A suitcase of unknown origin was all Tsubaki needed, so meager were her possessions. What little writing she had done and the few articles of clothing Rachel had lent her in a rare act of kindness were all she had. With a sigh, she zipped up the suitcase and rose. Leaden as her body was, it was all she could do to drag herself out of the room for the last time. With a shake of her head, she sighed. She shouldn't be so dismal; she had been granted a chance to do something rather than loaf around all day, and she was hardly a lay-about. This was an opportunity, and she should take full advantage of it.
Tsubaki paused by Ragna's door, and frowned. No matter what sort of chance this was, being separated from the few friends she had at the mansion stung. Leaving them, especially Ragna, behind had her back on the fringes of depression. But no, she wouldn't let herself descend back into such a state. She would say her goodbye for the time being to Ragna, and head off to Sector Seven where she could finally contribute to this war against the corrupting forces within the Librarium. She raised a hand and knocked.
It took a bit to receive a response; no sound came from beyond the door. A light shuffle soon sounded, however, and a moment later, the door swung open. Ragna poked his head through, and immediately turned away when he saw who it was. "Hey, Tsubaki. What's up?"
"Well, uh…" Tsubaki rocked back on her heel, but forced herself to not step away in surprise. A cold distance hung in Ragna's voice, a winter's wind that slapped across her face. She, too, averted her gaze, and held in a sigh. "I'm… just here to say goodbye. And… thanks. For everything."
"Mm." Ragna looked straight at his feet; he couldn't look Tsubaki in the eyes, not now. "Not a problem."
Lips trembling, Tsubaki fought for words. But Ragna had slain any she could come up with. Finally, she nodded, and turned on her heel, leaden weight settling in her gut. Just as it had done when he first rejected her. "…V-very well. I'm going now."
"…Kay." Certain that she had turned to leave, Ragna dared to look up at her retreating form. When, or if, he would see her again, he didn't know. A sickening turmoil almost sunk him to his knees. However, only two words came to his lips. "…Be careful."
Tsubaki paused a moment, before simply nodding. "You, too." Then she disappeared through the door, goodbyes exchanged and no point left in looking back. Trembling, she shut the door behind her, stomach a dull knot; it took all the effort she had to continue forward. But she managed with just a brief delay, heading up toward Rachel's throne room.
"I'm here, Rachel." Tsubaki came to a stop in the doorway, clenching her suitcase's handle in both hands and maintaining composure the best she could, even as the seed of misery rooted itself deeper in her gut.
"Very well, then." Rachel rose from a chair and strode forth. "I assume you have all your possessions gathered?"
"Of course. It's not as though I have much with me."
"I see." With a gesture, Rachel opened a portal. "Then step forth, Miss Yayoi. I shall leave you under Kokonoe's supervision henceforth."
"Alright… Um, thank you for your hospitality these past weeks, Miss Rachel." Tsubaki did not receive a response. With a deep breath, she stepped into the wormhole. The sudden, brief acceleration through an empty void turned her stomach, but as soon as the feeling had so much as registered, she crashed to a hard floor. Trembling, she forced herself not to collapse to her knees, and looked around. A woman in a lab coat sat at a computer, feline ears poking out of pink tufts of hair and her tail twitching. "Oh, um… hello."
"That you, Yayoi?" Kokonoe swiveled around in her seat, and pulled the lollipop from out of her mouth. With a grumble, she stood up, beckoning Tsubaki to follow her. "Name's Kokonoe, although Rachel probably told you that much. Come on, get your ass in gear, I've gotta show you around."
"A… alright." Still woozy, Tsubaki hefted up her suitcase and stumbled after Kokonoe. "Um, if you don't mind me asking, what exactly am I going to be doing around here?"
"Eh. All kinds of odds and ends that me and Tager either don't have time for, or just can't be assed to deal with. You're not getting close to the actual science, though. Too sensitive. And you're not exactly qualified to deal with some of the chemicals I may end up using. I don't think anyone will be happy with me if you reduce yourself to a puddle by guzzling acid."
"I… uh… don't think I'd ever be tempted to do something like that…"
"Yeah, well, you've been hanging around Ragna from what I've heard, and I have no idea if his dumbassery is contagious." Kokonoe stepped into a small storeroom. "Anyways. This right here is the most important room in the lab. You will be responsible for keeping this place well-stocked, and for delivering its contents to me when I need them. You can use that thing over there to speed it up some." She indicated a white, motor-powered scooter in the corner of the room.
"Um…" Tsubaki stepped inside, looking around. Four large, metallic cylinders rose up from the ground, each one peppered with holes. And from each hole protruded… "…Are those lollipops?"
"Yes. Very important. Can't function without 'em. Don't let my stock run out ever." With that, Kokonoe wheeled around and gestured for Tsubaki to follow again. "When they start running low, I'll show you how to restock."
"Um… is there really such a danger of running out?"
"Yes." Kokonoe came to a stop before two large blast-door. "This is the main experiment lab. Blast-door's in place for good reason, although what me and Tager got going right now isn't exactly dangerous. You'll usually find us here. Oh, and if I need to run any human experiments, guess who the guinea pig is."
Tsubaki swallowed, but nodded. "I… I see…"
"Ah, don't worry, it'll be fine. Not gonna put your life in danger or anything. Anyways, keep it moving, Yayoi." No sooner had Kokonoe started along again than she came to a halt. "Oh, right. Here."
She fished through her pockets until she drew out a small radio, which she chucked to Tsubaki. "Emergency line. Anything at all comes up, give me or Tager a call on that, alright?"
"Ah!" Tsubaki fumbled the catch, juggling the device for a moment before snatching it. "Right, understood."
"Good." As they walked by another blast door, Kokonoe just jabbed a thumb its way. "And that's the hazardous substances lab. Never go in there. All the safety gear in the world couldn't protect you from some of that shit."
"R…" Tsubaki faltered a little. "Right. Got it."
"And right across the hall from it is the atmospheric lab. Don't enter that one, either. Never know what noxious gas might be there at the moment."
"…Right. Right…" Tsubaki nodded, closing her eyes. "Is… that the last of the labs?"
"Yeah. Most places will be safe." Kokonoe stopped, thinking. "…Uh, actually, me and Tager will be moving into the hazardous substances lab later in the week. Need it for our current project. So, we'll have to figure out how you'd deliver stuff to us. Anyways. Moving on."
Tsubaki followed Kokonoe past all of the labs, around a corner, and down a hall, where Kokonoe came to a stop again. She gestured to a door. "Here's an office. Another part of what you're going to be doing is keeping my scientific notes all orderly and shit. You'll be doing that here. Hell, you'll be spending pretty much all of your time in here, so get comfy. Only time you'll be stepping out of there when working is to bring me tools or a lollipop."
"Um…" Tsubaki lifted a hand, cautious and nervous. "I assume you would be using the radio to contact me when you need me to bring you something?"
"No shit. Anyways, one more place to show you. Oh, and you're starting tomorrow, by the way. Give you today to get your bearings. Okay, moving on."
A minute later, Kokonoe came to a stop by one final door. "And here's where you'll be staying. Bed, bathroom, kitchen, not much else. All the food's right through there." She pointed down the hall to a double-door at its end. "Any questions?"
Tsubaki nodded. "Yes. I'm just wondering what my schedule will be like."
"Oh, right. You drag your ass out of bed about 5:30, get to work about a half an hour later, get a lunch break for an hour or so when I say you can, and work until I say you're done for the day. That work for you?"
"I… suppose, yes." Because what other choice did Tsubaki have? Kokonoe struck her as someone she could never hope to negotiate with. Tsubaki bowed her head, eyes closed. "Thank you for giving me this chance to do something, Miss Kokonoe."
Kokonoe laughed and fixed her with a grin. Even aware to a degree that the work in this lab was less than pleasant, this chick was still thankful for the chance? Well, hell, whatever worked for her. "Yeah, yeah. Thanks for your help and all. Well, I gotta get back to work. See you around, Yayoi."
"Alright." Tsubaki offered a small wave as Kokonoe left, before turning and entering her room. She paused, gut knotting at the miniscule size. Just as advertised, it did indeed come with a bed, a kitchen and a door that Tsubaki presumed opened into a bathroom. However, the bed, a small thing with the thinnest blanket and pillow possible provided, took up half the empty space of the room, almost extending into the kitchen area. But at least the kitchen struck her as being complete enough; stove, oven, sink, silverware drawer, pantries, and a small refrigerator. With a sigh, she set down her suitcase and flopped onto the bed. She grunted as she landed on the hard mattress. After two weeks in Rachel's luxurious mansion, after spending the majority of her life in the confines of a noble's home, the room was absolutely miserable on first impression. But she could deal with it; she had a duty perform, and poor conditions would not stop her.
Tsubaki sighed, thoughts returning to her departure that morning. Why had Ragna been so distant? It wasn't like him at all. She focused on it, trying to come up with any reason for him to have been like that. But she found no answers, or at least none that satisfied her. With a sigh, she tried to bat the thoughts away. No sense in focusing on this.
After a few minutes' rest, she dragged herself back. Best to have a better look around of the place.
"Hey. Rachel. Open up."
Ragna's voice preceded three harsh knocks on the door to Rachel's room, drawing a sigh from the vampire. There was no doubt what this filthy mongrel wanted. Oh well. Best to get his eventual tantrum over with. "Do come in, Ragna. I assume you are here to discuss Miss Yayoi?"
"Damn right I am." Ragna stormed up to her throne, wearing a teeth-baring snarl. "What the goddamn hell is your problem?"
"My problem? I fail to see any sort of problem with my actions." Rachel reached over to a nearby table for a cup of tea, which she sipped from. "I have placed my faith in her, assuming that she will not betray us to the Librarium. As such, I elected to send her to a place where she may be productive to our cause. Is there any reason for you to react in such a way? Or perhaps you are jealous that Miss Yayoi has been freed of this place, while you remain here, utterly useless?"
"So, you're giving her an opportunity?" Growling, Ragna shook his head. "Bullshit. If you actually trusted her, why they hell is she just getting locked up with Kokonoe? And without her goddamn weapon at that? I know Izayoi is a pain in the ass, but I'd say Tsubaki's better off fighting, rather than helping with whatever Koko's doing at the moment. I don't think Tsu knows the first fucking thing about science, anyways."
"Oh, my word. You would give her back Izayoi? Do you not care one iota for Miss Yayoi? You know full well what that weapon is capable of doing to its user."
"Of course I do. I just think that you booting her over to Sector Seven was just to get rid of her. Why? The hell did she do here?"
"I see." Rachel took another sip of tea and grimaced. "That is the conclusion you have reached? That I somehow took offense to Miss Yayoi's presence within my manor, and concocted a way to remove her for such a petty reason? I ask, are you capable of rational thought? Or do you merely spew the first idea that comes to your Neanderthal mind, unable to truly think if you make the slightest bit of sense?"
"First off, fuck you. Second, I think what I said makes a hell of a lot more sense than sending her to do shit she knows nothing about."
"And I must disagree. Furthermore, I believe you are merely lashing out about no longer being able to spend time with her. You selfish, selfish fool; she has been granted an opportunity to aid our cause, something I'm certain she is content with, and all you are capable of thinking of is your own selfish desires. Begone; I do not wish to speak of this matter with you any longer."
"Tch. Yeah, I'm kinda done discussing this shit with you too, you bitch." With a sharp punch to the wall behind him, Ragna turned and stormed away.
"Hey, Yayoi, get up! You got shit to do, you know!"
Kokonoe's harsh yell dragged Tsubaki from the mire of sleep, unwilling after having spent much of the prior night unable to slumber. With a moan, she stirred, clutching the thin blanket around her tighter for warmth. Slowly, she sat up, blinking into the darkness. The eternal black around her chilled her, but only for a moment. "Alright."
The sound of some wheeled device rolling away answered her, and she gave a deep yawn and stretch before standing up. Right. To work. Still groggy, she lumbered over to where she had dropped off her suitcase the previous night, and fished through it for a simple shirt and pants. She threw them on and, knowing her time was quite limited, scuttled off to find some breakfast.
Some twenty minutes later, she trudged through the winding hall to the office Kokonoe had given her to use. Tentative, she stepped inside. She hadn't been given any actual instructions just yet; maybe she should seek out Kokonoe first? But no harm in checking here first, she decided. She walked up to the white wooden desk at the end of the room and scanned it. A slip of paper awaited her, instructions scrawled in quick, sloppy letters. Sort out the papers here; schematics in drawer 4, experiment notes in 5. Forgot to mention you'll also be taking care of janitorial shit while you're here. Do a general cleanup of this hellhole after sorting, except for the places I told you not to go to, and then come to me for more work afterwards. You got a radio if you have any questions.
Tsubaki stared at the note a moment longer, a light scowl on her lips. So this was how her temporary employer chose to give her instructions? Leave a note and call it good? Not that the instructions here were difficult in the least, but… It was just the essence of Kokonoe's method. But there was nothing Tsubaki could do about it. With a sigh, she pulled herself into the chair and took in the work before her. A mess of papers lay on and around the desk, as though blown around by a large windstorm. Grumbling about Kokonoe's apparent lack of order, Tsubaki took the first paper she saw and glanced over it. Schematics for some device; the chicken-scratched notes Kokonoe had adorned the blueprint with proved utterly indecipherable…
Tsubaki shook her head. She was here just to sort these, not poke her nose into them. She set the blueprint to one side, deciding that it would be best to sort the papers into however many piles were needed before sticking them into the assigned drawers. She worked through the strewn papers in short, efficient order, rarely taking a second glance at any one paper. It wasn't hard to differentiate between diagrams and mere notes, after all. As she reached for one of the last papers, a loud beep emitted from her pocket. With a gasp, she jumped out of surprise and fumbled around for whatever gave off the shrill sound. Her hand found the radio Kokonoe had given her, and she pulled it out and flipped it on. "Yes?"
"Hey, Yayoi. Bring me a sucker, will ya? I'm in the main lab."
"Yes, ma—" A crackle of static cut Tsubaki off, and she sighed again. Kokonoe could at least extend enough courtesy not to simply cut her off. Oh well. Nothing she could do about it. She cast a look down at the paper she had been about to sort out. The crinkled old thing could wait until she got back. Glad to be stepping out of the office—even though it had barely been half an hour since she began work—she marched back into the corridors and retraced the steps to the storage Kokonoe kept her lollipops in. After selecting the closest one, seriously wondering how much a threat there was of Kokonoe going through them all, Tsubaki turned and hurried into the main lab.
Its blast doors waited agape, allowing her just to step through into the lab. In the center of the large room, Kokonoe and Tager scuttled around the framework of a large machine. As Tsubaki approached, slow and cautious, Kokonoe flipped a pair of welding goggles up to her forehead and snapped her fingers into a thumbs-up. "Thanks, Yayoi."
"It's no problem." Tsubaki handed the candy to the scientist, and as soon as it left her fingers, nodded and strode away.
Back in the office, she snapped up the paper she had been about to sort before being called, and eyeballed it a moment longer than usual. Jet boots? What were these for? Whatever they were, they looked rather dangerous for the wearer. …Of course, this was none of her business. She gathered up all of the remaining pages on the floor before pulling up a seat and sorting them out accordingly. With a sigh of relief, she looked over her work. Two stacks, with hopefully no errors. Smiling to herself, she lifted one stack and took a glance at the top paper. Experiment notes. Drawer 5. Just about done.
Just as she reached for the drawer's handle, her radio shrieked again, drawing another jump. This time, the stack of paper in her hand tumbled to the floor and scattered. After a moment of mortified silence, Tsubaki just reached into her pocket and produced the radio once more. "Hello."
"Hey. I need another lollipop, stat."
Several hours later, Tsubaki leaned against a wall, mop in hand and wondering if Kokonoe had ever bothered to give her base a full cleaning before. The job had proven tedious—repeat the same few actions multiple times in each room, with frequent breaks to deliver a lollipop to her slave-driving overlord—and she doubted she was even a third of the way done with the task. She had to wonder if this was really the best use of her abilities… She shook her head. No, she couldn't think like that. She was doing something to help a cause—albeit a minor something—and she needed to be grateful for the opportunity. Still, she certainly wouldn't say no to a break…
The radio beeped, and Tsubaki drove a lazy hand into her pocket. If she were less languid at the moment, she would be shocked at how fast she had become desensitized to its siren. "Another lollipop?"
"Yep, you got it." A moment's pause… "…And shit, it's already past one. Get yourself some lunch, alright? Just be back to work in half an hour. You can put off the rest of the janitorial shit until tomorrow. I'll have some new instructions for you in your office."
"Alright. Thank you." Tsubaki shut off the radio and all but skipped over to the storage. Briefly, she wondered why Kokonoe didn't just keep a supply with her, but she pushed the thought aside. Surely the scientist had her reasons. After a quick delivery back to the main lab with all the composure she could muster, Tsubaki darted back to her room to enjoy her break. She prepared a sandwich as quick as she could, grateful to be able to eat after handling candy so often throughout the day, and threw herself upon the bed. She was more fatigued than she had expected; never being able to get into a rhythm with any of her duties took its toll on her mentally and physically.
Stretching out in bed, Tsubaki closed her eyes. Well, at least the day was more than half over. Although it wasn't like she would have much to do once Kokonoe let her off for the day—no one to talk to and nothing to read. Maybe she could try writing some with her limited resources. The fact that Ragna had supposedly enjoyed her writing spurred something in her, a desire to continue where she had left off… Before she could get too lost in thought, Tsubaki's stomach rumbled, and she sat up. Right, her sandwich. Only a short break here, and the only chance she had to eat for the next few hours, at least.
After consuming the sandwich in short order, Tsubaki curled up under the blankets once more. Probably about fifteen minutes of break left; best to use it just to rest a bit. As her eyes fluttered closed, her mind drifted to Ragna and Makoto. The latter was no doubt safe; everything indicated that Kagura was quite trustworthy. But the question of how Ragna took her departure lingered in mind. Was the distance he had displayed the previous day truly how he felt toward her? Or was he just cloaking himself from her to not have to deal with that just yet? …Whatever the case, she knew she shouldn't dwell on it here. This was a toxic environment for her mental and emotional state; focusing on the negative wouldn't help anything.
The radio blared, and Tsubaki numbly reached out to take it. "Yes?"
"Break's over, back to work. And bring me another lollipop while you're at it."
"Yes, ma'am." Of course, Kokonoe cut off before Tsubaki could finish, but Tsubaki didn't care anymore. With a groan of dismay, she pulled herself back to her feet and lumbered in the direction of the candy storage. Well, she was starting to see how the place was a necessity now. One quick delivery later, she returned to the office and stared at the note awaiting her, resting atop a stack of papers. Go through this stack. Anything labeled GA105, bring to me. Everything else, sort out. Schematics and experiment notes go in the same place as before, data logs go in drawer 1.
Tsubaki stared at the note a few more moments before sighing. Well, better than more cleaning, at least. She started into the pile, categorizing the papers into sections as she had done the pile from that morning. After about five minutes of the simple, albeit repetitive work, she found herself staring at a blueprint, trying to make sense of it. A rough sketch of Tager, another of a missile, and notes that indicated the rocket would fire from… she blanched and set the diagram aside. Just what was wrong with Kokonoe that she would come up with such a vulgar idea for Tager? Tsubaki knew it was really none of her business, but she couldn't just let this go. If she were working for some madwoman… which was striking her as increasingly likely by the hour…
The radio sounded again, and Tsubaki reached out and snatched it. "I'll be right there. Lollipop?"
"Hey, you're getting good at this. Hurry it up."
"Alright." After shutting off the radio, Tsubaki stood up, considered for a moment, and grabbed the blueprint before leaving to bring Kokonoe another one of her candies. The trip into storage was as uneventful as ever, but it was with nervousness that Tsubaki approached Kokonoe, the paper in a tight grip. She was out of line doing this, but curiosity spurred her onward. She wondered if Ragna's utter disregard for etiquette had influenced her so. As she reached the scientist, she sputtered a little. "Um… Kokonoe…"
"Yeah? What do you got there?" Kokonoe took the blueprint away from Tsubaki and glanced it over. "…Oh. The crotch-rocket. Why the hell are you interested in this? What, you got your eyes on Tager or something?"
From behind the metal frame work, Tager just raised an eyebrow and continued working without a word.
"Eh? No, of course not. I was just wondering… why would you choose such a… location for a weapon?"
Kokonoe shrugged. "Because there was no other place to put it. Failed, unfortunately."
Tager huffed. "I don't think 'unfortunately' is the word I would use."
"Anyways. Your job is filing, not reading this crap." Kokonoe shooed her away with a dismissive wave of her hands. "Back to work with you."
"R-right. My apologies." With that, Tsubaki scuttled back to the office room, mildly disturbed.
With a heavy exhalation of relief, Tsubaki flopped onto her bed, the first day of work behind her. It certainly hadn't been a particularly pleasant experience—but at least she was doing something, helping those who sought to remove the NOL's plague from this world. Even if it was only a minor role, it was at least more than she was doing at Rachel's manor… right? Even if she doubted at times the importance of Kokonoe's work…
She shook her head. No, she couldn't think like that. There was no doubt whatever Kokonoe was working on was of the utmost importance; Tsubaki just needed to do what she could to keep the workplace in acceptable condition. As she snuggled into bed, she smiled. She could get used to this. She just hoped her friends were doing well.
…Of course they were. The only one she could really see not taking it well was Ragna; she just hoped whatever anger had filled him at her forced departure proved fleeting. Her smiled broadened at the thought of him, and soon she drifted off with him in mind.
A/N: Just a quick announcement: At Fate's Hands chapter 29 will be going up on March 25.