A/N: Thanks to reviewers dhez13, PostoronnimV, crageisfanficcrazy, annoyingLONER, AlexR3, Mini, DancingFireStar, xx Catty xx, a reviewer, NS, Platina GF, 0mauie0, Jet, and the other guests for their kind comments. Sorry for the info dump last chapter. I suppose you got the hang of how lab meetings are like – believe me, I oversimplified everything last time, real lab meetings are much worse. I just lasted through a 2.5hrs one this week…but you didn't need to know that, haha.

Disclaimer: Mai HiME still not mine.


Glossary:

Gel: in this context, it refers to the gel used in electrophoresis, a process that separates the loaded sample into bands based on the molecular sizes (although the shape of your sample molecule may play a role in migration rates as well, but I'll refrain from the specifics).

PCR: polymerase chain reaction, a method for amplifying a specific region of DNA from the template.

kb: in this context, refers to kilobases of DNA

Cryo-gloves: gloves designed for handling cryogenic (very cold) substances. By very cold, it is usually referring to temperatures down to –190°C typical of liquid nitrogen freezers, therefore, they are not really necessary, and extremely bulky to use, for retrieving things from a –80°C. Nonetheless, most labs have them around the –80°C since those freezers are usually stored with the liquid nitrogen ones anyway.

Flint: this actually refers to a flint spark lighter, which produces sparks from rubbing ferrocerium, not flint, against steel. The ferrocerium is attached to the tip of this rod that is set against a rough steel surface, called rasp. A zinc-plated hood holds the rasp so that as the "flint rod" is drawn across and sparks are produced, hot gases are trapped within for igniting the burner. Labs tend to use these lighters…forever…without replacing the "flint", thus they become notoriously difficult to use.

Transformation: uptake, incorporation, and expression of foreign DNA resulting in a genetic alteration of the host cell.

Metagenomic library: genetic material is recovered directly from the environment and transformed into the host for amplification and expression. The set of host clones made from this material is known as a library.

Lysogeny Broth (LB): rich medium for growing bacteria, such as E. coli. Contains tryptone, yeast extract, and NaCl.

Autoclave: an "oven" that sterilizes materials using high pressure saturated steam at 121°C.

L-arabinose: a monosaccharide (simple sugar) often used as an inducer of vector expression, much like lactose.

Eagle: parody of a certain popular brand of disposable polypropylene test tubes, in case you're wondering what the hell am I talking about, hehe.

Epi: lab nerds' affectionate name for 1.5 or 2ml plastic tubes (first produced by the company Eppendorf)

Chloramphenicol: a broad spectrum antibiotic used in the lab to prevent the growth of other bacteria aside from your sample. If your sample contains a chloramphenicol resistance marker, it will grow unhindered while the vast majority of other bacteria that manages to fall into your medium will not grow and will eventually die. Other common antibiotics used for this purpose include ampicillin and kanamycin.

Glycerol stock: concentrated stocks of micro-organisms of interest frozen and stored under high concentrations of glycerol. The glycerol protects the organisms from damage by limiting the formation of ice crystals that can literally poke through them, inside out and outside in. Poor things [cries].

Micropipette: device for aspiration of small volumes of liquid. There is usually a volume control dial that you can use to set the desired volume, and a knob for aspiration and dispense of liquid – with two stop positions, the first stop depressed and then released for aspirating an accurate volume, the second stop depressed for completely ejecting the last bit of residual liquid. The micropipette's shaft component, which is fit with a disposable tip, is what makes contact with the sample itself. Micropipettes can be designated by the maximum volume they can aspirate, such as P2, P10, P200, P1000 (maximum volumes of 2, 10, 200, and 1000μl respectively).


Fujino Lab

Chapter 6 – Training


"Yes, I propose developing a high-throughput phiogene screening procedure for the human genome, something similar to what Reito-san is working on for dh10b," she says, staring back at the hard red corundum, "And I will work with the post-doc at their lab, Tomoe Marguerite."

"Natsuki-san," Fujino's voice takes a grave turn, the polite suffix leaving a slight sting on the girl she is addressing, "my answer is no."

The solidness of her tone gives no leeway to the decision.

No is no. There is no "why not".

"I'm guessing that means you don't want to hear about my presentation anymore, huh?" Natsuki snaps. For some reason, the hardness of her own voice hurts her further.

Why am I feeling this? What's wrong with me?

There, the closing red pools that were so warmly enveloping her just a moment ago – that's what's hurting her.

Damn it.

"We will hear your proposal again next week," the PI finishes, "This meeting is adjourned. You are dismissed."

There is an awkward silence following the abrupt conclusion such that even Haruka is left sitting dazedly as the PI walks out the room, door clicking softly after her. But she recovers soon enough to cast a bored stare at the raven-haired undergrad.

"She's like that. Don't mind her," she says, getting up to leave as well. After Reito exchanges a gaze with Yukino, he nods and leads Tate out too.

The sizzling heat dies down to a gentle warmth with just the chestnut-haired student and Natsuki in the room. Soft footsteps patter towards the cabinet on the side atop which sit several mugs. Yukino holds up Natsuki's and her own, catching the questioning emerald gaze with soft olives.

"Tea?"

Natsuki doesn't understand what the other student is getting at, but she nods, too tired to move from her seat. For some reason, she's feeling devastated, as though Fujino has just slapped her in the face.

"Umm…I don't think we've been formally introduced to each other before," Yukino says when the tea is ready, passing the mug to her, "I am Kikukawa Yukino, master's student going on to second-year."

"Kuga Natsuki, also going on to second-year, but I'm an undergrad, which you already know," she answers dryly, taking the mug. The searing liquid on her lips seem welcoming, steam blowing on her parched face to dissipate with a light, cooling sensation. "So, is tea the official drink of this lab?"

Yukino chuckles a little before taking a sip of her own, "Dr. Fujino does seem to like tea a lot, doesn't she?"

"Which means for some reason, we must form a mini tea-cult after her, huh?"

The bitter joke rings off the walls, unanswered. After a moment of pondering, Yukino starts again, "Umm…if you don't mind me asking, Natsuki-san…is this the first lab you've worked at?"

The kindness radiating off Yukino makes Natsuki stop her angry words at her throat. She can't possibly say "got a problem with it?" to someone like her.

"Well…yes…" she answers instead. Yukino nods lightly to the confession, seemingly coming to an understanding for something.

"I suppose this may be a little early for you…but…would you be at all interested in hearing about the grad student dilemma?"

So there is a grad student dilemma? Now why the hell should she know about this?

"Sure, go ahead," she says anyway. She has no idea whether Yukino is as she seems, but she certainly doesn't want to risk hurting the other's feelings.

Could be that Yukino, though a grad student, is probably far younger than Natsuki herself. Now that just leaves her even more bitter about her life…

"So…err…when trying to pick a prof to work with for your thesis, you face this…dilemma," the master's student begins to explain, "Umm…so…as you can probably imagine, grad students don't just start off with the capability of managing their own projects. There is this…transition."

"Okay," she feels obliged to encourage her shy companion to continue. It seems to have an opposite effect though, causing the latter to almost shrink in size.

"It may be just me," Yukino mutters, barely heard.

"No, I'm sure it applies to everybody. Don't worry." – why the hell do I have to comfort a grad student, god damn it?

"Thank you," the chestnut-haired girl continues, still speaking so quietly that the Raven has to strain her ears, "So…for me anyway, I'd like a prof who would guide me through the process."

"Sounds fair enough to me."

"But…profs who offer guidance…usually pushes you really hard."

"Oh?" – I still don't get it, really.

"With profs who are more the hands-off type, it can be…challenging." When met with confusion, Yukino hurriedly adds, "As in, you may not know whether or not your project is progressing well. And…umm…you may not know what to do when things don't work."

"Okay, so are you trying to tell me where Fujino stands on this spectrum?"

Cutting to the meat of the topic seems to be taboo with Yukino, as the latter shrinks so far back into her couch that the thick ruffles of her hair becomes mostly hidden behind her head. It takes a while before she musters the courage to continue, leaving a crystal-clear reminder to Natsuki not to interrupt her fragile flow next time.

"Umm…so…profs are human."

"Right." – except Fujino is clearly a demon…

"And we are all different."

"Of course."

"So…they have different styles…and we have different styles…so…it's not about finding a perfect prof, but rather, one who is a good match for you."

"So that's how you solve the grad student dilemma?"

There is a nod from Yukino, but Natsuki can't join her. She still doesn't get it.

What the hell does this have to do with me?

"That's why I like tea."

What a profound statement. Natsuki wants to burst out laughing, but she's scared that Yukino would cry!

"So…uh…good match for you?"

"Better than beer…and wine…I was scared when I heard grad school is mostly about alcohol."

Natsuki stifles an awkward chuckle. At least she recognizes this as a joke…or maybe not.

"So you like tea only because it is non-alcoholic?"

"Umm…yes…a compromise if you will."

Now it dawns on the Raven, "You're telling me to compromise…with Fujino?"

The accusation leaves Yukino silent, hands gripping nervously together. But she manages to choke out some words soon after, "Yes. I…don't want to sound lecturing, but…Dr. Fujino would have her reasons. I understand your frustration, Natsuki-san, because I know you have hopes for your project."

Hopes? For her project?

The idea she came up with randomly just to shut Fujino's mouth? Just as an excuse to investigate Marguerite?

She realizes the hurt and anger…
…all stems from the way Fujino denied her recognition.

Did I really care that much? Could I have cared that much?

"So even Suzushiro and you make compromises? For considerations you don't even know about?" Natsuki rants angrily. Yukino seems at lost for words, and an uncomfortable silence sets in for a moment before she finds herself again.

"Well…part of a prof's duty is to tell us 'no' when she knows it is a 'no'. Besides, I can't say I can't appreciate her logic this time…which is why Haruka-chan didn't argue with her about your case."

"What!?" – Suzushiro standing up for me!? You kidding!?

"I think you…misunderstand Haruka-chan. She wasn't trying to…target you or anything. She just…has her own…principles. Strict principles. And…she measures everybody with the same stick…herself included."

Now that she thinks about it, Natsuki can't rebuke what was said. Suzushiro does seem like that kind of person.

"So what is Fujino's reason?"

"Well…I…umm…I'm just speculating, but…based on what little you have said about your proposal…I can't really determine the feasibility…and…given the four-months term you will be here…and the limited budget we have…an optimization project in collaboration with another group does seem like a good idea. However, the collaboration…uhh…that's probably the problem."

Natsuki swallows. This Tomoe Marguerite…is there something about her that poses a problem? Or something about Fujino and her?

"What problem would that be, Kikukawa-san?"

"Ah. I…err…must go back to my experiment now. Would you like to return to your bench as well?"

What the hell? Here she is, having listened to a long speech about random things with minimal relevance to her situation, finally reaching the topic of discussion, and the other girl decides to escape? How can Kikukawa just evade her question like that?

"Fine," Natsuki grumbles, "I will do that."


The lab is rather quiet when Natsuki returns. Haruka and Yukino seem to have vanished, probably to the Fraser Lab as Shizuru has suggested, leaving Tate alone when the Raven walks in.

"Oh, where's Kanzaki?" she asks as she passes by Tate's bench. The artificial-blond grins.

"He'll be back soon. Just at a meeting with the woman you wanted to work with, Marguerite."

Natsuki quirks an eyebrow at the statement, "What about her?"

"Well, she doubles as the Graceburt Lab manager, which can be quite troublesome seeing as she is somewhat aggressive. Or rather, Dr. Graceburt seems to be the type who won't give an inch in all conflicts, so as her representative, Marguerite acts the same," Tate answers. "That's what I heard from Reito-san anyways."

"Nothing else?" Natsuki leans in intently, forcing Tate back.

"Uhh…is there supposed to be something else about her?"

She's from NLPS. She worked with AAV-20.

Those are words that Natsuki wants to say, but keeps to herself.

She can't get Tate involved. She shouldn't.

"No. I was just wondering if there is some other reason for Fujino not wanting me to work with her."

"Ahh…" Tate relaxes, leaning back into his chair before suddenly flopping up with a nasty creak from the old seat, "Let me show you the reason. It's perfect timing – let's get back to your bench."

Natsuki reluctantly follows the other undergrad, questions forming in her head. What is up with Tate and Kikukawa today? Both seem to want her back at her seat…like now! "Seriously, what do you know about that woman? Didn't you just come a week before I did?"

"So you haven't noticed yet? Look."

From Natsuki's bench at the boundary between the two labs, Tate points a finger into the darkness that is the Graceburt group. Situated in the middle of the wing, it looks somewhat like a black hole sitting between the Fujino Lab and the one at the other end, illuminated only very slightly by a dim glow filtering through drawn screens over massive windows facing the atrium below. A bright red mass of hair emerges from the hall attached to the entrance, followed by a loud, boisterous voice that vaguely rings a bell in Natsuki's memories.

"Oi, everybody, lunchtime!"

Oh! It's that cashier! The cashier down at the Café Scientifique!

"Coming, Midori-san," another familiar voice sounds behind the shadows. Four pink tails of hair swing from side to side as a small figure materializes.

"Shiho!?" Natsuki exclaims to Tate. "I didn't know she's working here too!"

Munakata Shiho is Tate Yuuichi's childhood friend, someone Natsuki is also acquainted with. There is somewhat of a grudging recognition between the two, but most often they're just glaring at each other…or more like Shiho glaring at her.

Then again, it's probably not personal, because Shiho has a sort of obsession going on where Tate is concerned…meaning any female within a five-meters-radius of the young man would receive her fiery glare.

Even when said female is lesbian. Not that she would notice, one would suppose, as her mentality is something along the lines of, "Oniichan is so wonderful even lesbians would turn straight for him".

Which, of course, is utter bullshit, but that's Shiho for you.

"She's been bothering me with an idea that's swimming through her head," Tate answers. "Says she wants to write a blog detailing an undergrad's struggles within an academic lab. Every night she's calling to chat about our work."

That blog will probably never materialize. What a dense guy, Tate.

"Would you wait a minute?" a male voice interrupts Natsuki's thoughts. It seems to be directed at the red-headed cashier, Midori, who crosses her arms with impatience.

"You know that's supposed to be a 'no', Takeda. Either you get your ass moving this second or keep it glued to your seat; suit yourself."

With that, Midori stomps out the lab from where she came, followed by Shiho who tags closely behind. The student called Takeda seems to be struggling to finish something, as the hurry causes some sort of dominoes effect on his bench, manifesting in a series of thuds and clatters that Natsuki overhears.

"You're lucky today, Natsuki. You'll get to bear witness to Takeda-kun's misery," Tate whispers. Natsuki's eyebrows climb up to her forehead.

"What kind of fetish do you have, Tate? Are you that sadistic?"

"You said you wanted to know Marguerite's problem, didn't you?" Yuuichi retorts, "Oh, here she comes!"

From the opened lab door comes a woman in her late twenties or early-thirties, elegant features readily recognizable by the Raven who has studied her photos the previous night. But unlike her younger counterpart on NLPS' web page, her current hairstyle seems to have adopted an asymmetrical cut, strands dyed blue-green dangling past her right shoulder while they're neatly cropped just short of her left. Her flint-coloured eyes lack that hard quality – rather, they are gently passing over Takeda's coal-blacks as she comes closer to the young man.

"Takeda-san, it seems that you are still busy with your work. Do you have a minute?" her musical voice breaks the silence. But Takeda doesn't seem to appreciate the polite tone at all – he gulps and jerks his head up and down in what are presumably nods.

"Uhh…yes…right away…I'll clean up the mess."

"Don't worry, that can wait. First, would you tell me what you did this morning?"

"I…err…ran a gel."

"A gel for your PCR products from yesterday?"

"…yes…"

"Let me see."

At this, Takeda's dark skin pales almost to white. His lips quiver.

"I…ugh…dropped it."

"It broke?"

"…yes…"

"The fragments?"

"I…well…I dropped it before I loaded the sample."

Marguerite's lips thin into a tight smile. It looks hauntingly beautiful, yet anything but pleased.

"So you did not run a gel after all?"

It's a soft comment, but nonetheless offers no rebuke.

"I…will run one."

"So you're making a gel now?"

"…yes…"

"Has it solidified?"

"I…didn't check yet…"

"Why?"

The sharp inquiry almost draws blood. As though jabbed by a spinal needle, Takeda shoots up from his seat and runs over to the gel dock.

"Right away!" He shouts, then swiftly returns with the results, "Yes, it has solidified."

"And you will run the gel now?"

Takeda's face visibly twitches, "Umm…well…I was planning on running it after lunch…"

"How long are you planning on running that gel for, Takeda-san?"

Marguerite's music is like the song of a Siren; alluring yet undoubtedly dangerous.

"…ugh…forty-five minutes?"

"You have one expected product."

"…yes…"

"It is roughly 1kb."

"…yes…"

"You are only looking for the presence of the product. There is no downstream use for the gel."

"…well…yes."

"Then you can use a 1% gel and can run it at 120V for fifteen minutes. Would you need more than fifteen minutes for lunch?"

The suggestion sounds more like a demand and Takeda knows it.

"No, Ma'am. Absolutely not. I do not need lunch."

"Very well. Don't push yourself too hard, Takeda-san."

With that, the post-doc exits. Natsuki can only roll her eyes at what just transpired.

"Don't push yourself too hard, because I'll be pushing you like shit, huh?" Natsuki remarks to a chuckling Tate.

Patting her back, he says, "So take that frown off your face, Natsuki. Prof. Shizuru was doing you a favour by turning your crazy idea down!"

She frowns even more in response, hoping Tate would get off her case. Inwardly, though, she is met with conflict. Her prof's concern is, logically, an obstruction to her true intentions, but…

…she can't suppress the thin thread of contentment at knowing that Fujino Shizuru is worried about her.

"Oh, Yuuichi-kun, Natsuki-san, do we have a party here?" a voice sounds behind them. Natsuki turns to see Reito standing with a kind smile, like always.

"I was just showing her a typical Graceburt Lab lunch hour," Tate replies, goofy smirk lighting his square face. "By the way, how did the meeting go?"

"I'm afraid we'll have to see the fridge go. Tomoe-san claims we've been taking over their space in the 4°C room, and since the fridge has been placed within their lab boundaries, it is only right for them to put their stuff there."

"And Dr. Graceburt isn't one for sharing, huh?" Tate adds, leading the other man to chuckle with him.

"Well, Natsuki-san, this is why you need not be disappointed over what has just transpired during our lab meeting. I'm sure better arrangements can be made for your project," Reito says in a comforting tone. Natsuki reluctantly nods.

Right…because you don't know what I'm really trying to do, huh?

"I take it that you're not convinced?" Reito continues, "Is there a particular reason you would like to work with Tomoe-san?"

She's a little shocked that Reito is so perceptive, but manages to rein in her emotions, putting up an indifferent visage, "Well, isn't she a leading expert in the field? I just thought it'd be cool to work with her, that's all."

"Of course, of course," Reito nods, "Tomoe-san can probably open a lab of her own by now. A record like hers at such a young age would put her en-par with Shizuru-san in terms of sheer capability."

"But she is considerably more intense, eh?" Tate comments. Reito smiles in return.

"Well, she may provide the right driving force for somebody like Takeda-kun, which is probably why Dr. Graceburt gives her so much power over the students. I am not suggesting that Takeda-kun is not self-motivated – it is just that his efforts are sometimes misguided."

Like a blind bull… that's how he looks for sure…

Natsuki laughs heartily at the imagery. Poor guy. He may not actually be stupid, but he does look the part.

"So, Natsuki-san, if you do insist on working with Tomoe-san, you must prove yourself next week."

"Huh?" she looks questioningly at Reito, unblinking.

"The second-hearing of your proposal – prove to Shizuru-san that you can handle it, and you can handle her."


Reito's suggestion rings in her head even as she is having lunch with Tate at the eating area.

"The mayo is gonna drip!" Tate warns, snapping her out of her thoughts to lick off the mayo from the edge of her sandwich before it lands on the tabletop, "Dude, you're so preoccupied today. Still thinking about your project?"

"Thinking about how to food-poison Fujino next time I buy her breakfast," she grumbles. It's annoying when her thoughts are so obvious even Tate can make them out. All Fujino's fault.

"As though you would," he snickers. She glares at him.

"What the hell do you mean?"

"You know what I mean."

"No I do not, Tate," she snaps, daring him to continue. He just laughs.

"Fine, fine! Let's just say you do not," he says. "But you certainly do seem to care about what I mean, eh?"

Blushing, she shoves the last bite of sandwich into her mouth, smacks Tate with her empty lunch bag, and shoves through the door towards the labs.

When she tries to shove, similarly, through the lab door, she finds it unyielding. Tugging at the handle, knocking on the door, slamming on it before angrily kicking the metal-plated lower surface, she determines that, indeed, it is locked.

"What the fucking…why the…who the hell locked the fucking door!?" she curses under her breath. Right, the female grad students are still at the Fraser Lab. Right, Kanzaki is out for lunch. Right, undergrads, meaning Tate and herself, weren't given keys!

Oh, how fucking great…

She turns around to find her prof's office door open to a crack. Peering in, it seems that the other woman has taken off on what is, presumably, a short break.

To wait for her PI, she can either camp outside the lab door, camp three steps away at Fujino's door, or just invite herself into the office.

As though I haven't done that before.

She kicks the office door to the side and walks in, inhaling the fresh scent of blooming bonsai. The tropical fish are still doing a dance in the rippling tank of water; mesmerized, she moves closer and sits.

"Ara? Who do I have on my chair?"

The voice making her jump can only belong to one person. Of course, isn't it obvious the room's legitimate occupant would come back sooner than later?

Natsuki turns around to face the brunette who, despite the comment, seems rather unfazed. In fact, she swears there is a teasing smile forming on Fujino's face.

"Your warmth was rather inviting. I couldn't help myself," the Raven smirks. She relishes the way Fujino's smile breaks into a near gasp, pink tendrils creeping both cheeks. – you ain't the only teaser here!

"As inviting as the residual warmth is, it cannot compare to the real thing," Fujino's momentary lapse fades to a sly borderline-grin. The crimson eyes capture emeralds more strongly than the tropical fish did. Indeed, they are like magnets, and Natsuki can't look away.

She's…coming…closer…

The slender fingers nearly graze her heated countenance on their way to gripping her sturdy shoulder.

She almost feels the shoulder slacken and burn.

"Come with me."


Shizuru swings on a white coat, probably to protect her rather fancy choice of wear today, and heads down the winding corridors of NSERB. Natsuki can only follow as closely behind as possible, matching the taller woman's quick pace that clicks down the smooth linoleum. Problem with research buildings is they are remarkably uniform in design, so uniform that all the halls and rooms seem identical, making it maze-like to a newcomer like the Raven. Soon enough, she becomes completely lost.

Where the hell is she taking me?

Coming to a wing that looks exactly the same as their own, the brunette turns a corner and enters a small room where towering –80°C freezers are humming alongside centrifuges in use.

"Come closer," Fujino gestures, prompting the undergrad to raise an eyebrow but oblige anyway. As she nears, the prof swings open the freezer to send a blast of cold vapour in her face.

"What the hell do you want!?"

"Third shelf from the top, tower G, box 6, sample 124. Would you take it out for me, please?"

What the fuck? Can't you take it out yourself?

Natsuki grudgingly reaches for the third door from the top of the freezer, swings it open, and hooks onto the latch of tower G. When it doesn't bulge, she tucks harder on it, only to abruptly retract her fingers from the metal by reflex.

"Shit! It is so fucking cold!"

"Are you alright, Natsuki? Would you like help?"

The amused tone is taunting her. She snaps, "Like hell!"

Growling, the Raven gloves her hand with the end of her sleeve, bites down on her lips, and yanks the darn tower out of its place. Retrieving box 6 from the frozen mass is much more difficult, and she finds herself having to use her bare fingers to scrape off the ice accumulated on the edges before she can slide out the box and open the tight paper lid, nearly tearing it in the process. Then comes finding sample 124, which she quickly learns is not placed exactly in order with the others. She eventually finds it between samples 89 and 128, whatever those are supposed to be.

"Seems like you need to learn how to count, Prof," she grumbles as she shoves the box in place, jams the tower back onto the shelf and slams the freezer door closed. Shizuru smiles.

"I'm sure you can do a better job. I take it that you want to reorganize all the samples in the near future?"

"No!" she exclaims, a rare terrified look forming on her stern face. It makes the prof chuckle.

"Here," the brunette says, taking the Raven's cold hands into her own. Her grip is strong and secure, dry, callused skin pressing firmly into equally weathered counterparts. The warmth is burning as it is rubbed into Natsuki's frozen fingers, searing through stiff joints to ease them to relaxation.

She sees red.
Shizuru's heat as red, licking deep into her blue.
Flames so bright and passionate, yet undeniably demanding.

It is just a hold of hands, but…
She doesn't know how to let go.

"I thought Natsuki would want to reorganize the freezer, just to relish in this real warmth again."

She is caught without words. How corny. The metaphor running through her soliloquy – how corny. Yet…she still can't let go!

She probably isn't even gay.

That finally makes her snap, jerking her hands back from the other. Is it not logical to conclude that Fujino is likely gay given her actions, her teasing? Is it not logical that Fujino is probably interested in her?

No, it doesn't matter.
Most women aren't gay.
Fujino can be just one of those who like to tease men
and women either way.
Besides, even if she were, she probably doesn't like me.
I mean, come on, she teases Suzushiro and heck, I can't imagine them being involved.
And so what if she does like me?
So what?
She's…what the fuck…my prof!?
Why the hell am I even thinking about this?

"You know…ugh…" Natsuki awkwardly answers Fujino's questioning stare, "…thanks."

"Thanks?"

It's not a questioning stare, it is one of hurt, but Natsuki's logical mind cannot deduce the correct answer.

Still, it tugs at her internally.

Somehow, it makes her say it – the partial truth.

"Thanks…ugh…for warming up my hands. Umm…yeah…thanks, really."

"My pleasure…any time."

For a moment, they just stand there, smiling at each other. Even if it were just a fleeting moment, even if it were just so miniscule of a comfort in this world…it patches up the hollow in her chest…ever so slightly.

Fujino…I guess…for once I'm glad…
That instead of failing an old geezer's course, I failed yours.

Maybe, just maybe, we can be…
At least…
Sorta…
Friends.

"By the way, Natsuki…"

Interrupted by the gentle voice, she looks up.

Stares.

Jaw-drops.

Then narrows her emeralds to a demonic glare at the pair of cryo-gloves held up in the latter's grip.

"Nevermind!"

"Huh?"

"I said, nevermind, I hate you, Fujino Shizuru!"


Back at the lab, alone with Fujino, the latter is still giggling.

"What is so funny?" Natsuki dares her answer with a dead-pan stare. The brunette tries to stop.

"Nevermind."

The word, nevermind, in itself is a reminder of her disgrace.

"Dr. Fujino Shizuru, I warn you, I may not have a PhD but I can certainly…"

"Do many things with me, yes, and I may just oblige to some of them."

Her face flushes from the suggestion and her own vivid imagination. Damn Tate. Damn Nao. Damn Chie. Damn them for ever tying her with this woman.

"Oblige to my killing you, sure."

"That would depend on how you decide to proceed. If you kill me with pleasure, I might just be unable to resist."

Trying to beat this woman in her own game is futile. It'll never happen, and by now, the Raven's head feels about to explode!

"So what the hell do you want me to do with that sample 124?"

"Oh, I'll teach you how to inoculate medium. I suppose if you are going to start a project, especially if it'll be in collaboration with another group, you'll first need to be trained in the basics."

"Right…the basics…" she answers, donning on gloves as Fujino is doing. The latter grabs a 70% ethanol bottle from the side to spray the bench clean, then does the same for her gloves, rubbing them till the alcohol evaporates. After that, she turns on the gas, strikes the flint, and lights up the bunsen burner set at the center.

"In practicality, the main concern working with lab strain E. coli is not its potential pathogenicity, which is, as I've previously mentioned, a very unlikely situation. This is why we can work on an open bench instead of a biosafety cabinet. However, certain aseptic techniques still need to be employed to prevent contamination. Do you follow me so far?"

"Yeah, yeah," Natsuki replies, spraying her gloves with alcohol as well. At this, the brunette nods and turns off the burner.

"Very good. I suppose spraying down a bench isn't too difficult to do, so how about we practice lighting the burner?"

"You serious!?"

She feels ridiculed, but nonetheless follows the directions, turning on the gas to attempt lighting it with flint. As easy as Shizuru made it seem, she can't get a single spark in the process. Changing grips and trying again, it still doesn't work. Doing it with two hands and still no luck. At this point, the smell of gas fills the air, prompting Shizuru to turn it off.

"I suppose we do need the practise, don't we?"

"Shut up," she growls, gripping strongly onto the lighter to try again. The frustration only leads the flint rod to slip out the circular hood. She glares, wrenching it back in place.

"Here," Fujino says, placing her hand overtop Natsuki's. Even through the nitrile gloves, she can still feel it.

The warmth…

"Sometimes harder and faster is not the best way to proceed," Fujino says with what Natsuki swears to be a snickering hint. She turns her glare to the older woman who only gestures her to look down at the lighter instead. The dexterous fingers resting over her own curl around the flint rod, pressing it down against the rasp while her thumb pushes up the other rod attached to the hood. "Make sure there is good contact between the rasp and the flint, then with moderate speed and strength rub it across. See?"

She finds herself captured by the explosion of sparks, like fireflies, flashing across the rasp held in zinc-plated palms seemingly tinted gentle scarlet, reflection of the older woman's eyes. As the smoke dissipates, she turns her gaze to those scarlets, wondering, wondering without realizing, what it'd be like if those sparks were fireworks in a night sky, lighting up the crimson mirrors.

Watching
Fireworks
Together

"So?" the slurred voice interrupts her musings, laced with amusement. She growls.

"So I'll make it work this time," she declares, trying again.

Not too fast and hard – she blushes
The fuck!? What kind of analogy was that?

But the only way she can get it to work is to replay the scene in her mind, imagine those strong hands on hers again, grasping, guiding her fingers across. Her will lights the sparks across the hood, lights her own smile.

"See?" she taunts with a grin. Shizuru smiles.

"Good for you. But, in case you haven't already noticed, for the purposes of lighting a burner, you may want to turn the hood over so it is actually facing the gas, that is, when you do decide to turn it on."


After much struggle and embarrassment, the burner is finally running and her bench cleaned and ready to go. Shizuru holds up sample 124 and starts explaining what they are going to do.

"As Reito-san has explained earlier, we investigate phiogenes by isolating DNA fragments, transforming each back into the bacterium through a plasmid vector, then inducing each plasmid to high copy numbers. This is not unlike how traditional metagenomic libraries are created and functionally analyzed."

"So back to the fruit punch analogy? Each phiogene is an ingredient in the punch. You take the lemon, add ten instead of one, then the new punch is super sour and you brilliantly deduce that, 'Oh my God! Lemons are sour!' right?"

"Elegant and descriptive. I'm impressed," the PI approves, "This sample is one such 'new punch' containing a lemon that I hypothesize to taste rather sweet and hot. Of course, we'll need to perform many more lemons to find out if I am indeed correct. But I assure you, the process will be very pleasurable."

The implications are killing her, she swears!

"Forget anything citrusy! So we have a plasmid in this sample of bacterial clone and we want to induce the number of plasmids to go up, right?"

"Exactly. We shall inoculate medium containing the inducer, and we'll expect the copy number to go up. The medium we'll use is lysogeny broth, or LB, which I've already prepared and autoclaved for your convenience. The inducer we have here is L-arabinose, which is at a 1000x stock concentration. I will show you how to do this once, so watch carefully."

She watches with bored eyes at first, noting all the materials lined up at the bench, first the litre bottle of LB, then a 5ml round-bottom, 50ml Eagle tube and two 1.5ml Epi, one containing L-arabinose, another the antibiotic, chloramphenicol. But as the scientist starts working, Natsuki finds herself entranced by the dexterous movements. Everything is so well-coordinated. Everything is so fluid. How can something simple as adding a bit of bacteria into medium be so captivating? There are so many little details to be aware of that she would've never thought made a difference.

"So you first aliquot a bit of medium into a 50ml Eagle to prevent contaminating your stock. Remove the cap and make sure it is placed facing down on the clean bench so contaminants can't fall in as you perform this procedure. Then, pass the lip of the bottle across the flame for sterilization before pouring, and pass through again afterwards to make sure it is clean before sealing with the cap. Speed is a crucial part of aseptic technique. Common sense: keeping things covered would keep them clean."

She stares at the other woman single-handedly opening the 50ml tube and closing immediately after medium has been poured before quickly closing the litre stock bottle with its cap. Then, she moves onto pipetting 2ml of medium into the round-bottom tube. By now, both the L-arabinose and chloramphenicol have thawed, so she adds those as well.

"Both the arabinose and chloramphenicol are at 1000x stock concentration, meaning the additional volume is negligible. Remember metric units? 1ml is 1000μl, so if we have 2ml of medium, adding 2μl of each of these reagents would bring them to, roughly, the working 1x concentration. Does this make sense?"

"How convenient," she answers flatly, trying to hide her excitement. She really doesn't know why she is so excited. There is nothing interesting about all this, right? But the way her PI works…for some reason, she just can't look away.

"Convenience doesn't come with coincidences. You must make it happen; make the stock at 1000x so it will become convenient to use," the brunette replies genuinely, a peaceful smile forming while she concentrates on her work, "Part of working in science is thinking ahead. What is the big picture? What do you want to know about it? How can you find the answer? Look at what is big, narrow it down, but never lose sight, yet never lose faith in yourself, when you review where you fit in the large picture you first imagine. Think of yourself in a filled stadium, one in thousands and thousands of people watching the game. In reality, you are just a speck in the world, unobservable from space, like the chloramphenicol with negligible volume in the medium to which it is added. But does that make you useless? Does it make your research, the very small number of questions you manage to answer, useless? Think back to the chloramphenicol. It serves its purposes, doesn't it?"

She sees now…

There is a special beauty to be admired when someone is doing something she loves.

But what she can't see is that this beauty is being amplified thousand-fold…

…in the eyes of a true admirer.

"Cool," she manages to say. She actually means it.

"Tap the tube gently to mix the chloramphenicol and arabinose. Now we add the glycerol stock of sample 124, which contains E. coli transformed with our DNA of interest. With a sterile tip, draw up 1μl and dispense into the medium. Ideally, the glycerol stock should not be frozen and thawed too often, thus even during the inoculation procedure, it is best to just pick a bit of frozen stock and dispense, both the culture and the sterile tip, into the medium. However, our training seems to have taken us a little too long and the stock has already thawed, but do keep this in mind next time. Now, we can incubate this liquid culture overnight for use tomorrow. Of course, Natsuki will show me everything she has learned before we wrap up, right?"

"Heck, I'd be totally awesome with such a skilled teacher, eh?"

"Ara, I think Natsuki takes me for a technician," Shizuru chuckles, "While it is certainly not my job to teach my undergraduate student basic lab techniques, I will make an exception for someone as adorable as you."

Adorable!?

She feels the need to chuck a mouthful of Fujino's tea into her oral cavity, just to spit it out for better effects.


The day wanes on with Shizuru teaching Natsuki more techniques, guiding her through how to use the micropipette, teasing the latter with the notion that she enjoys "hand-on-hand training", and otherwise making utterly inappropriate comments that irritates the heck out of the Raven (or so she tries to convince herself without knowing that she actually prefers this trend to continue). It takes them to dusk, and they end the day by cleaning up the empty lab.

"Work here seems pretty relaxed, huh? Everybody's out already," Natsuki says.

"Well…it is not a regular occurrence, admittedly. All the better for us though, right?"

The Raven blushes, her will to retort long vaporized. The brunette inches closer, making her conscious mind scream in protest, yet her body refuses to move.

The older woman opens her mouth to speak. She's so close that Natsuki can faintly feel her breath.

"If you don't mind, Natsuki, would you like to stay with me a bit longer?"

Gone. All gone.

Any remaining thought process has been busted.

"I…ugh…wha…umm…I…actually…I'm supposed to head out at 5, right?"

"Oh, of course, we will be heading out," the crimson lips part and touch as she speaks, that intense red matching her burning eyes, "To my place, if you agree to this proposal."

Natsuki finds her mouth agape, speechless.


End of Chapter 6I'd love feedback, thank you! Hope you enjoyed it.