Summary: (Modern AU RuroKen) For two years Misao Makimachi had been working beside the stoic Aoshi Shinomori in an unofficial government branch. The third year of their partnership and the seasons turned, the fall wind bringing a promise of a chill and danger tangled in things to come.

A/N: I've wanted to write an Aoshi/Misao fanfic for a while now. Though I started out reading mainly Kenshin/Kaoru pairings, I have a certain fondness for the A/M pairing, most likely intensified by the lack of updating Aoshi/Misao fanfics out there.
That said, this was an idea that popped into my head, and once there, I had to do something with it or else I knew it would never leave me alone. The story concentrates on Misao's thoughts because I feel that the strength of Misao's personality is overshadowed sometimes, or not highlighted enough. So I don't touch on Aoshi's thoughts as much, but I'm trying to make it clear enough where his feelings lie.

Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin belongs to its respective creator/owners. The original concept for this story is mine to claim as well as any and all original characters/ideas I might have to throw in to make the plot work. Rule of thumb: If it already has an owner, it's not mine.

-

Under the Influence
-CH 1

A small hand, shadowed in the pre-dawn light, reached across the expanse to the bedside table and tapped the alarm clock into its off position. It paused and tilted the clock in the direction of the bed. She frowned: it was at least 45 minutes before it would go off and already she was sure she wouldn't be able to go back to sleep. She let it go though. So much time could be wasted once she was deep in thought, and it was times like this that plunged her into the depths of her mind. Snuggling up into the covers, she reached out a hand blindly in the direction of the empty space on the bed next to her that she saw each and every time she got into bed and every time she got out, and imagined him. Pale aquamarine eyes swirled in her mind's eye, so different from hers, the color of the topaz ocean. Briefly as she had before, she wondered what it would be like to sleep next to him for real and have the right to curve into his warmth. She shivered and burrowed deeper into the covers as she curled into a ball, suddenly realizing how cold it was in the early mornings and dimly wondering about what his body heat could do to her if she was allowed to revel in it.

She glanced at the clock. There was still another 22 minutes left to her normal wake up time, but she rose anyway, letting a soft sigh fall from her lips as she made the bed and paused, staring at the unmussed section of coverlet before pulling the sheets smooth and running a hand along the cold cloth and feeling exactly where it turned into the still warm area that she had previously occupied. Pulling her clothes from on top of her dresser where she had stowed them for easier access, she dressed as quickly as she could, nearly falling over several times when she almost tripped herself up. She hugged her arms about herself and glanced in her bedroom mirror at her reflection. Her clothes would have been undistinguishable from her body in the twilight that came just before the sun at the blackest time of the night. Now, with a faint line of light contouring her bedroom window, even without her developed night vision she could tell where cloth ended and woman began.

They were all black. They were almost always all black. Sometimes she wore dark blue just to be different, and on occasion she had dared to wear green, orange even. But white was off-limits and she didn't try to bend the rules. Besides, if she wore another color, she'd just end up having to change once she reached the office, or wear a jacket of another dark color over it. It wasn't worth the struggle, so she didn't bother anymore. Her dresser was filled with dark clothing. She frowned slightly, suddenly confused. Opening the drawer, she checked its contents. So not all her clothes were all black. It came as a slight relief to her. She was so used to wearing dark colors that she sometimes found herself believing that she was in mourning, or that she had, in fact, gone blind with only the gray-white light of the dawn at her back in a grayscale world. But then she'd open her drawer to reassure herself and the bright tints of many colors, the most offending being pink and the least offending being, once again, black, and know that she hadn't been locked into such a lifeless place after all. And then she remembered that she hated the color pink and slammed her drawer shut with a frown.

Breakfast was the most important meal of the day. It was also the only time she'd permit herself to have coffee, and she savored it. The experts said it stunted your growth if you drank too much or started drinking at an early age. She hadn't started drinking at an early age and she wasn't an addict, but she was already indefinitely miffed about her shortened stature, and though she wouldn't admit it to anyone if asked, she didn't like the idea that all the coffee she'd seen her coworkers drink might eventually cause her to start shrinking if she were to drink as much as they did. So she only had one small cup of coffee in the mornings, and sometimes not even that. There were many times she wasn't at home and couldn't reach her select brand of coffee. And who knew what was in the coffee at the office? She could read the nutrition panel and list of ingredients just fine at home and didn't need to go looking around for it at the office if she never drank the coffee there. As she watched the coffeemaker start its burbling, and stared absently at the coffee package, she thought about it and added, 'Besides, people might ask questions.' And she really didn't like putting up with questions about her height. In the mornings she could sometimes be found at her most calm and collected state. There was no reason to spoil that by getting riled up at questions that needn't ever be asked.

The coffeemaker was still letting off its cheery morning chuckle and she started rummaging in the pantry for her cereal. She wasn't so sure she felt like sugar today, not with the serious state of mind her earlier thoughts had put her in, so she ignored the Trix and Capt'n Crunch, though she stared wistfully at the mustached pirate man for a moment. She was more than fairly sure that particular box was about to go stale. Pushing it to the side to avoid looking at it, she pulled out Honey Bunches of Oats. It had sugar in it, true, but it was also less likely to spoil her mood and the crunching might distract her from any depressing thoughts that might come her way. Pulling out the milk and a small packet of fresh blueberries that she had only just gotten—she could tell by the way there was no mold growing on any of the fruit—and set it down on her small kitchen table before finding a bowl and spoon and carrying them, along with the cereal, to her table. She put the bowl down with a satisfied thunk and proceeded to mix cereal, milk, and blueberries, stirring contemplatively before digging in. She had just finished when the coffee maker beeped. She had eaten more quickly than was usual for her, possibly attributed to her earlier awakening. She normally liked to eat yogurt in the mornings, but only did it if there wasn't any fruit in her cereal. She had discovered one day that the particular brand of coffee she liked didn't mix with the flavor that came from fruit on the bottom, making her routine change as she made time for yogurt before cereal. Pulling out a worn and chipped, but much-loved mug from a cub board, she filled it with the exact amount of coffee that had been in the coffeemaker. Long ago she had finally gotten tired of wasting coffee and figured out exactly how much coffee she needed to make in the mornings to fill one cup. Sure, the coffeemaker would finish making it before she finished her cereal and it would get slightly cold as she finished, but it was better than wasting that rich, expensive blend she was so fond of. Before she could stop the thought, she wondered if he would like it. Blinking in surprise and shaking her head before any more images could come unbidden to her mind, she finished clearing up her breakfast dishes and moved to the bathroom to wash up. After a twice daily—if she could manage it—washing and brushing regime, she went to find her car keys.

They were there in her jacket pocket like she'd left them and she put the mug down before shrugging into her coat. It was black—no surprise there—and came down just above her ankles. It was a trench coat, anda large one at that. Nice, weather-resistant, warm, and still fashionable trench coats didn't come in petite. She had to put up with it being a bit big in exchange for all the features. Opening the door and stepping out into the light, she squinted for a moment. The sun hadn't even crested the house across the street, yet the light hurt her eyes after being in the house the whole time without turning on a single light. She could see her way perfectly and didn't need the light, perhaps even felt more comfortable without it. Reaching back inside momentarily to snag her coffee mug and then pausing to make sure the door was locked behind her, she turned to look at her house one last time before she continued on down the sidewalk to her car.

She felt lives burning around her and didn't need to check to know that the rabbits that had been nibbling at the grass in her small yard were scampering away from her. It was the same every morning, though they didn't spook away as easily as they once had. She supposed it might be different if she actually carried weapons on her in the morning. All creatures had a sense for the dangerous and unfamiliar feel of man's creations when they were made with natural substances they could recognize and when they weren't. But she didn't bother with arming herself until she was almost to work. She supposed she should, she never knew when she'd be attacked, but it was peaceful and quiet in the mornings. Why should she shatter that calm by carrying death on her shoulders?

No, she kept her weapons hidden carefully in her car. And what an unremarkable car it was. It was just like any other economy class car on the block. With a shiny silver exterior coupled with a reliable engine, good gas mileage, and tires that could go off-road if need be, it didn't stand out at all. The neighbors had no reason to suspect that it had once been a chop-shop car and had a few tweaks inconspicuously bred into its system. Even if they did suspect, she didn't believe they had any reason to complain. She had owned the original car in the first place and had every right to drive it if she wanted to. The neighbors were unenlightened to this fact and she didn't feel the need to tell them; it was an advantage she liked having, whether she needed it or not.

Climbing into the drivers' side, she slid her coffee mug into a drink holder and made sure it wouldn't spill before lowering herself fully into her seat and slamming the door after. Retracting her keys from her pocket, she started the ignition and maneuvered the proper buttons and switches into position to help heat up the car and defrost the windshield. As the car began to warm up, she buckled herself in fully and pulled off the side of the street where she was parked and into the center of the street, avoiding the neighbors who parked in this same fashion. As she pulled out of her quiet neighborhood and cut her way through others, one of her hands gradually slid underneath her seat and popped a hidden lever, flicking thorough a few complicated safety switches and guards before a panel under her left foot clicked open. She lifted her foot and slipped it into the compartment, digging until it was under the small package wedged there. Balancing the bundle precariously on her foot, she lifted it to a height where her waiting hand could easily snag it without her having to bend down and look unnatural to the few other drivers around her awake at such early hours. Once the lumpy package was safe in her hand, she dropped her foot back down and skillfully snapped the lid shut; it blended in seamlessly with the floor as her foot returned to hovering over the peddle she had previously manipulated along with the other one with only one foot. Eyes still on the road, she steered with one hand, as the other was busy in her lap.

By the time she had reached the office, located just inside of the city before it became too crowded and businesslike, but after the area of the city between the residential section and the city where it was full of grocery stores and small malls, she had distributed her weapons to their preferred spots on her person. Not even the bundle was returned to the hidden compartment, as it also played a role in her weaponry. Turning into the parking lot on the other side of the building, she found her designated space. Although unmarked, everyone in the building knew where he or she should and shouldn't be. This order was maintained throughout the day, and though nobody outside would guess it, there were those assigned to watch the parking lot and make sure that only the people meant to be there were there. If someone was missing or someone was there who shouldn't be, they reported the problem in and it was handled. It was normally harmless. Once or twice it was potentially dangerous, but there had never been an incident that would send the rest of the occupants of the building into red alert. It was an office building where security was a matter of life and death.

She was used to it. She passed them knowing where they were. A mutual respect existed between all those who worked here. If you knew them, you respected them for what you knew they were capable of and what you knew of their personalities. If you didn't know them, you simply respected them for what you knew they were capable of, and it worked both ways. She walked through the archway and into East building. The office was divided into two main sections: East and West. In the East section, the subdivisions were Northeast and Southeast with a regular main East section. In the West section it was also like this. There were two smaller sections: North and South. North was the section that was head of all the others, despite how much smaller it was compared to the other three and their subdivisions. The South section was support to all the other sections. Main security was there along with other departments that all divided up to aid the other three.

Her destination was the Southeast section. The way there was dotted with those she knew and those she was a mere acquaintance to. Exchanging pleasantries, she wound through the maze that the East section was known for being with her coffee mug in her hands, though it was almost empty at this point, until she reached the tell-tale sign of the Southeast section: running into her brother.

"Misao!" His voice was smiling along with his face as he caught sight of her. She paused and looked at him with amusement as he came up to her, draining the last dregs of her coffee in one big gulp just as he stopped beside her. "Good morning, Misao-chan," he beamed. He alone was permitted to use "-chan" with Misao's name. Anyone else who tried it would suddenly find themselves with all the qualifications that made a good dartboard.

"Sou-kun!" she smiled, hugging him around the shoulders as they began their way into the Southeast section. "Do you really have to wait for me here every morning?" Her face changed from one of fondness to one of annoyance at her brother's actions as fast as a storm upon the sea. She didn't really mean it though. She asked him that same question every morning and was still delighted to see him waiting for her at the "official entrance" into the Southeast section. He knew this little game, of course. In the beginning he had waited for her out of worry, now he simply waited for her to get a chance to talk before she was raveled up in her duties and he in his, as well as for the sake of their ritual. Both would insist to anyone that they could break this habitat at any time if need be, but nobody believed them, nor would they ask it of the two smiling siblings of the Southeast section.

Waking up was not considered the beginning of the day in Misao's book. Her day didn't begin until she could see Sou-kun's face light up at the sight of her and talk to him as they made their way into the Southeast section. There was something else, actually, that started her day as well, but she didn't dwell on what that was. Her brother could read her like a book and she likewise. It wouldn't do for him to notice the odd look in her eye and immeadiately guess what the problem was. So far she believed she had managed to fool him and keep him from finding out, but as sure as she felt about that, even she could never be completely sure with Sojiro Makimachi.

The Makimachi siblings were renowned in the Southeast section, and the main East section as well. There were other brothers and sisters scattered throughout the office, some in the same sections and some even in the same subdivisions, but none were quite as young, cheerful, talented, and influential as the Makimachi's. Misao and Sojiro were the children of an important politician and his wife. Though Misao appeared otherwise, she had an agile and shrewd mind. Her tongue could be quite sharp if she concentrated hard enough, and she was intelligent in a way that only her completely opposite childlike appearance and demeanor could possibly hide. They had encouraged Misao to attend law school and begin studying for her bar in hopes that she would establish a firm that would be a credit to their name and earn her the respect of the other people in government worth noticing. They had hoped that she might marry another successful lawyer or become a big politician's wife.

Sojiro wasn't cut out for the degree of curve when it came to the turns the government was constantly making. He had an able mind and could keep up with his sister in matters of law for a time, but he had nowhere near the type of tact his sister could demand. He made up for it by being what his parents had labeled him as: "One of the great thinkers." Misao was graceful and lithe in her movements and her thoughts, her energy was always moving her to be something and do something and she took it to her utmost advantage. Sojiro was calm and deep with his actions and musings. He dove into areas where his sister could only skim the surface of and he was wise in areas his sister also had skill in, yet he was different than her and approached things in a different manner. His parents planned for him a budding authorship, knowing that the depth to his thinking would attract not only readership, but good publicity as well.

And neither of the two had followed their parents' wishes. Misao was outspoken and loud at times. She could be rash, but she had her brother to make up for that. Her intention was not to play a constant battle of wits with the cutthroats who were allowed to make public appearances, speak big meaningless words, and wear Armani suits as they showed off how wonderful the profession of law was. She had no intention of constantly using her mind as a sword when real metal could cut so much more quickly and cleanly and without most of the mess as well. She took what she considered to be her father's most worthwhile gift—the Makimachi style—and joined an unofficial branch of the government. Her parents were equally shocked when Sojiro easily followed her.

-

They rounded a corner and Misao nearly stopped dead before she remembered that she couldn't allow herself to do such a thing with Sojiro there. He was still talking animatedly at her side, and she turned to pay attention to him, trying to block out the presence in her mind that was all too familiar and coming steadily closer.

"…didn't think to look under that rock that one time we visited grandma, you remember? We both ended up falling in as we searched her garden for that frog she said she hid her extra keys in…"

"Misao. Sojiro." Sojiro seized talking and looked up into the face of Aoshi Shinomori as he came upon his partner and her brother talking in front of him.

"Oh. Good morning, Aoshi," Sojiro greeted pleasantly as he looked up at the tall man. Compared to Aoshi, Sojiro had a bit of a way to look up. The taller man was Misao's partner and was used to seeing them talking in the mornings. He was carrying a manila folder in one hand while his other was cupped around the edge of the thing to keep any lose papers from slipping out as he walked.

"Good morning," Aoshi solemnly replied, checking the folder in his grasp again, as if certain it was just waiting for him to let his guard down before the papers tried to make a bid for freedom and force him to backtrack his way down the hall in order to retrieve them.

Misao noticed his movement and followed his torso—she nearly blushed at a few fleeting thoughts—down until her eyes rested on his hands. Mentally locking her thoughts on the contents of the folder, she summoned the courage and looked Aoshi in the eyes as her observed her and Sojiro. "Is that…?" she started, but didn't finish the sentence. She knew what it was, Sojiro knew, and Aoshi knew.

Sojiro took his cue and kissed his sister on the cheek. "Have a nice day, Misao-chan! You too, Aoshi." Smiling brightly at them one last time, he turned on his heels and made his way to where his partner would be waiting for him. Misao watched her brother as he went around a corner and was lost from sight and stood there with Aoshi for a few silent moments. She didn't want to break the silence, make him suspicious of anything, or turn and look him in the eyes. 'Oh, what to do…'

Aoshi was kind enough to make the decision for her. "Misao." He didn't need any more words than that. After being his partner for two years, she'd picked up on his habits and mannerisms easily. Turning and flashing him her basic genki smile, she began moving in the opposite direction Sojiro had taken.

"Do you have the exact details, Aoshi?" her voice wasn't as loud as her normal speaking level. Neither of them was worried about any of the other people in the vicinity eavesdropping, but it was still best to keep their mission to themselves. If questioned, those around them could honestly say they didn't know anything if they didn't overhear their conversation.

"I was given the main details of what we're being assigned to do, but we have time before we need to leave." His stride was longer than hers and she was half prancing, half skipping to keep up with him. She could've told him to slow down, but she was so used to it by now that she didn't even notice.

"Oh? How long before we need to leave?" They had come back out of the Southeast section and were at the main East section heading towards the numerous elevators grouped together in the lobby that the East, Southeast, and Northeast sections opened out onto. Aoshi kept walking past the traffic entering and leaving the elevators. Once clear of them he paused in front of the East section.

"Not for some time now. We have at least one to two hours before we need to start moving. Then there's a two-hour drive time before we even reach the destination. There's time if you didn't have breakfast this morning and wanted to have some," he suggested, turning his head to look at her.

Misao didn't let her smile waver a fraction of a centimeter when his eyes met hers. He wouldn't know so long as she kept it out of the eyes that she knew were too expressive. "No, no. I had cereal and coffee this morning. And blueberries!" she added to reassure him. "Driving will give me cramps and there will be hardly any time for stretching, much less a proper warm-up when we get there." She finished with a slight pout at the prospect of sitting cooped up in a car for two hours, not unlike a younger child with just as much distaste for sitting still.

Glancing towards the elevators and then back at the folder in his hands, Aoshi found Misao's eyes before asking, "A warm-up, then?" Misao looked surprised for a minute before considering. Then she nodded her consent and smiled warmly, pleased that she hadn't had to suggest it herself. She was secretly happier than she let on. The only things that could take her mind off Aoshi when she was with him were fighting him, and being on an actual assignment with him. Concentrating all her energy into a complicated battle dance or the delicate operations that had to be completed throughout an assignment gave her the only real break she had from thinking of him. But she guarded her eyes carefully as he merely nodded and found his way into an elevator that was only half-full and took her place next to him as it descended into the lower levels of East building.

When the elevator stopped and everyone had gotten off, Misao and Aoshi had headed towards the practice courts. There was a single huge practice court that was open to anyone, and there were smaller courts that were there for individual groups of partners or small groups of people to use for their practice as well as an indoor shooting area. The West building also boasted these same features. The North building was too small to have its own shooting area or practice courts, and the South building only had a small shooting area that was primarily used for preliminary weapon testing.

Finding an empty practice room, they filed into the room in silence. Misao moved to one corner of the room and began her warm-up exercises and stretches while Aoshi started his on the other end of the room. As her blood began to flow faster through her veins with the help of her quickened heartbeat, any nervousness or awkwardness that might have entered her mind at Aoshi being there immediately scattered from her mind. She flew through her routine with practiced ease, finishing to stop and take the chance to catch her breath. Across the room from her Aoshi was doing the same. Once she felt she was ready, she took up a place in the middle of the room, bringing her hands up and spreading her legs until she was in a defensive position facing Aoshi. Seeing her take her place, he mirrored her, coming to stand in front of her with his guard up.

There was a silent signal, and Misao brought her elbow up to block a blow from Aoshi's left knee. He whirled and spun with his right leg bearing down to slam into her side. Deftly catching his leg, she moved a knee up to catch him in the gut, stopping at the last moment to attempt to catch him in the chest with her right fist instead. He grabbed her first, effectively stopping it and twisted his leg in her hold. Wincing, Misao dropped his leg and brought her left hand up to punch him in the wrist. He released her right hand and they fell back to watch each other with wary eyes. After being partners so long, they knew each other's style as well as their own and expected and anticipated the other's attacks with ease. Some might argue that it spoiled the fight—knowing your opponent's moves left no surprise and gave you insight onto the opponent's techniques and style. But Aoshi and Misao would disagree with this statement. Knowing what the opponent might be waiting to pull out next was better for the flow of the fight. When facing an unknown opponent it would be necessary to hang back and evaluate the other's strengths and weaknesses while observing the way they preferred to fight. Because of this, neither opponent would be fighting with their full strength and the fight would be lengthy and laced with more tension. It was harder to enjoy a fight when constantly on the lookout for sneak attacks and hidden maneuvers. The true way to fight was to let yourself sink into the rhythmic flow of the movements and follow the patterns of the opponent subconsciously as you participated in the deadly dance.

Misao kept her eyes on Aoshi, looking for the slightest twitch that could alert her as to what he was going to do next. He was a blur for an instant before he began pummeling her with a rapid punching attack. Warding off his blows with her arms and legs, Misao found an opportunity and took it, cutting across his ankle with her foot as she attempted to lodge it between his feet and trip him up while her elbow aimed to smack him in the ribs and knock the wind from his lungs. Aoshi did a complicated jig to be rid of her blows that ended in a jump and kick that would smash into her torso and force her back. For a single moment Misao wondered if he had been good at hop-scotch as a child before her mind snapped back and she blocked his blow with both of her arms crossed across her chest. Using the power from uncrossing her arms quickly to push his leg off her chest, she moved into one of her favorite attacks, and one of the most difficult of the Makimachi style.

The attack Misao called upon was one of the techniques the Makimachi style had been based upon. When used, it was a series of different feints used to confuse the opponent before a truly devastating blow or combination of blows was dealt with the built up momentum gained from feinting at high speeds. It was such a difficult attack to master that the first ten basic feints used in the attack, five for defense and five for offense, were taught to those who had just learned the very basics of the style. As they progressed through the teachings of the style, they learned to take the ten basic feints and combine them in varying order, number, and pattern with attacks to create hundreds of possible combinations. The untold number of possibilities made mastery of the attack both formidable and rare; even in the few people who practiced the Makimachi style, it was unusual to find someone who had mastered the technique. Both Misao and Sojiro had mastered it, and it came in handy frequently in their work.

Aoshi had seen this attack numerous times, had had it used against him many of those times, and knew the after effects well. Yet he still had trouble countering Misao when her very outline became just an obscure flash. She was aiming for his left shoulder with her right, but feinted, twirling around him to take his back. A moment later, Aoshi spun, trying to keep her from causing damage to his unguarded back. Realizing too late that she never intended to attack his back, he felt her left fist brush over his targeted left shoulder as he was making to turn and face her, watching as her long braid whipped around behind her, mimicking her pirouette. Not pausing for a moment, Misao brought her left fist to Aoshi's right shoulder in a feint that resulted in her right hand scoring a glancing hit along his right side as her left hand retracted to flip her hair up in a final act that Aoshi recognized as a bit of personal style Misao had added into her attacks. As she rounded up the technique, Misao continued around Aoshi, letting her speed launch her further from him with a jump. Finally stopping, Misao gyrated to Aoshi's back once again. Bringing her fists up into a ready position, she cautiously skirted around Aoshi to gaze at his face.

Aoshi braced himself for the waves of pain that would come after the end of the technique and wasn't disappointed. As Misao slowly came to stand before him, he began to acknowledge the tingling sensation he felt at his left shoulder and right side as it gradually escalated into a burning ache. Groaning quietly and grasping at his shirt, he pulled it off, rewarding Misao with a full view of his lean chest and two very large and painful looking bruises. Tentatively fingering one ever so lightly, he bit back an exclamation of pain when he felt it throb. The bruises were dark purple mixed with splotches of red and large areas of green and black. The bruise on his right side had expanded to almost reach his right armpit and extend underneath his pants, while the bruise on his left shoulder was draped over the area like a tissue, weighing down his arm in a way that felt more like a two-ton cinderblock. Aoshi felt that he'd be doing well to dress up as a poisonous mushroom if he only had a few more spots, until he caught a glimpse of Misao's face.

Her eyes were racked with worry upon seeing what she had done to the flawless muscles of his torso, and she had seen the wince and the discomfort in his eyes when they had flashed there briefly. Coming up to him, Aoshi could read anxiety in every inch of her body. "I'm so sorry, Aoshi!" Misao said with apologetic sincerity. "I can't believe I hit you that hard! This won't make it difficult for you on our mission, will it?" Seeing Misao in so much distress over him gave him a slightly amused feeling before he banished it. He didn't want to make her think he was laughing at her. But Misao's complete and utter concern for his well being made him feel he had to comfort her in some way so she wouldn't fret so much over his condition.

"I've done more important tasks with deadlier wounds than this, Misao. I'll survive." Though his words weren't the most eloquent, Misao's face brightened visibly at his comment and she went to pick up his shirt from where he had dropped it. As she touched it, Misao suddenly found that it was damp with his sweat and smelled faintly of him. A blush spread along her cheeks until she forcefully clamped down on her tongue so hard it bled. She handed the shirt to him with a steady hand, and if he noticed that there was a delicate pinkish tinge to her cheeks or that she covertly avoided looking at him as much as possible, Aoshi didn't say anything to her about it.

-

They were leaving East building as a balmy wind picked at the edges of their trench coats. Misao was bundled into hers with her head tucked down so as to cover as much of her neck as possible. She had her hands stuffed into her pockets and was following Aoshi as the wind lifted the tips of his hair. Wondering what it would feel like to reach out and touch them, Misao kept her hands in her pockets and brought her gaze to the bottom of his trench coat that the wind was teasing gently. Uncharacteristically of everyone else at the office, Aoshi's trench coat was a milky off white with a bright yellow collar. Nobody wondered why his coat stood out so much when it was required to dress in darker, less suspicious colors; he had earned the right to wearing it by proving time and time again that he wouldn't endanger an assignment by dressing in such flamboyant colors.

By using the outcome of the match as a deciding factor, they were taking Misao's car. Because Aoshi was the loser, he would be driving, leaving Misao to drive on the way back. She'd already offered to ease him of his duty, but he had only brushed her unease off lightly. Digging her car keys out of her pocket, Misao walked around Aoshi when he stopped, symbolizing that he had reached the silver vehicle. Tossing the keys over her shoulder, she went to open the passenger side door as she heard the relieving sound of the keys jingle, proof that Aoshi had caught them and would be opening up the car and turning the heat on soon. Getting into the car, Misao risked taking her hands from her pockets before the heat was switched on in order to scrape them through her bangs and flip her braid over her shoulder to rest comfortably behind her. Aoshi had twisted the key in the ignition and began backing the car from the parking spot as she watched him operate her car with the leisure of long practice.

Observing that he had lodged the sheath that he kept his twin kodachis in between the driver's seat and the drink holders, Misao pulled it from its place and rested it in her lap, fingering the tip of the sheath casually. Aoshi didn't even glance over at her when he saw her move out of the corner of his eye. As his partner, she was one of the only ones permitted to handle his weapons, and she enjoyed the privilege. It represented to her how much Aoshi trusted her to allow his beloved swords out of his grasp and into hers. He drove in silence through the stores and neighborhoods as Misao sat quietly beside him, taking the exit onto the freeway. When they were enclosed in the steady traffic, Misao brought her head up from her noting of the scenery outside her window and endeavored to start a conversation with her stolid partner.

"Nee, Aoshi?" she started, progressing into rambling when Aoshi only responded to her with between one word and one sentence responses. Accustomed to the one-sided monologue, Misao talked her way through the first twenty minutes of the drive before Aoshi made a decent contribution to the discussion.

"Misao, it might be better to save your energy for the actual mission and attempt to get a bit of shut-eye during the drive," he said, gazing into her eyes before reverting to watching the road.

At his words, a mischievous glint appeared in Misao's eyes. "But, Aoshi, if I didn't talk, I know you wouldn't try initiating a conversation. Without me, one of these days you might lapse into permanent silence, and then you'd never be able to connect with anybody! I'm saving you from an untimely death-by-silence, and you don't even bother to thank me for saving your life." Still with the smirk in her eyes, her mouth turned downward into a practiced pout that could set the heart of any stranger quivering with the need to assuage her unhappiness.

Aoshi, however, was used to such antics. Though his voice was steady as he spoke to her, Misao could detect a definite crinkling around his eyes that let her know that he was amused at her. "If we are getting into who saves whose life, Misao, I think I am still besting you in that area." He faced her at the end of his statement and one eyebrow rose a dramatic fragment of a millimeter.

"Not true," Misao replied evenly, "What about that time you ended up catching a fever when we were out in the rain? You couldn't think straight, much less fight your way through a group of thugs. Not only did I baby you, but I had to finish most of the mission on my own and report in as well."

"Aa. But I believe there was the time where you nearly broke our cover on a high-risk assignment. I managed to avert suspicion, but it was a very close call," Aoshi countered.

Misao opened her mouth to throw something back at him, but ended up closing it when she realized she couldn't remember any other incidents where she'd had to cover for Aoshi; he hardly ever made any slip-ups. It wasn't so much that she was less able than he was, she really just couldn't remember anything else to use against him.

The barest hint of a smile played upon Aoshi's face as Misao's expression darkened and she fumed inwardly. Taking the opportunity to goad her, Aoshi couldn't resist in adding, "Yes, Misao? Did you have anything else to add?" He was rewarded with an undignified "Hmph" from the smaller woman.

-

They were nearly there. Aoshi calculated that there was another fifteen minutes before he exited the highway and then another nine minutes before they reached their destination. But though they had a duty to get there within a certain time frame, he was loath to stop because of a certain partner of his and how cute she looked at this precise moment in time.

Misao was curled up in the side passenger seat, her head drooping against her shoulder and her arms clutched about his sword. Her face was calm in sleep and a beautiful smile made her seem all the more lovely. There was a certain grace to her features as her chest fell with the rhythm of her steady breathing, and her bangs fell loosely around her face. Aoshi only managed to tear his eyes from her still form with the knowledge that if he didn't, he might end up causing an accident. And he couldn't bear the thought of being the cause to anything that might mar Misao's perfect features.

He watched her silently in between navigating and finally sighed, pulling off the freeway and stopping at a red light when he came to a four-way intersection. She'd be waking up soon, and he wouldn't have a chance to observe her like this for a while. Almost as an answer to his thoughts, Misao stirred, twitching slightly before opening her eyes sleepily and blinking a few times before locking them on Aoshi and recognizing his face and where she was. As the current situation dawned on her, she stretched and rubbed at her eyes, straightening in her seat and glancing out of the windshield to gain a better understanding of their present location.

"Mmmm… Aoshi, why didn't you wake me sooner?" she said, massaging at the crick in her neck and turning to stare at him.

He moved his head just enough that he could keep one eye on the road and focus the other on her, and for a second she saw something in the depths of his eyes that resembled fondness. Her breath almost caught in her throat with what she thought she was seeing before he resumed watching the road, saying quietly, "I'm sorry, Misao. I thought I'd let you rest while you had the chance."

She didn't know what to say to him after what she had just—or thought she had just—seen. 'What was that? Aoshi looked… He looked like he… Like he…' She felt heat start rising to her face and determinedly tried to center her thoughts around the mission and what they'd need to do to halt the blush from painting her cheeks and becoming noticeable to Aoshi. Lost in their own thoughts, the two of them lapsed into an awkward silence. Then there was a flash of yellow in her vision and she was staring at the folder that contained the details of their assignment and the hand that was holding it. 'Aoshi's hand…' She blinked, and then looked up into Aoshi's face in surprise.

"If you want to review the details, now would be a good time to." Aoshi murmured, facing the road in time to stop when the car in front of them hit the brakes. Misao hesitantly took the folder from him, careful not to brush his hand and set her face alight. Pulling the explanation from the folder, she quickly scanned the report. It was basic intelligence-gathering and meeting with contacts. Those in the Southeast section were currently on rotation to take assignments that dealt almost entirely with the retrieval of information while the Northeast section was being sent out on regular missions that were based off the information the Southeast section brought back. In a month the rotation would switch again.

Grouping what they needed to do in her mind, Misao looked over the list of the names of those they'd be going to meet and talk with. They shared this list of contacts with another partnership from the Northeast section. The contacts knew that if they weren't giving their information to Misao and Aoshi, the other two would be there to talk with them. Misao's eyes snagged on one name in particular as she reviewed the list. Her mouth twisted into a devilish smile and she felt a toppling desire to burst out laughing. 'Roger,' she thought, her sides beginning to hurt with holding in her amusement. 'Aoshi is going to love this…'

She felt Aoshi settle an inquiring gaze on her, and turned to him, giving him a wide, innocent smile. His expression gave off a flicker of distrust, but she only smiled wider in response. He didn't seem completely comforted by her smile, knowing full well the kinds of things Misao could be expected to pull. Seeing his face just made her want to laugh more. He seemed entwined in indecision over whether he should ask her what she found so funny, or if it would be in his best interest to remain unsuspecting and simply let things play out. Following the direction of the car through the windshield, Misao grinned in contentment. Who said work couldn't be fun?

-

Aoshi pulled up into the parking lot of a tall skyscraper. Misao leaned back as far as she could in her seat and stretched again. When she felt the kinks that had formed in her joints loosen up, she unbuckled her seatbelt, placing Aoshi's swords into his waiting hands. Picking the folder up, she left the car and shut the door with a slam behind her, tucking the folder securely into her trench coat. Together they walked side-by-side along the sidewalk and through the doors into the building. A secretary perked her head up at their appearance and waited for them to come up to her, readying her list of those expected to visit the office for that day.

When Aoshi stepped up to the counter with Misao behind him, she ventured a "Can I help you?" at the intimidating man.

"Yes. We're here to talk with Mr. Sienko," Aoshi replied, used to the secretary's reaction to him. The secretary scanned the relatively short list. Mr. Aaron Sienko was up high enough on the corporate ladder that hardly anyone visited him, making it a fairly short wait for Aoshi and Misao while the secretary examined the list.

"Ah, yes. You're expected. Please go on up," she eventually said, wondering why Mr. Sienko would be meeting with two people wearing trench coats and what he could possibly have to talk about with such people. Meanwhile, Misao and Aoshi were showing themselves into the elevator and making their way up to the second highest floor in the building, the highest being the roof. There was elevator music, and unsurprisingly enough, Misao was humming along. She had discovered a while ago that most large-scale companies hardly ever changed their elevator music, and as a result had ended up memorizing the various tunes they played, to the point where she hummed along as if it was the latest hit. Aoshi was so used to it that he sometimes mentally started humming along with her, to his everlasting embarrassment.

Reaching their floor, they exited the elevator and came to a door towards the end of the hall. When they entered, Mr. Sienko's personal secretary paused from her frenzied typing to look up at them. Pressing a button on her desk, she spoke clearly into the speaker. "Mr. Sienko, your guests are here to see you." She listened to the instructions that came back to her and gestured for Misao and Aoshi to go into the inner sanctum. "Mr. Sienko is waiting for you." Misao followed her partner into Mr. Sienko's private office, making sure the door was securely closed after them. Across the room, Sienko was standing in front of big picture windows that made up an entire wall of his office.

He spoke up without moving from his position. "It's you two again, is it? It's good to see you." Misao allowed herself to sink into one of the spacious plush chairs situated in the center of the room, averting her eyes to the view outside of Mr. Sienko's windows.

"I'm glad to see you seem to be in good health, Mr. Sieko," Aoshi said placidly. Sienko's mouth curved into a rueful smile and he gave them his full attention, making eye contact with Aoshi and then Misao.

"With as cutthroat as the corporate world is, I'm happy to hear someone inquire after my health." He resumed staring out the window. "My business is doing rather well, but I know that SCUI isn't doing as well as they pretend to be. They've been driving their workers hard, and there are rumors of a possible strike. I don't suppose I can be vain enough to say that we here at TTK Capital are the full cause for their decline. Universal Lions is out to bankrupt them and buy them out. I would be worried if I didn't have such outstanding customer service. We've made a break-through in how to handle complaints and process them, while SCUI is depending heavily on the companies that supply them with their products to maintain their revenue. Universal Lions seems to be out to conquer the competition, and they've been absorbing smaller companies one-by-one. It seems SCUI is their next target."

Aoshi took it all in for a moment before replying. "I'm assuming you've heard of Ebister and are keeping an eye on them."

Sienko shook his head and exhaled. "Oh, them. I'm sure you might know this already, but the one who started that company, Clark McAllen, used to work directly under me. I fired him because he had been falsely accused of money laundering. It ended up being that one of his close friends in the company was squirreling away money from the company and incriminated him to take the blame. After I had fired him and the truth came out, I offered him the position again, but it seems he felt my generosity was only rubbing salt in the wound. He rejected the position and was quite adamant about ever working here again. The situation was partly my fault. I should have waited for the official investigation before firing him, but I wanted to put an end to the whole thing as soon as possible before the press became involved. Now I'm a paying doubly for my mistake. I'm down one highly efficient and creative leader and now have to deal with him as competition."

"That company of his is a personal vendetta against me. That's really the only explanation for how he's managed to expand it in so little time. If Universal Lions is out on a corporate raid, so is Ebister. Only their target happens to be us. I'm fairly sure that he wants to take over TTK Capital for the main purpose of turning the tables against me and firing me. As for the other competitors, I can't tell you anything about them other than what you'll already know, so you'll have to get your information from another source." He raised a hand and waved it, ending the discussion.

Misao pulled herself from the chair, hopping up and over to Aoshi who was headed to the door when Mr. Seinko added, "Also, I'd like to thank your… company personally for their patronage."

Aoshi was about to respond, but Misao did it for him. She cocked her head to the side and said cheerfully, "Of course. Doesn't your company have the best customer service?" At that, Seinko started laughing and wished them both well, staring after them as they left.

-

They were half way through the list. Already they'd been through the lawyers, politicians, company executives and workers, factory owners and employees, and small businesses. Now they were going to start getting into the less glorified side of city life, and it all began with one name. At this thought Misao couldn't keep her smile to herself. Aoshi was following her and slowly beginning to feel uneasy. But he didn't know the possible locations they could find the contact at, so he was forced to trust that Misao knew where she was going. But as soon as they came in view of the building with its immaculately clean red awnings over the windows, the display windows filled with the latest dolls and accessories, and the blown-up shiny golden lettering dotted with stars, he felt dread hit him when he realized what exactly Misao had been so delighted about.

She was about to drag him through American Girl Place.

Dimly, he wondered if Misao was just doing this to get back at him for being beaten in the car, but before he could do anything to stop her or change her mind, she had turned to him with another of her utopian smiles and latched onto his arm. "Come on, Aoshi. I know for a fact that we can find Roger in here," and then she marched inside, pulling him along for the ride.

The store was crowded for a weekday, and there were females of all ages perusing the merchandise and disappearing further into the store. There were also an alarmingly high number of dads, though not all of them gave the impression of wanting to be there. For one comical moment Aoshi could see how he might appear to be Misao's father. She didn't look like her age at all, and here he was, taller than many of the people in the store, and accompanying her. A little girl stopped in front of him and pointed up at him, her eyes wide and her mouth slightly open as she called to her daddy to come look at "the really big man." Misao heard and turned around to see what was going on. When she beheld the situation, she couldn't help but smile softly at the scene, thinking to herself that one day Aoshi might make a very good father.

When the father came over and apologized to Aoshi, telling his daughter gently not to bother strangers, Aoshi gave the barest visage of a smile as he told the father it was perfectly all right, he didn't mind at all. Sighing to herself as her thoughts began taking a more depressing turn, Misao came over and tugged on Aoshi's arm, letting her bangs overshadow her face as she told him in a muffled voice, "We should go now." Aoshi glanced down at her with traces of shock and confusion in his eyes, allowing her to take him through the crowd and down the escalator to the bottom floor.

Once at the bottom of the escalator, Aoshi made to stand in front of her. "Are you all right, Misao?"

But she only flashed him a winning smile and dove into the crowd, yelling over her shoulder, "We need to find Roger. He could be anywhere in here," before she was swallowed up by the mass. Aoshi watched the place where she had vanished, bewildered at her actions, but sure that she was hiding something from him. He brushed his bangs back from his forehead, exhaling slowly before he entered the crowd head-on.

Considering that Aoshi was a good head taller than most of the people in the crowd, it didn't make it easier for him to locate Misao because she happened to be a head shorter than most people in the crowd, and obscured easily by the sheer number of people. Casting about for her, he had to be careful of the children scampering underfoot and avoided tripping over shopping bags littering the floor several times by a narrow margin. When he was starting to get frustrated, he found a familiar weight enclose around one of his arms and a helpful presence that turned out to be Misao leading him away from the main thoroughfare and over to more secluded corner. A brunette man was standing there, his scalp balding and shopping bags grouped at his feet as he wrung his hands and darted nervous looks towards the other people in the store. Upon seeing Misao bringing Aoshi to him, he wiped his brow and his face cleared of some of its worry.

"M-Miss Misao! And," he gulped, "Aoshi. I had hoped I'd be seeing you this time." He gave them a smile that looked distinctively on the twitchy side.

Misao patted the man on the shoulder reassuringly and grinned at him. Motioning to the packages, she questioned, "Are you doing early Christmas shopping for your daughter? I know it's a few months off, but it's better to get it done early, nee?"

Roger shook his head, though his face showed how thankful he was to talk about his daughter instead of what they had really come to talk to him about. Talking about his family always soothed his worries. "Oh, no. I'm buying this for her because I want to. She's a good girl and she deserves a treat now and then."

Misao nodded. "Does she have a doll that looks like her, or does she have one of the character dolls instead?"

"She likes Nellie," Roger said, pulling out a box that showcased a picture of a doll's bed and had the words "Nellie's Bed and Bedding" written across the top in flowing red script.

Waving a hand in the general direction of the dolls, Misao explained, "I really like Kit, but we look nothing alike."

Aoshi watched the exchange in stupefaction. How Misao knew anything about dolls he couldn't fathom. It fascinated him to see so many different sides of her. She was constantly displaying new and unfamiliar sides to him and he struggled to fit them all together in the woman who worked with him on a day-to-day basis. After two years of working with her, it was still very daunting when he felt he knew next to nothing about the woman who was constantly at his side.

Deciding it was about time to end their conversation and get down to business, Aoshi cleared his throat. "I realize that both of you are enjoying this discussion, but the sooner we get our information, the sooner we can leave."

Roger nearly jumped, having forgotten that Aoshi was even there. Misao made a puzzled frown, but shrugged it off, facing Roger with an amiable smile on her face. "Roger, Aoshi's right. If you tell us what you know we'll be able to move on and you can get back to shopping." Roger's face was melancholy as he sagged onto a nearby counter, making a valiant effort to keep from twisting his hands before giving up entirely and falling back into his old habit.

"There's a major transport happening next month on the twenty-eighth," came his voice after a long pause. "They want to have all the supplies sorted in time for the holidays." His weathered face cracked into a bitter smile.

Aoshi opened his mouth to ask a question, but Misao shook her head. She gave him a look that silently asked for permission to do all the questioning, and Aoshi shut his mouth. "By 'they' you mean…"

Roger dug into his coat pocket and brought out a piece of paper that had been folded over many times. "This contains as many names as I could get without looking suspicious. It has information about all but a few. I couldn't risk asking anymore questions." He handed it over to Misao, who received it and stuffed it into the depths of her coat.

"They've found a few new recruits to help them with spreading it and distributing it. I'm also pretty sure that shipment has a few more exotic variants than your basic shots, pops, and sniffs. There are smaller shipments happening from the first to the fifteenth, but the exact dates haven't been set. Until then, there are only a few vendors out right now as they're trying to bring in as many people as possible to guard the main shipment."

"Roger, how much is in that shipment?" Misao hesitantly supplied.

Roger shuffled the bags at his feet, keeping his eyes on his hands. "I don't know the exact amount, but it's enough for a few hundred people to take two to three regular doses of each a week until New Years'."

Misao sucked in a breath and knew that Aoshi was doing careful figuring of a better estimate of the amount next to her by the way his eyebrows were furrowed. That was a lot of drugs. Even if they were only importing two to three kinds, it was both expensive and risky to attempt bringing in such a large amount of illegal narcotics. It could only mean that they expected to be able to get away with it, and that worried her more than anything.

"They really think they can get away with passing such a large shipment into the country? Is there anything to back them up that's making them feel this way?"

Roger shook his head, trying to be rid of the demons that plagued him with his knowledge of how many of the city's destitute and youth were being addicted daily. "I don't know," he whispered harshly. "I get the feeling that they've managed to get financial backing from somewhere and that they're using it to bring in some major help in guarding the shipment. When they told me, they acted like they had an absolute guarantee that the shipment wouldn't fall into the government's hands. That can only mean that whoever they've brought in to help must have a very good reputation." He leaned forward, rubbing at his forehead as he clutched his head in his hands. "I don't know anything else."

Misao came up to him and pushed an unmarked check into his hands. "From me," she said simply when he looked up. "If you ever get into a rut and need some extra cash, fill this out. Also, Aoshi and I will make sure the guard around your family is strengthened. Have a good holiday." She smiled kindly at him and left. Aoshi stood watching her walk off before following her into the crowd.

-

"Lunch break!" Misao declared happily as they left American Girl Place. Aoshi was breathing a sigh of relief. On the way out he had found several small eyes watching him, and letting his gaze fall on the little girls had only caused them to run back to their parents and start bawling. He felt ready for any kind of break, lunch or otherwise, and wanted to just call it a day and head home. After lunch they'd have to seek out a few of their seedier contacts, and wouldn't be meeting the last ones until early morning. Then they still had the two-hour drive back before reporting in. Only after that could he head home and collapse on his bed. Meeting with contacts was generally easier than going on an actual mission, but at least when he was on normal assignments he kept fairly steady hours and was allowed to rent a room if it grew too late. Intelligence had to be reported as soon as possible so it could be planned upon and filed away for later or future reference before too much time passed and it lost importance.

Steering them towards a café just down the street, Misao walked in, wincing involuntarily at the noise of the bell ringing on the door. Aoshi slipped in behind her and she marched up to the counter. Tomato soup and provolone on rye with black forest ham to eat. Now the only question was hot chocolate or not to hot chocolate. Did she really need caffeine that badly? 'Okay, yes. I do.' She ordered the hot chocolate. Taking her number she watched Aoshi place his order and was surprised to see him ordering hot chocolate too. Ducking her head down into her collar, she tried not to think of Aoshi and chocolate in the same sentence together.

She was aware the Aoshi was watching her and avoided making eye contact with him. Hoping he'd just attribute her red face to the heat inside the café, she collected her order and paid for it, finding a table next to the window and hopping up on one of the tall bar stools after she'd set her tray down. Aoshi came and sat across from her. He had no trouble getting into his chair, something she noted with a certain bit of envy. Having the appearance of a fourteen-year-old wasn't convenient once you'd grown up and actually needed sex appeal. Taking her annoyance out on her sandwich and tomato soup, which she found were quite good, Misao somehow ended up with tomato soup dripping from her chin.

Reaching towards a napkin feeling ridiculous, she found that Aoshi had beaten her too it. Instead of simply offering her the napkin, he had taken the liberty to wipe her chin for her. Shocked, she stared up into his eyes. There was something there and for a second she pondered on what it could be until she understood that he was laughing at her. Giving him a glare, she grabbed the napkin from him and used it to scrub her chin, glowering when she found that there wasn't anything else to wipe at. Aoshi had been thorough enough to catch all the traces of soup in the quantity of time she'd unwillingly handed over to him. Eating her soup more slowly this time, she finished it and stared at the bottom of the bowl. She'd been so busy seething over him laughing at her to fully apprehend the implications of what he'd just done. 'Aoshi… He just wiped my chin… for me…' Blinking in confusion she racked her brain over what he could have meant by doing that. It could be possible he didn't know there were complications to doing that sort of thing and was just being nice. Or it could be that he did know. But if he did know, what did that mean? There was a conclusion and she'd almost reached it when she became aware of how her face was warming up.

Aoshi's voice cut into her thoughts and she glanced up at him startled. "You might want to take your jacket off if you're feeling hot, Misao." She lowered her head and unbuttoned her coat, but didn't take it off, keeping her eyes away from his. He restrained a sigh and stared out of the window. That she was so shocked by him touching her at times other than during their practice bouts or when they were on an actual mission twisted something deep inside of him, and he clenched his jaw as people made their way through the cold weather on the opposite side of the window.

Poking her head up and examining Aoshi's profile to see his expression, Misao couldn't figure out why he seemed so serious all of a sudden. She dipped a spoon into her hot chocolate and perked up when she saw the extra large puffy marshmallows floating in her cup. Looking at Aoshi again, she checked his hot chocolate. He also had the same marshmallows. Struck with an abrupt idea, she soundlessly reached across the table and plucked a few marshmallows from his cup, letting her hand retreat back to her side of the table.

Aoshi could see her out of the corner of his eye and quirked an eyebrow. That she could steal his marshmallows so easily after what he'd just done said that either she didn't care about what happened or she cared enough to try and hide it. Either way he was glad that she had done something that would help relieve the tension that had been building up between them. Without looking at her he said, "Is the hot chocolate good?"

Misao just about sputtered and dropped the marshmallows. "Eck—I mean, um, yes!" She rapidly deposited them in her cup as Aoshi turned on his bar stool and reached for his spoon.

"That's funny," he said, eyeing his mysteriously-devoid-of-marshmallows cup and then Misao's overstuffed cup, "I didn't get as many marshmallows as you did."

Misao flashed him an entirely unconvincing smile and plopped a marshmallow into her mouth, chewing it thoughtfully before saying, "Maybe they didn't think you're the type who likes sweet things?" When he still stared at her knowingly, she added in an effort to change the subject, "I didn't know you like hot chocolate, Aoshi."

There was a long pause as Aoshi sipped his hot chocolate in silence. "Every year around Christmas my mother sends me her homemade hot cocoa mix. It's very rich, but she's been sending it every year without fail, so I've grown fond of it."

Misao became excited over the idea of homemade hot cocoa and was about to ask if she could come over and sample it sometime when her thoughts caught up with her and she became fully aware of what asking him would make him think. In her haste to keep herself occupied and blush-free, she took a big gulp of hot chocolate and burned her tongue. She set the mug down with a clatter, nearly causing the deep brown liquid to spill over the rim of the cup as she felt her taste buds fry. Sitting still in silent agony with her eyes squeezed shut, she waited until it had stopped hurting so much and had faded into an dull throb before she opened her eyes.

Aoshi had both hands curved around his cup as it sat on the table. He was staring out of the window with what he hoped was an impassive look on his face. Misao wasn't quite as convinced however. "You're laughing at me again, aren't you." She waited for his answer, gaze unswerving.

"Yes," he said decisively, "I am." Aoshi looked at her then, allowing her to see the mirth that he wasn't bothering to hide in his eyes. Taken aback at his frankness, Misao needed a little time before she could get herself together again and respond properly.

"That's the second time you've laughed at me today," she said indignantly.

"Third," he corrected her. In response, Misao scowled at him. He had a feeling he should be thinking about the kinds of punishment she could come up with when angry, but all that he could focus on was how charming she looked when her eyes were lit up from the inside like that. Misao didn't delay to give him time to come after her when she suddenly stood up and placed her dishes in the tub above the trash can, dumping her trash before putting her tray in the slot indicated and leaving.

Trailing along after her, Aoshi followed her example and was about to exit when he heard a voice pipe up from behind him. "You should apologize to her. Maybe it's none of my business," he snorted, "Yeah, it's none of my business, but she's your daughter, right? Even if it's something inconsequential or something major that she's mad about, they grow up too fast, don't they?" When Aoshi looked up at him in confusion, the boy standing behind the bakery counter only shrugged. "I have a younger sister. I've gotten a first-hand look at the way the female mind develops and I know how long they can hold grudges if you insult them."

His words finally connected into some semblance of sense in Aoshi's skull when the taller man realized that the boy had mistaken Misao as being his daughter. It had happened before, but for some reason it just seemed funnier now. He directed his gaze at the floor trying to conceal his humor while cupping a hand around his mouth to cover the smile he could feel waiting to ambush his face. Knowing that the teenage boy probably expected an answer, Aoshi schooled his features back into his normal blank face and faced the teen. "Thank you, but she's not my daughter." He departed from the store before the boy could fully understand what had been said to him and discern from it the faux pas he had just committed.

Misao was leaning heavily against the wall of a building a half block from the café with her arms folded over her chest. She couldn't figure Aoshi out at all and huffed into the collar of her coat. In frustration she replayed their whole lunch together inside her head, pausing and scrutinizing the tiniest details as to find something that could tell her what was going through Aoshi's mind. He'd wiped her chin and then he'd admitted to laughing at her and even corrected her as to how many times he'd laughed at her. The wiping her chin could mean that he had deeper feelings for her, but then he'd laughed, which could just as easily show that everything that had happened only meant that he considered her a very dear friend. Short of whirling around and pounding her head repeatedly against the building behind her, Misao fingered the pack wrapped around her wrist underneath her coat sleeve. She had an identical one on her opposite wrist as well. They each contained her specialized kunai, throwing daggers. She could pull them out and launch them with deadly speed and accuracy if need be, and she had a longer range than many regulation handguns carried by military forces. Misao very much wanted to fill her hands up with as many as she could carry and threaten Aoshi with them until she could get some decent answers out of him, but she knew that would never work. She didn't have the guts to grill him like that. Deep down she was afraid that she wouldn't hear what she wanted to, and her cowardice jumped in to eliminate the option of ever asking. 'What if I did jump on him like that?' She made a face over her mind's choice of words. 'And what if he honestly did tell me? What if he really only liked me as a friend, never as anything more? Then things would be awkward between us and we'd never be able to act as comfortably with each other as we do now, with him knowing my feelings and not being able to reciprocate them. It's better if I don't say anything.' She wanted to nod resolutely, but a tiny scathing section of her mind chose that moment to speak up, 'And suffer in silence forever, weasel? You might be an old maid one of these days and with him still pining after you and you'd never know because neither of you had the courage to speak up!' Misao shook her head violently and several passerbies stared at her as they continued on. She could feel Aoshi coming closer and pulled on an annoyed scowl, though her emotions were in turmoil underneath. She knew instinctively that she wouldn't be getting much sleep.

Aoshi found Misao glaring at anything and everything around her. But Misao wasn't sure herself if she was angrier with Aoshi for being the object of her strife, or at herself for liking him in the first place. So she simply glowered at everything and led the way to the next contact without sparing him a second glance.

-

Only two more names on the list to cover and they could go home. Misao hadn't even been able to get any sleep in the car—her car—because of how she'd been worrying over Aoshi. She wasn't sure if Aoshi had fallen asleep because she hadn't asked him. Her anger had dwindled down as the hours ticked by, but she kept the silence up between them because she didn't know how to recover after the café. Since she had given the decision up to Aoshi and he seemed perfectly content to stay in silence, she supposed she shouldn't be complaining. Misao's eyelids felt like lead as they walked down what she was counting as the 42nd dirty alley. It was followed up by its successor, the 43rd dirty alley, and after that, the great-great-great-great grandson of the fourth dirty alley. Rubbing her eyes, Misao picked a foot up in time to avoid a rather large rat. It snapped at her heels and scurried into a mountain of garbage. Aoshi had stopped to see what was keeping her and she shot him a look of disgust, motioning towards the garbage and forming a circle with her hands, widening it and waving a hand out of her bottom as if it was a tail. There was that same crinkling at Aoshi's eyes and Misao hastened to catch up as she shot a suspicious glance back towards the heap of trash.

Traveling further into the winding streets of the city's darker side filled their nostrils with pungent smells and their ears with noises normally limited to horror movies. Ask anyone in the office and they'd all agree that the least enjoyable part of the job was venturing into the bowels of a city, big or small. Too many things there needn't have ever happened, yet were unearthed with each visit, though all too often they'd lose someone under baffling circumstances and a squad would be sent in to return with blackmail, information, a quivering operative, or worse yet, a body. Before anyone was allowed on a first mission alone or with a partner, there was certain amount of training and testing that was first undergone with the watchful eyes of the higher ups there for guidance. It might seem suicide to send two people into such dangerous territory, but all those sent out were personally tested by their commanding officers. If unable to pass the guidelines, they might be limited to a certain area of work. There were numerous subclasses for those at the office. Some were not cut out for chasing underground drug rings or safeguarding politicians, but had a typing average that could and did break normally manufactured keyboards.

Smoke curled through the dimly lit streets as a woman's screams punctured the night. Misao took off running as Aoshi did the same thing. The man they were there to meet with had a very precise contract with their organization. Arrested for multiple charges of rape and a single and very bloody case of murder, it didn't escape police notice that he had on hand useful information when they threw him into a cell. The organization had approached him with a deal: They'd provide him with a staple job, housing, and living and he'd stay off drugs, murder, and rape and provide all he knew to their operatives. Obviously a dog destined to bite the hand that fed it; he'd nearly been caught once before, but had snuck out of punishment on some minor detail. Now Misao was sure he was up to his old tricks once again. He wasn't worming out of retribution this time; she wouldn't permit it.

Rounding a corner, they came upon the scene of the crime. It was just as she expected. At least she could be thankful that he hadn't ganged up on her with some of his sick chums. The woman was clutching at her shirt as he tried to rip it from her chest and let his hands meander over her breasts. She had a thin cut down one cheek that was bleeding sluggishly as a bruise formed over one eyebrow. Her hands were balled into fists as she socked him again and again, frantically trying to bring her legs up into a position where her boots could do extreme damage to his flesh. He reached a hand between her legs and she gasped. His mouth pressed against hers harshly and Misao intervened. Hauling him up by his collar, she yanked her hand back and punched him hard enough to send him across the alley and into a wall. Misao stooped over the woman and took note of her condition. Tears streamed down her face and pooled around her neck to dampen her hair as she folded her arms against her chest and brought her knees up to curl into a ball.

"Shhhh," Misao soothed, coaxing the woman up to a sitting position and letting her slump against her. Aoshi stood to the side watching the man as his breath came in uneven puffs from Misao's blow. Whispering nonsense into the woman's ear, Misao petted her hair and assured her in slow words that she was safe, that nobody was going to come after her or hurt her, that she'd be taken to a hospital and her family would be contacted. The woman sobbed into Misao's shoulder and burrowed into her coat. Shooting her partner a look, Misao indicated the woman with her eyes. "Aoshi. I want you to take this woman to the hospital with my car."

Aoshi made a disagreeing frown and shook his head. "She'll be more comfortable with you."

"No." Her tone was harsh. "I'm going to deal with him."

"Misao…" Aoshi tried to argue further, "We have a duty to bring him—"

"I don't care!" she shouted at him. "Do what you have to, but get her to a hospital for some proper treatment." Her tone dared him to contradict her.

Instead of letting her yell at him further, he shrugged his coat off and gently pried the woman out of Misao's arms, wrapping her up in his coat and gathering her up into his arms. When the woman started making protesting noises and pushing away from Aoshi's hold, Misao came up and moved her chin so she could look directly into the woman's eyes. "Look into my eyes and please believe me when I say I'm telling you the truth," she pleaded. When the woman ceased struggling to listen to her, Misao continued. "Aoshi would never hurt you—he has too much honor for that. I trust him with my life, and I'm trusting him with yours." The woman was quiet and Aoshi gave his partner a hard stare.

"You can't kill him, Misao."

Her laugh was bitter as she said, "I know. Aren't women supposed to have more mercy than men?" The stress she placed on the word "mercy" made it seem more like a curse than a word denoting salvation. Pulling her eyes to his, Aoshi dropped his guards and showed her his worry before exiting the alley with the woman and leaving Misao alone with their contact.

Rounding on the man at the end of the alley crumpled on the ground at the base of a wall, Misao approached him with several kunai clasped loosely in her hands. Pressing the sharp points to his neck she hissed, "You'd have been asked politely for what you know, but now I'd rather have you sing like a canary for me. I will take you to the police, and this time you won't be getting out without fifty years under your belt, but first you are obligated to fulfill your contract, or what's left of it." The pulse under her kunai jumped erratically as he swallowed. Sensing nothing but hatred surging from the diminutive woman, he gladly shared what he knew with her. When his information was delivered he fainted, giving into what he was sure would be a kinder fate than the one staring him in the face. Misao put her kunai away when she'd confirmed that he really was out of it and pulled back the sleeves of her coat, rolling them up to keep them in place. Hefting his weight up, she rolled her eyes. 'He just had to faint, didn't he?'

-

Wiping her hands on her pants, Misao walked out of the police station. Having to walk 17 blocks carrying a near dead weight had not made her a happy Misao. She hoped Aoshi was having better luck than she was considering he had the car and headed off to find the next contact. If this one didn't cooperate, she couldn't be responsible for how and where she channeled her anger.

From the depths of her pocket she could feel a feeble vibrating. Frowning, Misao pulled her cell phone out. One look at the number and she exhaled slowly. Pressing the answer key, Misao spoke first, "Aoshi."

"She's with her family now. They were there almost immediately because she was able to give them their contact information when I brought her in." It remained unspoken, but Misao knew how much vigor it took to stay conscious under the conditions the woman had been under. It was only a testament to how strong she was that she was able to stand up to it all. "She gave a name—"

"You don't need to tell me," Misao cut him off. "Maybe we'll meet again, maybe we won't, but I know I won't forget her and she won't forget me so it doesn't matter."

"Misao…" Aoshi started.

Though he couldn't see it, Misao shook her head. "No, Aoshi. I'm about to talk with the last contact. Come get me." And then she hung up. The whole day had drained her emotionally and physically. If she had tried talking about it she knew she would have broken down right there. In this area it would be death if she couldn't keep her defenses up and remain tough.

-

Misao was sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest as she played with her gun. It was really just a ploy to scare anyone away who felt she'd make an easy victim. Resting her head against the wall behind her, she looked into the night sky. It was a sickly orange color mixed with gray. This close to the city and the lights and noise pollution prevented seeing the stars clearly even if there wasn't a cloud in the sky to veil them otherwise. Pointing the gun straight up above her head, she brought it down in an arc to aim it at Aoshi's head as he came around the corner and happened upon her. Raising herself up from the ground, Misao pushed past him and towards her car.

It was cold and she shivered reflexively when her hand brushed against the frigid outline of the machine. "I'm driving," she announced. "Give me the keys."

"Misao, I don't think you should…" Aoshi commented as Misao got into the car, having found that Aoshi had left the keys in the ignition so the car would remain heated. She rubbed her hands in the warmth as Aoshi got in on the passenger side. Buckling herself in, she backed out of the alleyway carefully, driving through the deserted streets until they joined back into the main city streets as her partner regarded her quietly.

"I'm ok now. Thank you for worrying about me." Her eyes were locked on the street in front of the car, and Aoshi allowed the silence between them to do the talking, though all he really wanted was to stop the car, pull Misao into his arms, and comfort her. He could see she'd come to terms with her pain as she had many times before when they'd faced similar circumstances, but he didn't want her to have to suffer alone. Yet he was still unable to simply reach out to her because he didn't know her true feelings, and that limited his actions towards her. Unless Misao herself gave it to him, he couldn't permit himself the right.

-

The briefing would have been brief if it hadn't been for that one contact. Both Misao and Aoshi were required to give their own versions of the story, answer multiple questions, and fill out countless forms with even more questions on the matter. There would be no court trial this time. He'd been found guilty last time and was only kept out of jail because of the deal he struck with the organization. Now with the word of two of the organization's own, he wasn't going to be seeing the sky from anywhere except behind bars for many years. On top of the forms and questionings, the two also had their other reports to give, and the information had to be safely recorded and given over to the appropriate parties before they could file their own paperwork and leave.

It was early morning and close to the same time that Misao had gotten up at the previous morning when they were finally released. She stretched languidly and rubbed at her back, swiping at her bangs and over her eyes. Groaning, she said to the stoic and seemingly wide-awake man walking alongside her, "I don't even want dinner, I just want to fall on my bed and—" An emphatic growl from her stomach chose that precise moment to interrupt and contradict her statement—they never had dinner the night before. Blanching at her stomach's blatant request, Misao patted it, starting when it gurgled loudly in response. Aoshi swept his bangs out of his eyes with a hand, covering his face for the second it took to regain control of his emotions and hide his laughter.

Misao's stomach didn't seem eager to back down, Aoshi judged by the increasing rate and volume of the noises it was creating. Making sure that his voice would hold steady first, he said, "Join me for breakfast?"

There was a particularly boisterous rumble from Misao's stomach, and she gave it a dirty look while muttering, "I don't think I have much of a choice." Aoshi almost smiled as he was about to reply, but was cut short by a noisy grumble resonating from his own stomach. At a loss for words, Misao filled in with her own words for him. "At least I'm not the only one."

"Follow me, then?" Aoshi asked as much because he needed to as to regain some of his composure. At her cheerful nod, they separated, heading to their own vehicles. Aoshi pulled out first, his BMW Z4 Coupe drawing in the new daylight with its sleek design and gleaming black surface as the silver flash that was Misao's car trailed it closely, reflecting the light in shimmering crescents to be sucked in by the BMW. He headed out of the section of the city the office was located in and entered a denser area where the buildings closed in and already many city dwellers were awakening to open shop or begin preparations for another day of work so they could leave before rush hour began and the freeways clogged up. The trees lining the streets were isolated islands surrounded by concrete, many profuse with leaves coloring the sunset, and some already bare of their covering in preparation for winter. A woman pulled her mastiff from one of the trees with a doughnut and the morning's newspaper crammed into her opposite hand and a clock radio could be heard blaring the day's latest hits before it was silenced with a crash. Life was poking its head out of every door and window as Aoshi threaded his way down one-way streets and turned on a main street, seeking a left turn that would park him in front of a corner café with a vibrant sign that catered to both directions of road. There was a parallel space to his and Misao took it, glad that she wouldn't be parking halfway down the street.

Aoshi was standing at the curb in front of his car when she got out. Gesturing towards the café, he said, "I come here sometimes in the morning. They serve both savory coffees and agreeable full breakfast platters, though their selection is limited at times."

Before her stomach could get a word in edgewise, Misao said, "Right now, it doesn't matter. I'll take anyone's coffee." She worked her way up the sidewalk and into the café. Aoshi, uncomprehending of what she meant with her coffee statement, came along behind her, grasping the door, as it was about to shut after Misao.

"Good morning, Aoshi!" called the shopkeeper, who'd seen him enough times to know him by appearance when he came in the mornings. Her blonde curls bobbing as she walked, she came up and noticed when Aoshi sat at the same table as Misao. Exchanging pleasantries with Aoshi first, she turned her attention to Misao and said for the both of them, "I see you've brought a friend," stopping with an expectant air as she waited for a name to be given.

"Misao Makimachi," Misao supplied helpfully, running a finger down her menu as she did so. "I'm a coworker of Aoshi's. Do you have apricot jam?"

She changed subject, catching the woman off guard before she replied, "No, we don't. We decided to bring in mango jam instead this month." Misao chewed on a small piece of hair that had become ensnared in her mouth in thought before deciding.

"I'd like a short stack with sausage, a biscuit, mango jam, a glass of milk, and an orange." Misao declared, closing her menu audibly as the woman scribbled it down.

When she was done, Aoshi gave her his order. "My usual coffee and my regular omelet with bacon and scrambled eggs."

Writing speedily, the woman looked up at them when she was done and inclined her head slightly, her hair simulating the motion with a collective bounce. "Your orders will be ready shortly." Then she scampered off. Misao watched her withdraw into the kitchens before taking in the scene outside the window.

Traffic was increasing and the four-way intersection was busy. Misao glimpsed at least four people on cell phones and a green mini-van with a baby screen stuck in the back window. The image etched on the screen was one of a tubby orange cat snoozing in a bed with a blanket tucked in around it and an oblivious teddy bear clutched in its claws. Diverting her attention back to Aoshi for a moment, she could see he was lost in thought and resumed her game, counting up cars by color and occupant as well as by oddity. Within a short time of her distraction, the woman reappeared with a tray, balancing their food as well as Aoshi's coffee nimbly. Lowering the tray to an easily reached height, she began placing the dishes in front of their correct recipient. Once the tray was clear, she inquired, "Is that all?" At both Aoshi and Misao's nods, she smiled brightly at them and left, signaling that they could call her if they were to need anything else.

Aoshi was putting his cup of coffee down after taking a sip when Misao said breezily, "Twenty-one silver, fourteen green, eighteen red, nine white, seventeen black, ten blue, one really ugly maroon-bronze color, thirteen student drivers, and twenty-three cell phones."

Only able to stare at her in astonishment, Aoshi turned his head to see out of the window when Misao pointed. Looking at her again, he started to say something, but stopped, amusement clearly replacing astonishment in his eyes.

Misao took a deliberately slow bite of her pancakes, chewing patiently before saying, her eyes guarded, "Two." At his questioning gaze she said evenly, "That's twice today you've laughed at me. If I have to start a count of how many times each day you laugh at me, I will, and you will owe me for each time, Aoshi Shinomori."

Bemused at her words, Aoshi said, barely hinting something extra in his voice to see if he could provoke a reaction from her, "How am I supposed to pay you back?"

Was it her imagination, or were his words laced with something else? Stunned, Misao pulled her best defenses up as a shiver ran down her spine, and let instinct provide her next response while her mind took the time she gained to catch up. Despite her best efforts, she still stuttered, though she managed to pull it off as sounding like she had come upon an unexpected loose screw in her grand master plan instead of like she had just received a strange shock from a certain coworker. "I—I don't know. I'll figure out something you can do for me." She met his eyes boldly, confident that her previous unease would be hidden from his view.

"Aa," Aoshi murmured, and said no more, though he continued to watch Misao for any other sign she could make that would inform him of her real feelings. He'd seen a stupefied look pass through her eyes before she'd pulled up a guise to cloak it from him, and locked his eyes on her in an effort to rediscover her true emotions from beneath her façade. Misao met his eyes squarely before she found it disconcerting and retreated, concentrating on her food as Aoshi ate his without taking his eyes off her.

A certain amount of disquiet arose in the air between them, and it was with relief that Misao called the woman over and ordered her single daily cup of coffee. Wiping her hands and mouth on her napkin, she dared to glance at Aoshi and found that he was no longer focusing his attention on her. Her coffee arrived and she requested that their bills be drawn up independently. Polishing off her coffee and mango biscuit in the time it took the woman to return, Misao looked over her bill before sliding a card into the applicable area and waiting for it to return after the woman came to collect her payment as well as Aoshi's. Upon her return, the woman buoyantly thanked them, mentioning to Aoshi that she was glad he chose to frequent them and adding to Misao that she hoped to see her again. The pair exited and stood before their cars, splitting up before they'd reconvene later that night.

"I'll see you at work later, Aoshi," Misao said in parting, smiling genuinely at him as she made for her car.

"Aa. Until then, Misao," Aoshi said softly, remaining on the sidewalk to watch her enter her car and drive into the intersection before becoming lost in the incessant flow of cars, before he also got into his car and slid into a lane, his apartment only a few blocks from the café.

-

CH1 END

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A/N: I admit I've always wanted to write a fanfic where Misao and Aoshi worked together and got to fight each other. I don't really have any experience in fighting, though, so it might sound a little unnatural. (Fun fact: While writing Misao's technique, I became so confused I had to put a beach ball on the floor and pretend it was Aoshi.)
The setting isn't specifically Japan or America. I know they don't have American Girl Place anywhere other than America, but humor me here. Since Aoshi met Misao under different circumstances than their guardian/charge status from the ani/ga, I'm relying on the fact that Aoshi can be more open with Misao since he met her first as an adult instead of as a young girl.
Also, this chapter is ripe with alliterations (I didn't mean to do it, honest!). There's one I'm specifically proud of, kudos to you if you can find it.

Editor's Note: The alliterations you find are most likely the fault of Ri reading far, far too much Dominic Deegan. The mistakes you find are a collaborated effort between me, as it really is a case of the blind leading the blind here, even if Ri-Ri insists that I've read more fanfiction, etc. etc., and my typo demon, Kitten. She likes to jump on people's keyboards and sabotage their typing. Yes. Easily explained, yes. (insert shifty eyes here) (cough) Anyway, please DO leave a review. You have no idea how elated Ri is when she gets a review. She'll literally check back every like two seconds. Seriously. At least spend a few moments on a review folks, that's all I'm asking, make the effort. Wait- what are you doing? No, don't you dare hit that 'Back' button! YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE!

Using Star Wars quotes to win favor and reviews?

Noooooooo.