Okay, so this has been done a hundred million times already. But hey, what's one more Aoshi/Misao fanfic?

Please forgive any errors you might see in my Japanese; most of what I learned came from fanfics. I would appreciate corrections.

Disclaimer: Any and all characters belong to the great Watsuki-sensei and lots of other people I don't know. I own nothing but the plot of this fic. I do this not for profit, but to show my appreciation for the wonderful anime/manga that is Rurouni Kenshin. Please don't sue.

Fumbling Towards Ecstasy Chapter 1: Frozen (Misao's POV)

It's amazing what I can overhear when the others don't think I'm there. They try to shelter me from certain things, to keep me from hearing certain conversations.

I don't know why they bother. Hannya-kun and the others trained me far too well. If I don't want someone to see me, they won't. Unless, of course, that someone is Aoshi-sama. He always knows when I'm watching him. He always has. When I was younger, I used to spy on Aoshi-sama while he trained off in the woods by himself. I couldn't help myself; he was so graceful, so deadly and precise it fascinated me to watch him dance death.

But he always sensed my presence no matter what I did, or how crafty I tried to be. He'd turn around after a while with that almost-smile on his face, and very politely ask if he could walk me back to the Aoiya.

The others, Jiiya, Omasu, Okon, Shiro and Kuro, are a different matter. I can easily hide my presence from them. That has always made practical jokes interesting, not to mention hilarious.

Usually when I eavesdrop on Omasu and Okon, whether on purpose or not, they're talking about the most recent men in their lives. I don't particularly care about how sexy they think Hiko Seijiiro is. He was all they talked about for months after Himura's battle with Shishio, even after Aoshi-sama returned. I don't want to hear about that guy Okon met in the market who's been sending her the most romantic letters, or any of the other empty-headed nonsense those two like. This time was different, though. This time, they had actually been having a serious conversation, for once, when I walked past the kitchen that night.

The Aoiya had closed, supper was over, and everyone was going their separate ways for the night. Okon and Omasu were washing dishes, and I was carrying them in from the other room. That was when I heard them.

"Isn't it strange?" Okon was saying. I rolled my eyes and paused outside the door, waiting for her to tell some inane story about how her romantic letter writer was doing. I knew what would happen if I interrupted this: they'd drag me into the conversation, and then they'd try to get me to agree to let them find me a boyfriend. As if they didn't already know where my heart lies.

"Isn't what strange?" Omasu asked. "Hasn't Isamu written you another letter?"

"No, not that," Okon said, to my surprise. "I was just thinking about Aoshi-sama."

This got my attention. After making sure that no one was in the hallway, I leaned a little bit closer to the doorway.

"What about him?"

"Well . you know, even after Himura-san brought him back to us, he's still not himself. He still hasn't been able to get past everything that happened, and it's been nearly a year now." I heard several dull clanks as crockery bumped against the metal basin. "I'm worried about him."

"I think we all are," Omasu replied sadly, "Misao-chan most of all."

"I wonder how much of our concern Aoshi-sama sees," Okon said thoughtfully. "I wonder if it makes any difference to him."

"It's not hard to understand how he feels. His closest friends died because of him; it's no wonder time stopped for him. Grief can make people do the strangest things."

Wait a minute . did OMASU really just say that? Deep-as-an-inch-of-water, wouldn't-notice-it-if-it-didn't-whistle-at-her-as-it-walked-by-Omasu? She certainly hid that side of herself well.

"Still, shouldn't he have realized by now that it's time to move on?" Okon asked seriously.

"Maybe Himura-san was only able to bring him partway back. Maybe someone else needs to bring him back the rest of the way, to make him part of our group again."

"Hn. I wish that 'someone' would hurry up and do it. Misao-chan isn't getting any younger, and we all know she has her heart set on him and no other."

"Yes. It's a pity his self control is so good, or else I'd make her parade around in front of him in skimpy outfits."

Kami-sama. I'm surrounded by matchmakers. I felt my cheeks burn hot and red, I was blushing so hard.

"Skimpier than her shorts?"

I cringed. They both laughed at this like it was the funniest thing they'd ever heard. Their laughter did nothing to help make my flush go away.

At this point, I knew I had to interrupt the conversation before it started to get worse, or they got one of their grand ideas that would ruin everything I'd ever worked for with Aoshi-sama. Besides, I still had a stack of dirty dishes in my arms that I didn't want to carry around forever.

I retreated silently down the hall a little bit, then stomped back toward the kitchen so they could hear my footsteps.

"Ah, Misao-chan, I was wondering when you were going to bring me those dishes," Okon said cheerfully as I walked in. "Arigatou!"

"You're such a helpful girl," Omasu added, smiling as if they hadn't been discussing Aoshi-sama and my "crush" on him.

I put on my normal genki grin. "I like to help, Omasu-san."

Later, while I was sitting by the window on my nightly vigil for Aoshi- sama's return from the temple, I thought about what I had overheard. Okon and Omasu were right, of course. Aoshi-sama was still frozen with grief. Nothing I had said or done for him had done anything to change that.

Himura had brought him back to us, but that had been the easy part. Now we had to somehow make him see how much he meant to us all, how much we still needed him. Some days that seemed impossible.

I sighed and looked down into the garden beneath the window. I'd missed Aoshi-sama's arrival, but Jiiya hadn't. They were talking quietly now. Perhaps, if Jiiya distracted him enough, I could watch him for a while.

The moon was full and bright, clearly illuminating the garden and Aoshi- sama's handsome features. I liked the way his raven hair shone in the dim light, how his lean frame leaned forward slightly at the waist as he sat listening to whatever Jiiya was telling him.

One whole year had passed since Himura had brought Aoshi-sama back to us. Even after all that time, he still went to the temple every day to meditate. Rain, shine, tsunami, earthquake, it didn't really matter. I knew that I should at least be happy that he always came back to the Aoiya at night, but I couldn't help wondering when he was going to stop shutting us out like this. It was starting to seem to me like that was the only reason he went there: he no longer wanted to be a part of the Oniwabanshuu.

I sighed, frustrated, still staring down at that frustrating man in the garden below me. And abruptly, as if he'd heard my sigh, the object of my scrutiny turned and looked straight at me.

"Eep!" I squeaked involuntarily, and ducked back into the shadows. My heart was pounding so fast like a little bird's wings, and my entire face was hot with shame at being caught spying.

It took me several minutes of agonizing before I realized that it was nearly impossible for him to have seen me. The room was too dark, the moon too bright reflecting off the glass. There was no way that he could know that I was there, unless he had some sort of psychic, soul-deep connection to me.

I already knew that wasn't possible. After all, if we did have a connection that deep, he would know how distressed his actions have made me. He would know how much I long to make him smile, and he would have done it by now. And he would know how much my heart ached to hold him close, to soothe his pain. And . he'd know how much my body ached for his touch. Wouldn't he?

Cautiously, I peeked out the window again. Aoshi-sama's attention was turned to the garden again. Jiiya was still talking, and he still appeared to be listening. I couldn't quite restrain a sigh of relief. My lapse into childishness had not been noticed by Aoshi-sama.

My confidence thus restored, I returned my gaze to Aoshi-sama.

I was glad that he could talk to Jiiya, if no one else. At the same time, though, I was very jealous that I was not the one Aoshi-sama seeks out to tell all his innermost thoughts. I wished that he could see me as a trustworthy enough person to open up to. If he did, maybe I could help him more.

When I visited him in the temple, he would just sit there. He hardly ever said anything to me. He hardly ever looked at me anymore. I kept thinking that if only I knew what was going on in his head, then I would know the best way to approach him, to bring him out of himself and back into our lives.

I sighed, resting my forehead against the cool windowpane. If only I knew what he thought of me. Did he still see the child, playing at being a ninja? Could he see the woman that I'd become? Could he see that I was capable of taking over the Oniwabanshuu, that my efforts to keep them alive had been successful? Was he proud of me for that?

True, I had immediately let him resume the role of Okashira once he'd come back to us, and he'd taken it without a word. I made some excuse about how I'd never be able to fill his shoes when I told him that it was his rightful position, but that was truly how I felt about it.

I did like being the Okashira of the Oniwabanshuu, but at the same time, I didn't feel right about usurping his place. I wanted him to feel like he was welcome, like he was needed again, which he truly was and still is. It just had always felt right to think of Aoshi-sama as our Okashira. Besides, all the paperwork was a real drag. I'd gotten tired of dealing with it.

Yet . if Okon and Omasu were right, and Aoshi-sama couldn't move forward, then maybe he couldn't see anyone else beyond the grief. He couldn't see how much we cared about him, or how much we worried about him. So that could mean that he couldn't see that I had grown up and become a woman. Maybe he didn't realize that I really could help him, if he would just let me show him how much I truly love him.

What else could this painfully sweet ache in the very fibers of my being have come from? How else could I explain why I care about him so much? I loved him, pure and simple, the way a woman loves a man. Why else would I have chased him all over Japan?

"Mou!" I exclaimed aloud in frustration. "Now what do I do?"

I knew how deeply he still felt the pain of losing Beshimi, Shikijou, Hyottoko, and Hannya-kun, even though he didn't outwardly show his grief. The fact that, a year later, he was still isolating himself from most of the other Oniwabanshuu was more than enough to prove how guilty he still felt. His never-ending daily trips to the temple were more than likely a part of what he felt was his atonement for the pain he had caused.

But why did he continue to do this to himself? Why did he feel that in order to atone, he had to suffer like this, and to make us suffer too because we care about him? I simply could not understand it.

Hannya-kun and the others, if he asked them, would tell him to stop this and live his life. They wouldn't want Aoshi-sama to hurt himself this way. And neither did I. One way or another, I had to make him stop it. I had to make him see that he was an important part of our lives, and we would not . I would not let him go so easily.

I frowned down at him, noticing that Jiiya had gone back inside the Aoiya, leaving Aoshi-sama alone in the moonlit garden. I wished that I had the courage necessary to go down there and ask that stubborn baka what he was thinking. Since I didn't, I had to content myself with simply glaring at him.

Somehow, for his sake and for all the other Oniwabanshuu, I had to make him see past his grief. I had to make him see that I could help him, that I forgave him, even that I loved him.

Little did I know that it would be the hardest thing that I'd ever done before, or how much I would learn about myself in the process. But that's life, and life is hard. And I have heard some people say that the one you love is the mirror of yourself, or something like that.

My legs were getting stiff from standing so long in one position, and my shoulders were developing knots the size of rice balls. I moved a little away from the window to stretch, never taking my eyes off of Aoshi-sama.

He still hadn't moved, almost as if he knew I was watching him, and he'd stayed there to humor me in my fascination. I frowned again, wondering if he had sensed my presence. His expression, however, revealed nothing, as usual.

I looked away from the window. It was possible that he would not welcome my efforts to help him. It was possible that Hannya-kun's and the other's deaths had killed something in him that could never be awakened again, no matter what I did. It was possible that he would always feel guilty for turning to Shishio, for hurting Jiiya, for abandoning the Oniwabanshuu.

A few moments passed before I realized that I was crying.

I ignored my tears, watching Aoshi-sama blur into shadow before I scrubbed them out of my eyes. I could not simply stand by and watch his pain slowly eat away at his soul until he died. I had to do something, even if it meant that he would be angry with me.

I watched Aoshi-sama stand up slowly and turn to look up at my window again. This time I did not move, even though I thought my heart would stop. I kept my eyes on his face, waiting for some sign.

I think he might have seen me. He was almost smiling, the same way he had when we were younger and he caught me spying on him. I think, that if I could have seen them, his icy blue eyes might have melted, just a little. I held my breath.

Then Aoshi-sama was gone, having entered the Aoiya through the back door. I could hear his faint, nearly silent footsteps on the stairs. Clasping my hands over my mouth to muffle my shriek of surprise, I scrambled as noiselessly as possible down the hall and into my room. I had just managed to lie down on the futon and pull a blanket over me when I heard the soft footsteps coming closer to my room.

I swear that my heart skipped a beat and then went double time when he paused outside my door. It thundered in my ears, and I thought that it was loud enough for him to hear out in the hallway.

Had he seen me? Was he angry with me, or did he want something else? My numbed brain couldn't quite produce what that "something else" might be.

After one very long, very tense moment, the footsteps continued down the hall, toward Aoshi-sama's room. I heard the rasp of the shoji sliding open and then shut, and let out a sigh of part relief, part exasperation. All was quiet once more.

I have no idea what I expected him to do or say that night. I guess I just wanted him to talk to me about something, anything. I can't say that he surprised me, really.

Sleep was a long time in coming that night. Since I had decided that I would do whatever it took to help him, I now had to think of something to crack through that shell of ice he'd built around himself. I knew that it wasn't going to be easy, but I had to try. I simply had to.

I wanted to see him smile and hear him laugh, for once. I was tired of the quiet, frozen statue of an Aoshi-sama I'd almost become accustomed to seeing. I had to find something to make him trust me enough to open up and let me in, so that he would see that I only wanted to make him happy.

I smiled. Tomorrow, I would begin the laborious task of demolishing Aoshi- sama's shield. I would be patient but persistent, and eventually, I would get past it and see the real Aoshi-sama again.

I fell asleep with this thought, and my dreams were full of the future.

TBC.

Chapter title from Madonna's Frozen, story title from Sarah McLachlan's Fumbling Towards Ecstasy CD.

Please review if you would like me to continue.