A/N: Thanks to Truna, fuyu, wthc, bubble duckie, sammykhann, Amillenia27, kikichu96, stelar, recondite123, Malad, and all the guests for their kind reviews. A couple answers to your questions, first wthc, thanks so much for your comment. It made me realize that I was not clear about the fact that Natsuki pulled Shizuru aside during her confrontation, so no, it was just between the two of them and nobody else heard what they said. I've changed the previous chapter a little to make that more clear. Thanks very much for the reminder! As for the last Guest to review, thanks for your input on Natsuki's character. However, I don't know whether or not you can call someone a spoilt brat for getting a little upset over having failed a course by 1%, and then showing up for a summer project meeting without receiving any sort of project proposal from the prof, meaning that she is being given a chance to pass the course if she does free labour that won't even benefit her education. This, of course, is a bit of an exaggerated situation, but I wrote it mainly as a parody of what goes on in the academic world, where students are often considered to be free/cheap labour by labs where they need hands to do work but do not have the grants to properly pay for them. But here, you sympathize with Shizuru, even though if you look at my explanation, it would seem that she, and the "higher-ups" are at fault, which is precisely what I'm trying to get at. While in real-life students usually don't make such blatant complaints, they would slack on work and sometimes show attitudes to their coworkers, as though trying to say that, "look, the degree requirements are forcing me to stay here, so I will, but forget it, I'm not slaving for you." Ultimately, it's a two-way street where the higher-ups are either unwilling or unable to pay for lower positions, and those on the low end of the ladder take research as a skipping stone to med school and are unwilling to put in the work. If something is to be blamed, it's probably the entire system. Anyways…this story, aside from being a fanfiction, also makes a number of jabs at the scientific community which may or may not be apparent to a general audience. This is why I did put an OOC tag, as I have tried, and will continue to do so, to reflect other themes here besides trying to write an interesting story for all to enjoy. Once again, thanks very much for reading, and your wonderful suggestions. I'll work hard towards making this story a better read for everyone.
Disclaimer: pretty obvious, I already said it's fanfiction…
No glossary this time. If there are scientific-sounding words you don't know, chances are they have been mentioned in earlier chapters. Just want to clarify that when Haruka mentions "cashing in" in this chapter, she means the practice of people trying to patent applications to newly discovered knowledge even before the concepts are clearly defined. It is always a delicate balance between pure and applied science, and what Haruka describes here is essentially her respect for Shizuru who concentrated on the pure science of her field, knowing that it is those who apply her knowledge to the real world who will be making the most profits for the work.
Chapter 9 – Bedtime Stories
A dog will always be a dog, even if it stares at the star overhead and barks at it to descend every night, the star will still be in heaven, it down on Earth.
The closest it will come to holding a star in its paws will be to reach over a puddle and watch light shimmering between its reflection.
The night they broke up, Yuuki Nao looked up from the pole she was dancing at to stare at the swirling lights overhead. There was a small lament in her heart that they would be the only luminescence she would ever receive again, but she comforted herself in knowing the star outside would finally be free to soar back to where it belonged, thousands of light-years away.
Though she would never admit it aloud, Kuga Natsuki had always been a shining presence that attracted her attention.
How long ago was it, when she first fell in love with her?
Right, when Nao lost her one and only last hope in life, her mother.
Oh, it had begun long before that, of course. Nao had always caught Natsuki's glimmer from the corner of her eye, but never really noticed it until then. After all, they were childhood companions, it didn't matter Natsuki was always the one subtly spectacular, she was just another of the kids Nao would boss around - granted, this particular raven-haired kid was especially vocal about the redhead's deficits and used every opportunity to revolt against her reign over the sandbox.
Those sandbox fights probably set the first bond between their future fates.
But it really was when Natsuki lost her mom and had to join her bastard dad in Fuuka that she really resonated with Nao. They both made the move, they both lost something important, and finally when Nao too lost her mom to a tragic car crash, the two came together.
It wasn't an automatic together though, both of them being the stubborn jackasses they were. Nao recalled a time in middle school when she herself was undergoing a sort of transition, a rebellious stage, when she just got fed up with being stuck as the oldest left in the orphanage, being taught implicitly to act more pitiful so she could get adopted. Natsuki though, bastard dad be damned, didn't have to go through all this. Imagine the jealousy. But this was probably the first time she realized just how far Natsuki – the star - hung above her and started barking at it, telling it to stop fucking with her by casting some light on her head to tease her. She didn't need pity. She didn't need to get adopted. To hell with adoption – she could fall to being the lowest grime of society, but she would never let them take her mother's name away.
She picked fights with Natsuki who she saw as so high and mighty, real fights, not the cat-fights usually expected of teenage girls. Heck, Nao was shoved into an orphanage of the poorest district; after getting beaten up a good dozen times for having bright red hair and survived, she learned how to bust the balls of guys twice her size. And Natsuki, well, that girl had a pride so stiff blood could be running down her mouth lopsided from an ugly bruise and she would still be smirking at you, waiting to lick your eyeball with her white knuckle.
They were ridiculous fights, over the most ridiculous reasons. You dropped my pencil. You Bitch touched my locker. That kind of thing. That was why Nao called it barking herself, but somehow, the noises she made had rippled the pool and it just seemed like the starlight flickered, becoming more real and more like it could be grasped.
They eventually came to a truce as high school freshmen. She never really understood why Natsuki would fall so low to come to a public school in slummy downtown, but she supposed the latter might just be as rebellious as she was and thrived, rather than wilted, under her father's isolation. At that time, Natsuki still wasn't heiress, so it was more like she got shoved to Fuuka by her mom and her dad just reluctantly took her in, so if she wanted to move out to a dank apartment about to collapse, so be it – he'd rather she didn't exist so he could continue fucking whoever he wanted without people even knowing he once had a wife who just got (gasp) murdered. Long story short, they were both stuck in a situation where it was work together or die. There were guys who wanted to ride them and gals who wanted their faces in toilets, so they had to catch each others' backs and fight their way out.
Nao used everything she had to push her own inferiority aside. They were both strays. They were equals. If she were with Natsuki, she wouldn't be alone. But did Natsuki really need her? That question burnt in her mind, eating her out. She hated it when others looked down on her, but deep down, perhaps the one who had always been doing so was no other than herself. She had no personal identity, no hopes, no future, so she was afraid of the dark, and clinging onto the light that Natsuki offered was all she could do to ease the fear. But by clinging on and clinging on tighter another type of fear blossomed in her heart – Natsuki was a star, would she one day lose her to the glorious moon overhead?
That night was a rainy night too, she recalls as she traces her slender fingers along Natsuki's wet back, tongue continuing to swirl within the cold orifice between the Raven's teeth. Her black-painted nails leave crimson scratches down their trails, but Natsuki doesn't even flinch, staying in place, eyes straight ahead where a gap in the curtains show the downpour outside. Has she noticed? Nao thinks: Has Natsuki noticed the parallel just as she does? The way it has always been, Nao forcing her burden on her once stoic friend, using everything, anything to keep her there so Nao herself doesn't collapse.
Even that night, even those nights in the past when they connected physically like this, it was always so one-sided.
Nao finally draws herself out, lingering on the thin bottom lip now swollen from her relentless sucking, licking from side to side to leave a sparkling streak of saliva overtop the previously dry-cracked ridges. Finally, those emeralds descend onto her limes, both are greens but not the same – Natsuki's gaze is one of clear-cut purity, hers the murky juice of a rotting fruit.
She has always been the one so dirty and wicked, to use her body to lure others into doing her bidding, even trying to use it to hold back her beloved and keep her all to herself.
"How was it?" her husky voice vibrates by Natsuki's pale ear, still dripping from her rain-soaked hair. The Raven doesn't answer, just keeping her eyes steady on her own reflection off Nao's glassy corneas.
"What's the meaning of this?"
"What do you think is the meaning of this?"
At this, Natsuki's expression changes to one of unhindered impatience, "I have no time for your games, Yuuki."
"You used to have time for them," Nao smirks, finally loosening the embrace but not without last grazing Natsuki's naked arm with her hands, "or are you no longer the horny teenager you once were?"
The Raven bites back her words and the Spider just smiles delightfully.
"You have noticed. I know that. You were looking out the window…"
It was raining that night, just as it is now.
The night when I first fucked you, Natsuki.
For nostalgia's sake or whatever, Natsuki remains silent for a moment, a long moment Nao secretly wishes that is full of her and her only.
But no matter how long the moment is, it has expired now.
"If you have nothing more to say, I'm leaving."
"One more thing…" Nao says while Natsuki wrings out her drenched shirt to put it on again. The Raven doesn't even bother pausing as though she had made up her mind and she will leave – now.
"You're not a slut like me. Say I'm a narcissist if you will, but you did love me at that time to let me take your virginity."
Natsuki chuckles, "Is that all? Yuuki Nao of all people talking about virginity? You know I'm a feminist – the concept of virginity is no more than a social constraint over female sexuality."
"And your sexuality is not randomly sleeping with whoever looks hot. You know that."
By now, Natsuki has her shirt on and bag slung over her shoulder, "Yeah, of course, I'm not like you, Yuuki. I have principles."
The bitterness of her remark strikes Natsuki herself, making her incapable of facing Nao anymore. Why, why, why whenever she thinks about all the things that have happened to them in the past, it all comes back to her like waves of anger and disappointment and that deafening regret threatening to overtake all the control she has won for herself over the years?
Nao is right, she did love her, maybe not in the same way Nao loved her, but certainly as the most important person in her life at that time.
Because for the first time since her mother's death, someone needed her.
In return, she let Nao become her own necessity, mentally and physically.
She turns, leaving only her back to Nao. She is determined to leave this moment, but her feet are left grounded when Nao speaks again.
"You know why I ever agreed with your speculations that your mother's death isn't an accident? You know why I ever brought up the coincidence that our mothers are both murdered by the same person?"
She doesn't know why and she doesn't want to know.
Move, move, move! Get the hell out of the house before Nao shatters everything in her life!
When met with silence, Nao just continues, "Because I needed you. I needed a rope to tie you down."
"I knew that!" she yells.
This is enough. She doesn't want to listen anymore, because she knows, she just knows what Nao is about to say.
"And you also damn know that you would've never gotten involved, with me or this stupid investigation, if I didn't tie you down! So what are you still regretting about, Kuga? It's not your fucking fault that I became a whore!"
The reason why Natsuki needs to finish this investigation else never be able to move on, really isn't about concluding her mother's death anymore.
Of course, she loved her mom dearly. She hates her dad's nonchalant attitude towards all this, seeing it as betrayal, but really, has she ever cared what that asshole thinks?
No matter how much you love someone, eventually you will forget. If Natsuki must try to dig her memory for an image of her mother, the woman she claims all this is about, she will only find a faded blur, yellowed from age even within her mind.
People need new emotions to sustain old ones. And for Natsuki, Nao is the new regret that builds on the old.
She has once failed her mother, the burden Kuga Saeko shoved away so the woman can bear all consequences with her own death, and now she has failed Nao, who has become a stripper to get closer to the sources of information that will untie their mothers' mystery.
That is not it.
"Nao…" she says at long last, quiet and gentle, "I know you became a stripper for my sake, not our mothers'."
The redhead widens her eyes at the emerald orb once more facing her. A thin smile adorns the Raven's side, moving the slightest in a soft sway while her last words fall.
"You became a stripper to turn me away, to free me from you."
The door opens and shuts, leaving Nao to herself, kneeling in the pond where Natsuki last stood.
Is that Natsuki's real regret? The regret that she can't return Nao's unrequited feelings?
You can't help who you fall in love with, you silly Mutt.
Just 'cause you can't fall for me, doesn't mean Fujino won't fall for you…
The dog fell in love with the star in the sky, not its reflection in the pond.
Only when it is there - by the side of the moon - is it most beautiful.
Long after the party is over, after she has cleaned the dishes and took down the celebratory banners with none other than one grumpy Suzushiro Haruka who has actually opted to stay and help, Shizuru retires upstairs to rest.
Oh, Haruka, why does the dumb blonde never fail to amuse her?
She recalls the last she has seen of her student that night. With a scrunched-up face, Haruka glared violets at her prof's crimsons, arms crossed over her big bust while she made her way out the door to Yukino's car where the other student was waiting.
Shizuru smiled. Should she commend Haruka's guts for standing up to her own PI? Shizuru herself had never ever done the same with Nguyen Bao when he was alive.
"Ever since your new undergrad stomped out your house, you look depressed. What's wrong with you?"
Shizuru couldn't hold it back anymore. She actually laughed, not a chuckle behind her palm, but a hearty laugh like no other. Why? Because Haruka wasn't delicate like Yukino who would be hurt by her blunt true self, or complex like Tomoe who would warrant the wearing of a mask for protection.
If she had to decide, Shizuru would probably say she quite liked Haruka's straightforward character. No hidden agendas, no lies, just as she always appeared.
"I thought it's your policy to have nothing to do with me on a personal level, Haruka-san?" She answered equally plainly. Haruka scoffed.
"I don't want to, but even I have to say, you're probably the face I see most in my daily life. I work for you most of my waking hours, for heaven's sake! I can tell when you are out of it."
"It will not affect my professional performance, I assure you."
"Ha! You really like to think you are so professional, huh?" Haruka snapped, "What happened to the Fujino Shizuru who carved out a completely new approach to phi radiation research as a PhD student? Who found the first phiogene? Who came up with the concept of phiogenomics and developed the first whole genome screen for this while everyone else was still hooked up on cashing in new globulin matrices to catalyze reactions? I hate your guts, Fujino Shizuru, but you were a damn brilliant scientist and though I chided you earlier tonight about how you became a prof at age 26, I never had a problem with it because if it weren't U of Fuuka that made the offer, you would've had ten other faculty positions waiting for you in even more prestigious institutions! You act all calm and indifferent, sipping on your tea, but really you're just an emo teenager who can't get over the fact you need a shoulder to cry on when you are grieving, and now everybody else has to become a sacrifice in your path of recovery, which has no fucking end-"
"Suzushiro, you've said too much!" she cut her off, and even the stubborn Lioness stopped midway in her rant that was so unusually devoid of inappropriate errors this time.
"I have said too much. I apologize," she finished, stepping out into the cold, "But I do want you to know, Bubuzuke, that as much as I admire you as a scientist, I do realize you are human. We all do, except yourself, of course."
Shizuru closed her eyes and sighed. Only when they were alone would Haruka say so much to her – not just the jabs and taunts, but the concern of an old acquaintance.
It was somewhat ironic, but Haruka did know her well, maybe too well. That was why it was so hard to get along with the blonde.
"You know, that Natsuki, I don't know much about her, but I heard from Kanzaki that you think she's bright. That's quite a compliment coming from you," Haruka continued.
Shizuru merely nodded, "She does have potential."
"Must remind you of yourself then? Maybe you can finally find yourself a friend."
She laughed. Maybe Haruka wasn't exactly on the mark, but she did have a point.
Natsuki was Natsuki. As a prof, there was no other enjoyment beyond nurturing a good student to become a world-class leader of innovation. Watching a student's growth was like watching your past self, the struggles, the frustration, and finally the breakthroughs after weeks and weeks of relentless work. In the end, no matter whether it culminated in a small lab presentation, an undergrad thesis, a published manuscript, or a full graduate degree, the sense of achievement was what tied this entire field together.
As PI and student, there was no stronger bond than their common goal. All else would fit in like pieces of a puzzle – eventually it would complete itself, and it was with anticipation that she waited for the final picture to be resolved.
"Thank you, Haruka-san," she said, waving goodbye at the doorway, "But I do think I have a friend already."
"A friend and a rival, Bubuzuke," Haruka corrected with a grin.
The rain has stopped.
Instead of driving home, Natsuki finds herself on the East Mountain, second highest in Fuuka aside the one Shizuru lives on.
From there, the view of her hometown unfolds under the mist. Slowly, as the surreal white blanket clears, the red signal lights reappear, then the pinnacles of high buildings, then the tops of thousands and thousands of homes lying in clusters between crisscrossed streets.
But she's not looking at them. She's looking at the adjacent mountain from where she has departed earlier where it faces the open oceans in the far background. At this distance, even that giant lump in the terrain is fully visible, a fraction of the entire field of view that swallows not only a city, but kilometres after kilometres of brightening skies at the break of dawn.
The glowing torch lights the horizon, dyeing waters golden, then it spreads through black heavens to turn it first a subdued purple before flaring into magenta, and finally a warm red, alive like the blood pumping in her arteries.
Red is a beautiful colour, the colour of the background in that empty room save the two of them when she was first welcomed, the colour of the pair of eyes that had welcomed her.
Standing, she hugs back the red that floods into her arms.
She grinds a dagger's blade through the darkness of her hair, making a jagged cut across just below her ears to free the bottom lengths. To the wind, she releases them, and strand by strand, they peel away to be absorbed by the coming day.
I can't love someone I don't know, but you know what? I do want to know you.
But before that, let me know myself, and who I will become after my past is gone.
End of Chapter 9
This chapter just sort of wrote itself – I have mixed feelings as to whether it portrays a smooth transition of the characters' mindset, or if it is way too abrupt and makes no sense. Please tell me what you think. Of course, any other feedback would be greatly appreciated as well.
"So, what do we need to discuss?" Ren's PI, Dr. X, asks in his usual non-specific manner. His stare sweeps the silent room until a hand timidly rises.
"Umm..." Ren's fellow grad student starts shakily, "We have a problem with our food supply..."
Ren's lab has a supply of candies for the treatment of hypoglycemia, a common symptom of the Staying-in-the-lab-for-too-long Syndrome.
"Isn't the supply plentiful? Our Clone-X-Project for the Halloween costume contest was a great success, wasn't it?" X asks.
Indeed, we won a box of candy in the departmental contest by dressing up as our PI - it was quite a simple (brainless) and elegant (effortless) idea.
"We think that somebody has been stealing our candy on the weekend," the student continues. We all nod thoughtfully to the brilliant hypothesis. Indeed, that would explain why there were only three gobstoppers remaining in my cubby hole this morning. I was sure there were five before the weekend.
"So you all haven't been coming in on the weekend?" X asks nonchalantly. We share a mortified look. He can't be thinking..."I think we should consider Collaborator Y's proposal of buying those lab bracelets, they are on sale for $16.99 each, free shipping with a purchase of five or more..."
Lab bracelets my ass! Something that delivers a shock when you are more than 100m away from the transmitter is called a dog collar, damn it!
Candy as rewards, electric shock as punishment...is X trying to condition us into jailing ourselves in the lab!?
We all gasps.
X smiles as though his joke was very funny. Wait...was it a joke?
New AN (2016-11-13): This story is currently on hiatus as I revise all the older chapters. Updates will not resume until I'm done. Earliest estimated date for updates to resume is May 2017.