Author's Notes: In the Jinchuu arc, Gein referred to Aoshi as the Okashira, which of course, had me imagining how Misao gave up the title – if she did, at all. Just a little vignette about life in the Aoiya, set shortly after the Kyoto arc, but before Jinchuu.

The Sound of a Name

"Where's Misao-chan?" Shiro asked, walking into the dining room with a large package in her arms. "I haven't seen her all day."

Aoshi drank from his cup of tea without missing a beat, as if his ears didn't prick up at the mention of Misao's name. He had been wondering about the same thing. His glance shifted pointedly to Okina, who sat across the table.

The older man shrugged. "Last time we spoke, she mentioned something about looking up a few books. But that was this morning." He shook his head. "I don't know what's gotten into that girl lately. It seems that lately she's been spending more time reading then practicing with her kunais. Not that it's a bad thing…"

"Well, she asked Okon and me to get this for her," Shiro said, motioning to the box. "I'll go take it --"

Aoshi put his cup down and got up from the tatami mat. "No, I'll do it."

Shiro looked surprised, but he handed the package to Aoshi. As he braced himself for the additional weight, he wondered what Misao could want that would be so heavy. It was wrapped in brown paper, revealing nothing of its contents. He noticed, however, a piece of folded paper stuck to the package.

"Where did you say you got this?" he asked.

"It was delivered to the family of Fukuda Takashi." he supplied. " You remember Takashi-kun, Aoshi-san? He's living in America now. I hear he's quite well off there."

Aoshi racked his brain for a mental image, but all he could conjure was a chubby kid who always followed Misao around the Aoiya. But Okina's next words tore him from his thoughts.

"He and Misao were close friends, especially after you left with the others. For a while there, we thought Misao would forget about…" Okina trailed off, but cleared his throat significantly. "Well, they've been writing to each other since he left nearly a year ago."

Aoshi hid his dismay at the thought of a younger Misao turning to her childhood friend for comfort. What did that snotty kid know about comforting her anyway? How close had they been then? Andwhat business would Takashi have sending Misao a package? He adjusted the box in his arms and ascended the stairs.

His feet led him straight to the Oniwabanshuu library, where he paused before the closed shoji door, maneuvering the box in his arms so he could slide the door open.

He found Misao surrounded by a clutter of books and scrolls. She looked up as he entered, her bright blue eyes lighting up her face.

"Here's what you asked Shiro and Okon to pick up," he announced.

"From Takashi-kun?" Misao squealed, jumping up. For a moment, Aoshi was afraid that she would leap into his arms and knock the package over. He quickly scanned the room for a table he could put it on, but seeing none that wasn't covered with Misao's pile of reading materials, he settled it on the floor.

As Misao pounced on it, Aoshi noted casually, "What are you doing here?"

She was so intent on tearing the paper off the package that she didn't bother to look up. "I'm just reading, Aoshi-sama."

"I can see that," he replied, fighting to keep the amused tone out of his voice. "But what for?"

But Misao wasn't listening. "Takashi-kun sent a letter!"

He did? What did that guy have to say to her? As if reading his mind, Misao flipped the letter open and read it out loud. "Dear Misao-chan…"

Misao-chan?

"..Here's what I promised you…"

And what else has be been promising her?

"…As I bought it and made arrangements for its delivery, all I could think of was how I hope it would make you smile…"

Aoshi's mental commentary ended abruptly. He was sounding too much like an overprotective older brother. Wonder why his Zen state didn't stop him sooner. Of course, Takashi only wanted to make Misao smile. Wasn't that what he wanted too? Aoshi shook his head ruefully, firmly reminding himself that what went on between Misao and Takashi was purely their own business.

Even if he was inexplicably determined to challenge Takashi to a duel and prove that the man wasn't worthy of Misao.

"… Your request puzzled me, but I hope that this helps you in whatever way it can. Sincerely, Takashi," Misao finished reading. In one swift motion, she dropped to the floor and finished unwrapping the package to reveal a wooden box. It contained the words Edison Speaking Phonograph Companies written in English.

It was a phonograph.

He had only seen a phonograph twice, once in Kanryuu's mansion and another in Shisiho's stronghold, but he was well aware of the capabilities of this recording device. He was just surprised that Misao even knew of its existence, enough to have it sent to Kyoto.

"What's this for, Misao?" he asked.

Misao lifted the phonograph out of its box and cleared another space on the floor to put it down. "I just wanted to see it for myself. Do you know that in America, the inventor Thomas Edison went around giving demonstrations of how this works?"

Aoshi nodded. He had known as much in his readings. Even when he was travelling with Hannya and the others, it had become second nature to him to learn as much as he could. That was one of the marks of an Oniwabanshuu spy – a thirst for information and knowledge. In fact Hannya used to say that there was one thing that an Oniwabanshuu didn't know – nothing. Now, seeing Misao abreast with the latest developments, Aoshi couldn't help but be pleased. "And how did you know that?"

She looked up at him. "I'm the Okashira now, Aoshi-sama."

Her plain admission surprised him, but he kept his features from revealing anything. This was the first he had heard of it, and it was nearly two months since the battle with Shishio. Granted, he hadn't exactly been the perfect leader. He had assumed that when he left, Okina would take over his former duties as Okashira. But Misao?

Perhaps he didn't hide his emotions as well as he thought. Misao plunged head-on, trying to explain herself in a breathless rush. "When you went to fight against Himura, I vowed to myself that I would protect the Oniwabanshuu and fight those who tried to destroy it, tried to destroy the lives we all had, even if it meant--" but she did not finish.

Aoshi knew. Even if it meant fighting him.

He understood. Despite being raised as an Oniwabanshuu ninja, Misao still saw the world through her ideals. He couldn't fault her for that. He couldn't blame her for wanting to protect the family she knew, the family that she loved. But being Okashira meant so much more than a sixteen-year old girl could handle, even if that sixteen-year old girl was someone as skilled and courageous as Misao.

"I meant to tell you sooner, Aoshi-sama, but you would always be meditating," she said. "I guess I thought that the Oniwabanshuu didn't matter to you any more."

How could she think that he could turn away from them – from her – just like that? But he had done it before. He had left her alone, and there was no reason for her to think that he wouldn't do it again.

She mistook his silence for anger. "You don't think I deserve it, do you?" Misao asked, her blue eyes shadowed with pain. Her earlier elation at the Takashi's package was gone, her voice dull.

Aoshi walked over to her and sat down beside her. The phonograph was a strange contraption, with its wide mouthpiece shaped like a horn, attached by a needle to a round tinfoil cylinder. He ran his hand around the mouthpiece. "How is this supposed to work?"

If Misao was disappointed that he changed the subject, she didn't show it. Instead she peered into the empty box and took out a piece of paper. "Takashi-kun said that he had asked them to include instructions but I'm nor very good at reading English." She handed the paper to him.

His eyes skimmed the page. It was Misao's grandfather who had taught him English. It was a shame that he wasn't able to teach Misao.

But maybe it wasn't too late.

He lifted the phonograph, turning it so the mouthpiece faced Misao. "Just speak into it."

She looked self-conscious all of a sudden. "What do I say?"

As she spoke, Aoshi rotated the cylinder. Then he moved the needle over to the tinfoil. Even though he understood the concept, he was surprised to hear Misao's earlier question echo in the room.

Misao was even more surprised. "Was that me?"

Aoshi tried to explain it to her. "Behind this mouthpiece is a diaphragm. When you spoke, I rotated this cylinder here. This needle recorded what you said on to the tin. Your voice caused the diaphragm to vibrate, causing the needle to vibrate, and those vibrations were recorded on the tin. Then to hear the sound, the needle moved over the grooves on the tin. This time, it was the vibrations on the tin that caused the needle to vibrate and play the sound."

She laughed. "I don't understand! Can I try it again?"

Aoshi obliged. She sounded so carefree when she laughed like that, nothing like the strong-willed Okashira she wanted to become. Did he really want her to give up her youth, her freedom, for responsibilities that she might not be able to handle? It was only a matter of time before she got tired of the idea, and he would claim what was rightfully his.

But would he risk breaking her heart?

"I am Makimachi Misao," she said delightedly into the phonograph.

"I am Makimachi Misao."

"I am an Oniwabanshuu ninja."

"I am an Oniwabanshuu ninja."

Aoshi placed the phonograph down. "I think we should let the machine rest a little, ne?"

"Don't you want to try it, Aoshi-sama?" Misao asked innocently.

He cleared his throat. He had no intention of speaking into the device, but he wasn't going to let Misao know that he found the idea rather silly. "There's no need for that, Misao. I understand the idea well enough even without trying."

She pouted. "Don't be such a spoilsport, Aoshi-sama." When he gave no sign of giving in to her badgering, she sighed. "I wish Takashi-kun were here. He would have tried this in a heartbeat."

Aoshi grabbed the phonograph, trying to ignore the pleased expression on Misao's face.

What was it that he had told himself earlier? That he only wanted to see Misao smile? His voice was barely above a whisper when he said her name into the mouthpiece.

A moment later, the sound reverberated through the room, in two clear syllables.

"Misao."

At that second, Aoshi knew. He needed her just like she needed him.

True, she didn't know enough to become Okashira. He was years ahead in experience, in skill. There was still so much she needed to learn. And yet during those days that she defended the Aoiya and Kyoto from Shishio's forces, she had earned the respect of everyone around her. Her courage changed them.

It certainly changed him.

Despite all his years as Okashira, Aoshi realized that he didn't know the first thing about being a leader. He had let his pride and anger endanger all those who meant most to him. An Okashira like Misao would never let that happen.

She smiled up at him, then gently took the phonograph and placed it back in its box. "Well, this just proved to me one thing, I'll never be as good as you." She sighed softly. "Well, it was fun while it lasted, but I guess it's back to throwing kunais for me. Don't worry, I'll leave all this information stuff to you, Okashira."

Aoshi grabbed her hand as she began to stand up. "Have you changed your mind so soon?" he asked instead.

"Who was I kidding, Aoshi-sama?" she replied, but her voice held no trace of bitterness. "I'm the youngest one here. There's no way I can lead them the way you did. Or the way my grandfather did."

"I wasn't the Okashira who fought for Kyoto just two months ago," he reminded her. "And you weren't the Okashira who almost brought the collapse of the Oniwabanshuu. Keep the title, Misao, even though it's no longer mine to give."

As he got to his feet, her voice drifted to him. "Aoshi-sama?"

"Yes, Misao?"

"Do you think there's a way we can share the title?" she asked plaintively.

Aoshi shook his head. "It doesn't work that way, Misao-chan."

"But what if an Okashira is too young and needs the guidance of an older Okashira to tell her what to do? And that older Okashira doesn't want to see their precious Oniwabanshuu go down in history as an embarrassment because the younger Okashira doesn't know the first thing about dealing with the government, or handling daimyos, or telling false information from the truth?"

He looked at her thoughtfully. "Well at least you know how a phonograph works."

"A lot of good it will do to me," Misao said. "So will you do it?"

Someday, Aoshi reflected, he would have to tell her what changed his mind. That it was the sound of his voice saying her name that made him realize that they were inseparable – that her name on someone else's lips would sound empty, that his voice would sound as cold as ever if he didn't speak of her.

Someday.

He patted Misao's head, as he did when she was a child. She was a young woman now. Aoshi was well aware of that as he looked at her graceful frame, her snapping blue eyes, her ready smile. But he just couldn't resist. Then he walked out of the room.

"Aoshi-sama? Was that a yes?" Her voice followed him down the steps, and into the warm Kyoto afternoon.

END

More notes: My perspective is, if Misao was still Okashira during Jinchuu, Gein would have known that. But I don't think Aoshi would take the title away from Misao when he had been the reason why she took it in the first place. It's his way of making amends. I figure the Okashira issue remains unsettled – just as the relationship between them. Unresolved, but that they recognize and respect each other's qualities and each other's right to the name. In the end, it IS only a name.