Everything moves in slow motion.
The water coming down the silver faucet. The gasp escaping your lungs. The whimper being born in the heart of your heated throat. The water dripping down your nose into the spotless white sink. Your hands running across your face mixing the tears with the tap water over your skin.
Everything moves at a snail’s pace.
Everything except your heartbeat and your shallow breaths.
One, you start counting, trying to trick your brain into taking in one long gulp of air while your moist eyes close themselves for the fear of losing your balance.
Two. Your trembling hands grab the edges of the ceramic sink to ground you.
Three. You bend your knees and get close to the outer space shade of black tiles beneath your grey block heels.
Four. You start to whisper to yourself.
It’s okay. You’re okay. Remember. Just try to remember.
Five. Your eyes open and look at the objects around you to recount them inside your head.
Six. You get up and pick the hand towel from the pile neatly stacked beside the sink to pat your face dry, pressuring your shaking fingers hard into the fabric pressing onto your skin.
Seven. You whisper the list you just made out loud to your reflection in the mirror.
Eight. You clench and unclench your hands, repeating the ritual till you can no longer feel the shiver as evidently as before.
Nine. You pick up your brown-rimmed glasses and put them on, adjusting them over the bridge of your nose using the help of your reflection.
Ten. You straighten your back and square up your shoulders, smoothening the rebellious hair strands over your head back till the bun.
Tugging your royal blue blouse to get rid of the wrinkles, you swipe off some invisible dust bunnies away from the fabric before picking your grey purse. Your eyes lock for a moment with your reflection’s, creating a minuscule swerve of a latent pain rising somewhere behind those pupils. And just at the speed at which they met, they look away from the mirror to walk towards the door.
The click of the washroom door alerts your body and you move out into the gallery of this glass building, mingling into the crowd going about their daily lives.
Everyone who walks by is in suits. Monotones. Nothing lighter than a plain white, nothing darker than an abyss black and nothing more colourful than the stainless steel grey. The walls wear the same shades as the concrete they were made with. The massive beams running to the top at the entrance add a bright hue of white to the structure. The reception desk right by the wall whose corner you came out of is decorated in black.
You almost feel out of place in your blue before your mind realises that you actually are.
“Miss Kira?” The receptionist with fiery ombre soft curls running till her shoulder calls out to you as you approach her, “Miss Donatella will see you now.”
You try to pass her a smile but hurt your muscles in the process. Taking the yellow guest ID you follow the receptionist’s instructions to go the twentieth floor.
Between the ground level and floor twenty, half a minute of silence is a rare opportunistic gift that your mind takes to breathe away the episode in the washroom before the ding echoes around the elevator covered in mirrors on all sides.
You step inside the destined floor and just one thought crosses your mind.
Why am I still surprised?
The walls here are the same as any other part of the building. Concrete. Naked. Dull? And where there aren’t any walls, there is glass frosted to a level desired by someone who wants to keep their private sections of the offices private indeed.
The absence of any footfall in this part of the building makes the clack of your heels louder than supposed to be. The corridor seems deserted and you really cannot tell if any human is breathing on the other side of that glass. It feels like an eternal walk through a cement maze till you finally spot the glass door marked Conference Hall C and turn the handle.
A blonde, pale woman- paler than what you’re accustomed to seeing usually- sits behind a grey table huge enough to accommodate a buffet for a family of twelve. She smiles at you and asks you to come in.
Now that is a surprise. Not the smile. Not the setting. The fact that she is wearing beige in the world of grayscale is what shocks you a little.
“You must be Kira…” a raspy voice greets you from her raspberry painted lips before turning towards the file to look for the last name.
“Just Kira, please,” you respond, stopping by the lone chair that stands on your end next to the table in this hall, “and you must be Miss Donatella.”
She nods and passes just a hint of a smile before requesting you to sit down. The air around her smells of lavenders.
You don’t like lavenders; not recently. Maybe it’s this premeditated thought that sets a tiny itch in your nose as you sit down.
Donatella opens a white file with your name on it.
“So,” she begins as she shifts in her comfortable black swivel chair and you know she’s crossing her legs under that table, “Miss Kira, you have an impressive resume.”
You try to smile better this time. You are forced to. This woman practically holds the cards to some very important, life-changing events in your life right this moment in this room.
“I have to say,” Donatella raises her brows in a little grim speculation while eyeing the contents of the file, “it is so impressive that you should not be applying for the post of an assistant.”
Pressing the pulsation in your lips you take in a lungful. “My academic qualifications are elements of education that I deemed necessary on my way, Miss Donatella if their degree of complexity is your concern. Now, as far as my application for the portfolio of an assistant goes, I’d say my qualifications along with my extracurriculars are actually one good example of me being able to handle multitasking, work decently under pressure and get the results on time.”
You can see Donatella’s lips curve up a little before she plants her fingers over her lips, trying to cover whatever positive emotion she is feeling while her other hand sifts through the pages scrutinize your life as seen on those pieces of paper.
“It says here you worked at Rein Industries for six months,” Donatella bends her voice in a question.
“That was a mandatory internship I did during my college course,” you reply, feeling your ears heat up. You do not realise when you left thumb starts to move along the right wrist, trying to feel the bone beneath your skin.
“They didn’t present you with an offer?”
“They did. I had to decline for some personal reasons.”
“Must be some reason,” Donatella quips, her hand resting on her chin while her mix of grey and honey eyes look right at you, “because you do not have any work experience for an entire year after that. Which…was last year.”
The movement of your thumb does not stop. The smile plastered on your lips stretches a little as you look down at your hands for a second before meeting her calculating gaze.
“I, unfortunately, had some health issues last year. Hence, the little gap in my resume. If I had joined any company at that point of time I’m sure you understand how that would have affected not only mine but the company’s performance as well.”
“Why Sun Corp?”
Donatella does not even wait for you to breathe out the last word when the question drops on you and you realise your fingers digging into the skin of your palms right on time.
“It’s hardly been a year and Sun Corp has been expanding throughout the country with its extended subsidiaries. That’s unlike any private corporation I have seen.”
“And this is what attracted you?” You can almost hear Donatella’s scoff.
“I wasn’t finished yet, Miss Donatella,” you mention before continuing, not waiting for her brows to retain their composure, “Sun Corp has been working within third world countries just like ours and unlike any other multinational company, which basically want a monopoly with a huge profit margin, it has been working on the grass root level with a comparatively low but evidently stable profit index. And the reason this corporation has been having one successful industrial arm after another is that someone in here knows exactly what the population needs in our country.”
You pause for a moment to let the air around you ease the heat flurrying through your body. Donatella takes that one moment to glance at her phone, moving it little to make it light up.
“Now unlike other companies who are content in fulfilling the bare minimum required of their corporate social responsibility and hiring agencies to research on how to market their product to the general public, Sun Corp’s management has been using its resources on actually finding the necessity and working on building the bridges hereafter…with the people who actually are in need of those bridges.”
The silence that follows is satisfactory for one side and shifty for the other.
“All you have given me till now is pretty much a really generic reason though I must say you seem to have done some homework, if not all,” Donatella is quick to remark before scribbling something down on your file.
“Twelve per cent.”
You inhale before repeating the figure.
“Twelve per cent. That was the increase in the yield of crops when my family took up Sun Farms’ aid. I’m sure it does not seem like much to someone who doesn’t have a background in agriculture but it helped pay for my sibling’s tuition so there’s that. Now, this is the twelve per cent that I know. I haven’t included the percentage of sales that increased by word of mouth publicity after that. And considering how environmentally conscious and cautious my family is about the chemicals going into their crops, I can assure you the word-of-mouth thing was huge.”
The image of your grandfather going on about the better health of the mustard growing in the vast field brings the first genuine smile on your face today.
But Donatella, on the other hand, seems unphased. The silver watch on her wrist peeks from inside her cuffs- reflecting the soft golden lights of the room right into your eyes- when she sits up and close to the table, throwing a quick look at her phone. Her elbows barely rest on the table; as if she’s preventing herself from being at ease.
“And that is the only reason you are here. Out of a sense of-” she raises her hands a little with a light shrug- “gratitude. Is that so?”
“I am here because this company seems to have farsightedness, Miss Donatella. Not regarding what it needs to do to stay in the game but regarding what the people would want now and in the near future. And I feel that it forces you to believe in some kind of a direct or indirect moral compass that comes with the corporation’s work,” you are quick to answer.
Donatella’s chuckle is like the one that comes out of actors portraying the Victorian era aristocracy to show the restraint the women would be put through even when having fun. Why it reminds you of those actors is something you find both amusing and confusing in that instant.
“Moral compass.” Donatella’s mutter is more for herself than for you, spewing the words out in mockery. “I have to say, sweetheart,” she shakes her head while her brows try to imitate an emotion of sympathy, “this was good. Really good. The first such answer I have heard but, really? Are you sure?”
Now you are really confused.
“I beg your pardon ma'am?” You try not let the pricks of the fear show over your face, your thumb digging into your wrist for some reason unknown to your consciousness.
Donatella intwines her fingers together as her honey and grey fixate on you.
“How many interviews do you think I’ve taken for this position? Hm? Ten thousand applications came in for just this post. The post of being the assistant to the company’s founder. Out of those ten thousand, two hundred people were shortlisted for the interview. And even in those two hundred candidates was barely a person who actually wanted to apply for the post.”
You feel the space between your brows get heavier with every passing second. “If they didn’t want the post then why did they apply?”
“For the same reason you did, young lady. They all want to get close to the man himself,” she declares before muttering, “Cheapskates.”
You can almost see her roll her eyes at you.
“Oh don’t give me that look,” she huffs tiringly with a wave of her hand, “a pretty girl like you giving up all of this hard work of so many degrees just so you can satiate your desire to meet him. Some of you even have the audacity to think of getting into his pants. Take my advice and get out of here. Girls like you have a better chance of stalking him on the internet than getting to even kiss the floor Mr Odinson walks on.”
The next few seconds are filled with the ticking of the watch on Donatella’s wrist. The ringing in your ears is mind-numbing for the first ten seconds before it transforms into something else.
An ember of rage lights up somewhere inside you, heating up a spot right in the centre of your chest. Your thumb rubs the back of your palm through the silence before coming to an abrupt stop with the one long breath you take in.
“I am flattered Miss Donatella, that you think I’m pretty,” you begin, with just a hint of a smile this time, “And also surprised, because you are being so straightforward with…what you think about me.”
You abruptly push your chair forward to keep your arms on the table, openly offending Donatella, who gasps at your guts to do so.
“But it does make me wonder that almost all one hundred and ninety-nine people might actually be having evidence to get you fired before you leave this company, ma'am.”
Donatella blinks, faster than she’d supposed to, as her one leg that had so comfortably been resting on the other goes down.
“You should be more wary of…people who want to get into his pants, that’s what you said, right? Be wary of such people discreetly taking pictures of your boss while you make deals with his rivals behind his back, Donatella. Because I can assure that these people have a drive more intense than the number of zeros you were offered on your paychecks to leave Sun Corp.”
The stoic and cold demeanour she had been maintaining till now starts to crumble bit by bit.
“Don’t make accusations you cannot prove, Kira,” she nearly hisses.
“Don’t make judgments you cannot justify, Donatella,” you softly throw the words her way. “And I’m not making this up, something which was just proved from your facial expressions. The entire Instagram has proof of your meeting with some private military corp that’s been trying to find a way to enter the country through some other businesses.”
The fear in Donatella’s distant gaze is hard to miss. But you barely feel any empathy for her. Picking up your purse from the floor you begin to get up but pause.
“Oh and one more thing, Donatella DeMorgeaux Bellasario-” you tap your finger on the smooth steel table surface- “your boss hates it when anyone addresses him as Odinson. At least his assistant should be aware of that,” you enunciate before getting up, looking at that lingering rage in your reflection in the mirror covering the wall next to you before going for the door you entered from.
“How do you know all this? What are you, some kind of a-”
“No, I’m not a spy Donatella,” you spew at her from the door, irritation brewing up over your features, never looking back at the woman, “just like you said, I did my homework.”
“Bitch,” you mutter under your breath before exiting the room.
Donatella sits there, her hands covering the creeping disbelief over her face.
Behind the mirror, you had caught your reflection in, a pair of emerald eyes glisten in the filtered light entering the darkness they are engulfed in. Having seen the entire thing unfold in front of them, they turn towards a camera resting in a corner of the dark space near the ceiling, a smirk glimmering through those green eyes showered in the soft foreign golden light.
“Be careful, Balder,” the man in the black suit warns the blonde guy with a soft face, “you so much as put a scratch on anything in this house, I’ll make you pay it from your pocket.”
The blonde looks at the man in command. Balder cannot help but feel both scared and excited to look at him, his dark skin reflecting the blue sky outside with such flawlessness. As if that wasn’t enough, the weight in the British voice is enough to make any manly man weak in his knees.
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir,” Balder apologises softly before carefully planting the miniature camera behind the book stack, his pale nimble fingers working carefully with the rosewood he had drilled to make way for the device.
The man in the suit walks around the tiny studio apartment space, taking in the citrus smell of a body spray that was used in this space this morning. The bedroom is a five-step walk from the main door that opens into the living room-cum-open kitchen-cum-study. A violet coloured quilt lies on the bed in a mess, half-covering a Bulbasaur plushie. His long gloved fingers trace the edge of the headboard to collect the dust over the latex for examination.
“José,” he speaks without looking away from the dust bunnies over his fingertips, “put one on the headboard too.”
“Yes sir,” comes another voice as a tall dusky man dressed in a cleaner’s uniform walks into the bedroom space.
The huge, calculated steps walk back into the living room, hands resting inside his pant pockets.
“All the cameras and listening devices are in position, sir,” the olive-skinned woman sitting on the carpeted floor with a laptop in her hand declares as she types away some codes on her screen, “we’re going live in three, two, one.”
A press of a button later, the screen floods with Balder and José’s faces- adjusting the cameras- along with the man’s back to the one device planted above the apartment door.
“Good work, Torra,” the man announces, “now route that feed to my account and remove the access from yours and anyone else’s. Make it a level seven clearance feed.”
“Ooh! They must someone really important we’re spying on. Yes, sir,” woman quips happily before typing in a serial number and pressing enter, allowing the screen to show the rerouting before going blank. “Mission accomplished.”
Within the next five minutes, the apartment sees the two men and woman trickle out of its space as if they were never there. The man in the suit takes one last look around before he eyes land on the nine figures resting on the side table near the door. The nine protagonists of One Piece sit there facing the kitchen opposite to where they stand. The man looks at them all in some deep thought, his honey eyes lingering for some time on one figure before moving over to the next, before he takes one hand out of his pocket and moves the figure of the woman with long black hair to face his direction. Content with his work, he walks out of the apartment, allowing the silence before his arrival to take back its place as gracefully as he had.
The walk back to your place is heavy and slow. The noise from the passing subway train behind you does not help the piercing pain going in and out of your throbbing head. Picking up a sandwich and fresh juice from the local deli you stop by the twenty-four seven store to grab a bottle of Jägermeister. It is only when you’ve reached the front of your building do you take an effort to conceal the liquor bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag inside your purse. The walls might only have ears, but the old women living around your place had heightened senses when it came to young single people living in their vicinity.
Your building’s elevator feels like a good change from the mirrored one you had been trapped in on your way in and out of the building today. The chime is welcomed too as you step out on your floor, your keys ready to open the door and lock yourself in your comfort zone. Your neighbour- a young man a year or two older than you- tries to wave your way and before he can even blurt out your name, you have bolted the door and thrown the keys into their designated bowl on the side table. Keeping your purse down on the carpet gently, you take in one long breath.
“Breathe,” you whisper to yourself. “Just breathe. Forget everything else. Right now, just breathe. Please.”
Your eyes take in the familiar soft space. The kitchen, The Tempest lying on the two-person dining table, your quilt still the same mess you had left in the morning. The oil painting of a sunflower hanging on the wall you are leaning over, your One Piece figures sitting right next to you on the table. Luffy, Brook, Zoro, Franky, Nami, Chopper, Sanji and Robin.
A blank minute passes as you stand there, frozen in time, looking at the figures in a confused daze. And then something dawns on you.
Your hand, with a life of its own, moves to turn Robin towards the direction she usually faces before coming back to your side.
A cold prickle passes through your spine as your eyes go about the familiar space with a scrutinizing gaze shrouding the fear behind those eyes.
Someone was here, your mind sets off all the alarms in one go. And this time, when it actually seems appropriate to feel the panic erode you, you stand there breathing normally. No shivers. No sweats.
The vibration and loud chime of your phone makes you jump where you stand eventually. Your fingers take out the device from your pant pockets to click it open.
Another chime comes.
A message from your bank stating the recent deposit that had been made into your account.
Another message congratulating you on getting the position of Assistant to the founder and head of Sun Corp, requesting you to join the post tomorrow.
Donatella clicks her phone close and places a grey file on an oakwood desk before walking out of the lavish office space and into a room with a fire pit separating the space into a lounge area and a living room with its length. The clack of her pencil heels stops as her eyes catch the figure standing by the glass wall that opens to the view of the city beneath and mountains beyond them.
“I have narrowed down some candidates to come as my replacement,” she speaks in the direction of the figure, never bothering to close the distance between them, “but I still need to go through another batch tomorrow.”
The figure stands there. Still. Like an old tree.
Donatella can feel a tiny chill rise up somewhere inside her, which she tried to suppress as she shifts her eyes away, her hands coming together in front of her while her shoulders move a little to shake away a lingering stiffness.
A soft voice- like a warm brandy laced with honey going down your throat, heating it up in ways unknown- commands the room.
“I’m sorry?” Donatella fears her ears didn’t catch that right.
The figure’s shoulders finally shift a little but the pale arms exposed through folded up black sleeves do not move away, the hands resting inside the pant pockets.
“I said burn them,” the voice says again.
“Because none of those letters spells out Kira.”
An arrow seems to have pierced Donatella’s chest as her eyes go wide before her entire body tries to find its composure.
The fact that the figure doesn’t move still amplifies the fear crawling over her skin.
“Pack your things and never show your face within a hundred meters of my empire. You’re fired.”
The voice never rises. Not once. The delicate smoothness lingers throughout the words even when the threat is delivered.
Donatella brings her rage over features, about to spit some words into the ice-like air surrounding her.
“Before you say something you’ll regret I suggest you look at the table in front of you, Donatella.”
And she does. All the heavy rage folded in her wrinkles disappearing within a flash, replaced by nothing but mortal fear as the photographs on table show her meeting with an unknown man before displaying her in a compromising position in high-resolution grayscale.
“Mr Odinson, I-”
The head turns a little in her direction, making her cracked voice stop at once. Even with a distance of at least twenty feet between them, she can see the green embers burn from where they stand. And before she knows it, her lungs are trying to find air to breathe.
“I’m sorry Mr Loki, sir,” are her last words before she hurriedly walks out of the space that has been chilled to the core by that one traumatising side glare.
The man in the black suit closes his phone and walks across the length of the dark room that has nothing in the name of lights except for the endless skylight revealing the infinite stars above him and the twelve screens lit up on the wall he is walking towards.
Grabbing the top of the swivel chair, he sits down before pulling up two screens on the monitors in front of him. His hand goes in the pocket of his jacket to take out two marbles with hues of orange, golden, fiery red and black trapped in them, seemingly similar to a pair of golden eyes. And like a ritual known to his hands, he starts moving them around in his fingers while his eyes are fixated on the two figures on those separate screens, considerably apart, sitting inside the space of their homes, eyeing the alcohol bottles sitting next to them.
One of them shifts their gaze away to look at the phone in their hand before closing it and moving out of the camera’s view.
A chime comes on this side.
The man takes out his phone to see the message displayed on the screen.
Thank you, Heimdall.
He looks back at the screen and clicks a key on the keyboard to reveal Loki’s figure laying down on the bed.
The other screen shows you under your quilt, your back halfway down the bed and halfway supported by the soft headboard, looking at the Jager bottle resting by your bedside before you turn off the lights and take off your glasses, throwing them in the little space between the empty pillow next to your head and the headboard.
Heimdall watches neither of the figures closes their eyes, just lying in there on their beds in the dead of the night, waiting for some distant memory to either kill them with dried out tear ducts or tire them enough to put them to sleep.