Title: As the Universe Unravels
Pairings/Characters: One-sided Misao/Aoshi (or is it?), Kenshin/Kaoru (But is he her boyfriend? Yet?), various Oniwabanshu characters
Notes: Is it the nature of one high school AU to spawn children? I have no idea. Here, have Misao's side of the story. This story definitely has more structure and a (slightly stupid) conceit.
On Mondays, Misao paints her nails green: green for health, for good luck, for youth and fertility.
Everyday, promptly at 4:30 PM, the staff of the student paper convenes in the unused classroom that has served as the office for longer than any one of the intrepid reporters has been alive. It's a close, small room, filled with the sharp electromagnetic scent of humming computers with a hint of stale coffee. Entire walls are papered with odd pictures, charts of grammar rules, interesting articles, and the occasional striking Times cover; the floor is crowded with unwanted and unmissed desks filched from strange places—round tables from the cafeteria, black-topped tables from the science lab, and, for the editor, an ancient three-legged teacher's desk.
Misao hates it.
She inhales, in and out. It doesn't help—the walls are just as close, Tsunan just as smelly, and her seat just as uncomfortable. She clenches a fist. Her nails flash metallic green.
"Hey," Tsunan breathes on the back of her neck.
Misao jumps. "Tsunan," she hisses. "Do we need to have the talk about personal space again?"
"Oh, sorry," he says. He scoots back, but it's too late—his unique aroma of Cheetoes and unwashed socks is already firmly lodged in her nostrils. "Hey, have you read about the recent—"
But whatever he'd wanted to say is lost on Misao: Aoshi sweeps into the room at 4:30 on the dot, his polo shirt and trench coat perfectly in place, hair gleaming, eyes stormy.
This is it, Misao thinks. This is the week you fall in love with me.
On Tuesdays, Misao paints her nails red: red for love, for warmth, for passion and excitement.
"I don't understand," Kaoru says. "Explain it to me. What do you like about Aoshi again?"
"You wouldn't, because you're the girl with gorgeous boyfriend with the mysterious past." Misao takes a bite out of her ketchup and cream cheese sandwich.
Kaoru reddens. "He's not my boyfriend," she mutters into her mac-and-cheese (which, Misao feels, can only be improved with a hardy helping of ketchup).
"What was that? I didn't hear you," Misao says, even though she heard perfectly well.
"Kenshin is not my boyfriend." She shrugs, still red and very fetching.
"Then what are you two doing, holed up in your family dojo night after night?"
"Nothing!" Kaoru says, slightly desperate. "Nothing at all. We practice and do homework and he's gone by, like, eight."
Misao rolls her eyes. "Of course you two aren't doing anything. You guys are that kind of wholesome. While the rest of us fear our lady parts will shrivel up and die out of disuse." She slumps dramatically in her seat.
Kaoru lobs a grape at her head. "Stop that, you."
"So," Misao says, perking up. "Is he really as good as rumors say he is?"
Kaoru wets her lips, then bites the lower one. (God, Kenshin, Misao thinks, how are you resisting this?) She leans forward. "Even better," Kaoru says, her tone hushed. "He doesn't like to talk about it but—God. It's like—like watching poetry. He moves like water, he doesn't waste a move. It's beautiful."
Watching Kenshin move obviously turns Kaoru on, but Misao refrains from doling out her usual advice—climb him like a tree! or, in this case, jump his bones! because the tree metaphor only works if the object of attraction is tall—because Misao herself has done such a bad job of following it in recent months. She says instead, "So why'd he join the Home Ec club if he's poetry in the bedroom—oh, I mean, the dojo?"
Kaoru shoots Misao a glare. "He doesn't like competing, which is totally fair. I can understand."
"Uh-huh," says Misao, unconvinced. "You love competing."
"Well, yeah," Kaoru says, like it's the most obvious thing in the world. "But he doesn't. Not my cup of lassi and all that. He'd rather bake and crochet."
Misao studies her friend, takes in her flushed cheeks and pink lips and bright eyes. "You're totally turned on by that, aren't you?"
"Oh, God, yes!" Kaoru nearly gasps. "It's all that leashed strength and that he's not threatened by how good I am and that he likes cooking—" She breaks off, shaking her head. "I don't know; it's like the universe deposited the perfect guy right in front of me. It's almost too good to be true."
"Yeah, well, make sure you find out where those scars came from first before you commit," Misao says, for once willing to be the practical one in this friendship. "Who knows? He might have a psycho ex-girlfriend or something."
Kaoru, now somewhat off her estrogen rush, quirks an eyebrow in Misao's direction. "Yeah? Have you vetted Aoshi on that front? Never mind, of course you have."
"You don't understand my passion!" Misao cries, fluttering her eyelashes for maximum effect, and then clutching her heart for good measure.
"Darn right I don't! Why have you got it so bad for a guy who's so…cold? No, seriously, explain it to me, I'm genuinely confused."
"He's ice to my fire," Misao says blithely. "He's just waiting for someone like me to sweep him off his sensibly shod feet."
Kaoru pins her in place with bright blue eyes. (Misao's always been a bit jealous of them; her own eyes are a not-so-striking grey-blue.) "You know what I think? I think you've made this elaborate spun-sugar castle of Aoshi in your head. He's an—an icon to you, an archetypal cold, methodical male lead and you're the force that'll spring him into the great maw of character development."
Misao opens her mouth to respond—no, that's not true; how could you, Kaoru; that's not fair; your assumptions are false—but her words are dried up.
Kaoru's face softens. "I'm sorry. That was harsh." She gathers the remains of her lunch into a brown paper bag. "But think about it, okay? You followed him into the student paper, Misao? What were you thinking?" Kaoru squeezes her cold hand (painted nails, of course, a coat of solid red glitter that looks sordid in the harsh fluorescent lights; what was she thinking?) once, and then leaves.
On Wednesdays, Misao paints her nails yellow: yellow for cheer, for warmth, for frustration and anger.
She visits the auditorium after a newspaper meeting. She runs a hand down a row of chairs, smiling as she feels the cheap polyester covering run smooth and shiny. Her nails wink a cheery yellow hello up at her. She can't help but smile as she looks around—the place is not much prettier than the student paper office; like much of the school, the large, echoing hall is built for bare-bones functionality, not aesthetic pleasure.
But that hadn't mattered two years ago, and it didn't matter now. She closes her eyes. Much Ado About Nothing was the show. She's painted pieces as real as the sky and sunlight olive groves; she'd created chalky white columns from cardboard and gauze, temples from scraps of gold lamé, a bolt of cheap copper brocade, and glitter.
A person enters behind her. Okon, with her smart buns and welcoming smile. "Hey there," she says. "Thought we'd never see you back here again."
"Yeah, well, I was bitten by the nostalgia bug, I guess," Misao says. Her tongue, usually so glib, feels thick in her mouth.
"We're trying to get the board to approve of Equus," Okon says, hopping up on the stage.
"Seriously?" Misao asks. "You think they'll let you do it?"
"Who knows? We'll fight for it, make no mistake!"
Misao wants that. More than stifling meetings in a paper-choked room, she wants to be hugging petitions to her chest and camping out outside the principal's office, her mind buzzing with arguments about art and drama and how it must not be compromised and if it made you uncomfortable and made you think, then good!
"I'm sure you will," Misao says. Her voice sounds oddly hollow, even in the echoing vaults of the auditorium.
On Thursdays, Misao paints her nails blue: blue for tranquility, for calm, for aloofness and sadness.
"Beshimi, you'll be covering the recent inquiry into the nutritional value—or lack thereof—of school lunches."
"Sure thing." Beshimi, insectile as ever, hunches in on himself, but a smile that's vaguely reminiscent of a shark lingers about his mouth.
Aoshi frowns at his iPad. "Hannya, you've got the next school board meeting—make a special note about whether or not they address the implementation of a dress code."
Hannya, man of few words (well, those that are spoken aloud anyway), absorbs his marching orders stone-faced.
"Hyottoko, you've got the rash of small fires in the woods behind the school; see if anyone knows if its arson or the weather." His long, long fingers dance across the screen. Tap, tap, swipe, tap.
Hyottoko grins. His other response is to take a giant swig of his favorite obscure soda, which Misao personally thinks tastes like Sriracha-flavored toxic waste.
"Shikijo, the recent steroids scare. I've got surveys here; talk national statistics, compare them to local ones."
"Got it, boss."
"Shura, sports. Girls varsity golf, the cross country team, and kendo team—they've all got meets in the next week."
"Sayo, the recent LGBTQ pride parade, interviews of students and faculty. Get Principal Arai if you can."
"He'll try to weasel out of it."
"Try, though. He'll probably give you an answer about how student civic and political engagement is a good thing. Anything's good, however vague." His fingers flick to another application, smooth as ice. "Tsunan, the Young Republicans and Democrats for Obama are girding their loins for the upcoming election year; get on that."
"Aww, come on, man! I want the hard-hitting stories!"
"Then ask for competing opinions on health care reform. You'll have it. All of you, I want those articles in by next Tuesday..."
He's forgotten her again. Misao grits her teeth and jerks her hand up into the air. Today, her nails are spangled with blue stars.
It takes him a moment to focus his gunmetal grey eyes on her. "Question?"
"Suggestion, actually," she says before she loses her nerve. This club of ace reporters never fails to make her feel incompetent. "The drama club is trying to put on Equus. They're planning on—on petitioning the board and administration. I think it would be really great if we gave them some publicity. I know most of the drama club members. I could—I could cover it."
Aoshi looks at her for a long moment. His mouth tightens at the corner, like he's suppressing a frown or a smile. "Hannya, you think you could cover that?"
She takes in an outraged breath. Sayo behind her lets out a soft sound of commiseration. "That's not fair!" Misao's breath is coming faster and faster. "It was my idea—"
Aoshi's eyes have not left her. "Nevertheless, I am editor-in-chief and I decide who covers what. I've got another assignment for you."
"What would that be?" she spits.
He doesn't speak for a long moment. When he does, he's almost apologetic. "They're replanting the trees in front of the East Block. It's a beautification project. You'll like it."
Misao's chest heaves. It's a school paper, a small, reasonable voice whispers valiantly in her head. Kaoru's right: there's barely any news around here. We have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to get by on a quarterly publication schedule. But that doesn't change the glaring fact that Aoshi is a colossal jackass to have taken something obviously important to her, something for which she obviously had passion, and then to have given her trees. Trees.
Almost apologetic is no longer good enough.
She does not yell, she does not spit, she does not march up to Aoshi's desk and demand he let her do the article. Kaoru is right, like always. Misao's spun sugar castle has come tumbling down.
She stands up slowly, packs up her things, and slings her pack over her shoulder. Hot tears are gathering in her eyes, but she doesn't care. "Hannya," she says. Her voice quakes. "You'll have to do the trees as well. I'm done."
She picks her way to the door and lets it fall closed behind her.
On Fridays, Misao paints her nails purple: purple for respect, for victory, for grace.
In front of an audience, Misao gives off a hard shine.
"That was amazing!" Kaoru says. She, too, is flushed with another kendo championship in the bag. Kenshin, standing close behind her, smiles his approval. (Kaoru may be in denial about dating him, but to anyone with eyes, it's apparent: Kenshin has staked a claim and has commenced wooing her with a long-term game-plan that involves baked goods, knitted scarves, and kendo lessons for two in scenic Kamiya dojo.)
"Thanks, guys," Misao says. Her smile is so wide, she's afraid her face will atrophy. It doesn't seem like the worst thing in the world.
Shiro and Kuro throng around her; Okon and Omasu laugh delightedly. "We're putting it on!" Okon keeps saying. "I can't believe we're putting Equus on!"
Misao laughs with them. She hugs a petition to her chest, filled with hundreds of names, proof of her virtually one-woman campaign. Her nails are lacquered a rich, glorious eggplant, appropriately enough. Her mind spins with horses, white and brown and roan and beautiful black. "It's going to be amazing!" she vows. "And now that we have a budget as opposed to, like, five dollars, we can afford more than shoe-string and bubblegum!"
Omasu pokes her. She jerks her head towards the auditorium entrance, where, Misao finally notices, Aoshi is standing in his customary slacks and trench coat.
"Go talk to him," Okon whispers. "You're, like, our press liaison, you know?"
"Guys," she says.
"Go get us some good publicity," Kuro says.
So Misao girds her loins and marches up to her former editor-in-chief. Once she would have smiled up at him through her eyelashes. This time, she just sets her jaw and waits him out; he's had enough of her smiles.
"So." He clears his throat. "You got approval."
"Barely, yeah. We're going to need permission slips, student waivers, and no one under eighteen is allowed into the theater unless you're on the production team. You know. The works."
They fall silent. He stuffs his hands in his pockets; Misao takes a completely petty thrill at his discomfort. This is my turf, bucko.
"The newsroom is pretty busy," he says finally.
"Yeah? Some wonder you could make it out here yourself."
"This is important. Theater and print media both deal in free expression."
Maybe because she's pathetic, but a seductive curl of warmth unfurls in her belly. She smiles up at him. "I'm glad you think so. Art is always about ferreting out some kind of truth."
He clears his throat and looks at her feet. "Sayo and Shura insisted I come," he says.
And just like that, the frost in his tone kills the nascent bud of affection before it could take root. "Right." She levels him a flat look. "Be sure to give them my thanks."
For the second time, she turns on her heel and marches away, and this time, she pretends that she doesn't care that his eyes follow her the entire way.
On Saturdays, Misao paints her nails white: white for clarity, for simplicity, for purity.
"Stop that," Kaoru says. "You look like you're painting your nails with white-out."
"Yeah?" Misao holds up her hand unto the light. White is the absence of colors. A clean palette. A new start.
What the hell. Everyone deserves a bit of maudlin sentimentality in their lives.
Misao smiles over at Kaoru. "I like it."
On Sundays, Misao paints her nails black: black for sophistication, for glamour, for substance.
"Oh, you're a beauty," Misao croons as she colors the papier-mâché horse in shades of silver. "You're gorgeous."
"He really is."
Misao jumps about a foot in the air. "Jesus," she breathes, turning. "Don't scare me like that."
"Sorry." Aoshi has the decency to look abashed—well, as abashed as he's capable of looking, anyway: the usual stern slant of his mouth shifts.
"Well, is there anything you need for the paper? I answered all of Hannya's questions, so I don't know, are you here for—"
"I'm sorry." His level voice is perturbed by some emotion. She hopes it's shame, but it's probably indigestion. "I meant to say that when I came here before."
She shuts her mouth with a snap, considering. "I'm not sure if I accept that apology. It's only got half-an-ass, if you get my meaning."
He closes his eyes. A ghost of a smile wavers around his mouth. "This is why I couldn't give you serious articles, you know."
"What, my incredibly sophisticated sense of humor?" She rolls her eyes and gets back to work. "Yeah, whatever. I admit it, I was a shit writer. I only stuck around because I wanted to get into your pants, anyway."
She frowns. "Hey, you still there?"
At length, he clears his throat. "And—now?"
She peers over her shoulder at him. Oh. She will not giggle. "They proved to be kinda hard to get into. I'm not sure it's worth it."
"Dinner," he proposes suddenly. "The community theater where I live is putting on Titus Andronicus. This Saturday night. Eight. I'll pick you up."
"You don't have my address—"
"Student file. I'll look it up."
She narrows her eyes at the horse's mane. She picks up a slender brush, dips it white, and strews streaks of brilliance onto her creation. "So, this is a date? Or...or just an activity together?"
"Do you really have to ask?"
"I'm a big believer in parameters." She knows she sounds smug. It's delicious.
"Then yes. Yes. It's a—date."
The treacherous warmth is back. It's very different from her frantic lust from before she managed to dredge up self-respect. If he's very careful and refrains from doing anything bone-headed, she might just begin nurturing it.
"Sure," she calls back. "Eight it is."
Before he leaves, he asks, "Are you, ah, going punk?"
"The black nails. I've seen you wear almost every other color."
She rubs a thumb over her left index finger. "You noticed?"
He closes his eyes in what looks like one part exasperation to two parts resigned patience. "You are impossible not to notice."
"Well, then." She bites her lip, lest her smile grow too wide and pleased. Too late. Oh, well. "See you Saturday. Don't be late."