"You will don that leash, Katsura, or remain a would-be leader forever. The choice to accept or decline our offer is yours. But remember, it will be us deciding whether to clip those dreams of yours."
The woman's mouth curved with every word, spitting out controlled bursts of poisonous hubris. In contrast, her eyes didn't move, trained on her prey and never letting go, akin to a falcon's talons. Before the sound of her voice could completely die out, she unfolded the holding fan in her hands and concealed her grinning lips.
"Media. Finances. Politics," from the other end of the table, a quiet voice picked up where its predecessor dropped off, not letting silence set in "Realize what we represent, young girl, and answer carefully."
Unlike the proud woman's eyes, this man's glare held no flame within it. Rather, it was filled with icy menace. The weak, silvery hair on his head was belied by his steady gaze.
Hinagiku turned her head to come face to face with him and accept the unspoken challenge, joining the stare down with genuine fervor.
"Katsura-san," the remaining participant of their meeting easily brought both of them down to earth "Will we hear your answer, or do you intend to keep us waiting indefinitely?"
The owner of the voice sat at the head of the table. She stood out from the other two as obviously younger, her delicate face testifying to the fact she couldn't be much older than twenty. In everything else, she was alike them. Her refined posture, indifferent tone and endless confidence all seemed to imply that she was more than she looked, as if there was something divine standing behind her and guiding her actions.
Hinagiku suppressed a smirk. Intimidated was not a word in her dictionary. If her opponents had celestial spirits watching over them, she'd just have to drag them down from their godly pedestals. Her cheeks flushed red and she resisted the urge to stand up then and there and start screaming at them. The competitor within her screamed for release, and yet…
"Yochiba-san, Kando-san," she nodded at the two in turn before concentrating on the younger girl in the middle "Syndicate Head," she made a small bow "My intentions are stated clearly in the documents I have provided you. What I ask of you, and the extent and limits of the price I am willing to pay," she paused for half a second "If there is anything not covered there that you expect of me, I will do my best to satisfy those demands."
She looked at the three figures before her, with their lavish traditional Japanese attires, with their smug grins and greedy looks, and felt she had never faced stronger greed and corruption.
With her heart filled with anger and revulsion, she lowered her head in a humble bow.
Hinagiku opened the door to the limousine waiting for her herself. She had experienced enough to fire those of her staff who insisted on relieving her of the too-simple tasks of everyday life.
She jumped inside the vehicle, slammed the door behind her shut and immediately let out a big sigh.
"Get us moving, Johan-kun."
"Yes, ma'am," her chauffeur responded briskly, peeking at the rear-view mirror to see her loosening her tie "That hard, was it, ma'am?"
"Mhmm," Hinagiku mumbled back and closed her eyes as the engine started "I want to break something right now."
"Please restrain yourself until I'm safely out of your reach, ma'am."
Hinagiku chuckled and opened one eye to send a playful glare at Johan's neck. The man pretended to shiver in fright.
They drove through the vast garden separating the estate from the city. Hinagiku indulged herself in looking at the sea of blooming flowers they traveled along.
"Take the rest of the day off, Johan-kun," she said distractedly, not moving her gaze away from the window" I don't know how long this will take, and I can just get somebody here to drive me back afterwards."
"Are you sure, ma'am?" Johan questioned, peeking at the mirror again "It's not even noon yet."
Hinagiku made a dismissive gesture.
"There's no point in you circling around here like a vulture for hours. I know you'll just go help out at that church. Make the most of your time, I say."
"Thank you, ma'am," Johan nodded gratefully "Please visit us at the church sometime. You don't have to take part in the mass itself."
"Thank you for the invitation," Hinagiku sighed "I might do that. Only once things like showing excessive support for minority religions are no longer enough to endanger my position, though."
They reached the gate and watched it open automatically in response. Hinagiku opened the door and stepped out of the limousine, flashing Johan a parting smile.
"If anyone asks, you dropped me off at the office, right?"
"Of course. Good luck, ma'am."
Hinagiku closed the door and watched the car leave the estate grounds. She turned around and went back into the flower garden, careful not to be seen.
Hinagiku swerved left, grasped desperately at the prized apple and saw herself faced with yet another wall. Another sharp turn, averting the crash, but the effort proved fruitless. She couldn't stop. All the paths were blocked. Any moment now and her body would…
She frowned dejectedly at the cell phone display flashing the words 'Game Over' at her face. What was wrong with that game? What was she supposed to do when the snake grew large enough to cover half the screen? It wasn't that her point score was bad (it was awe-inspiring), but a game there was no way for her to actually beat made her blood boil.
She smashed the exit button twice and was back to the main menu. A quick glance confirmed that no, nobody had called or sent her any messages in the time she spent on pursuing assorted fruit. Her insistence on not being bothered on this day was coming back to haunt her and she had already run out of ideas how to kill the time.
She pocketed the phone and put her arms behind her head, stretching on the bench she was sitting on. She looked up at the sky. Already, the sunlight was growing weaker. The air had lost its warmth. How many hours had she been waiting in the garden? And to think, that girl was still at it. As much as she was impressed, Hinagiku was also slightly envious.
"She actually gets to do something, unlike me."
In her distraction, she didn't hear the shuffling of feet.
"What's with the long face, Katsura-san?"
Hinagiku nearly jumped at the sudden question. But she recognized the voice soon after, and surprise gave way to embarrassment. She did her best to fight off the blush spreading on her cheeks and act nonchalant. It was her dignity at stake!
"A-accept my apologies if the expression on my face has discomfited you, Syndicate Head," she stuttered out.
The newcomer tilted her head to the side in surprise. For a moment, she seemed to puzzle over Hinagiku's reaction. Then realization struck and she giggled.
"I should be more cautious, lest my overwhelming presence gives somebody a heart attack. Isn't that right, Katsura-san?" she asked as an easy smile found it's way onto her face "Or would it be enough if I just called you Hinagiku instead?"
"That would be most welcome," the still-blushing Hinagiku replied, watching the unapologetic offender sit down next to her "Nagi-chan."
Nagi's smile widened, but she gave no response. For a few minutes, the chirping of birds was the only sound to be heard as the two enjoyed the shared tranquility of the garden. They hadn't been able to meet for a long time. Or maybe they hadn't wanted to meet. Not without the security provided by a formal setting and a crowd, at least. Because even now there were topics neither of them was sure they were ready for.
If this was supposed to work, though, they would have to grit their teeth and proceed.
"How did it go?" Hinagiku asked, and it surprised her that her voice didn't sound worried.
"It was frustrating. If I have to put on a snare for eight hours straight again anytime soon, I'll get wrinkles," Nagi shot straight off the bat, letting her voice show how tired she was "But it went well, actually. They just couldn't resist going through all the ways they could take advantage of you without being exposed," she moved her hand as if to wave the issue off "They had no objections to the contract, which is all that really matters."
Hinagiku listened to Nagi saying all this with imperturbable calm, and she wondered briefly whether this different, commanding Nagi had always been there, ready to bloom, or if she had been born that night five years ago.
"Mhmm. They don't sound like pleasant people, even in private."
"They aren't. They both had their hands in drug and weapons smuggling. And they each made one mistake too many."
Nagi kept facing straight ahead, absorbing the sight of the garden. Far away.
"They're like wounded animals. Desperate enough to bite at anything. Weak enough to be put down when the time is right," she turned her head to Hinagiku "That's why we're using them in the first place."
"I'm sorry for having you go so far," Hinagiku replied on reflex, not sure herself why she felt the need to apologize.
Nagi just shook her head and shrugged.
"It's nothing much. After what you've done for us in the past… Just remember they'll try to bite back when they realize what's going on, so I hope you're serious about that project of yours."
"I am," Hinagiku affirmed "Don't worry."
A light breeze swept over them. Nagi made a show of shivering in response.
"It's getting cold. I should go change into something warmer," she said as she stood up "Should I tell somebody to give you a drive?"
"Actually, I think I'll take a walk."
Nagi nodded once and turned her back to her friend. She took a few steps and stopped.
"You know, I had to make sacrifices to become Head of the Sanzenin. Great things always come at a price. It won't be easy for you, either."
Hinagiku kept her eyes on Nagi's back.
"Is this a challenge, Nagi-chan? You know I can't take one of those lying down. I'll have to work extra hard, now."
Nagi blinked in surprise. And then she smiled.
"I hope you will," she responded without turning back and started walking away.
Another gust of wind blew, drowning out her final words.
"Hayate would've wanted that."
Ironwort - n. (Bot.) An herb of the Mint family (Sideritis), supposed to heal sword cuts; wild, hardy flowering perennial that has adapted to survive with little water and little soil; thrives on rocky slopes and pastures at elevations over 3000 feet. Sideritis is derived from the Greek meaning 'made of iron'.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
But even as the thought came to her mind, Hinagiku prayed that one didn't apply to her.