Title: As the Universe Conspires
Pairings/Characters: Kenshin/Kaoru, one-sided Misao/Aoshi (or is it?), Sano, Yahiko, various characters.
Notes: I was working on chapter 5 of Beside the Point and this came out instead. I guess every fanfiction writer worth her salt needs to crank out at least one high school AU. Here's mine.
Tension crackles across the school, and even Kaoru—oblivious, sporty, no-nonsense Kaoru—can feel it. It's irritating, this constant low hum of speculation in the background. She frowns and adjusts her grip on the shinai, stepping forward and moving her arms down in perfect, controlled synchronicity. No, not perfect—but she isn't getting any closer to perfection while her fellow club members titter more than usual.
"What is the matter with everyone today?" Kaoru asks Misao later as they're sitting down for lunch.
Misao leans over the table. Her eyes are wide. "You haven't seen him yet?"
Misao flicks a small, elegant hand in the air. "You haven't. Obviously."
"Who am I talking about? See, I know you so well. It's love."
"Okay, okay." Misao takes a quick bite of her sandwich—tuna, lettuce and ketchup, because she's a freak who adds ketchup to everything—and stands up to peer over the seething mass of teenage bodies. "There," she says. "Stand up, stand up, he's not very tall—"
Kaoru stands. "Who am I looking for again?"
"That guy—that redhead. With the ponytail."
Kaoru looks. There's the usual conflagration of bizarre hair colors—oh, that's a nice eggplant shade—and it takes her a moment to spot the mop of flame-colored hair. This new student is quite short, dressed in nondescript hoodie, and has his back to her. "You sure it's a guy?" she asks uncertainly. "He wears his hair really long."
Misao shrugs, and they both sit back down. "Who knows? He could be trans*, but no one's asked. He definitely identifies as male, though."
"Huh. So…why the buzz? New student, big deal."
"He's pretty," Misao says, "like, way pretty. But that's not all."
"Prettier than Aoshi?" Kaoru asks, smiling.
"Blistered be thy tongue!" Misao says. "Aoshi isn't pretty."
Kaoru rolls her eyes. "Of course. He's got a lantern jaw of justice, etcetera, his smiles and eyes and knees and his etcetera."
"You are a terrible person. You know I've never seen his etcetera. It's mean to tease."
"You mean lurking around the student paper office and making a nuisance of yourself isn't getting you a free pass into the esteemed editor's pants? I'm shocked, I tell you, shocked."
"I am not a nuisance. I am a journalist." Misao pouts, stabbing a cube of cantaloupe with unnecessary violence and nearly snaps her spork in two. "Even if he only gives me puff pieces."
"It's a high school newspaper. It's all puff. You know, by definition." Misao opens her mouth to furiously reply, so Kaoru hastily says, "And what else? About the new guy?"
"Oh." Misao stops bristling, having been mollified by the smell of fresh gossip. "Oh, yeah, him. Well, there's the hair and how freaking gorgeous he is. But he's also got a wicked scar."
"Have you been reading old school romance novels again?" Kaoru asks dubiously. "Because you know romanticizing trauma is not cool—"
"Shut up and save it for that social justice blog you follow. Anyway, the fact that he's got a scar is almost irrelevant. It's how the scar is shaped."
Kaoru raises her eyebrows. "And?"
"It looks like an X." Misao traces two bisecting lines on her left cheek. "It's huge."
"Does anyone know how he got it?" Kaoru asks, curious despite herself.
"Nope. The prevailing theory is that he pissed off some drug dealer by sleeping with the guy's girlfriend."
Kaoru rolls her eyes. "Or he could have been in a car accident or something. Heaven forbid his injuries have a completely drama-free explanation."
"You know what your problem is? You have to sense of fun."
"And you know what your problem is? You cast yourself in the role of manic pixie dream girl for Aoshi when you're so much more than that."
Misao drops her forehead on the table. "Have I mentioned how much I hate it when you're right? Because I hate it."
"Eat your sandwich, dear," Kaoru says.
As it turns out, Kaoru does not see the new student all day. It's just as well, because she seriously doubts the boy in question is worth all the gossip. Kaoru is a firm believer in Occam's razor: if the new guy has scars, he probably was in an accident; if the new guy wears his hair long, it's probably meant to be a quirky fashion statement and not the banner of a separatist gun-nut clan; if he's transferred in the middle of the year, his parents or guardians probably moved and not because he set his old school's gym on fire.
She dismisses him as she bikes to her afterschool job at the local library, and nods hello to her boss, Naname Higashidani, who is a lovely lady who nonetheless gave birth to one of the most hardheaded fools in the world.
"Hi, Mrs. Higashidani," she says. "How's it going?"
"Same old, same old. The new Nora Roberts and John Grisham are out, so we've been busy." She smiles. "Uki's in the stacks today, by the way. I'm having her re-shelve in the reference section upstairs. I told her if she wanted dance lessons, she'd have to pay for them in cold, hard labor."
"Nothing cold and hard up there."
"No, just hot and dusty. She's young and her sinuses are in excellent shape. She'll handle it." Mrs. Higashidani smiles, and it reminds Kaoru that Sano's devil-may-care attitude didn't all come from his dad.
"Remind me never to piss you off," Kaoru says. "I'll take care of the re-shelving in the children's section?"
"Go ahead. You never do, sweetheart. Unlike some brats I can name but won't."
"Sano? What's he done now?"
"Sano? No, it's a little unsettling how quiet he's been. He's got a new friend who moved here a few days ago. They've been busy catching up."
"Would this friend have crazy red hair?" She smiles. "There's a new student at school who's like that."
Mrs. Higashidani blinks. "Do you know, I think that's the old friend Sano's been talking about. You should get to know him. Kenshin sounds like such a nice young man."
Kaoru's father has her running kata after dinner.
"Your shoulders are too rigid," he says from his customary position by the door. "I'm telling you, you should practice more."
"I'm trying, Dad. I'm doing as much as I can."
"Not enough. Hmph. I tell you, you should quit that job at the library. It's making you stiff."
"Oh yeah? And you'll pay me a comparable wage if I take over classes to free up your evenings so you can watch Ninja Warrior?" There's a pause as Dad chews on his answer. For all the annoyance she feels towards him most days, Kaoru wants to give him a hug because her daddy's an adorable cheapskate. "Thought so," she says, smiling.
"Your mother is turning in grave because you've grown up to be so disrespectful," Dad sniffs.
"No, she's doing that because of your paunch."
"Like I said. Disrespectful."
Kaoru snorts. "I love you too, Daddy." She finishes her exercises and gulps down a bottle of water.
"Say," he says after a moment, "have noticed that there's new transfer student at your school?"
Kaoru slowly sets the bottle down. "Don't tell me," she says, incredulous, "his name is Kenshin, he's short, has interesting scars and is in desperate need of a haircut."
"That's the one!"
"Dad, how do you know anything about him?"
"Well, the news is on the kendo circuit—"
"There's no circuit. You're just a bunch of old guys who're friends on Facebook."
"The news on the kendo circuit is that Kenshin Himura's in town. This kid's good enough to be internationally ranked. You should recruit him for your club. He'd make a great co-captain."
"Dad, I'm captain. There is no 'co-captain.'" She makes quote-marks in the air and imbues them with the proper disgust. "And who was this guy trained by, anyway?"
"Seijuro Hiko, that's who."
She raises her eyebrows. "I didn't think he took students. Isn't he still doing that old-school reclusive warrior hermit-slash-artist thing?"
"This Kenshin fellow is Hiko's kid. Or ward. No one really knows for sure."
"How's that possible, when everyone on your precious circuit is such a busybody?"
"Please, Kaoru. We network. We do not gossip."
"Dad, you guys squee over cat pictures. I'm friends with all of you, remember? I can see everything you do."
Dad just grunts. "Just talk to him, okay? He may make a big difference to your team."
Kaoru grunts in return. "Aye, aye, captain."
Kaoru catches glimpses of the new kid between classes, around crowds of students, in gaps at the lunch line.
"What the heck?" Kaoru exclaims, falling into a chair. "It's like the guy's freaking Houdini!"
Misao noisily sucks on grape juice box. "I hear Sano knows him. They must have met at that Young Communists camp Sano's always at." Misao throws the box at a nearby garbage can.
"No, they met as counselors at that martial arts for kids camp. You know. The one summer I couldn't go. And Sano's not a communist." She chews on her lip. "I'd categorize him as an extreme left-leaning liberal."
"Uh-huh. What is with you, anyway?" Misao frowns. "This Kenshin guy is old news. So, anyway, guess what I heard about Shugo? You're not going to believe this but Okon told me that Omasu told her that…"
"Hey twerp," Kaoru says as walks into her aunt's kitchen. "Ready for homework?"
"Whatever," Yahiko says around a mouthful of banana. He's shot up another inch in the last month, and is suitably ravenous. "Let me eat, woman. Jesus."
"You kiss your mother with that mouth?" She hangs up her jacket, turns, and freezes. "Yahiko. What happened to your face?" He's got a glorious black eye and a yellowing bruise across one cheek.
"This?" Yahiko shrugs. "You shouldda seen the other guy."
"Are you going tell me or am I going to have to add to your bruise collection?" She cracks a knuckle.
Yahiko frantically backpedals. "Jeez, don't go nuts on me! It was just a bunch of stupid eighth-graders."
Kaoru shakes her head, disgusted. "Damn. What'd you do?"
"Nothing! I just didn't like how they were pushing Yutaro around."
"Yutaro? That rich kid? I thought you didn't like him."
"Yeah? So?" Yahiko glares a challenge at her, his eyes too big in his thinning face. He's growing very quickly, and has a haunted, stretched look. "Look, he's a jerk-off, but it's not his fault he's got nerve damage in his arm or something and that he can't fight back."
Kaoru grins and catches Yahiko in a surprise hug. "There may be hope for you yet, young padawan."
"Get off me!" He flails with adolescent embarrassment until she takes pity on him and lets him go. "Anyway, I wasn't pounded on for long. This dude who looked like a lady stepped in and stopped it."
"'Looked like a lady'?" Kaoru closes her eyes and wonders at the universe. "Don't tell me. He had really long red hair and was kind of short and had a scar on his face."
Yahiko brightens. "Oh, you know him? Can you introduce me? I didn't get his name."
"No," she says through clenched teeth. "I don't know him."
"Oh, too bad." Yahiko shrugs. "You should have seen him, though. Guy was almost too fast to see, and he took all of those jerks down without hurting anyone." He slants her a sly look. "He might even be better than you. You should probably ask him out."
"What do I look like, Red Sonja? Get out your homework." She narrows her eyes. "Math first."
She corners Sano at school the next day. "Well. Where is he?"
Sano eyes her oddly. "You…feeling okay?"
"I'm fine," she snaps. "Where's your new friend?"
"What, did Kenshin pee in your bushes and kick your dog or something?"
Kaoru groans. "No, but he's managed to insinuate himself into every last bit of my life. I just want to meet him."
Sano shakes his expertly gelled head. "You just missed him. He's got a free track. Took off somewhere. What do you mean—'every last bit of your life'? He's been here, what, a week? Ten days, tops."
She shoved her own unkempt bangs out of her eyes. "I don't know. You know him. Your mom knows him. My dad knows of him. Yahiko's met him. And they all think I should talk to him. It's a little freaky, don't you think?"
"Like the universe is sending you a message or something? Because he's not stalking you, I know that much."
Kaoru sighs. "I know that. And Tsunan's the conspiracy theorist among us, but I can't help but think I need to meet this guy, you know? End the weirdness."
"Okay," Sano says slowly. "Okay, sure. But listen, kid, don't go bothering him about where he was before and how he got those scars. He's had a rough couple of years."
"I won't. But, listen—"
"Hey, I'm late for work. Sozou will kick my ass right out of the garage if I don't leave right now. See you." Sano sets off down the hall, his long-legged amble deceptively fast. "It's a small town. You'll meet him sooner or later."
A week passes. Kaoru spends the afternoon jamming pulp fiction novels back onto their respective shelves.
A voice, clear and soft, says from behind her, "Excuse me? I was wondering if you'd point me in the direction of the closest restroom?"
She turns. "Sure. You have to go around the café—" She stutters to a stop. The voice belongs to a short young man, with old, old eyes and an ugly scar across one cheek. His hair isn't just red, she realizes—it's fire-engine red and earthy brown and deep auburn and shiny copper and even a little gold. "Mother of god," she breathes, dropping her load of books.
The man takes a step back, smiling uncertainly. "You know what, I can find it myself, thanks so much—"
"No, no, I'm not a freak!" She pushes hair our of her face, tries to smile like a person who isn't deranged, dusts off her hands and extends one. "But I'm not doing a very good job convincing you of that, am I? Let me start again. I'm Kaoru."
"Oh!" He nods. "Right. Sano's friend, captain of the kendo team." He takes her hand in a firm shake.
His hand is very warm and calloused in all the same places as hers. "It's nice to finally meet you. I've heard so much about you, you have no idea."
"Oh, you too?" he asks and sounds a little relieved. "Sano's told me about you, his mom's told me about you, my guardian's told me about you, this kid named Yahiko's told me about you—I was starting to think it was some kind of conspiracy, to be honest."
Kaoru drinks in his smile. Slow warmth slides through her, like sunlight on chilled skin. "How about that."