could feel himself shrinking. His heart, his soul.......his entire being. He'd started eating in his room, but that was all. He'd eat dinner, but if he returned after that particular meal, he would not eat anything for the day.

Misao always tried to cheer him up by bringing sweets or other foods to the temple for him to eat. She was trying to become a good cook, as Omasu and Okon pestered her constantly to act more like the young woman she was. So Misao happily took up cooking meals for the Oniwabanshuu in the evenings.

Aoshi, unfortunately, almost never ate any meals with the 'family' and preferred to seclude himself in his own room for dinner, so he wouldn't be observed by the others'.

He rose to his feet in the dark room, wrapping his blanket around his shoulders. It was cold, and his yukata didn't do anything much to keep him warm. His thoughts drifted slightly to Okon and Omasu. Why did the young women try to get Misao married off, when they themselves were not married?

Of course, he knew of their obsession with Hiko Seijuro, but still....... he scoffed at the very idea of the hermit-type man ever getting married. Sure, the well-built shishou could easily get a wife if he wished, but.......

Why were they trying to change Misao?

It angered him to think that the women would change Misao just so that the younger woman would be married. Why would they do that to her?

They knew how much Misao detested kimono's, and she never wore one unless forced, preferring instead to wear her ninja uniform. Hai, it showed an indecent amount of her legs, but Aoshi didn't mind. And he didn't dwell on it either.

Misao was old enough to decide for herself what she wished to wear, and Aoshi liked her just the way she was. No need for her to change herself around backward to marry some commanding bastard who would take away her childish innocence, replacing it instead with a quiet housewife.

He felt his fists clench together tightly, and that jolted him from his semi-conscious thoughts. What did it matter to him, what happened to her? If she married, he would be happy for her.

As happy as was possible.......

One of his large calloused hands reached out to slide open the shoji to his room. Maybe, if luck was with him, he would find the ingredients for tea in the kitchen.

Sure, tea kept you awake and it kept you kind of.......well.......hyper.

Aoshi Shinomori was NOT a hyper man. He never had been. He liked the way the steam curled over the rim of the teacup, warm and inviting.

Unlike himself.

Though.......

He really wanted to be as warm and inviting as the tea he drank was.

He walked silently down the halls, his bare feet not making the slightest sound in the building. Strange enough, not one of the onmitsu's stirred in their sleep. Normally, someone would be up asking him questions.

Obviously, today he had luck on his side.

He stepped into the chilly kitchen and started brewing tea for himself. He thought briefly about taking the tea to his room to enjoy.......and decided that it might be a good idea.

After the tea was ready, he poured it into two cups. He would be up for a long while, and he knew as much to bring that much with him. He probably would not get to sleep again that night.

He handled the two hot cups gently, walking carefully up the stairs and down the hall to his room. The blanket around his shoulders kept him warm, and as he padded down the corridor softly, he heard a muffled sound coming from the room a few doors down from his own.

He paused, halting outside of a familiar doorway. This particular doorway was the second most familiar one to him, aside of his own. When he returned home late at night, he often found himself pausing outside of her door.

And he heard every emotion possible from the outside.

He'd heard her sighing, crying, wishing, hoping, praying, loving, wanting.......

Usually, she was crying.

Just like now.

A pang went through his chest at the thought of Misao in any kind of pain was nearly unbearable to him. He listened to her muffled sobbing from outside her shoji, and he willed himself away.

But his feet refused to obey his mental command.

'Leave her alone! You're the one who makes her cry nearly every night. Why don't you just leave her in solitude and stop messing with her feelings.'

He shook his head and stepped back, walking down the hall and into his own room. He sat cross-legged on the floor, and sipped silently at his tea. He hated hearing Misao cry, but there was nothing he could do.

~You could try to be there for you when she needs you, you know.......

His voice constantly taunted him. Tried to make him take things that weren't his. Misao wasn't his, and no matter how much either one of them wanted it to be so, it was not.

She was 10 years younger than him, much too young for a man of 29. Her sunny smile would only disappear if they were together. She would become as silent as he, face ever-impassive and cold.

He didn't want that.......

~But Battousai- I mean- Himura and the Kamiya girl are 10 years apart as well.......

They were different, he reasoned within himself. Himura-san and his wife were DIFFERENT. Himura hadn't let his friends down. FOUR friends. And countless others.

And Himura had never made Kaoru cry either. Not the way Misao cried.......

He hung his head slightly. And Misao nearly ALWAYS cried because of him.

Because of his icy exterior, his silent-ness.......

He set his teacup down and wrapped his blanket more securely around himself. A muffled forlorn sob came from down the hall, and his head jerked up to stare at the shoji.

~Well? What are you waiting for?

'I.......I can't. I would just make it worse.......'

His head fell downward again lightly, his chin nearly touching his chest.

~Worse?! How can you make it any worse?! Just LISTEN!!

He truly didn't want to listen to Misao's muffled crying any longer. His heart constricted every time her voice drifted down the corridor and into his ears. He clenched his eyes shut and tried to ignore the sounds coming from her room.

~Come on, she needs you now! You should go to her.......

'Fine, fine.......' he mumbled mentally, standing up slowly. He kept his blanket wrapped around his shoulders, and slid his shoji open silently to make his way down the hall to Misao's room.

He stopped outside of her room and listened for awhile before noiselessly sliding open her door and stepping inside the darkened room. His sharp icy teal eyes immediately sought out the small form huddled underneath the blankets on her futon.

She twisted around in her sheets, her blanket already halfway across the floor messily tangled up. She was sobbing hysterically, thrashing every which way. She'd already fallen off her futon, the sheets twisted around her chaotically.

He sighed inwardly.

She was asleep.......

~Well? Get over there and see what's the matter!

Aoshi numbly moved forward and picked up her discarded blanket, kneeling beside where she was moving around. Strangely, she didn't speak out loud. He wondered why, when she was in such a state of restlessness.

He pulled the sheets away from her limbs and set them over her neatly, leaning over slightly to tuck them under her chin.

Suddenly, she shot forward, hands clutching at the front of his yukata. Her wide ocean-sprayed eyes shot open frantically, blinking furiously against the tears that were threatening to overflow again.

Aoshi tensed up when she grabbed onto him, but he soon relaxed and put one of his hands on her back, doing the only thing he knew.

She buried her face in his chest, her sobs erupting outward in a frenzy of.......fear?

When Aoshi made no move to leave, she crawled into his lap, and he wrapped her thick blanket around her shaking body. A few minutes later, her sobs ceased, but she didn't move from her spot.

Aoshi was grateful that she didn't move. He rather enjoyed holding her, marveling at how small she truly was. Finally, she sniffled and shifted in his grip, moving a hand to wipe her tears away.

"A-Aoshi-sama......." she stuttered lightly, sniffling slightly. "Gomen nasai Aoshi-sama, did I wake you?"

"Iie......."

She sighed lightly. "Good. I didn't mean to bother you.......gomen ne......." She moved her head to the side. "I just......."

"Nán desu ka?"

She looked up surprised. "Well, I-I was looking for everyone.......and.......no matter where I looked, I couldn't find anyone......." Her voice broke off, and she looked down. "I went to the temple even, and you weren't there. Nobody was anywhere.......everyone was just.......gone. There wasn't anyone in the streets......."

Aoshi just nodded. She was afraid of being alone.......as was he.......

"Everyone just left me.......alone......." Abruptly, she drew in a sharp breath. "You won't leave me, will you Aoshi-sama?" she asked softly.

"I won't......." he mumbled slowly.

She sighed relieved. "Good Aoshi-sama.......I'm glad." She wrapped her arms around him and put her head over his heart. The steady thumping made her drowsy and she yawned into his chest.

"Arigatou......." she mumbled, eyes slipping shut. "For being there......."

Aoshi's eyes softened as he shifted her in his lap to a more comfortable position.

~You can put her down now, you know.

'Maybe....... I don't feel like it.......'

~Hmph!

"Oyasumi nasái Aoshi-.......sama......." she yawned again.

~Darn. She used that -sama again.

'So?'

"Oyasumi nasái Misao," Aoshi told her, wrapping his own blanket around the both of them.

He watched the steady rise and fall of her body as she slept.

~All right....... You can put her down now. C'mon, what if Okina comes in and sees this?

'Then he will, won't he?'

~Grrr! Just get to your own room! C'mon, it can't be THAT hard to put her on her own bed. What are you, her personal living breathing futon?

'Hm.......that'd be nice.......'

~Hey! Get a grip! You're getting all mushy and stuff. Just put Misao down and retreat back to your OWN bed.

'Well.......maybe I should.......'

~Of course! I'm always right! I'm your conscious, remember?

'Aa, that's what I'm afraid of.......'

~Hey now! Just do it already.......

'Fine, fine.......'

Aoshi moved to place Misao down on her futon, but she clung to the front of his yukata, burying her face in the open front of it.

She looked so cute.......

And Aoshi found himself.......

.......not wanting to put her down.

~*_~*_~*_+_*~_*~_*~

Well, it's over everyone. Lol! Corny ending, but what the heck? I couldn't help it. *sigh* I have this phobia.......I call it.......

End-a-story-phobia. ^^;;;;;

Yeah, it's THAT strange.

I find it hard to end fics, because I can never find the right way.......It's actually very hard to me. *siiighhh*

Anyway, C&C is VERY VERY VERY-well much appreciated! Please criticize this, because as you probably know, I want to improve my writing style as much as possible! ^.^

~~Okashira Misao

Be careful, the corniness might kill you!