AN: Edited by the divine prettyinpinkgal.

The first in what promises to be a long, absurd series. If you want to read about frustrated millionaires, escapist girls and Italian food, you've come to the right place.


Damn that Tsukikage!

It had been Masumi's intention to finish the greater part of his workload before five, so that he wouldn't have to bother thinking about it during dinner. Yet at a quarter to five, he'd scarcely gone through half of the material, and exhaustion prevented him from increasing his work speed. His exhaustion was, however, not a result of overwork, but rather a result of over-thinking things.

It had been two months since Tsukikage had made her ultimatum at the Academic Arts Awards to Maya: she either had to gain the same standing as her rival within two years, or leave Tsukikage's sight forever. To the general public, it would seem to be an impossible proposition. How could an actress, who had been blacklisted from the entertainment world just a year ago, win an award as prestigious as the Academic Arts? Those who knew the least bit about Maya, however, were sure that there was a chance she might succeed.

A one percent chance, at least, Masumi thought, tapping his fingers against his lips. Damn Tsukikage! Shorty'd just advanced beyond performing in storage sheds, and she makes such an utterly ridiculous ultimatum. There's eccentric, and then there's flat out insane. Though the loathsome woman is right, of course. Maya has the blood thirst of a newborn puppy. It was fine when she belonged to Daito, since I could fight her battles for her, but on her own, she'll be hard pressed to advance anywhere. No connections, a lack of competitive spirit… But there's always that one percent chance…

"Sir? Are you alright?"

Masumi broke out of his reveries with slight jump. Mizuki gazed at him with studied concern, an expression she utilized far too often.

"I'm fine," Masumi said, holding back a snap. "Why do you ask?"

"It's simply that you looked distracted, sir."

"I am distracted, but that has nothing to do with anything. Was there anything else?"

"Actually, there was. I know you said that you would leave for dinner at five, but I've been watching you for the last half hour, and you've spent all that time staring at the same line of the same document. So, I've determined that the most productive course of action would be to let you go now."

Masumi opened his mouth to retort, and then realized that not only was she telling the truth, but he couldn't even remember the line he'd supposedly been hovering over for thirty minutes.

"I'll take your advice, then," he said, too annoyed and tired to be witty. "See you tomorrow."

"Good bye, sir."

"By the way, Mizuki," Masumi said as he tugged on his coat, "could you call off the car? I'd prefer to walk to the restaurant."

"To clear your head, sir? Very well, I'll take care of it."

"Damn her as well as Tsukikage," Masumi grumbled to himself as he made his way to the elevator. "Too clever by half."

As he progressed through the Daito headquarters, greeting his esteemed colleagues and enduring whispered gossip, he once again returned to the subject of her who occupied about 60% of his thought processes:

At least she's shown that she can attract the audience, despite her blackened name. Getting a repeat of a pirate drama acted out in a storage shed, becoming the most popular character in a robot comedy… I wish she'd rise higher sooner though… I can't very well go to a shed to watch her perform, can I? I'd stand out from a mile away…

If he was to be completely honest to himself, which he'd increasingly become, he missed watching her perform. When she was up on stage, he could forget about the misunderstandings and mistakes that separated them. He could watch her without having to worry about coming up with an excuse, witness her spirit and talent, and enjoy the connection an actor and the audience share. Of course, he felt just a tiny bit pathetic that the only time he could feel at ease with his eighteen-year-old crush was when she was pretending to be someone else. Yet he'd learnt that when you were in such a hopeless situation as he was, you took whatever opportunity you could get. As a patron, he'd never lose contact with her; as a man, every meeting with her could prove to be the last.

He surprised a group of office ladies by sighing soulfully as he reached the entrance. He absentmindedly pushed the door open, equally noncommittal as he held it open for a middle-aged actress he vaguely recognized.

The glare of the sun caught him off guard as he stepped out onto the sidewalk, forcing him to shield his eyes with his hand. He was so overcome by the absurd fact that he'd completely forgotten that it was summer, he actually started to laugh, making the actress he'd assisted turn back to stare at him. To see the callous Masumi Hayami sigh, exercise unnecessary chivalry and laugh, all in a consecutive sequence, would surely entail being witness to the end of the world next.

Masumi, his lips quirked into a puzzling, yet pleasing, shape, shrugged off his jacket and began his mind-clearing walk. While he was at liberty to daydream now, the life of the city proved to be far more engaging than dreary reports and mind-numbing meetings. He could revel in the constant, almost stressful, activity he saw occur through the store windows; the current stagnancy of his work at the Daito Corporation practically drove him into his own mind in search of entertainment.

He reached a promenade he hadn't walked down for years, not since before he'd met Maya. Daito had hosted an event here, full of fire breathers, jugglers, acrobats and magicians. All he could remember from that evening was rejecting advances from the snake charmer and looking over the profits made from ticket selling.

How did I ever have fun before shorty? he thought, smiling wryly though he felt rather depressed.

He knew it wasn't healthy to more or less centre your whole life on someone else (especially around someone who barely tolerated you), but he couldn't help it. Every time he thought his feelings for her would die down into mere infatuation, Maya did something that made him want her so much more: performing a 45-minute solo play at ten minutes' notice, rejecting his offers of an prosperous career for the sake of a dilapidated apartment and an insane teacher, walking out on stage before an audience made up of thousands without the slightest knowledge of what she was supposed to say or do. Better men than him had fallen for less.

He caught sight of a familiar figure on a bench, and for a moment, he was sure that it was an illusion, produced by his overwrought mind. On closer inspection, it turned out that his mounting insanity wasn't to blame; it really was Maya, sitting on a bench in an endearingly preposterous fashion, her heels on the seat, murmuring to herself as she read a script she'd leaned against her lap.

His initial reaction was, he was ashamed to say, to turn around and run away. Lately, whenever he'd met with Maya, he'd managed to make a fool out of himself in some way or another. Besides, he was sure she wouldn't exactly appreciate his company, what with him being her sworn enemy.

But then again, every meeting with her could be his last. Selfish though it may be, he wanted to make the most out of the opportunity. He was sure he could find some way to pay her back for having to put up with him.

He approached Maya, his panicked expression gradually changing into one of casual slyness.

"Why, if it isn't shorty!" he exclaimed, smacking his hand down right by Maya's shoulder.

The result of jovial greeting was satisfactory: Maya jumped, letting out a "Gah!", her feet slipping from bench. She pivoted around, half reclined, and another funny sound escaped her lips as she saw who had startled her.

"M-Mr Hayami?" She shot up, her eyebrows twitching involuntarily, her face flooding with red. "W-what are you doing here? Oh, hrm, I mean, um, how do you do?"

Masumi had to bite the inside of his lip to keep from laughing before replying:

"I'm doing fine, shorty. I see you're as energetic as always. I was just on my way to a dinner appointment, when I noticed that a piece of the world seemed to have detached itself from reality. Lo and behold, here I found you, deeply submerged in a script. Are you reading for recreational purposes, or for professional?"

"P-professional, actually," Maya said. She seemed reluctant to continue, but still added, "Tsukikage and Ikkakuju are doing a joint performance of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. I'm playing Puck."

"Congratulations are in order, then," Masumi said, inwardly sighing with relief. "I was wondering how you were going to get another part. Another step towards the Crimson Goddess, right?"

"Yes," Maya murmured, shoving the script into her bag, "thank you for your encouragement…"

"Hey, shorty," Masumi said, putting on his most brilliant businessman smile, "have you eaten yet?"

"N-no," Maya stammered, stepping back, holding up her arm as if to protect herself from Masumi's charisma, "not yet… I, uh, kind of lost track of time…"

"Then how about a free meal at a high class restaurant? My treat."

Masumi nearly lost his nerve at Maya's truly thunderstruck expression.

"Of course," he continued, appearing unruffled and cool, "I'm not asking you out on a date, as I value my life, so there's no need to look as though you've been struck by a piece of sky. What I'm suggesting is this: I'm on my way to dinner with Utako Himekawa and Michie Matsuyama, both of whom hold you in high regard after performing with you in 'The Miracle Girl'. They're currently participating in a drama produced by Daito, so I'm out to improve my position with them in any way possible. As the old adage goes: 'You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours'. I bring their darling former co-star with me and become showered with good will; you get to meet up with old friends and receive some good press while you're at it, which you desperately need. Being seen with two popular veteran actresses, as well as the president of Daito, will definitely put you in the spotlight again."

"It's… This is rather sudden…"

"Think it over. You have five minutes, unless you want to make a fashionable late entrance."

During the minutes Maya was thinking it over, Masumi concentrated on maintaining his calm breathing. Maya was usually rather easy to fool, as long as you weren't trying to fool her into going against Tsukikage. But then again, she'd probably gotten wise to Masumi's wily ways by now, having been at the receiving end of his schemes dozens of times.

"Oh, alright!" Maya finally said (and Masumi had to control himself not to cry out "Thank god!"). "I'll go, but only to see Mrs Himekawa and Mrs Matsuyama!"

"I wouldn't dare presume anything else," Masumi said, bowing his head. "Shall we go then?"

Maya merely nodded, decidedly sullen. She usually bore that look when she suspected Masumi was leading her by the nose.

"You're only bringing me because you want to butter them up, right?" she said as they started walking. "You don't have another motive, do you?"

"Other than the enjoyment of talking to you and gazing at your lovely features," Masumi said, feeling it safe to flirt shamelessly as he knew he wasn't going to be taken seriously, "I've nothing else to gain by this venture."

He laughed as Maya reddened with embarrassment and indignation.

"You don't have to be sarcastic!" she snapped. "It was a legitimate question!"

"I wasn't being sarcastic, but I'm sorry for upsetting you even so. To answer your question in a more respectful manner, no, I don't have any hidden motives or convoluted plans. This was merely a pleasant chance meeting."

Maya didn't reply, but she seemed placated by Masumi's speech. Still, she would take no initiative concerning conversation, leaving it up to him:

"So shorty, you're playing Puck? Feeling up to the challenge?"

"Yes, thank you for asking," Maya said, stiff and a bit brash. "I've received a lot of support from everyone."

"That's fortunate. If there's anyone in this world that needs support, it's you."

"Wha—It's not like I'm completely helpless! Just because I'm short and plain doesn't mean—!"

"While it's true that you're short and plain, that's not what I meant. Anyone in your situation, no matter their height or beauty, would have a tough time if they didn't have any friends to rely on."

"Oh. Sorry."

"No matter. I'm pretty sure that was my fault."

As they made it out of the promenade and into the streets, Maya surprised Masumi by saying:

"You know, sometimes, you talk in such a strange, roundabout manner, I can't tell what it is you actually mean. Why can't you be your usual cru—s-straightforward self?"

"It was never my intention to elude you, shorty. It's just something about your puppy-like looks that makes me want to ramb…"

Masumi trailed off as, when he'd glanced down to see Maya's reaction to his words, he discovered that she had disappeared. She'd retreated to the other side of the street to let a group of tourist past, for what seemed to be no practical reason at all (other than timidity).

"I do not look like a puppy!" she objected as she returned, glaring at Masumi. "You're always saying stuff like that!"

"And I'll keep on saying stuff like that until you lose those big brown eyes and general air of newborn helplessness. By the way, pup, exactly why did you just escape to the other side of the street from that tourist group? I know foreigners can be scary, but they're just normal people, like you and me…"

"That's not why! I just did the polite thing, and let them pass. And don't call me 'pup'! That's even more hateful than 'shorty'!"

"So by going far out of your way, interrupting our conversation, when you could've just made them move a few steps to the right, you did what's considered polite? Did you mayhap learn your manners from a book entitled 'How to be Needlessly Polite and Quite Rude at the same Time'?"

"I think it's a bit rich that you, of all people, are giving me lessons in manners! Every time we meet, it's always 'shorty', 'You're so troublesome', 'I've never seen such a childish performance'! I can't even remember the last time you've been civil to me!"

"I could say the same thing to you, shorty. You know, I don't think you've ever really smiled at me… but again, I guess that's my fault, rather than yours."

Maya just let out a faint "Ah", taken aback by Masumi's slightly wistful assessment. Disconcerted by the unfamiliar turn the conversation was taking, Maya thoughtlessly skipped out of the way for a gaggle of teenage girls. Masumi, with a sharp sigh, stopped her from deviating further by grabbing hold of her shoulder, drawing her close to his side.

"W-what are you doing?" Maya shouted, struggling in his grip.

"Would you just stop ducking left and right for people?" Masumi snapped, matching Maya's outrage measure for measure. "It's like walking with a slalom skier!"

"It's none of your business how I walk!"

"It is when I'm the one that has to put up with it! Have some pride, Maya, and walk straight ahead. I assure you, people will get out of your way."

Maya was fighting with her temper to find a proper and mature rebuttal to that (well, more mature than "Says you!") when she was distracted by a voice:

"I'm sorry, but are you Maya Kitajima?"

Maya and Masumi both turned to face two girls, who were slightly younger than the actress and decidedly trendier. Masumi hastily retracted his hand from Maya's shoulder, taking a step back, his face unreadable but engaging to look at.

"Y-yes?" Maya said, tearing herself away from Masumi's enigmatic expression. "I'm sorry, do I know you?"

The two girls merely giggled, bewildering Maya.

"Um, you played Satoko, right?" one of the girls, with a button nose, asked. "In 'The Glittering Sky'?"

"Eh? Oh, I mean, yes, that was me. What can I do for you?"

The girls giggled again, and started to dig around in their bags.

"Could you please sign these?" they said, in perfect pitch and unison, holding out two school books and a pink marker pen.

Maya stood stuttering on the spot, unsure what to do. Even when she'd been at the height of her popularity, she'd rarely been approached out on the street for a spontaneous autograph (as no one could recognise her off-camera). She was jolted into action as Masumi pushed at her with his elbow.

"O-Of course!" she said, plastering on her most radiant, nervous smile. "I'd be delighted to!"

Even though she'd been taught how to make an elegant autograph when she'd been employed by Daito, she had to concentrate as she made her mark, her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth. Masumi had to press a hand against his mouth to keep from chuckling, though the girls showed no such restraint, laughing and chattering with the actress:

"I'm such a fan of you! You look just like anyone else, yet you're super talented!"

"Oh!" the button nose exclaimed. "I was so mad when you were fired from the show! I couldn't even watch it anymore, it just wasn't the same with the what's-her-name they replaced you with."

"T-thank you, that means a lot…"

"You're still an actress, right? I haven't seen you in anything lately."

"Yes, actually, I-I'm starting to get back on my feet. I'm going to be in a play this summer, so you don't need to worry…"

"That's great! What's it called?"

"'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. It's going to be performed in Kichijo Temple Park. I'm playing Puck."

"That's so cool! I love Puck! I'll definitely come see it."

"Me too, though I've no idea what you're talking about."

Maya put the finishing touch on her second autograph, her smile natural by this time.

"Thank you," she said, "that's very kind of you. I'm glad that you were looking out for me, even though I messed up."

"Things like that can happen to anybody! People are just too uptight, that's all."

"Besides, I like your kind of celebrity. Like, I can stand here, talking to you just like an ordinary person. I mean, if I'd bumped into Ayumi Himekawa or some other gorgeous superwoman, I would've been too scared to say anything. But you look just like any other person on the street. I wouldn't even had noticed you if he hadn't called out your name."

By this time, Masumi had been forced to turn away, nearly doubled over with repressed laughter. Maya thought of a myriad of unkindly things that she wished to befall the vice-president of Daito, struggling to maintain her faltering smile.

"I'm sorry, but," the girl with the marker pen said, as she and her friend tucked away their autographs, being extra polite to make up for her friend's brashness, "who is he, if it's not rude of me to ask?"

"He couldn't be your boyfriend, could he?" the button nose said, stealing an appreciative and gleeful glance at Masumi.

Silence descended like the blow of a sledgehammer. Maya's smile was wiped instantly off her face and Masumi will to laugh vanished.

"B-b-boyfriend?" Maya sputtered. "Him?"

Masumi winced at Maya's tone of utter indignation, but felt more worried about her pride than his. Typical; the only people in the entire world who could possibly mistake him for Maya's boyfriend were drunks and teenage girls addicted to romance manga, and they of course had to encounter at least one of the two every time they ended up in a semi-casual situation. It was up to Masumi to defuse the situation before Maya decided that no amount of old friends and publicity was tempting enough to have to endure his company.

"I'm not her boyfriend," he said, solemnly shaking his head, as though to say "Unfortunately". "I'm her bodyguard."

This absurd statement elicited quite a response from the girls, ranging from disbelief, delight as well as confusion.

"Um... Why... I mean, why does she need a bodyguard?" the girl with the marker pen said. She wasn't as easily impressed by a handsome face like her friend was (though her eyebrows perked up with interest when she saw exactly how handsome Masumi was).

"While she's performing in parks right now," Masumi said, his smile just a hint mysterious, "with her talent, it's only a manner of time before she'll be one of the most known names in Japan. Some of her rivals are willing to go quite far to make sure that she doesn't overshadow them once again."

"That's despicable!" the button nose cried, swallowing Masumi's lies hook, line and sinker. "If they're not good enough to compete with her honestly, they should quit acting and become, I don't know, fishermen or something, instead!"

"So she has enough money left to hire your services?" the girl with the marker pen said, a bit uncertainly. She couldn't quite believe the extraordinary story he was telling, yet Masumi was starting to win her over. "I didn't know TV paid so well."

"I'm not employed by her, though I'm in her service." Masumi touched Maya's back briefly, to let her know he had the situation under control. She flinched at his touch. "Mistress Kitajima is the favourite actress of my employer, who's a very wealthy thespian. He says it's his duty to use whatever means possible to help an actress with such a rare talent as Mistress Kitajima to fulfil the immense extent of her potential. I'm usually not seen in her presence, but Mistress Kitajima was kind enough to invite me to dine with her and her friends."

"That's such a sweet story!" the button nose gushed. "You must be glad to have such a dedicated fan, right?"

"Y-yes," Maya said, glancing up at Masumi over her shoulder, "I'm very happy. He's a very generous man."

Masumi lightly pressed his fingertips onto her back again, to tell her she was doing well, and this time she remained still at the physical contact.

"I'm not sure I would've found my way back to acting if it wasn't for him," Maya added, encouraged by Masumi's wordless praise.

Masumi smoothed out the foolish grin that was threatening to overtake his lips.

"That's really touching," the girl with the marker pen said. "I really hope things work out for you in the future."

"Me too! Well, you've got your bodyguard, so it should be okay, but be extra careful!"

"I will, thank you."

"We've already kept you for much too long. Goodbye, and thank you for the autographs!"

"I'll frame it and put it on my desk! Goodbye, and good luck!"

Maya and Masumi bid them farewell, sighing with relief as they disappeared into the crowd.

"I'd say that was a success, wouldn't you, shorty?" Masumi said, patting her shoulder. "Not only have you earned a bit of unexpectedly good publicity, but you've already sold two tickets to your play. Not bad for a day's work, don't you think?"

Maya frowned, feeling strangely used by Masumi. Though she knew it wasn't his fault, and that it was thanks to his quick thinking that the situation hadn't exacerbated into a catastrophe, she didn't like the way he could so easily think up lies and force her to cooperate with him.

"Why should you care if I'm getting good publicity or not?" she snapped. "I'm not your product anymore."

Her acidity, while far from the worst he'd encountered, was so unexpected it stunned Masumi into silence. It was like being bitten by a seemingly harmless little puppy: it didn't exactly hurt, but it still made you breathless with shock.

"… That's true," he said, shrugging. "I suppose I just did it out of habit. By the way, I'd like to thank you for showing enough maturity to refrain from running into traffic at the indication of being my girlfriend this time. A strong show of restraint on your part, I'm sure."

Before Maya could collect herself enough to spit back a reply, Masumi grabbed her shoulder and dragged her down the street, effectively evaporating whatever insults she'd planned to throw at him from her mind.

"I can walk on my own, thank you very much!" she growled, slapping away his invading arm.

"So sorry, shorty!" Masumi laughed, raising his hands in surrender. "I sometimes forget how fierce you are, what with how you seem to fear total strangers."

"Oh, fine, I'll try and walk straight ahead, alright? Just don't bother me anymore!"

"I wouldn't dream of it, Mistress Kitajima."

"You're so mean! It's impossible to talk to you!"

From then until they reached the restaurant, their conversation only consisted only of Masumi asking Maya about everything he could think of, such as how she felt about graduating and if she was a fan of Shakespeare. He sniggered as she responded to all of his questions with a grunt, (which worked as a "Yes", "No", "Maybe", "Good", and "So-so"), serving to enlarge Maya's already formidable frown.

"Honestly, shorty," Masumi said, his voice a little scratchy, as his throat was sore with laughter, "it's a fortunate thing that a girl like you has managed to survive in this day and age. I really don't know how I ever had fun without you."

Maya grunted, dark thoughts visibly brewing in her mind. Masumi felt a strong urge to either ruffle her hair or pick her up and spin her around, but quickly determined that both actions would bring about equally disastrous results.

"You can quit your grunting now," he said, giving her a light push instead. "We've reached our destination."

Maya snapped up out of her stormy ponderings, glaring at Masumi before inspecting the restaurant. The result of her observation was this:


The restaurant, named "Panna", looked more like a backdrop for a romantic drama than an actual establishment. Rose vines, stained glass windows and an abundance of spacious balconies all came together to create a classical theatrical set. Maya half expected to see the people dining on the balconies passionately declare their love for each other, or to shout at the heavens about injustices that had befallen them.

"You seem marginally impressed, at least," Masumi said. "Have you ever had Italian before?"

"No," Maya said, momentarily forgetting that she was still angry with Masumi, "well, other than spaghetti, no."

"Then this will be an adventure for you. Come on, shorty, we're holding up pedestrian traffic."

The inside of the restaurant proved to be no less impressive than its romantic façade. There was a ground floor, with a bar and tables with space for twelve people each, as well as an upper floor with more intimate place settings. Nearly every table was occupied, by everything from boisterous families to cosy lovers, glamorous gatherings to sedate businessmen.

Maya and Masumi were immediately approached by a waiter:

"Welcome, Master Hayami. You're the first to arrive of your party. We've already prepared your table to your specifications, so if you'd follow me…"

"I'm sorry," Masumi said, "but I stumbled onto a hungry stray," Maya glowered at him, but refrained from jabbing him with her elbow, "so could you add one more place to our table?"

"Of course, sir," the waiter said, losing some of his android composure when he noticed that Masumi's "stray" was the most ordinary girl he'd ever seen, "I'll arrange for it right away. You can have a drink in the bar while you wait."

"While it's a tempting offer, I'll have to decline. You have some pay phones in the back, don't you?"

"Yes, sir, just down the corridor to the right."

"Good. That's where you'll find me. Sorry for causing you trouble. I would've called ahead about the change, but this was a last-minute encounter."

"It's no trouble at all, sir," the waiter said, so surprised he practically looked human. "I'm just happy to be of service."

After giving the waiter a tip for his additional services, Masumi turned to see that Maya was staring at him. She blushed at her own indiscretion, gaining an unhealthy interest in her shoes, mumbling a "Sorry" to them. Not altogether put off by the attention (or at all, really), Masumi asked her:

"What's with the stare?"

"It's nothing, really," Maya said, raising her gaze to Masumi's torso. "It's just… I didn't think you could be so courteous."

"Usually, I'm not. It seems that you bring out the best in me."

Before Maya had time to absorb the compliment, Masumi was already striding away, calling back to her in his most aggravating manner:

"Keep up, shorty, or I'll leave you behind!"

Maya followed him without comment (though she did indulge herself by sticking her tongue out at his back) to the pay phones. They were probably the most well maintained phones she'd ever seen, their black receivers spotless and polished.

"Hey, shorty," Masumi said, "don't you have someone who'll miss you if you disappear for several hours without explanation?"

"Yes, Rei would. Why do you ask?"

"Other than the fact that you might want to call her to assure her that you haven't been kidnapped when you fail to come home for dinner, no reason."

"Oh! Yes, you're right, I completely forgot…"

"I can be diverting company, so don't worry about it."

Maya and Masumi exchanged a grimace and a grin before turning to the pay phones. Maya had a very poor king's ransom in coins and plucked out the right amount from her frog mouth purse with trained ease. She was just about to insert them, when an "Ah!" caught her attention.

Masumi rifled through the folds of his well padded wallet without finding a single 100 yen coin.

"It would seem," he said in response to her questioning glare, "that I've not a coin to my name."

"Eh? How could you possibly not have even one coin? That's a mathematical impossibility, isn't it?"

"Well, frankly, I don't deal much in things that costs an odd amount. It's usually a nice round number, like 25,000 yen or the like."

Maya gave him a look of pure loathing, contradicting its statement by saying:

"I could lend you some, if you promise to stop calling me shorty."

"That's a harsh bargain," Masumi said, breathing in sharply through his teeth. "I'll agree to it, but I have to warn you: I'll replace 'shorty' with 'pup'."

Maya shivered with revulsion, hugging herself briefly.

"Okay," she said, "I'll change the deal: I'll give you five 100 coins, if you promise to never ever call me pup again."

"I accept," Masumi said, smugly adding "shorty" after he received the coins.

Simmering with anger, Maya slammed the coins into the slot, breathing deeply in and out as she called the reception of her house. As possessing private phones was a privilege few in Maya's neighbourhood could afford (especially struggling actresses), the tenants all shared one phone, maintained by the landlord. The eternally surly voice of the landlord's wife greeted her, and her request to speak to Rei Aoki was accepted with a grunt. Within a minute, Rei's voice reached her through the receiver:

"Hello, Maya?"

"Hi Rei!"

"Phew! I was just about to go out looking for you. You said you were just going out to look at a dress on sale, and it's been three hours now."

"I'm sorry, I got sidetracked. It's just that the weather was so nice, so I sat down on a bench and started to read the script..."

"Say no more," Rei said, suffering patience apparent in her voice. "I knew I shouldn't have let you take that with you. Did you at least get to buy the dress?"

"They didn't have my size left."

"Jeez, all this stress for nothing. So, are you coming home? Taiko found a place that sold cod super cheap, so we're finally going to have something a bit more substantial to eat than the usual rice and beans."

Maya felt her stomach tighten with inexplicable homesickness. She could picture them all sitting together around their tiny kitchen table, laughing as they lauded food on their plates, talking about everything between heaven and earth.

And just who am I giving this up for? she thought bitterly, shooting a glance at Masumi.

Of course, she had to chance a peek at him when he was in the process of returning his wallet to his back pocket, his coat jacket brushed back, showing off his figure quite effectively. She snapped her gaze back, blushing as she rambled into the receiver:

"Um, ah, about that, I-I was invited to dinner by someone. I'm calling from the restaurant, actually. I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were waiting for me."

Whatever disappointment Rei felt at the news, she hid effectively, knowing that Maya was sensitive enough to call off her other dinner appointment if she thought she was unhappy. "It's no trouble, Maya. Taiko bought so much, we'll be able to feast on it for another two days, and that's if we gorge. So where are you? Who invited you? Sakurakouji?"

"I'm calling from P-Panna, or something…"

"Wow, you're at Panna? That's a bit out of Sakurakouji's price range, I think, so who is it that invited you?"

"Ma… Mm-MasumiHayami."

"Hayami?" Rei shouted (Maya could hear the landlord's wife say, "Hey, be careful with that phone! It costs more than your apartment!"). "You're on a date with Masumi Hayami?"

That was the drop that flooded the cup. Maya'd like to think that she'd been very patient and gracious until that point, putting up with being teased, manipulated and, worst of all, being romantically linked to Masumi. That Rei, of all people, would misunderstand the situation so gravely, was more than she could bear.

"I am not on a date with Hayami!" she hissed, her voice low as she didn't want the aforementioned man to overhear. "I just ran into him, and he was going to have dinner with Mrs Himekawa and Mrs Matsuyama, and he, he managed to make me come with somehow! It's not a date! I just want to see Mrs Himekawa, and he just, I don't know, he just wants someone to torment, how should I know? It's not a date!"

Her outburst was followed by a long silence. She actually heard a pin drop on the other end of the receiver.

"Oh-kay!" Rei said, sounding as though she was trying to calm a livid kitten. "That's… that's good then, that it's not a date. Sorry if I overreacted, I was just a bit surprised."

"No, I'm the one who's overreacting," Maya moaned, slumping over the pay phone. "It's just… I've never been at ease in these kinds of places. I feel out of place. I'd rather eat cod with you guys."

"Be that as it may," Rei said, secretly pleased, "this is a great opportunity for you. You'll get to meet Mrs Himekawa again, right? Though I don't remember who Mrs Matsuyama is."

"She played my mother in 'The Miracle Girl'. You know, Michie Matsuyama?"

"Ah, then I know who it is. Anyway, there's no real downside to this, is there? You get to eat at an excellent restaurant, free of charge, and meet with two women you really respect. Surely, you can endure even Hayami for that?"

"Barely. Ah!" she gasped as she felt a large hand encircle her shoulder in a very familiar manner. She spun around, her eyes wide as they focused on Masumi. He just smiled subtly, nodding towards the entrance of the corridor. The waiter that had welcomed them was approaching, once again his usual polished self.

"Maya, what happened?"

"I'm sorry, Rei," Maya said, laughing shakily. "It was nothing. I'm just a little jumpy. Listen, I have to go, our table is ready. I'll see you tonight, alright? Bye."

"Bye, and should it become necessary, try to kill Masumi after he's paid for the dinner."

Maya giggled as she ended the call, putting her coin purse back into her jacket pocket.

"Your table's ready now," the waiter announced. "If you'd just follow me, sir and… miss."

Masumi slid close to Maya as they walked to their table, disturbing the young girl's already sparse peace of mind. He grabbed her wrist, turning her palm up, ignoring her protests:

"Here," he placed four coins onto her hand, closing her fingers around them. "I only needed one."

"Hm," she said, slipping the coins into her pocket. "Thanks."

"By the way, shorty," Masumi said, as they began climbing the stairs up to the upper floor, "I'm not sure you've grasped this, so I'll just say it to make sure: this isn't a date, alright?"

That simple sentence ignited a boiling pot of emotions in Maya. Embarrassment was the most prominent of them, as she was now sure that Masumi had overheard her ridiculous tantrum; annoyance was another, as it was just like him to use a phrase he knew would have a devastating effect on her in such a perfectly timed manner. Yet she also felt intensely relieved, as it affirmed that no matter what anyone around them said or assumed, he'd always know where he stood with her.

"Hateful," she told him, her lips twisted into something that shared qualities with a frown but reminded one of a smile.

"I prefer to be called 'lovingly challenged'," Masumi chirped.

While Maya'd been too occupied being lead around and distracted by Masumi to notice the outside world, she was becoming increasingly aware of the fact that more or less everyone in the restaurant was staring at them. Waves of hostility emanated from pretty young actresses to middle-aged businesswomen alike, while most of the men (those who didn't share the women's jealous reactions) just raised an eyebrow at the unexpected company of Daito's president.

"Look at all the attention you're getting, shorty," Masumi said, viewing the murderous stares and dubious expressions with satisfaction.

"I could do without the attention, actually," Maya said, rubbing her goose bump covered arms. "I feel like someone might come at me with a knife."

"The price of success."

Maya felt as though she'd gone through a mile of enemy territory when they finally reached their table, which was located in a nice, secluded corner.

"I'll send someone to take your orders shortly after the rest of the guests arrive," the waiter said, bowing before he left them.

Maya and Masumi sat down on what must have been the most comfortable chairs ever to exist in a restaurant (at least in Maya's limited experience) and picked up the menus.

Maya had been determined that she would get through this dinner without any of Masumi's help, but found herself stumbling on the very first step. The menu was not only divided in such mysterious headlines as "Antipasti", "Primo" and "Dolce", but the names of the meals were written in their original Italian. Maya, who barely knew a coherent word of English, let alone Italian, became so flustered that her cry for help came out much weaker than she would've liked:

"Mr Hayami, I… I would appreciate some assistance…"

Masumi was going to say something mocking about this sudden bout of uncharacteristic meekness, but the words died in his mouth when he saw the state Maya was in. He stood up, moving his chair closer to hers, seating himself so that they could read from the same menu.

"There, there, shorty. What seems to be the problem?"

"Um, w-well, more or less everything. I've no idea what the menu says, I can't pronounce the dishes and I don't know how to order. I'm worthless at this whole fancy restaurant thing."

"Come now," Masumi said, putting his arm onto the back of Maya's chair, eliciting a hiss from the female population in the restaurant, "this is nothing to get worked up about. Half of the people here can't say a proper word of Italian to save their lives. They just ask the waiter to bring them the special course of the day, so as to avoid losing face. Fortunately, you've got a veteran with you, and I'll guide you through this ordeal step by step. Alright?"

Maya nodded, a bit tearful nonetheless.

"Okay, so, at this particular commercial Japanese Italian restaurant, they serve five different courses: antipasti" Masumi pointed at the corresponding headline in the menu, "which is more or less appetizers; the first course, primo, which is usually something like pasta or risotto. Then there's the second course, secondo, which consists of either meat, fowl or fish, and a side dish, contorni, is served with or instead of the second course. To end the meal, there's dolce, dessert, which I hardly think I need to explain. So, do you understand?"

"Yes," Maya said, sighing, "b-but I still don't know what dish to order with what course. There's so many, I just can't decide."

"I'll simplify it for you, with my vast experience of gourmet food, alright, Maya?"

"Mm." She wanted to tell him not to use her first name so casually, but it felt rude to do so when he was helping her so enthusiastically (besides, it was a lost cause).

"Good. To begin with, do you have any allergies? Nuts, tomato, seafood, milk? I don't want to order you anything that will potentially kill you."

"No, I haven't got any allergies at all."

"Such a healthy girl. You don't have to worry about the appetizers. We decided to order an appetizer buffet beforehand. It was actually why we choose this place in the first place. For the first course, would you like pasta, soup or risotto?"

"I… um… I think… I don't really…"

"My god," Masumi interrupted, "you're starting to make me nervous and indecisive. Looking at your clear complexion, am I right in deducing that you're fond of vegetables? Carrots, celery, that kind of thing?"


"Let me make this easy for you, then. Pasta with primavera sauce. It contains the vegetables I mentioned before, plus a healthy dose of tomatoes and parsley. A simple, inoffensive dish. Does it sound tempting?"

"Um… yes, it sounds good. Thank you."

"Don't celebrate yet. The worst is yet to come. So, for the second course, what would you prefer, meat, chicken or fish?"

A mental image of Rei and the others enjoying cod at home prompted Maya to answer:

"Um, eh, f-fish, then."

"Really? I've always thought of you as a red meat sort of a girl. Grilled or boiled?"

Giving him a look that clearly communicated "Need you even ask?", Maya said, "Grilled."

"A very good choice. What do you want with that, steamed vegetables, potatoes or some sort of salad? You strike me as someone who's in dire need of carbohydrates, so I'd suggest the potatoes."

"Fine," Maya said, her eyebrow giving off a twitch, "I'll take your advice, then."

"Now comes the hardest choice of all, shorty," Masumi said, his expression so grave Maya involuntarily swallowed. "Dessert. Cake, pie, tart, ice cream, pudding. What will be your final decision?"

"That's mean!" Maya cried, unable to remain placid at Masumi's teasing anymore. "I thought you were serious!"

"I am deathly serious, I'll have you know. Dessert is the most important part of a meal. Even if a dinner has been thoroughly succulent, it means nothing if it's followed up by a poor dessert. So what will it be? Bear in mind that the entire fate of the meal hinges on it."

"For someone so esteemed, you're incredibly ridiculous at times. Hmm, I shall have the, the pudding."

"They have chocolate or walnut pudding," Masumi said, resuming his cheerful and lofty attitude. "Perhaps you'd rather have both, to spare you the anguish of having to choose between them?"

"No need, I'll have the, um… the chocolate one."

"Congratulations, you've made it through the worst trial. Now, for the drinks. Seeing as you're young and easily susceptible to over-imbibing, I'd think mineral water would be suit you better than wine. Do you agree?"

"You're mean, and I'd rather have mineral water anyhow."

"Good. Then I don't have to worry about corrupting the young and naïve. After dessert, would you like some coffee? They have a milky, syrupy variant that'd suit you palette perfectly."

"You know, this would go much faster if you'd stop making all these insulting, condescending remarks."

"True, but where's the fun in that? So what'll it be, shorty? Coffee or no?"

Maya wanted to say "No", just to spite Masumi, but as she did love milky, syrupy coffee and knew that Masumi would manage to tease her about whatever choice she made, she mumbled, "Yes, thank you".

"You're all done now. Good work. That wasn't so hard, now was it?" At the penetrating glare Maya gave him, Masumi hastened to add, "I mean, considering the fact you've never stepped foot in an Italian restaurant before, and only had me for help, you've done very well. You didn't even start sniping at me until we got to the desserts. You deserve a medal for your show of patience."

Maya was about to tell Masumi in which unflattering sport he could easily earn a medal, when a clear, beautiful voice diverted her attention:

"Maya? Is that you?"

Maya and Masumi emerged from their burgeoning quarrel, rising from their seats to greet Utako Himekawa and Michie Matsuyama.

"G-good day, Mrs Himekawa, Mrs Matsuyama," Maya said, bowing stiffly. "It's nice to see you both again."

"Oh my," Utako said, laughing, "but this is a surprise, to say the least! Good day, Masumi, Maya. How on earth did you end up here?"

"I walked, and she followed," Masumi summarised. "It's lovely to see you both again, and Miss Kitajima definitely shares my opinion."

Utako and Michie, looking equally magnificent in fashionable gowns Maya could only dream of affording, hugged their long lost thespian relation. Everyone was in high spirits as they settled down to decide on their orders, though Masumi was perhaps a bit more subdued than before.

"Masumi," Michie said, looking up from the wine list, "you said you brought Maya here. How did you meet? You don't exactly run in the same circles anymore."

"On my way here, I found her sitting on a bench, reading the script of the next play she'll appear in. I thought you might want to meet her, so I brought her along."

"You're doing a play, Maya? How exciting; let's hear all about it!"

Maya told them about "A Midsummer Night's Dream", receiving enthusiastic comments about the play and her role in it, as well as encouragement to do her best. She received their praise gratefully:

"Thank you so much. I'm starting to grasp the part now, how he should move and speak, and everyone else is doing really well. I just hope we can gather enough people."

"I'm sure you will," Utako said. "A lot of people are curious about what you're doing nowadays, and would love to see you perform. You have a certain flair a lot of today's actresses lack."

"Too true," Michie agreed. "They just learn their lines, stand at their mark and try to look as impressive as possible. It gets a bit tiresome after a while. I still remember when you bit hold of my skirt when you were Helen. I was so surprised, I nearly cried out 'Maya' instead of 'Helen'!"

Utako and Michie laughed when Maya sheepishly murmured "Sorry", chiding her for it.

"Oh, you're not feeling left out, are you, Masumi?" Utako suddenly asked. "You've hardly said a word."

Masumi shook his head. "I've usurped shorty's attention for far too long already. Besides, I've no business invading the discussions of pure-blooded thespians."

"You're far more knowledgeable about theatre than most actors, so such humility is hardly warranted. Now, where is that waiter? I'm fairly starving."

As though by magic (though it was actually thanks to good hearing), a waiter appeared, poised and ready to take their orders. Unflappable, he wrote down their choices almost as fast as they gave them, giving a concise nod as he reached the dessert order.

"Your appetizers will be here shortly," he said, bowing before he zigzagged away.

"I've been looking forward to this all week," Michie revealed, rubbing her hands together in delight. "Sometimes, the only thing that kept me going was the thought that I'd be able to enjoy this place's risotto al dentice."

"Yes," Utako muse dreamingly, "or the acquacotta di verdure. I must admit, Masumi, it was as though you'd peered inside my mind when you suggested we eat here. I'd been subconsciously yearning for Italian for I don't know how long."

"I do have a bit of a gift for mind reading," Masumi said, putting his middle and index fingers to his temple. "It's the secret to my success."

Maya noticed that Masumi was looking her way, and braced herself to be the butt of a joke, like, for example, "But no amount of telekinetic power has helped in unravelling shorty's convoluted mind." She was put off when his gaze passed right by her, without him uttering a single quip at her expense.

Strange, she thought. Usually, he takes every chance he gets to rile me. Maybe he's not being obnoxious because of Mrs Himekawa and Mrs Matsuyama? He probably doesn't want to look bad in front of them.

Though she'd already found the cause for Masumi's behaviour, she kept returning to it until the waiter reappeared with the appetizers. Then she became too occupied with sampling the exotic "antipastos" to dwell on her irrational uneasiness.

"By the way," Utako said, as she impaled a bell pepper stuffed with tuna on her fork, "Maya, I dislike talking about serious matters over appetizers, but I'm curious to know: how are you feeling, after hearing Tsukiakge's announcement at the Academic Arts Awards?"

Maya and Masumi both started at that; the sun-dried tomato Maya was chewing became momentarily tasteless, and the hand Masumi had reached towards his wine glass was stayed. Their reactions only lasted for a second, so by the time Maya had swallowed the tomato, her taste buds enjoying an aftertaste of olive oil, Masumi's wine was at his lips.

"Um, well," Maya said, scuttling a meatball around her plate, "I-I'm not quite sure how to think about it yet… I'm not sure if I'm going to make it, but I'll do my best to succeed. It might be nearly impossible, but I have to at least try. I don't want to disappoint everyone who ever believed in me without at least doing my best to live up to their expectations."

Though she'd spoken to Utako, she glanced at Masumi as she finished her speech. He was smiling faintly, completely unconcerned as he popped a bell pepper in his mouth.

Any minute now, she thought, her eyes narrowing, he'll say something mean, like "What a confident attitude you have, shorty!" I just know it!

Yet her suspicions went unconfirmed; Masumi said nothing, not even seeming to notice that she was staring at him. Instead, it was Michie who spoke:

"That's a good way to look at things. No one can predict the outcome of this battle, I think, not even the president of Daito. Or what do you say, Masumi: do you think Maya'll make it?"

Masumi was caught as much off guard by the question as Maya, but unlike her, he knew how to hide his weaknesses.

"Who knows?" he said, shrugging in an appallingly casual manner. "All I know is that it doesn't pay to underestimate shorty."

While his delivery certainly did raise Maya's hackles, what bothered her most was the limpid praise. True, when he was his usual self with her, she felt like strangling him every other minute, but this spiritless, ambiguous version of him made her gnash her teeth. She felt like kicking his leg under the table, to see if it would jumpstart him into his customary easygoing rudeness. The only thing that stopped her from doing just that was Utako and Michie's presence (and the knowledge that such as ridiculous action would only give birth to embarrassing consequences).

"I've noticed that you've got a strange habit, Masumi," Utako remarked. "You keep on calling Maya 'shorty', even though she's of average height and far too old for such nicknames."

"Do I?" Masumi said, deceivingly innocent. "I hardly even notice it anymore." Liar! resounded in Maya's mind. "Well, I've known her since she was a genuine shorty, and she's hardly changed since then, other than gaining a few inches or so. I see no need to change the way I address her."

Maya nearly sighed with relief: here was the flippant teasing she'd grown accustomed to.

"I've changed a lot since we first met!" she said, trying to hide how pleased she was with Masumi's return to normalcy (well, his kind of normalcy, at least). "I'm not short anymore, and I'm already eighteen. Your insult has become invalid, Mr Hayami."

"First of all," Masumi said, his smile growing genuine with amusement, "from my viewpoint, you're still short, and will always be short, as you've probably stopped growing by now. Second of all, you're not labelled as a shorty by me because of your height or age, but because of your personality."

"Personality? What do you mean?"

"To me, a 'shorty' has come to mean 'a person who's stubborn, whimsical, clumsy and rude (as well as short from my point of view)'. Now tell me, shorty: was there any point in time, from the moment of your birth to this minute, when you ever stopped being that kind of person?"

Maya grimaced, wondering how she actually could've missed this argumentative, sarcastic man. Yet she answered him with an ironic smile:

"What can I say? You bring out the worst in me."

Masumi gave an approving nod, as though to say, "Well played". "It's more like I drive out your true self. There's nothing wrong with being stubborn, whimsical, clumsy, rude and short. You should just embrace it."

Maya was fervently trying to find out a genius comeback to that, when Michie burst out:

"I didn't know you two were on such good terms! Well, I guess you'd have to be, with the Crimson Goddess in mind."

As Maya was too stunned to respond to that, Masumi took the chance to mislead everyone even further:

"Shorty and I have always had a sort of natural connection, as we're each other's complete opposites. She interests me with her mysterious, whimsical ways, while I confound her with my cold-blooded wit."

"T-that's not it at all!" Maya protested. "It's just that he keeps on teasing me, and I don't know how to respond to such ridiculous behaviour!"

Judging from Utako and Michie's expression, they didn't know how to respond to this newfound side of Masumi's either.

"It's a bit surprising," Utako said, "to see you tease a young girl, Masumi. I always thought you were such a serious man. I've never heard you tease anyone like this before."

Maya found Utako's assessment of Masumi to be far more surprising than the man himself. Masumi Hayami, who was always chiding her, giving her ridiculous nicknames and laughing at her chagrin, a serious, humourless person? She would've been hard pressed to even manage to imagine it, if she hadn't seen him a few minutes ago, when he said little and smiled even less.

Is that how he is normally? she thought. No, that can't be, can it? Why would he act so differently with me? I'm just a candidate for the Crimson Goddess to him…

"Shorty has an interesting influence on me," Masumi said, intriguing Maya. "Her clueless disposition triggers my inner schoolyard bully."

It's partly true, he thought, watching Maya munch at her seasoned vegetables with a vengeance, obviously not satisfied with his answer. Though it might be more apt to say that she triggers my inner pigtail puller…

Thankfully, the conversation returned to the subject of theatre, sparing Masumi from having to make any more disparaging remarks about Maya. The first course arrived when they were talking about how people were becoming braver when it came to experimenting with Shakespeare, so that a greater part of the modern audience could enjoy his works.

Maya critically inspected her pasta with primavera sauce, finding it to be more than adequate as she took her first bite. She regretted the fact that the portion was so small, but comforted herself with the fact that it was to be followed by grilled fish and potatoes.

"Did you happen to see 'Juliet', Maya?" Michie said. "It was one of the best Shakespeare adaptations I've ever seen, I must admit."

Masumi pinched his eyes shut, nearly groaning with exasperation. To think, that there was always at least one person who was tactless enough to mention a supremely sensitive topic to Maya, without even realizing how much of an impact it would have on her. While he himself infuriated her at every turn, he was sensible enough to keep his mouth shut about the success of her rival's play (when he didn't have to goad her into doing something about it).

"Um, I did," Maya said, hiding her discomfort behind a smile. "Ayumi was really amazing. The way she spoke and moved… it was really graceful."

"Her strength as always been technique," Utako said, touching Maya's hand, as she realized how tough the subject was on her. "She's a perfectionist; she'll work harder than anyone to give the best performance possible. I can honestly say that she's an amazing actress, and that she'll become even more famous than me. But… there's something that she lacks."

"What do you mean, Utako?"

"… When I acted with her in 'The Miracle Girl', I could perform as a truly magnificent Annie Sullivan. We understood exactly what to do to win the audience over, to perform our roles perfectly. Yet… when I acted with you, Maya," she gave her hand a fond squeeze, "I was in a complete disarray. Half of the time, I played it by ear, doing what I felt Annie Sullivan would do, rather than what I knew she would do. I can't even really remember what I did on stage with you. It was as though I'd become someone else, someone completely different, who didn't care a bit about proper timing or delivery, who only wanted to teach you how to communicate with the world around you. It was a very rewarding experience, and I thank you for it."

"Mrs Himekawa…" Maya was overcome by the heartfelt praise, though Utako had expressed similar sentiments after their first performance together. To be regarded so highly by someone as important and accomplished like Utako would probably never cease to astound her. "I… It was really wonderful to be able to perform with you too, Mrs Himekawa. Oh, and you as well, Mrs Matsuyama! 'The Miracle Girl' was a very important part of my life, and I'm really glad you'd value acting together with me so much."

Disaster averted, Masumi thought, cheered as he turned his attention to his mushroom risotto. This conversation is going to make my hair turn grey, if it keeps going down this vein.

"I do wonder how a Crimson Goddess performed by you would be like, Maya," Michie said, swirling around the wine left in her glass. "For that matter, I'm curious about how Ayumi would go about it as well. I'm rather hoping for another double cast, to tell the truth."

The actresses laughed at the idea (though Maya found it appealing), and were about to move onto another subject when Masumi, speaking voluntarily for the first time since Utako and Michie had arrived, said:

"It would definitely amazing to see shorty here, about as remarkable as roadside grass—no offence—," Maya darkly muttered something that might've been "None taken", "turn into an ethereal goddess on stage, her beauty beyond mortal comparison. That's a draw no man would be able to resist, even if it's just curiosity over how such a miracle could occur. I'm sorry, Utako, but I'll be rooting for her to conquer that role, even if your daughter is much more likely to win."

"One's hard pressed to figure out if you're complimenting or insulting the poor girl, Masumi," Utako said, as chiding as she dared be with the one who was more or less her boss. "Maya's grown up to be quite pretty."

"Maybe she has. I'm not a good judge of that; to me, she'll probably always be the same shorty she was when she was thirteen."

"You know," Maya said, a slight growl to her voice, "I'm right here."

"So you are. How are you enjoying your pasta?"

"I'm enjoying it very much, thank you for asking. Also, thank you for helping me choose it; you've got excellent taste."

"Not at all. It was my pleasure to be of assistance to you."

While their exchange of words might've seemed polite and friendly in transcript, Maya's stormy glare and Masumi's barely concealed mirth served to dispel any civility it might've had in reality. The first course ended uneventfully, as Maya refused to even glance at Masumi and he let her be. He'd decided put a stop to the banter, actually, as Utako and Michie were giving him strange looks. Yet as the second course and the side dish came, delivering an impressive portion of fish and potatoes bathing in butter and herbs, Masumi couldn't help but to say:

"So, are you satisfied with my work as a consultant?"

Maya, who'd stared at her food with wide, expectant eyes, toned down her enthusiasm.

"We'll have to see," she said, her chin raised defiantly as she grabbed her knife and fork.

She partook of the second course with as much poise as she could muster, pronouncing it to be quite delicious.

"What about the potatoes then?"

Maya tasted the propositioned object with the exact same care as she had with the fish, and gave it the same judgment.

"Good. Then I've succeeded in my duty."

This seemed to be all Masumi had left to say to Maya. After that, he hardly turned his head in her direction, speaking with Utako and Michie instead. While she was beginning to feel left out, as they were talking about matters that went straight over her head, she wasn't as distraught as she'd been when Masumi had ignored her during the appetizers. It made her able to properly enjoy her food (which might've been the best she'd ever had) and to think about what she'd learnt about the president.

So, he does treat me differently. Why? Is it because I'm so short, clumsy and rude, he feels he needs to put me in my place, even if it means going against his nature? But he always seems so at ease when he's teasing me… Then again, he always seems so at ease when he's manipulating me, or when he's yelling at me, or when he's making civilised small talk with everyone but me, or when he's telling me I mean nothing at all to him

Maya suddenly wished that her mineral water would turn into wine, as, while zesty and with just the right amount of crispiness, her fish wasn't enough to divert her thoughts from Masumi.

It just doesn't add up! she thought, as she cut up her potatoes with gusto. You can't go around teasing someone for every little thing they do, looking like you're having the time of your life, and then crush all their dreams the next time you see them! It's… it's just not right! And it's always for Daito, as though Daito wasn't making billions even without "The Crimson Goddess"! I hate Daito!

A thought struck her, one that was so distracting she forgot about the piece of potato she'd raised half way to her mouth.

What kind of person would he be if Daito had never existed? She stole a glance at Masumi. Would he be cruel? Would he be kind? How would he treat me? Like any other girl, or would he tease me, exactly like he does now? Would we still have that ridiculous connection he joked about?

Feeling just a mite bit silly, she hurried to consume her neglected food.

I'm an idiot! If Daito didn't exist, I wouldn't even have met him, Tsukikage Theatre wouldn't have disbanded and everyone would've been much better off! Though… I wonder, if we still managed to meet somehow, what kind of man would he have been, without Daito's influence?

Unbeknownst to Maya, Masumi had seen her look at him, but his interpretation of her searching stare was a little bit off the mark:

She's probably thinking, "How much better this world would be without men like him in it"… It's a wonder I've not yielded to the temptation of throwing myself off a cliff, just to see whether she would cry, laugh or even give a damn about my death.

Their grim train of thoughts kept them from seeking out each other's company, and they ended up scarcely exchanging a word. It was actually a fortunate thing, seen from an outsider's point of view, as the conversation flowed better and Maya had lost her look of outrage. Masumi, however, felt it hard not to turn to her with an impudent remark in the style of "Hey, shorty, what do you think about…". He had to bite his tongue so many times, it was aching (in a metaphorical fashion).

It did, however, give him chance to observe how she was in the company of people she actually liked. He found her shyness and respectfulness comedic, knowing that she could explode with the potency of a warehouse of dynamite, should the occasion call for it. He still couldn't understand how such a tiny girl, normally timid and unassertive, could harbour such immense passion and strength.

There's no use trying to understand such great minds, he thought, finishing the last of his wine. Just be glad that it exists.

The second course was punctuated by satisfied sighs, and dessert began with Maya realizing exactly how much younger she was than everyone else in the party. Utako and Michie had decided to split a cheese tray, and cheerfully discussed their favourite cheeses. Masumi had declined dessert altogether, and sat blowing on a cup of unsweetened black coffee. Maya felt like a child with her chocolate pudding, but didn't regret her choice (especially when it turned out to have cookie crumbles in it).

"That pudding looks really delicious," Michie said, a definite note of jealousy in her voice. "Oh, to be a girl with versatile metabolism again."

"What a funny coincidence," Utako said, pointing between Maya's pudding and Masumi's coffee. "Masumi, you just said you were the complete opposite of Maya, and now your desserts confirm it."

"It's more than just the desserts, though," Masumi said, sipping at his coffee. "It's age, height, sex, personality, achievements, careers, wealth, attitude towards life, social standing, dress style and spirit."

"It's rather like ying and yang, isn't it?" Michie said, too preoccupied with cutting off the unappetizing edges of a brie cheese to think of what she was implicating about Masumi (and the nature of his relationship with Maya).

Thankfully, Masumi found the analogy amusing rather than insulting, laughing as he concurred with it:

"That's exactly it! A very apt observation, Michie."

Michie and Utako were so relieved that Masumi didn't take offence, they laughed with him (though they didn't quite get the joke) before returning to their conversation about the virtues of good brie. Maya, who had no interest in cheese, felt compelled to turn to Masumi, eyeing his coffee with distrust. Noticing her attention, as he so often did, he smirked, holding out his cup to her to ease her inspection of it.

"This personifies the bitter truth of adulthood that so many find hard to swallow," he said, biting the inside of his lip when Maya's nose scrunched up at the rich scent emanating from the beverage. "Cheers, shorty."

He took a huge gulp, not even grimacing at what promised to be a tongue-curling taste. Maya straightened in her seat, strangely impressed and disturbed by Masumi's words and actions. Even though she had no intention of doing so just a second before, she asked him, her brow knit:

"Mr Hayami, do you like your work?"

It was a fortunate thing that Masumi had already gotten his fill of coffee for the minute; had he been drinking then, he would've no doubt choked on it.

"Why, shorty," he said, perhaps laying on the joviality a bit thick, "I didn't know pudding made you wax philosophical."

Maya could've been persuaded to abandon her unintentional query, if only Masumi hadn't made it so obvious that he didn't want her to go through with it.

"I mean… I know you're dedicated to your work and all, but do you like it? Does it make you happy?"

Utako and Michie had quieted down over their cheese tray. They, too, wanted to know the president's answer, as he was notorious for never revealing his feelings on any personal matter. They were half-convinced that he would snub Maya, as better men and women than her had tried and failed to extract any vital information from Masumi.

"To be honest, I don't really know," Masumi confessed, startling everyone with his sincerity. "Sometimes, I like it, as it's challenging and interesting. At other times, I tolerate it."

"Tolerate it? What does that mean? Does it mean that you dislike it, mostly?"

"Not quite. I've been raised for this job; should I dislike it, my life would be a pretty dismal thing. It means I endure it, boring meetings and all, without letting my personal feelings interfere with the matter."

"I'm sorry if this sounds rude, but that does sound like a pretty dismal life."

"No need to apologise. Such biting truthfulness is what I've come to expect of you, shorty." His smile gained an awkward shape for a second, before he said, "Alright, I'll be honest with you: there are times when I'd like nothing more than to escape to some out-of-the-way island, where the height of entertainment is the radio. But I can't. I've got responsibilities, and besides, I want to see how it all pans out."

"How what pans out?"

"'The Crimson Goddess', of course! Do you really think they'll announce the successor to it on the Caribbean airwaves? I would live forever in uncertainty, wondering, 'Did that shorty make a miraculous recovery, or did the likeliest candidate win after all?' It'll be like a fairytale come true if you even manage to fulfil your promise to reach Ayumi's status in two years; it would be the stuff of legend, should you surpass her for the Goddess. How could I possibly stay away from such excitement?"

"You could try," Maya said through her teeth, viciously attacking her pudding. I knew it! It's useless asking him anything! He just jokes it off, or he turns it into an insult, or worse yet, he does both! Hateful man!

"You did ask, shorty," Masumi said, nonchalantly taking another sip of his bitter coffee. I can't believe I managed to turn that around. Thank god I've practically made it my profession to tick Maya off.

An observant outsider would've noticed that Maya and Masumi seemed to have established a routine: they would chat for a few minutes at the beginning of every course, often at Masumi's initiative, only to mutually ignore each other at the end of it. They seemed unused towards being so long in the presence of the other; they'd adapted the length of their conversations to last for five minutes on average. At the end of those five minutes, Maya was either too confused or angry to wish to continue speaking, while Masumi would consider his work done and leave it up to someone else to entertain her.

Dessert was no different. Maya, hurt by Masumi's insinuations about how improbable her goal was, tried to engage herself in her former co-stars' current interest (and found that cheese was a far more involved and complicated subject than she would've guessed). Masumi, meanwhile, made no effort to join the conversation, sinking into what seemed to be a deep, caffeine-fuelled reverie. He didn't emerge from it before the others received their coffee, and Michie said:

"Masumi, seeing you so deep in thought reminds me of something I meant to ask when I first arrived. Maya's presence made me forget all about it."

Masumi arrived out of his thoughts just in time to see Maya taking the first sip out of her sweet, milky coffee, and had to shield the smile Maya's delighted expression brought on behind his hand.

"What's on your mind, Michie?" he asked as his mirth passed.

"It's nothing really, just a silly, but rather interesting, rumour I happened to overhear among the office ladies at Daito. They say that you're in love, Masumi."

While Michie hadn't expected him to roar with laughter at the absurd titbit, the sober reactions it gave birth to made her wish she hadn't mentioned it at all:

"Eh/What?" Maya and Masumi spoke in unison, showing twin expressions of surprise and alarm.

Maya touched her fingers to her lips, blushing as she gazed down into her coffee. Why… What did I just do?

Though he found her bewildered state inappropriately appealing, Masumi focused his energy on replying to the unexpected accusation:

"I haven't heard of this particular rumour, and I think I know why. There's absolutely no basis to it."

"Really?" Michie said, valiantly deciding to carry her choice of topic through to the finish. "They say that you've been seen daydreaming quite a lot lately, and that you've become increasingly friendly."

"Those are classical symptoms of infatuation," Utako said, seeing that Michie needed some support (and the novelty of teasing Masumi Hayami was too tempting to resist). "I, too, have heard, from reliable sources, that you've become known to utter forlorn sighs at odd times. What's the cause of these sighs, if not love?"

"I assure you all," Don't look at her, "there's no stock in this rumour." Don't look at her. "85% of my time is taken up by work," No, you still can't look at her, "so any chance for romance, no less romance of the passionate, heaving chest kind that seems to have been prescribed to me, would be slim to none." Okay, fine, now that you've made this clear, you may look at her.

Masumi did as his mind instructed, and took in Maya's expression of disbelief with relief (and a bit of frustration). He'd been afraid she'd connect the rumour that "love' had made him gentler with the fact that he'd told her that her influence made him kinder. He saw that his paranoia was unfounded; Maya, while one of the most admirable people currently residing in Japan (at least in his biased opinion), wasn't good at analysing the motives of others. She tended to take people's words and attitudes at face value, which was probably why she hardly ever questioned his conduct towards her.

"It would be a poor woman indeed," he said, "that would allow herself to be wooed under such circumstances. A workaholic like me would be a sorry excuse for a husband."

"Oh, I don't know," Michie chimed in. "I married a workaholic myself, and in my experience, such men tend to value their other half a lot. They really know what it's like to be alone, how desperately unhappy it can make you, so they treasure love more than others would."

"I guess I'm simply of a different breed," Masumi said, not wanting to admit that her description was spot on. "My work's so exciting right now, it serves to invigorate rather than deplete from me."

"I forgot," Utako said, "you can't judge Masumi Hayami by mortal standards. I know you must be sick of the question, but is there nothing that will touch your heart?"

"Probably, that mythical object does exist. I've yet to see the slightest inkling of it, though."

Masumi rewarded his success in squashing the rumour with a glance at Maya's face. He was sure the conversation would've held no interest to her, and that she would pay more heed to her coffee than to him. When he found himself staring right into Maya's brown eyes, he felt as though his soul had jumped clear out of his body.

They both snapped their heads away a second after the accidental eye contact, yet Masumi had a very clear impression of Maya's expression. Her eyes had been narrowed, her head tilted inquisitively, and she'd been pouting slightly. When he'd caught her looking, her eyes had widened, her lips parting, colour immediately stealing into her cheeks. Masumi was feeling a little flushed himself, though he knew Maya would be concentrated on finding out why she'd been staring at him, rather than why he'd turned to her with little to no cause.

Bloody hell, he thought, gulping down the last of his now-cold coffee, am I actually blushing over making eye contact with a girl? At my age?

Maya was going through a similar sort of crisis: What did I just do? Did I just stare at him, yet again, and did he just notice me staring? He always seems to know when I'm looking at him, like he's got some sixth sense for it or something! That's so annoying! I was just wondering if it was even possible for a workhorse like him to fall in love, and what kind of woman would ever be able to put up with him! There was nothing flattering about it at all!

"Maya," she heard Utako say, "are you alright?"

"W-w-yes, I am!" Maya stammered, disproving her point. "Why do you ask?"

"Nothing really," Utako said, raising an eyebrow, "it's just that you finished your coffee in three gulps, and after that, you've been grimacing in what seems to be pain."

"I'm fine," Maya chirped, trying to smile and only marginally succeeding. "I… I just happened to think of something really embarrassing. I'm fine now."

"If you say so." Utako beckoned Maya over, and murmured to her, "It's not indigestion, is it?"

"N-no, nothing like that!"

Maya was so nonplussed, she boldly glared at Masumi, convinced he'd be chuckling behind his hand, as was his habit when she did something stupid. Her anger faded when she saw that laughter was the furthest thing from Masumi's mind. She'd never seen him wear such a blank, pensive mask before.

Strange… What's he thinking about, looking so serious? It… it couldn't be true, could it? No, no way; it's likelier for pigs to fly than for Hayami to fall in love.

Yet that supposed impossibility was reality, and it was love that made Masumi retreat behind the thoughtful expression: I didn't realize I was being so obvious… I just thought everyone would assume that I was finally cracking under the pressure… Thank god shorty is clueless. Otherwise, I might've been in real trouble.

Masumi thought that this was a good place to end the dinner, lest he'd be forced to avert yet another disaster concerning his personal life. He signalled for the check, and insisted to pay for the whole dinner, as it had been his idea in the first place. After a minute or so of protests, the actresses gave in, allowing Masumi to pay for their share as well. Even after paying for four people's dinner, as well as adding a handsome tip, Masumi's wallet was in no danger of becoming empty. Maya felt a sting of jealousy, as she'd always had to watch what she spent, but thought that she'd rather be poor than do what Masumi did for a living.

"Ah," Michie sighed, as they rose from their chairs and collected their coats, "I haven't felt so satisfied in a long time. Good food, good company, some long overdue catching up. I do hope your play does well, Maya."

"Yes," Utako agreed, "it's so good to hear that you've truly returned to acting."

"Thank you, I'm glad as well. I'll definitely watch your show when it airs, Mrs Himekawa, Mrs Matsuyama."

Sentiments of a similar nature were expressed all the way down to the entrance, where a taxi was waiting for Utako and Michie, together with a car of considerable worth that Maya instantly recognised as Masumi's.

Utako and Michie said goodbye to Maya by kissing her on the cheek, while Masumi had to settle for chaste hugs.

"Be nice to Maya on the way home, Masumi!" Utako called out, just before she got into the taxi.

"I will," Masumi said (pretty sure he was making a promise he'd be unable to keep).

"Wh-wait," Maya said, glancing from Masumi to Utako, "I never agreed to—"

"Just smile and wave, shorty."

Not wanting to cause a scene in front of her former colleagues, she did just that, though her grin was a bit wriggly at the edges. When the taxi had disappeared into the distance, she turned to Masumi with the intention of making it amply clear just what she felt about being escorted by him. His appearance in that moment stopped her dead, wiping the confrontational frown from her lips.

With a faint, gentle smile that reached his eyes, he tilted his head, his voice, usually so refined and clear, soft and low as he told her:

"Let me drive you home."

"I… I don't know," Maya mumbled, casting down her gaze. "I don't want to be a bother."

"You'd be a far greater bother to me if you went out alone into the great wide world. You're good company, shorty. You'll be doing me another favour if you come with me."

Despite the praise, or perhaps because of it, Maya hesitated. She'd already spent over an hour together with Masumi, which was usually far more than she could tolerate. Yet her dislike of him had been quelled, rather than incensed, by the prolonged association.

"Oh, alright," she found herself answering, before she'd properly sorted her thoughts out. "B-but just because I don't want to waste money on a train ticket."

"Oof," Masumi said, clutching his chest in jest, "your frankness goes straight to the heart, as usual."

Pleased and victorious, Masumi opened the car door for her, politely letting her take her time in seating herself comfortably before he followed suit.

"Where to, sir?" the chauffeur said, his baffled expression reflected in the rear-view mirror. Masumi only took other passengers if work required him to do so. The chauffeur easily deduced, from Maya's general appearance and her habit of staring at his boss as though he was a strange, possibly dangerous animal, that they didn't share a professional relationship.

"Hmmm, I'm not quite sure," Masumi said, tapping his lip. "Shorty, where was it you lived again? Derelict Drive or Ramshackle Road?"

Both Maya and the chauffeur started, but only Maya cried out in anger:

"I knew I shouldn't have gone with you! If it's not my height, my helplessness or my stupidity, then you pick on me because I'm poor! I'm getting out! How do you open these damn doors?"

"I apologise most fervently for my untactful remark," Masumi said, his smooth voice occasionally cracking with laughter as he drew Maya away from the car door. "I'm a man of many weaknesses, and I'm sorry for inflicting them on you. Please, forgive me."

Maya subsided, but crossed her arms to show that she was far from content. Making sure that there was no immediate danger of Maya storming out, Masumi turned his attention to the driver.

"Drive to Tsukikage's old house. You know where it is, right?"

"Y-yes, sir," the chauffeur said, starting the car. He'd heard rumours that Masumi had been seen laughing and talking amiably with a young, unidentified girl, but he'd always thought that the girl in question had been some beautiful, as of yet unknown starlet. To see the proud vice-president tease an utterly normal-looking girl with something akin to boyish enthusiasm was… unprecedented, actually.

As the car drove out into traffic, Maya and Masumi were facing different directions, trying to compose themselves.

"Shorty," Masumi finally said, "you've been an extraordinarily good sport today. Disaster after disaster, yet you kept at it like a true trooper."

"I just really wanted to meet with Mrs Himekawa," Maya said, still staring out the window. "That's all."

Some of Masumi's mirth faded at that. He'd almost managed to forget that Maya cared for him as much as she cared for rotten fish.

"Still," he said, "you've shown an impressive amount of endurance. But of course, I should expect nothing less from you. Enduring damning difficulties seems to be your specialty."

"Hm," Maya said, still not looking at him, as some heat had stolen into her cheeks.

Masumi unconsciously shifted his body towards Maya, slowly breathing in and out.

"Shorty," he said, "I'd like to apologize."

"For what?" Maya muttered, unaware of the change in Masumi's body language, as his voice betrayed nothing.

"Well, for a lot of things, actually. But most pressingly, I want to say I'm sorry for driving you to distraction with little in mind but my own amusement. I don't always mean to make you mad, but it just seems to have become the way we communicate."

Maya inclined her head in his direction, eyeing him suspiciously.

"Do you mean it?" she asked. "You're not just saying something to try and smooth things over?"

"Do I have any reason to lie to you about this? I promise you, no one regrets having to act in such an infantile manner concerning you more than me. I have a reputation to uphold; bickering with a girl nearly half my age rather counteracts it."

"Then why do you keep on doing it? And why do you only treat me like that? What did I ever do to you?"

Masumi narrowly avoided grimacing at Maya's eagerness to confront him about his dubious behaviour. There was a simple way to resolve all her doubts: he could tell her he'd loved her since she was thirteen, that the memory of her thanking him after "The Yasha-Hime Story" was one of the happiest he'd ever had. Let's not dig our own grave, alright? was the thought that put a close on that possible solution.

"I don't do it out of ill will," he said. "It's just that I've never met anyone as stubborn and whimsical as you before. I haven't learnt how to deal with you yet."

"Oh, really?" Maya rolled her eyes before glaring at him. "You're having difficulties dealing with me? Well, it's mutual! When you're not teasing me, you're harassing me, and when you're not harassing me, you're taking me home in your car! It's… it's annoying!"

"What can I say, shorty? I'm a man of mystery."

"You could at least try being straightforward, you know. Would that be so hard?"

"For a man of mystery, yes, it would be hard…"

"Bother you! It's impossible to talk to you for more than five minutes!"

"Really? I thought you were doing rather well. Just keep at it for a bit longer."

"No, thank you so very much. I've had quite enough of you."

To illustrate her point, she turned completely from him, pointedly glowering at the blurry scenery outside the window. She bared her teeth as Masumi undermined her point by uttering a loud guffaw.

"Of course, that's your choice," he said, putting his arm up onto the edge of the car seat. "But I warn you: without your improving influence, and with me as its sole enforcer, the conversation is bound to become absurd and embarrassing. For instance, shorty, do you remember the time you went on stage, for the first time, I might add, with a 40-degree fever? Quite a way to make a debut."

Maya swivelled around (nearly slipping out of the seat entirely) with a squeak. "W-who told you that? I never told anyone!"

"Hm?" Masumi looked at Maya as though he'd just realized that she was still there. "Who told me what?"

"About the fever!" Maya ground out. Exasperating, hateful man!

"Oh, that!" Masumi made a great show of thinking it through by rubbing his chin, his expression that of someone deeply immersed in trying to figure out a complex conundrum.

His playacting, which had half-fooled Maya, culminated into this sentence (which was accompanied with an irritating shrug):

"Can't remember. Probably wasn't anyone important, anyway."

"You're horrible!" Maya shrieked, and, not being able to contain herself, she punched Masumi's arm. "I'm never speaking to you again!"

"I did warn you!" Masumi laughed, rubbing his arm with an exaggerated wince. "I think you're taking the wrong approach in dealing with the problem, because now I'm forced to share the delightful anecdote about when you stormed into the principal's office at Hitotsuboshi, demanded to see me, and got your skirt caught in the door when you—"

"Oh, fine!" Maya cried, so eager to shut him up, she grabbed hold of his shoulder. "I'll talk to you!"

"Alright, shorty," Masumi said, appallingly poised, as though he hadn't just goaded her into a hissy fit. "If you're that passionate about it, we'll talk. What about?"

Maya's fingers tightened around Masumi's shoulder. Infuriating, manipulative bastard!

"How about we talk about why you're such a jerk?" she said, her artificially sweet tone matched by an equally unnatural grin.

"That's a popular subject," Masumi said, his congenial expression genuine. "Well, there's the fact that I was raised by a father who was emotionally nonexistent, or the fact that I make a living by using people as merchandise. Take your pick."

"I think you're just a jerk by nature. Even if Daito didn't exist, you'd still find some reason to come and irritate me."

"So no matter the circumstances, you think we were fated to meet? That's touching, shorty."

"T-that's not what I meant…" She retreated, snatching her hand away from Masumi. "I just meant… you know…"

"Relax, shorty. Remember: this isn't a date."

"Ah!" Maya's lips parted, before they turned up into a grin. "Of course it isn't. I'm sorry, I keep forgetting that you only see me as a thirteen-year-old shorty."

While it stung considerably, having to see Maya become so relieved at thinking that his feelings for her were purely platonic, Masumi was glad that her temper had cooled. It was fun to incite her, in an utterly childish way, to have her attention all to himself, but he was beginning to recognise the ill effects it had on their interactions in the long run. Besides, the chauffeur was having difficulties, torn between focusing on the road and listening in on the bizarre conversation conducted in the back seat.

"So, changing the subject altogether," Masumi said, "how are you and your friends faring? No overdue rent payments, I should hope?"

"Certainly not," Maya said, nettled that he should assume there would be. "Everyone's working, and Rei receives a lot of tips from the café. The underground theatre brought in a lot of money, as well."

"Good. You're all getting along? No squabbles about stolen snacks or anything?"

"Of course not! What exactly do you think about us, believing we'd argue about something as insignificant as snacks?"

"Seeing as I've only ever talked to you, I think nothing about you as a group. I'm merely collecting information, shorty. No need to become mortally offended on your friends' behalf."

"I wouldn't become offended if you didn't jump to the most insulting conclusion. We might be poor, but we're not freeloaders, and we're quite comfortable with each other."

"Rather than me, it seems that you're the one who's prone to jump the gun. But no matter. I'm glad that you and your friends are happy and financially secure. So, could you please stop scowling at me?"

"Sorry." Maya turned her eyes onto her lap instead. "It's become a reflex."

"It's alright," Masumi said, "I don't mind. It's rather adorable, actually."

Masumi was fairly certain that he hadn't grown a second head, yet Maya was staring at him as though he had. It was satisfying to see that she was blushing; it meant that he might have some success in convincing her that he didn't see her as a little girl later on.

"Like watching a cute puppy yapping at its own shadow," he said, taking an almost perverse pleasure in uttering each word, watching Maya's expression shift from one of surprise to one of outrage.

"That damn puppy analogy again!" she shouted, waving her fist, barely managing to restrain her instinct to inflict violence on the smirking vice-president. "You promised never to call me that again!"

"Calm down, shorty!" Masumi chuckled, raising his hands in a pacifying gesture. "Let an old man indulge himself in his eccentricities! Besides, I didn't call you 'puppy', I merely likened you to one. You seem to have some grudge against them, though I can't see why. Puppies are cute and harmless though they tend to bite; you are cute and harmless though you tend to bite. What is it that makes you hate them, when you're so alike?"

"You… you… Oh!" Maya sputtered, so angry at herself for rising to Masumi's bait that her eyes flashed.

A discreet cough jarred the two out of their battle, and they turned as one towards the chauffeur. Only then did they notice that the vehicle had come to a stop.

"We've reached Tsukikage's old house," the chauffeur needlessly announced, glancing nervously at the quarrelling pair.

"Thank god!" Masumi exclaimed, laughing heartily. "I thought I was going to end up murdered in the backseat of my own car!"

With an indignant huff, Maya launched herself at the car door, succeeding in getting it open on her third try. She was on her feet shortly afterwards, but was prevented from sprinting to her apartment by a hand closing around her wrist.

"What?" she cried, stumbling back to let Masumi out of the car. "You just never quit, do you?"

Masumi unfolded his full height over Maya, leaning back against the car, still clutching her wrist.

"When it comes to business, no," he said. "Shorty, do you remember the transaction that occurred between us some hour ago?"

"Transaction? Eh? I don't…" Her eyes widened, her voice trembling as she said, "You're not talking about that stupid coin, are you?"

"That I am," Masumi confirmed, nodding solemnly. "I borrowed money from you, and I intend to treat this loan as I would any other."

"That's fine," Maya insisted, tugging at her entrapped hand, "you don't have to. I didn't expect you to pay me back in the first place."

"I'm not going to take advantage of a young girl's kindness, and you shouldn't let me. It'll be quite a while before I'll have the time to pay you back, so to make sure neither of us forget, I'll leave a security with you."

"A what?"

"A security. I'll give you an item that's of equal or most probably of greater value, to show you that I'm in earnest about repaying my debt."

"This is so stupid! I have thousands of coins, I don't care—"

"But I do. Let's see," he let Maya go, sure that he had her too befuddled and interested to try attempt any escape, "what do I have that's worth over 100 yen…? Ah! How about this?"

He pointed at his tie pin, a surprisingly tasteful ornament made out of solid gold.

"Are you crazy? I don't want to have to take care of that! I'd never be able to pay you back if I lost it!"

"Something a bit larger and less valuable, then? How about the tie itself?"

Before she could tell him, yet again, that none of this was necessary, he'd unfastened the tie from the pin, and was untying its knot around his throat. It was coloured a rich, sophisticated shade of green, and Maya felt that it had a very nice texture when it was placed in her hands.

"There," he said, rubbing his throat, placing the tie pin in his pocket. "If I fail to repay you within in a month, you're free to reimburse your losses by pawning that tie. Any complaints?"

"A, a lot, actually!" Maya said, but her statement lacked fire. She was too astounded to give her voice the strength it needed. "This is really ridiculous, you do know that, right?"

"I'm well aware of it," Masumi confessed, smiling all the while. "But it'll serve as a reminder for me to come check on your progress again. And your face right now is absolutely priceless."

I knew it! Maya thought, checking her expression. He never does anything without a self-serving motive!

"Very well," she said, not bothering to hide her dismay, rolling up the tie. "Can you remember a time when you weren't manipulative and cunning?"

"I was planning hostile takeovers while learning how to crawl," Masumi answered, his smile expanding. "I've had a good time, shorty."

Maya blinked, taken aback by the sudden change in subject. She looked up again, a bit apprehensive, and sure enough, there was that damn tender smile again. Anger just couldn't survive when faced with that smile, which Maya thought was an unfair advantage, as she had every right to be mad and had planned to release her fury in a most glorious manner. She tried to summon up her former feelings again, but to no avail.

He should wear a muzzle, she thought bitterly. "Um, I had a good time, too… well, mostly."

The smile, which had been dangerous before, became deadly when Masumi parted his lips, showing off his teeth. She hadn't seen him smile with such dazzling sincerity since he brought her back home after "The Yasha-Hime Story". For whatever reason, that smile had stuck to her memory as one of the most intriguing incidents of her life.

"Then," he held his hand out to her, "thank you for putting up with me, and goodbye for now."

Maya inspected Masumi's hand thoroughly before giving him permission to take hers in his possession.

"Y-yes," she said, as they shook hands, "um, thank you for inviting me… Goodbye."

The strange intimacy of the situation, enforced by the red glow on Maya's cheek, rendered Masumi unable to resist a rather unwise impulse. As he bent down, edging into the car, he kept Maya's hand in his, waiting until she was about to open her mouth to protest before he pressed the back of her hand to his forehead.

"Take good care of my tie, shorty," was the last thing he said to her before he closed the car door, driving away while she was still trying to understand what had just transpired.

Maya was still for a moment, watching the car disappear in the distance, before walking to her apartment building, a trifle unsteady on her feet. She opened the door, and found her friends waiting for her in the hall, all of them casually inclined against something (which instantly told Maya that they'd been spying on her and Masumi).

"Oh, Maya!" Rei said, hurrying over to her from her seat on the stairs. "Welcome back! Did you have a good time?"

Mina, Taiko and Sayaka followed her lead, surrounding Maya, their worried expressions and careful greetings making the actress sure that they'd seen her shouting at Masumi. She surprised them all by smiling serenely at their concern.

"Yes, I did," she said. "The food was really good, and it was nice talking to Mrs Himekawa and Mrs Matsuyama. They were really enthusiastic about 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'."

"And… and Hayami?"

An unsettling gleam entered Maya's eyes. Her friends unconsciously took a step back, but Sayaka, burning with curiosity, couldn't resist asking:

"W-why did he give you his tie?"

The normally silent, dusty atmosphere of the building changed to match the suppressed fury emanating from Maya.

"For security," Maya said, her hands trembling noticeably. "Excuse me, but I'm a bit tired. I think I need to lie down for a bit."

"But of course!" was the general consensus, and her friends jumped out of her way as she clambered up the stairs and into her and Rei's room. She flopped down onto her futon, her breathing rapid as she stared up at the scarred ceiling. After a while of quiet meditation, which had only served to increase her blood flow, Maya grabbed her pillow and, after a moment of thought, borrowed Rei's as well. She pushed them both down firmly onto her face, and let out the loudest, longest and angriest scream of her entire life. The scream was quietly enforced by vengeful schemes concerning the utter humiliation of Masumi Hayami at her hands.

She emerged from under the pillows, feeling satisfied and short of breath. She sat up, relieved to see that none of her friends had deemed it safe to follow her and so witness this embarrassing tantrum. Letting out a heavy sigh, she heaved herself up on her feet, brushing through her disarrayed hair with her fingers. This action brought her attention back to the tie that had been entrusted to her. She scowled at it, bearing it the same amount of good will she bore towards Masumi (meaning none). She put aside her personal feelings, however, and neatly placed the tie in the topmost drawer of her desk.

She indulged herself in thinking of how much she could get for it if she did pawn it, as it was probably worth more than her entire outfit. But fine; if Masumi wanted to challenge her, then she'd do whatever in her power to defeat him (or at least to tie with him). When he came to reclaim his accessory, she'd make sure it was in prime condition, and then she'd regale him with tales of her immense success in portraying Puck. While she wanted to see him slink away, a crushed and defeated man, she could settle for making him nod in grudging approval, saying, "Well done". The mere thought of it made her fired up and determined to do her best.

Unaware of the fact that she was smiling, she skipped out into the hallway again to tell her friends about the eventful dinner.


While Maya was sharing all the gory details of the meeting with Daito's vice-president with her fellow thespians, Masumi was ordering his chauffeur to stay silent about all that he'd seen, on account of the devastating effect it would have on his reputation. He needn't have made the request; the chauffeur would've had a hard enough time finding an audience who would believe a single word of his story, and even with a willing listener, he wouldn't have dared speak about his master in such a manner.

Masumi leaned his elbow against the window, his fingers splayed across his face. He was smiling to himself, daydreaming about how Maya would act when he came to repay his debt. He could picture it exactly: she would return the tie in perfect condition, her chin raised proudly, and when he'd ask her how her career was going, she would bombard him with stories of her wonderful progress in understanding Puck. He could even see her triumphant expression as he was forced to acknowledge her talent with a slight nod and a word of lukewarm praise.

A trace of pain showed on Masumi's face, his forehead creased and his lips twisted into a melancholy, self-deprecating smirk.

I'm such a fool… he thought, touching his throat gingerly. To rely on such a flimsy, brittle thread to connect us… To act like a love-struck bully just to make her talk to me… Idiocy is part of my nature, I suppose.

But being a fool in love did have its perks; the mere thought of Maya, so full of life and so expressive, served to ease his mind about his own failings. He was practically chipper as he removed his hand from his face, sitting up straight and resolute. He made the chauffeur jump, nearly swerving off the road, as he let out a laugh, thinking:

Well, let's look at it this way: at least it's a way to kill time.