Eighteen Times Nine.

A/N: Well, okay, I admit the thought of Aoshi not being able to solve maths problems is a little … strange … but I just wanted to show the comparison between the Aoshi now and the Aoshi then … which is the usual point of young Aoshi/Misao fics, I guess … and this is pointless ranting, so …

Shinomori Aoshi was confused. It wasn't a sensation he often experienced; he usually knew exactly where he was and why he was there, what he was doing and why he was doing it and what he had to do next, who he was fighting and why he was fighting them … if someone attacked him in a way he hadn't been expecting, he would be angry at himself, but he would know exactly what to do next. He always did. It was part of his training, not to be confused.

But he was most definitely confused now. He dipped his brush in the ink again and held it above the small bowl which held the ink, watching it drip from the brush into the black liquid. He knew it was a futile delaying tactic, but he could think of nothing else.

"Done, Aoshi?" came Okina's voice from across the room.

"No," he answered, trying not to sound defeated.

"No?" said Okina. Aoshi had the feeling he was trying not to smile, and that would have made him angry except for the fact that he felt he deserved to be laughed at. "Why not?"

"I – can't do these." It had been hard getting the words out, and he refused to meet Okina's eyes as he walked over to examine his paper.

"Why, you've done none of the sums. What – "

"I did the seventh one," he said, almost savagely. He pointed at the neat calligraphy in front of the seventh blank, and Okina smiled slightly.

"Twenty multiplied by ten … I would have expected you to be able to do that," he said, and Aoshi clenched his fist tightly around the handle of his brush.

"Can I go now?" he asked, looking down at the almost blank page before him. His studying time was up, it was time for training –

"Go?" Okina smiled again, and Aoshi glared at him beneath his hair. "I hardly believe you can go, Aoshi – not until you solve the rest of the sums."

"But – I can't." He looked down at the sheet on which Okina had written the questions he was supposed to solve, and then looked at his answer sheet again. "I don't – understand them."

"I've explained them to you fifteen times, Aoshi," said Okina, exasperation replacing his smiling tone. "You can carry out techniques with your kodachi at thirteen that grown men can't do – after seeing them performed only twice – but you can't multiply eighteen and nine. No, I believe you'll stay here until you manage to finish these … even if that means you'll sit here the entire day – or for the rest of your life."

He picked up his paperwork and left the room, leaving Aoshi to glare after him. He turned back to the first sum, doing his best to glare back at the black paint that glared at him from the page. Eighteen times nine. He picked up his brush again and stroked it idly over a spare piece of paper that lay near by. How did you multiply eighteen and nine? He couldn't do it in his head, that was for sure – he couldn't even do it on paper. He turned the brush over and stroked it over the first mark again, wondering whether you multiplied nine and one first or eight and nine. What was eight times nine, anyway?

"Aoshi-sama!" came a delighted cry from the corridor outside, and he winced slightly as a chubby bundle of arms and legs crashed into his back, nearly causing him to tip over the shallow bowl of ink.

"Ow, Misao-chan, that hurt," he said, rubbing the back of his neck.

"No it didn't!" said the chubby bundle, her arms still locked around his neck from the back. "Nothing hurts Aoshi-sama!"

"No, nothing – apart from you trying to choke me," he said with a slight smile, disentangling her arms and pulling her over his head upside down so that she landed in his lap with a wide smile on her face.

"Do that 'gain!" she cried, gurgling a little.

"Well, actually – I'm really sorry, Misao-chan, but I have to work – "

"Work?" she said incredulously, eyes wide. "Then why Aoshi-sama sitting here? Why he not outside, swishing?"

"Swishing?" he said, blinking, then smiled again. "No, I'm not swishing outside because Okina told me I had to do different work today."

"But all work is swishing!" she protested, grabbing onto the front of his shirt as she wobbled uncertainly in his lap. "Different sorts of swishing, but all swishing. Even Hyo – hyo – "

"Hyottoko," he supplied.

"Even his work is sort of swishing." She made a whooshing sound and flapped her arms to show the fire Hyottoko would breathe, overbalanced, and grabbed onto his shirt again. "No work not swishing."

"That's not exactly work, Misao-chan," he explained, steadying her with his hands. "That's training. Training. What is it?"

"Twaining," she repeated obediently, smiling up at him. "Twaining, twaining, twaining, twaining, twaining – "

"Yes, yes, training," he said hastily, knowing her tendency to repeat any new words again and again until she was convinced that everyone knew she had learnt it – which was not until she had recited it to them at least a hundred times. "This is different work."

"Not swishing work?" she said in a disappointed tone.

"No, not swishing work," he answered, looking disappointed himself. "Swishing work is training, remember?"

"Twaining!" she cooed happily. "Twaining, twaining, twaining, twaining – "

"Yes, exactly," he said quickly. "Training. This is paperwork. Paper. I work on paper, and so it's called paperwork."

"Pay-per," she repeated slowly, beginning to chew her thumb. Gently, he coaxed it out of her mouth as she continued, "Pay-per, pay-per, pay-per – "

Two new words in a day was probably a little much for her, he decided. "Yes, paper. So, I'm really sorry, Misao-chan, but you have to leave now so that I can do my paperwork – "

"Aoshi-sama not want Misao-chan to stay?" she said, her face full of wide-eyed disbelief.

"No, I'd really like you to stay, Misao, but – you see – I won't be able to concentrate if you're talking to me – "

"What's – what's – con-con-sun – ?" she interrupted immediately.

"Think," he said. "I won't be able to think about what I'm doing if I'm talking to you – "

"But Aoshi-sama thinks while swishing!" she said, nodding vehemently. "And Aoshi-sama talks to Misao-chan while swishing, too …"

"Training," he said automatically, wincing as she began to chant 'twaining' again. "Yes, Misao-chan, but Aoshi-sama – I mean, I need to think more about this sort of work than I need to about that."

She appeared to think about this for a while, her thumb creeping back up to her mouth as she did so. He gently but firmly pulled it out, and she sighed as he held her hand in his to stop her from sucking her thumb again. "Why Aoshi-sama not let Misao-chan do that?"

"Because it's a bad habit," he said sternly. "And if you don't stop doing it now, you'll do it for ever and ever, and you don't want to be as big as Hanya and suck your thumb, would you?"

She thought about this for a minute too before saying, "Good Aoshi-sama. But – Misao-chan still not like it when he do that."

He grinned slightly. "Now, getting back to the subject, Misao-chan – I have to finish my work or I'll sit here all day and not get to go and swish – I mean, train – outside. Do you want Aoshi-sama – I mean, me – to sit here all day?"

"No, no!" she gulped, scrambling up so that she could stand on his lap with her small chubby hands on his shoulders. "Misao-chan not want that! Who would play with Misao-chan then? Hanya and B'shimi not fun like Aoshi-sama!"

"I'll have to tell them that," he chuckled, taking in her horrified look.

"No, no!" she said again, little fists tightening on his shoulders. "Aoshi-sama not do that! Aoshi-sama come and play and forget Misao-chan told him that!"

"I told you, Misao, I have to finish this. Once I'm done, we can play – after I've trained, all right?" He smiled at her, and she smiled back, looking a little disappointed.

"Hai," she said, pouting slightly. There was a pause, as he looked into her eyes and she blinked innocently back at him, and then she said, "Can Misao-chan help Aoshi-sama? So that he does it quicker?"

Well, she'll probably be better at it than I am, he thought wryly. "All right, Misao-chan. Here, you can sit here and see what I'm doing, okay?" He picked her up off his lap and sat her down next to the spare sheets of paper. He groped around for his brush, found it, and began dabbing it in the ink again as he wondered how on earth he was to multiply eighteen and nine.

It wasn't his fault that he didn't have a head for numbers. Languages were absolutely no problem, and neither was history or geography or any such thing. He had begun on that early, anyway, not like mathematics – which Okina had started him on only a couple of years ago. His mother had never considered it important – she said that if he could add up a few basic numbers in his head he'd get through life easily enough. But when she had died, Okina had begun to take care of him and had realised, much to his shock, that his young protégé couldn't multiply six by eight. And in the following two years, he had realised that his young protégé would probably never learn.

"But – Aoshi-sama!" Misao's protesting voice rang out suddenly. He stopped the movement of his brush across the spare paper and looked up at her. "But Aoshi-sama, this work is swishing too!"

He looked down at the brush and smiled. "In a way, Misao. But don't you like the other swishing better?"

 "Hai!" she said emphatically, balancing herself on her hands and knees to look at the almost empty answer sheet in front of him. "Does Aoshi-sama have to work on this pay-per?"

"Aa," he said, continuing to draw idle circles on the other paper.

"Then why he wasting his time and working on the other pay-per?" she demanded sharply, glaring up at him.

Good question. "I don't know what to do on this paper," he said truthfully. Amazing. He was feeling embarrassed admitting to her that he couldn't do something. "So I'm thinking about it while I – while I think."

"Aoshi-sama not know his work?" she said incredulously, and he nodded. She began to chew her thumb again automatically; he glared at her and she stopped. There was a pause, and then she said knowledgeably, "Oh, Aoshi-sama not know this kind of swishing! Misao-chan not know, either! So Misao-chan tell Aoshi-sama what to try, if Aoshi-sama tell her what he's supposed to do."

What difference did it make, after all? He scratched his head, pointing to Okina's not-very-neat calligraphy. "See there? That's a way of saying 'eighteen times nine.' I have to write down what eighteen times nine means."

"What's eighteen times nine?" she asked, still on hands and knees.

"That's what I want to know," he said wryly, steadying her before she overbalanced into the bowl of ink. "Do you think you can tell me, Misao-chan?"

He could see her thumb itching to work its way back into her mouth, but she didn't suck it. Slowly, she dipped one finger in the ink and pressed it to the spare paper eighteen times. "Is that eighteen, Aoshi-sama?"

"Aa," he said. "That's eighteen."

"And – " She rubbed her nose with the inky finger, then, holding up nine short, stubby fingers, said, "Is this nine?"

"Aa," he said again. "That's nine."

"Wai!" she cried happily, clapping her hands together. "Misao-chan did it, Misao-chan did it! Misao-chan did Aoshi-sama's swishing!"

He smiled at her as he shook his head. "No, Misao, you have to do eighteen times nine. That's different."

"Misao-chan has to do eighteen nine times?" she said dubiously.

"Aa," he said slowly. She looked at him, and he looked back at her, and then she shook her head, looking defeated.

"Misao-chan not think she can do these, Aoshi-sama. Misao-chan not able to help Aoshi-sama." Her small shoulders drooped dejectedly as she smudged her nose further.

He wasn't paying attention to her. He was staring at Okina's handwriting, looking at the uneven strokes of the brush that were causing him to be shut up in this room when he ought to be outside, practicing. Out loud he whispered, "Eighteen, nine times."

"Aoshi-sama!" Misao was waving a hand in front of his eyes, looking miffed. "Why is Aoshi-sama looking all – all – all like Jiya thinking he's going to sit down on a chair but there isn't any there?"

He had to smile at that description. "Sorry, Misao-chan, I won't make that face again, all right? We don't want me to look like Jiya, do we?"

"No!" she said fervently. "Misao-chan not want Aoshi-sama to look old. And ugly. But why did Aoshi-sama start to look like Jiya?"

I don't really look like Okina in any sense … do I? He smiled at her, trying to tell himself that she was just comparing the expressions, and said, "That's because Aoshi-sama suddenly knows what he has to do in this sort of swishing."

"He does?!" she said excitedly, almost putting her ink-smeared hand on his answer sheet. "Wai! Aoshi-sama figured it out all by himself!"

"Well, not exactly, Misao," he said, bracing himself as she jumped onto his lap again. "Thanks for your help. Eighteen times nine – "

"Eighteen nine times," she repeated.

"Eighteen times nine," he said, "is eighteen nine times, exactly. And eighteen nine times is one hundred and sixty-two."

She looked up at him and sighed. "Misao-chan didn't see difference in what Aoshi-sama said. But – " She brightened, and looked up at him hopefully, " – maybe Aoshi-sama will tell Misao-chan when she's older, and she'll know the difference then, ne?"

"Aa, Aoshi-sama'll – I mean, I'll explain it to you. It's not hard, really." He laughed at himself mentally. Five minutes ago he was ready to swear that the day he managed to multiply eighteen and nine was the day he'd run himself through with his kodachi, and now he'd just done it in his head, just because she'd rephrased it for him.

"Wai! When Misao-chan's as old as Aoshi-sama, then she'll know."

"Aa," he said. "I'll tell her – you – then."

"Hey, Aoshi-sama," came her lilting voice.

"Aa?" he said, sipping his tea.

"Well, look, we bought eighteen sacks of flour for the restaurant, and the man gave it to me at one hell of a large discount – nine yen for each – so, how much would that cost?"

"One hundred and sixty-two," he said automatically. "You should know that."

She made a face. "I suppose I could work it out if I tried – but you're so much faster at it, anyway … or maybe you just know some sums by heart." She grinned at him.

He looked into the dark, steaming liquid. "Some, I do."

A/N: Right, so … by the way, does the fact that I have a mathematics exam tomorrow explain all of this in any way? Although the last thing I'm worried about is eighteen times nine type questions – I mean, who on earth gets those? More like graphs of functions … which I just do not get …