A/N: Edited by the thunderously competent prettyinpinkgal.
Man, this instalment kind of kicked my ass. I can do banter and psychoanalysis (I'd like to think so, at least), but when it comes to actual emotional interaction, I sort of go, "Frtzz—Does Not Compute—What Is This Thing You Call 'Love'?". I try my best to make up for this weakness, but, uh, it's gonna take some trial and error.
... Wow. You're in really bad hands, dear readers.
"... and then, completely out of the blue, he just pulled my braid!"
Maya spoke this with such indignation and affront, her friends laughed, Mina gasping:
"No, he didn't!"
"He did! He just said, 'Let's go, shorty,' and then he just grabbed it and pulled, without even meaning to! His instinct to bully others is set so deep, he does it subconsciously."
Let's reiterate: Due to a debt of minimal proportion, Masumi came to the park where Maya and her friends were rehearsing "A Midsummer Night's Dream". Thanks to a quirk of fate, Maya ended up eating dinner with Masumi. Apparently, the dinner had been very eventful, as it was all Maya had talked about since coming home.
Mina, Taiko and Sayaka, who weren't exactly Masumi's biggest fans, had been apprehensive about having to hear Maya wax enthusiastic about her evening with him. Upon finding that Maya didn't have one good thing to say about the vice-president, other than his Onodera joke, they relaxed, and joined her in mocking him.
"So what did you do?" Sayaka inquired. She was particularly pleased of Maya's antagonistic behaviour towards Masumi, as she'd been worried that her friend would've let him step all over her.
"I fully intended to smack him," Maya said, "but then he did this ridiculously showy surrender, saying that he was 'offering me his jugular', or something like that."
"That's dirty!" Taiko cried. "I hope you smacked him anyway!"
"I couldn't, could I?" Maya sighed forlornly. "It would've looked spiteful. But I did chide him for being such a dramatic ass, but then, he just got worse."
"How could he possibly have gotten worse?"
"Oh," Maya moaned, hiding her face in her hands, "but it was so embarrassing! He started spouting semi-poetic drivel, like, what was it now, 'To suffer the slings and arrows that spew from those perfect lips! That such inviting kissing cherries would drip with fatal venom, such beautiful eyes blaze with hatred!' They could hear him all over the restaurant! There should be a limit to how mean you can be!"
Her friends glanced at each other, no one quite sure whether or not to tell her that that wasn't quite as mean as it was incredibly flirtatious. They couldn't bring themselves to do it, as they weren't convinced that Masumi wouldn't serenade someone just to make them livid.
"It's weird, isn't it," Maya continued, blind to the wordless communication going on amongst her friends, "that there aren't more rumours about him harassing the poor office ladies at Daito, or going off to frolic with young, impressionable actresses?"
Maya conveniently forgot that she herself was a young, impressionable actress, but Rei and the others politely refrained from mentioning it.
"I'm not sure about that," Taiko said. "The rumours seem to indicate to opposite, actually. They say he doesn't even look at beautiful women unless they're introduced to him."
"That has to be a lie!" Maya protested vehemently. "I bet he just waits until the press is gone, and then he sneaks off with the prettiest girl he can get behind a curtain. He's definitely a playboy!"
Her fellow actresses felt they wanted to contest the point, as it went against all they knew about Masumi, but as Maya knew of him through actual interaction, and not just hearsay, they acknowledged that her intelligence on the matter was greater than theirs.
"It's so annoying," Maya huffed, "that people should look up to him so much, when he's just like any other pervert! Just because he has a decent face and acts all regal out in public. Ah, that reminds me: when we walked to his car, we saw the tent where Akane Mogami was celebrating her wedding party. Rather than enjoying the general ambience, he starts telling me about how, a year ago, Mogami gave him the key to her hotel room to 'show her gratitude'."
This made her friends do a collective double take, Sayaka exclaiming:
"No way! That Akane Mogami? The one who always gets to play the suffering Cinderella type of character?"
"I know! I was surprised as well! But it gets worse: rather than going to decline her offer himself, he was so busy with work, he sent his assistant to return the key!"
No female could help but to feel sympathy for the victim of such a obvious slight, and the room abounded with such curses as "What a jerk!", "He's such an utter moron!" and "I can't believe what an emotionally stunted bastard he is!". Even Rei felt obliged to join in with a "What a complete churl!".
"But he's always like that," Maya mused. "It's like he's wired backwards, dismissing the people who like him, and bothering those who want nothing to do with him."
"Well," Rei spoke, "look at the people around him. All of them are related to his work, so to them, he's probably just a great big status symbol. If you win his friendship or companionship, your career is guaranteed to go smoothly. I think he likes you because you tell him exactly what you think of him."
Maya blinked; she hadn't thought about it that way. Of course, Masumi had told her more or less the same thing, but it sounded much more convincing coming from Rei.
"Be that as it may," Sayaka said, shooting a glare at Rei (frowning as it was received with a big smile), "that doesn't mean he can go around bothering Maya however he wishes. If he wanted true friends, he should've chosen another career."
"Mmm," Maya said, her former heat evaporating, "he did say he had a few close friends. But he also told me, back when I was in Daito, that I should give up you guys, and become friends with people who could help further my career. He probably follows that himself. But..." she rubbed the fabric of her dress between her fingers, tilting her head, "but that's really lonely, isn't it? I remember that when I wasn't allowed to see you, I felt so isolated, so alone. I only had to endure that for a year or so; he's had it like that nearly all his life."
Mina, Taiko and Sayaka shifted uncomfortably in their seats around the kitchen table. They had always dehumanised Masumi, their image of him being a money grubbing, scheming bastard. It felt a bit strange, thinking of him as a lonely playboy.
"But you know," Maya continued, rousing herself with a head shake, "that's his fault. If he just treated everyone else like he treats me, I'm sure a lot more people would tell him to take a hike. You'd be able to count the amount of actresses that would give him the key to their hotel room on one hand, if he kept at them like he kept at me. Giving them stupid nicknames, mercilessly recounting every embarrassing thing they've ever done, commenting on their eating habits, social habits, dressing habits, even their goddamn biological habits! Then, when you're ready to beat him bloody, he just smiles and says, 'Whoops, didn't mean to work you up so much. Truce?' And you can't do anything but agree with him, because if you'd try to hit him at that moment, you'd just feel like a little child!"
"Biological habits?" Sayaka asked, raising an eyebrow. "What could he possible say about your biological habits?"
"Oh," Maya muttered darkly, "he can say a lot about them. Like how happy he is for me that I've finally gotten a shape, and I quote, 'one that the naked eye can perceive'! Mou, just thinking about him really makes me mad! Just because he's tall and probably developed early doesn't mean he can pick on me for being small!"
"Exactly when did he make this remark on your appearance?" Rei said, a slight sharpness in her voice. She'd had a private conversation with Masumi about Maya, wherein she'd accidentally revealed to him that the actress could forgive more or less anything, if shown a decent amount of kindness in return. She was now quite sure that Masumi was using this tolerance to tease Maya worse than ever.
"E-eh? Oh, w-when was that, I wonder?" Maya stammered, searching the kitchen table for an alternative explanation. "It must've been at some party or other. I can't remember, exactly. I-it was annoying, anyway."
While that was a flimsy lie, even by Maya's standards, Rei left her be, figuring that she had her reasons to fib. Maya did have her reasons, though they were far from what Rei would've guessed them to be. She'd deliberately censured her tale of any mention of events that might be construed as the least bit "date-like", such as her asking about the status of his virtue, them dancing to the tune of Akane Mogami's wedding orchestra, and anything pertaining to the car ride back home. It wasn't that she felt she needed to hide those things away; it was just that she didn't feel like explaining exactly why none of them were the least bit romantically or sexually charged, though they might look to be so on paper. Even that incident where Masumi had more or less cupped her face could be picked apart and assembled into something utterly platonic and ordinary.
"But what was it he whispered to you before he left?" Mina asked her. "I've never seen you so mad."
Maya tried not to blush, and failed. Her attempt not to smile was met with similar success.
"Something that was both mind numbingly stupid and well timed," she said, trying not to laugh and failing miserably. To compensate for her weakness, she cried, "He's such an overgrown kid, it's amazing that no one at Daito has wised up to it yet! What's even worse than a bully is a twofaced bully!"
Her friends agreed heartily with her, but as Rei showed signs of wanting to continue interrogating her, Maya let out a huge yawn and made her intention of retiring known. She snuck off, only stopping to exchange "Good night"s and brush her teeth. Immediately upon her departure, a discussion broke out:
"See, I told you," Rei spoke in a hushed voice, as the walls were paper thin and she didn't want Maya to overhear, "it's alright to at least let her associate with him. He's not going to do anything other than tease her and check up on her."
"This time, maybe," Sayaka retorted. "But I still think that we can't trust him. He's manipulative and obsessed with 'The Crimson Goddess'. That doesn't exactly spell good tidings for Maya."
"And he has a strange influence over her," Mina said. "Have you ever seen her this... this loud?"
"How's that a bad thing?" Rei questioned. "You've always complained that she's too timid, Sayaka; shouldn't you be happy that there's someone who makes her feel confident about herself?"
"Not if that 'someone' has the power to destroy her career. Besides, she's only like that towards him because she doesn't give a damn about what he thinks of her."
"Ugh," Rei heaved out, dropping down onto the floor, "I give up! Fine: Hayami is a deceitful, twofaced bully, and we should avoid him the best we can. But it's not like we have to worry about it anytime soon. He doesn't have any reason to come visit her for now. Unless he plans on seeing 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', of course."
They all laughed at this: Masumi Hayami, attending an outdoor performance by a completely unknown theatre company, for no other cause but to enjoy a night out in the park? As far as they were concerned, there was a bigger chance of Onodera asking them all out for ice cream.
While they talked until late into the night, Maya was curled up into her futon, trying to sleep even though her mind was working at warp speed. She couldn't stop thinking about water, open collars, suit jackets, Puck, ramen, virginity, waltz, thunder storms, considerate chauffeurs, ex-boyfriends, open shirts, and about the man that tied them all together into a tangled skein: Masumi.
Damn him, damn him, damn him! she thought, writhing around in her beddings, unable to find a single comfortable position. What's with his constant need to raise hell wherever he goes? Why does he need to involve me in it? He's so, so... gah!
But what ailed her the most, beyond her sweaty pyjamas and increasingly stiff jaw, was the phantom touch still itching at her throat. She rubbed vigorously at the spots, trying to erase the memory of how Masumi's palms had felt like when they'd pressed up against her pulse. Upon finding the endeavour futile, she groaned, burying her face into her pillow.
It was so embarrassing! she thought, kicking her legs with frustration. I can't believe I froze up like that! I'm just not used to stuff like that; had it been anyone else, I would've reacted exactly the same way! It's not because of him, oh my god, what if he thinks it's because of him? He's already a pain, he doesn't need any encouragement!
Eventually, she began nodding off, only to rouse herself, afraid of what she would dream of after dedicating the entire evening to Masumi. She was still up when Rei tiptoed into their room an hour later, trying to think of anything but the vexing vice-president. As a result, she slept badly, her jaw aching and her head spinning when she woke up.
Still, she considered the night a success: there'd not been a trace of Masumi in her dreams, or any illicit activities of any kind. She continued to tell herself that a little bit of pain was preferable towards having to face Masumi in the altogether, though her resolve wavered slightly as her jaw gave off a smarting twinge every time she even thought of opening her mouth.
Breakfast was, as one might think, a very uncomfortable task, but these were the things you had to sacrifice when you were at war with yourself.
Few, if any, could've said that they were entirely unaffected by the Tsukikage-Ikkakuju performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream". Few, if any but Masumi, could claim to have watched the entire play with their heart in their throat, touched, amazed and triumphant.
It had been such a long time since he'd been able to see Maya on stage, he was overcome by how brightly she shone, skipping out before the public in the guise of Puck. No, not in the guise of Puck; she met the audience as Puck, not a single hint of Maya left in her.
She really is a piece of work, he mused, watching her sprinkle love-in-idleness onto Lysander's eyelids. How many can say that they can change into a fairy through sheer will power? How many can grip the heart and essence of a completely different personality, their only tools a great sense of empathy, sensitivity and, let's face it, an epic case of escapism?
He watched her carefully, trying, as he always did, to unearth the answer to the ultimate riddle: how could such a girl, who normally melted into the background without effort, find the strength to stand in front of thousands of strangers and succeed in convincing them that she was, in fact, Robin Goodfellow, a mischievous fairy who can easily run around the world in forty minutes?
He'd made some headway into the inquiry, but was still far from a solution. He'd come to the conclusion that beneath her shy exterior lay an emotional life that rivalled that of any screeching, swooning diva. Whatever she felt, she expressed with complete sincerity, which none out of none normal people did. She managed to move each and every one of her patrons, because even if they'd never experienced the emotions she portrayed, she made them understand how painful or wonderful it was to feel them.
Even as she was terrifying poor craftsmen, bragging about how terrific it was to charge about the world in hundreds of different forms, to neigh, bark, grunt, roar and burn, the audience members felt her wild joy like it was their own
To think, that a girl with a cheap costume and a tiny body could command such sway over people she'd have trouble just greeting normally... It made Masumi's chest fill up with a warm, wholly undeserved and largely empathic sense of pride.
After the performance, he saw off an enthusiastic Hideharu Hyuga, setting a date for them to further discuss the casting for his new play. Usually, he would've handled it immediately, while the energy of the troupe was still fresh in the playwright's mind. He had another errand to attend to, however, and either way, he felt too muddled to do business.
He found Maya far from the crowd, clutching her donation box to her chest like a doll, crying soundlessly. Instinct and experience told him that she was crying because of him, or, to be more accurate, because of Purple Rose.
This is surreal, Masumi thought, his expression softening with sympathy, and just a bit morbid. No matter. These are the things you have to deal with when you take on a secret identity.
Once he'd forced his face to show nothing but amiable indifference, he walked up to her, expressing himself as sparingly as possible:
With a little gasp, she snapped her head up, immediately scrubbing away her tears.
"Ah! Mr Hayami!" She made a visible effort to control herself, her brow furrowing in irritation. "Thank you... I had no idea you'd come to see me."
She might as well say,"Who asked you to come?" and be done with it...
"Your Puck was quite lively," Masumi said, reaching into the inner pocket of his suit jacket. "I'm impressed. You deserve a reward."
"Thank you," Maya said, utterly insincere, "you're very kind."
Masumi couldn't say exactly say how much he ended up depositing into the contribution box. He only knew that it was enough to make Maya's jaw drop, which made it all worth it.
"Mr Hayami, that's too much!" she objected, glaring at him as though he'd stolen from the box, rather than made the largest contribution to it.
"Don't misunderstand," Masumi said, meeting her scowl head-on. "It's not for you, it's for charity."
Masumi was about to take his leave, when Maya let out the most aggravating noise a human mouth can produce: "Tch!" The sound made Masumi's whole body spasm with displeasure, his shoulders hunching up and his eye twitching.
She followed the "Tch!" up by saying, "Since when have you ever cared about charity?"
"Shorty," Masumi slowly intoned, easing out his shoulders, rubbing at his eye, "I'm sorry to have to correct you, but I do believe that I'm the one who suggested you do a charitable play in the first place."
"Eh?" Maya coloured, briefly baring her teeth in a grimace. "Oh... I'm sorry. It's just... never mind. Sorry."
"Same old shorty," Masumi sighed, as though he lamented this fact. "Well, maybe not quite. You have changed."
He patted her shoulder, like one might pat the head of a child.
"You've improved," he said, offering her a slight smile before he turned to walk away.
Under normal circumstances, Maya would've been delighted that he'd left so soon. This last week, however, she'd struggled not laugh as she remembered his face when he told her the punch line to his Onodera joke. She'd spent so much time wondering what he would look like if he saw exactly how good a Puck she was, she'd nearly burnt two dinners, and all she got was a "Well done, you've improved"?
"That's it?" She clamped her hand over her mouth when she realized she'd said it out loud.
She held onto a faint hope that Masumi hadn't heard her, but she'd hoped in vain. He stopped and turned to her, looking rather as if someone had hit him in the back of the head with a snowball.
"I'm sorry, shorty," he said, "but did you just say, 'That's it?'"
Maya wondered if she could hurl the contribution box at him and make a run for it, but reasoned that charity should come before your own comforts. Besides, he knew where she lived.
"Yes, I did," she said, trying to sound as though she'd meant to say it all along. "I mean, you're the vice-president of a major production company, and all you can say is, 'Well done'? Seems a bit... a bit stingy to me."
"You want me to give you more constructive criticism?" Masumi asked, working to stay an eyebrow that wanted to shoot up in wonder.
"Well, I figure that's about all you're good for," Maya sniffed. "Might as well make use of it."
"Such cheek!" Masumi laughed. "Very well; you've entrapped me with your honeyed words. Hmm... let's see..."
He glanced out into the forest, trying to find some form of inspiration. He did find it, though it was in a rather unorthodox form: Sakurakouji Yuu, Maya's old friend and somewhat ex-boyfriend, almost obstructed from view by the heavy foliage.
Masumi had nothing against Yuu personally. In fact, he'd always thought of him as an upstanding young man, talented and hardworking (though his method of courting could stand to be polished). It was just that he didn't want him anywhere near Maya; not in the same park, and to be frank, not even in the same country.
Masumi smirked, pretending not to have noticed his rival, when he was actually revelling in their reversed positions. He'd had to observe Maya from the shadows often enough, unable to approach her, while Yuu'd talked to her as easily as anything. He felt like showing off his newly acquired privilege, and seeing that the reporters nearby didn't have a camera on them, he decided that that's exactly what he should do.
He walked to Maya's right side, sneakily blocking Yuu from her sight.
"You're certain about this, shorty?" he inquired. "I'm not going to hold back."
"Yes, I'm certain," Maya assured him, the despair etched on her features contradicting her. "Just get on with it, while I'm still mentally prepared."
Masumi cleared his throat, adjusted his tie more comfortably and took a deep breath before he "got on with it". To Maya's great trepidation, he started clapping his hands, as loudly as he could, booming out:
"Wonderful! What a superb performance by the future super star, Maya Kitajima! Rarely, if ever, have I seen such an overpowering, staggering characterisation!"
Maya tried to make him quiet down, frenetically glancing at the reporters, but Masumi refused to be curbed:
"How she shines when she's on stage! She's truly a godsend, a theatrical genius, and cute as a button to boot!"
Masumi formed a circle with his thumb and his index finger, putting them to his lips, letting out a shrill, piercing whistle.
"Stop it!" Maya had practically thrown her contribution box to the ground to be able to grab Masumi's lapels, heaving herself up so that she could slam her hand over his mouth.
Masumi looked down at her, and Maya could swear that his eyes were actually twinkling with mirth. She gave him a glare that guaranteed him a swift death if he didn't shape up before she dared to let him go.
"Too much?" Masumi asked, his volume back to normal.
"Just a bit," Maya pressed out through her teeth, picking up her box.
"Well, you didn't give me any directions. What do you want: an in-depth analysis, some simple words of praise, or a sonnet dedicated to your greatness?"
"None of the above, thank you. Just... say what you thought of it. Refrain from using words like 'wonderful', 'genius' and 'cute', if you'd be so kind."
"That rather limits my vocabulary, but I'll give it a shot. But before I begin, I'd like to say that I'm not Tsukikage. I can't give you any advice on how you can improve. All I can do is give you my honest opinion on what I thought of your performance."
"That's fine. I didn't expect anything else, anyway."
"Good. I mean, it depresses me that you've got me pegged as a good-for-nothing, but I guess I don't give off a reliable sort of vibe." He starting tapping at his lips, his eyes narrowed in deep concentration. "Hmmm... On a purely professional level, I would say that your performance was a success. You won over the audience from the first, the children in particular, who are always a tough crowd to wow when it comes to Shakespeare. The technique you used to give off the impression of superhuman speed was impressive, as well as the rhythm to your movements and speech. Your act, natural and fluid, was truly convincing.
"Now, on a personal level... I must've seen at least ten different interpretations of Puck, portrayed by actors of various nationalities and skill levels, but this is the first time a Puck has caused my heart to leap out of my chest. Shorty, I know you live the role, but somewhere in the back of that mystifying mind, surely there must be a voice that says, 'You're not really a fairy, you can't fly and you're not immortal'?"
"W-well, yeah. What's that got to do with anything?"
"So, while knowing that you're but a frail mortal, do you insist on jumping off of rooftops for kicks, or what?"
"I wasn't hurt, was I? Besides, it wasn't that high to begin with."
"It was high enough to cause a broken ankle."
"Look, I just did what felt right in that moment. Puck isn't the type of character who climbs down from a height he can jump off, is he?"
"So you didn't plan to do that from the beginning? Why am I not surprised?" Masumi shook his head, peering at Maya with quizzical affection. "As engaging as Puck is, I think Maya Kitajima is, by far, the most fascinating individual of the two."
Masumi was a self-pronounced expert on Maya's various expressions. He had observed and catalogued everything from "anger" to "zeal", and had come to be able to read Maya like a wide open book with large print (but then again, so could anyone who was slightly attentive). The face she made now, however, nearly eluded him, as it was a complex mix of embarrassment, surprise and suspicion, with just a hint of happiness.
"Y-you don't have to lie!" Maya shouted at the ground, having ducked her head down, as she often did when Masumi made her blush.
"I said I'd give my honest opinion, didn't I? I am perfectly candid when I say that you're the strangest being I've ever encountered." Before Maya could lose her temper, Masumi changed the subject, "But anyway, congratulations on your success. I'm sure your admirer is brimming with pride for you."
Masumi's stomach plummeted when he saw tears well up in Maya's eyes at the mention of her benefactor.
Oh, damn! he swore, mentally kicking himself. I forgot: Purple Rose is taboo!
"What now, shorty?" Masumi said, unable to hide a quiver in his voice. "Did you and your admirer have a falling out or something?"
Maya shook her head, biting her lip in an effort to calm herself.
"No, it's... it's nothing like that," she said, blinking back her tears. "I would've preferred it if it was like that. He—well, his middleman—said he'd come and watch me perform. I thought I'd finally get to meet him, but..."
She sobbed, shielding her sadness from view by covering her eyes with her hand.
"There's no need to cry, my dear," Masumi said, glad that Maya couldn't see his panicked expression. "I'm sure he was just too moved by your gesture at the beginning of the play. He's probably afraid that he'll burst into tears as soon as he sees you."
He could glimpse the fraction of a smile on Maya's lips, before they opened to say:
"But why can't he just come and see me? I'd be happy with just a word, just a 'Well done'! That's all I really want..."
Masumi couldn't help grinning at that, his brow furrowing. I'd beg to differ...
"... This 'Purple Rose' of yours... how do you picture him?"
"Eh? W-well, I don't really know... An older man, maybe fifty or something... kind, gentle, reserved and soft spoken."
"So, in other words, the complete opposite of me?"
"You got a problem with that?"
"No, not at all. Means there's balance in nature. So all you want from this man is a kind word?"
"While that's not all I want, I'd be really happy if I could just hear his voice."
"Low maintenance, aren't you? In that case, maybe even I can offer you solace."
"... I'm sorry?"
"From the general disarray of your facial features, I can deduce that you did indeed hear me, so I won't repeat myself."
He cleared his throat once again, about to speak when Maya's inquisitive look made him falter.
"Your penetrating stare is disconcerting, shorty," he said. "I'll never be able to work up the nerve to help out if you don't close your eyes."
"What exactly are you going to do?" Maya said, unconsciously hugging the collection box closer to her.
"I can only tell you that I'm not going to run off with your money. Please, shorty. I think you'll appreciate it."
Previous experiences told Maya that she probably wouldn't, but even so, she let herself be swayed by Masumi's appeal and closed her eyes.
She heard him shuffle a little, breathing in and out audibly before he spoke, in a voice lower and much gentler than his own:
A hand touched her hair, patting it softly. Her eyes fluttered open, but by then, Masumi had already retrieved his hand, his face showing nothing but detached politeness.
Maya was silent for a moment, trying to digest what had just happened. When she came to the conclusion that Masumi had just pretended to be an old man to cheer her up, she began giggling, her urge to cry vanishing.
"That was the worst impersonation I've ever heard," she told him.
"Eh?" Masumi complete amazement at her criticism made Maya laugh even louder. "I thought I did rather well for a beginner. You're just a snob, shorty."
"Oh, that's rich," Maya exclaimed, "coming from a man who probably spends more money on ties than I do on rent!"
"Snobbery isn't based on wealth. It comes from thinking that you're above someone else. You've thought yourself superior to me for quite some time now, haven't you?"
The question startled Maya, as she'd never considered herself to be anyone's superior before. On deeper consideration, however, she felt that she truly was his better, even if he was smarter and smoother than her.
"Can you blame me if I do?" she said, in as flippant a manner as she could muster.
Masumi had the odd habit of being tickled by abuse on his person, so he just smiled brightly, as though he'd been paid a great compliment by someone he admired.
"No, not at all," he said. "In fact, I feel the same way."
Maya had expected him to start up a whole lecture on exactly why he was her superior in every way, and therefore was at a loss as to how to respond to this humble admission.
"But look at the time," Masumi continued, glancing down at his wrist watch. "While I'd love to stay and talk, I've got business to attend to. If you'll excuse me..."
"Ah, y-yes," Maya breathed, "good night, I suppose. And... thanks for your horrible impersonation."
Masumi studied Maya's face intently before he answered her. She avoided meeting his eye, and actually seemed to be disappointed.
Did she actually enjoy talking to me? The thought elevated Masumi to the degree that he had to busy himself with lighting a cigarette not to smile like an insipid halfwit.
"I do what I can," he said, once the corners of his mouth had settled down. "Bye, shorty. Try to stay out of too much trouble."
"Same to you!"
After a glance into the woods to ascertain that they were Yuu free, Masumi turned around, walking backwards up the stairs.
"I'm always careful," he told Maya around the cigarette he'd precariously stuck between his lips.
His near slapstick efforts were rewarded with a grin and a "Jerk!". He swivelled around on his heel, waved at her over his shoulder and hopped up the steps with distinct lightness of foot. He didn't often allow himself to think positively about the development of his relationship with Maya, as something was bound to show up to drag it back to square one (usually his own short-sightedness). Now, however, he indulged himself, as he felt there was very little chance that the foundation he'd built up would crumble so easily.
For one, he was sure Yuu wouldn't become a hostile factor for quite some time, as he was too embarrassed to meet Maya head-on. Shigeru was probably out of the running, and even if he wasn't, it would take a lot of work to get that relationship back on track. He had a sympathetic (well, more or less) ally in the Kitajima household, he'd made Maya laugh at least five times now and apparently, she was attracted to him. (That hardly had any bearing on their involvement right as of now, as she would still react negatively if he touched her needlessly, but he felt cheered by it nonetheless).
Maybe I'm just jinxing myself, he thought, but I think I might actually get her to see me as something other than the avatar of evil.
While this might be of little or no comfort to any other lover, Masumi took what he could get and rejoiced in it, knowing from experience that things could be infinitely worse. All he'd received was a plea for praise and a laugh, yet he walked the streets like a man drunk on love: namely, he hummed to himself and smiled at any who ventured to establish eye contact with him.
But the course of true love never did run smooth, and even Masumi, with his minimalist need for affirmation, would be badly shaken by it.
Maya was, as a rule, confused. She'd accepted that it would be more or less a constant state of being for her the coming two years, what with trying to hang onto the Crimson Goddess candidacy by the skin of her teeth. She'd learnt to deal with it by repeating the mantra, "What will be will be, just focus on yourself and do your best" over and over again.
A new sort of distress had, however, entered into her life, one impervious to calming mantras and a cheerful attitude. It was the kind of distress that came from finding that you might actually like the man you'd thought of as your nemesis for five years running.
Maya had tried to tell herself that she didn't like him. She just didn't hate him as much as she usually did. Just because she'd discovered that he had a sense of humour, found her fascinating, thought of her as his superior and was willing to imitate an old man to stop her from crying, that didn't change anything. At all. No, not in the least.
Okay, so maybe it did, but only because it meant she had to fight harder not to fall for any of his tricks. She told herself, again and again, "He's not kind, and you don't like him", until she was satisfied that she could deal with anything he tried to pull without losing her judgement.
Despite all of her preparation, she was floored by the trial presented to her when "A Midsummer Night's Dream" came to a close. While the show had been incredibly successful, there had been very little monetary gain in it for the troupes, making them unable to pay the down payment needed to perform at the Athens Theatre. Like some warped dues ex machina, the Daito Corporation came to the rescue, with promises of fame and success if they participated in the new play by Hideharu Hyuga, which was sponsored by the aforementioned company. For unknown troupes like Ikkakuju and Tsukikage, who'd met with struggle every step of their career, being asked to perform in a show written by one of Japan's most popular playwrights was a dream come true. After some initial debate about the inherent evil of Daito, which ended with the comment, "Well, it's not like we're going to contribute to it or anything", everyone, even the members of Tsukikage Theatre, agreed that this was a chance they couldn't pass up.
Maya, however, wasn't at all satisfied. Her first reaction to the offer hadn't been, "So this is what Hayami was after!", but rather, "Was he being nice to me just because of this?". She attempted to rectify this by thinking of Masumi and his involvement in the affair objectively, but it's difficult to think of a man who's pulled your hair and called you names in a professional manner.
At last, fed up with fruitless speculation, Maya decided to pay a visit to the source of her dismay, telling Rei that she was going to go out to get some food for supper. She had a gut feeling that this meeting was one she'd want to keep secret, no matter its outcome.
She'd gotten all the way to the Daito parking lot, when she felt the need to stop and think about what she was going to say. Of course, she needed to get him to confess to whatever nefarious plan he might have regarding his offer to sponsor her friends, but that wasn't all she wanted to know. She wanted him to tell her why he was being so attentive, even though she was of no use whatsoever to him. It couldn't be just because of her currently threadbare connection to the Crimson Goddess. He went out of his way to spend time with her, and he always had a great time (usually at her expense).
He said he liked me, she thought, pacing back and forth in front of the back entrance to Daito, but what does that mean? He likes me because I'm a stress relief, source of entertainment, or what? Damn! Only he could manage to say something as direct as that and still be so bloody ambiguous!
"Shorty, if you came here looking for me, you'd do well to stop ignoring me."
Maya had to use a substantial amount of will power to avoid squeaking. She whirled around, facing Masumi with what she feared to be a comical grimace. She was correct in her suspicions, as Masumi raised the folder he was carrying to cover his mouth, averting his eyes.
"M-Mr Hayami!" Maya started to bow, stopped, and righted herself, all in a second's time. "Um... I... I was looking for you, a-actually..."
"And here you have me," Masumi said, spreading out his arms to further illustrate his statement, "entirely at your disposal. What is it that you want from me? It's not a renewal of the offer you made me after our date, is it?"
"I never made you an offer of any kind," Maya snapped, "and we were never on a date!"
"My mistake then," Masumi said, shrugging. "But if you're not here to seduce me, what's on your agenda?"
"You know what I'm here for," Maya huffed, crossing her arms. "What the hell do you mean by sponsoring our troupe? Are you just out to make money, or are you planning to annoy us all to death? I really won't forgive you, ever, if this is some mean scheme at our expense! I'll, I'll curse you until the end of time!"
Masumi's face had been carefully blank during this bombardment of abuse. When Maya finished, he did the only feasible thing: he laughed until his stomach ached.
"What's so damn funny?" Maya shouted, her hands curling into fists. She hadn't expected him to quake in fear at her intimidation, but for him to laugh so hard that he couldn't even speak was a crippling blow to her pride.
Masumi's loud mirth died down into chuckles, and soon, he was able to talk without sniggering:
"My, but you're bossy! With a temper like that, I wouldn't be surprised if you rule the Tsukikage Theatre with an iron fist. Your troupe members hasten out of your way, lest they be beaten, poor Tsukikage cowers at your approach..."
"Could you just answer my question, please? Without any comments on my temper?"
"I'd be delighted to. That once in a lifetime thing has finally occurred: I'm acting without any dark ulterior motives. I've had ample time to observe the growth of both Ikkakuju and Tsukikage Theatre, and they've made a favourable impression on me. They have the spirit, creativity and talent to go as far as they like. Daito values such qualities, and will help them succeed without any tricks. You've no need to worry about your friends. Daito will take good care of them."
"You won't take advantage of them?"
"I'll not exploit a hair on their heads."
Finding his expression sufficiently sincere, Maya subsided, letting go of her worries concerning her friends and focusing on her own.
"What's wrong?" Masumi inquired. "You don't want to work for Daito?"
"Of course I don't!"
"Then I have some good news for you: you're not going to be in this production."
A shock ran through Maya's body, leaving her cold and unsteady.
"W-why?" she stammered. "What... what's your reason for excluding me?"
"You don't want to perform for Daito, yet you still demand a reason?"
"Yes, I am, so please enlighten me! Did you honestly think I'd be pleased at being separated from my friends, for whatever reason?"
"I didn't think about your reaction one way or the other. I only thought of the play, and frankly, it doesn't need your participation. We want to sponsor your friends, not you. Satisfied?"
Naturally, Maya wasn't anything of the kind.
"Mr Hayami..." She didn't know in what manner of tone she'd addressed him in, but as his expression of civil indifference changed into one of grave earnestness, she guessed that she'd sounded pretty pathetic.
"I promise you," he said, "your friends will be all the rage after performing at Athens. They'll get the public's notice, because Daito will ensure their success. If you care for your friends at all," he shrugged, "well, then it's best you don't interfere."
The mere idea that she would do anything to hurt her friends was so preposterous, Maya had no idea how to phrase her outrage.
"Masumi! You haven't gone home yet?"
Masumi suppressed a frown. "Onodera." Poor timing as always. "I was just about to leave, but I got held up."
"Oh!" Onodera caught sight of Maya, his lips turning up into an amused sneer. "Miss Kitajima, I haven't seen you in a while. So, do you have the confidence to win the Academic Arts Award?"
Oh, we'll not get into that right now, thank you very much, Masumi thought, steering the conversation into a more profitable direction:
"Onodera, I heard that Ayumi has decided to perform the female lead at Nittei Theatre next year. And that she'll be co-starring with Tsukikage."
Though she should've been more cautious with letting her feelings show before her adversaries, it was plain to see what Maya felt about the news. Her whole body gave a jerk, colour draining from her face at an alarming rate. Seeing Masumi light a cigarette with complete serenity gave her the strength needed to yell:
"That's impossible! Why would Tsukikage want to perform with Ayu—?"
"If you don't believe me," Masumi cut her off, "why don't you go to Nittei and see for yourself? Go on." He blew noxious smoke in her direction. "Don't let us keep you."
Maya bit down hard, glaring at Masumi. Is he seriously telling me to shoo? Bastard!
"I heard you were a big success at the open-air theatre," Onodera said, "but to win a major acting award, you need to have been featured at a famous theatre. Where will your next performance be performed, eh?"
The question caught Maya off guard, and as lying wasn't her strong suit, she couldn't come up with an answer that would make her look good. Not that it would've made any difference; she scarcely got to speak a word before Onodera piped up with:
"You haven't decided yet, perhaps?" He laughed in a way that made the usually pacifistic Maya's knuckles itch. "Then I suppose you might as well give up on 'The Crimson Goddess'. You don't even have a venue to perform in, so how can you possibly expect to win the Academic Arts Award?"
Maya was too busy with keeping her feelings in check to respond. Masumi's hypothesis about her emotional capacity was reaffirmed; only a person who was much too sensitive for their own good would tremble like that over a few catty remarks spoken by a man like Onodera.
"Mr Hayami..." she finally said, clearly at the verge of tears. "I... the thing with my friends... it's more than just sponsoring a promising troupe, isn't it?"
What's with this sudden bout of coyness? Where are the wild accusations and decrees for justice? "What else could I have gained from it?"
"I think... that without my friends, without that performance, you hoped that I would... would give up on 'The Crimson Goddess'." She raised her head, her voice even more distorted as she said, "If Ayumi plays the Crimson Goddess... it will be a big coup for Daito, won't it?"
"... Like I said before," Masumi said, uneasy at Maya's sudden interest in his opinion, "there are a lot of people who're eager to see Ayumi's Crimson Goddess. Besides," he gave a small shrug, "she'd be easier to work with."
That was far too much for Maya; with a choked sob, she began crying in such a heartfelt manner that even Onodera flinched.
"Oh," she moaned, "but I'm such an idiot! I, I honestly thought that you had changed, that you'd become kind... That you weren't my enemy anymore, that you might actually help me... I'm so... I'm..."
Eh? Masumi let go of any pretence at standoffishness, his face as readable as Maya's.
"I'm a fool!" she finished weakly, running off without another word.
"Shorty!" Masumi started after her by instinct. "Wait!"
He caught up with her quickly, grabbing her wrist to make her stop. The next thing he knew, he was stumbling back, his cheek stinging with pain. Before he could recover, a scream, strengthened by years of vocal training, rattled his composure even further:
"I HATE YOU!"
Masumi could only stare at Maya, frozen by the realization that she was looking at him in exactly the same way as when she'd discovered that it was his fault her mother had died.
"Don't act as though you give a damn," she continued, her voice raspy and harsh, "when all you really care about is your own bloody comfort! If, if all you ever meant was to look for an opportunity to ruin me, then why," her voice faltered, but then came back even stronger, "then why did you have to give me your jacket? Why did you have to tell me you liked me? Why would you impersonate Purple Rose, if you see him, and me, as nothing more than obstacles? Was it all just a joke to you? Oh," new tears formed in Maya's eyes, "that time in the car, when I didn't move away... you must've really been laughing at me then!"
She let out an almost animal howl, burying her face in her hands. Horror flashed across Masumi's face, and he hurried to refute her:
"W-what? No, no, god, Maya, I never meant—"
"That's the problem, isn't it?" Maya snapped, violently rubbing at her wet cheeks. "You never seem to mean anything! You didn't mean to kill my mother; you didn't mean to make me feel like a goddamn idiot! But it still happened, and it's all your fault! You're a callous egotist, but you, you should at least try to take responsibility for your actions!"
Masumi could do nothing, say nothing in his defence. He probably would've tried, hadn't Onodera been there, but he could tell by the look in Maya's eyes that she wouldn't have allowed him to speak in any case.
Maya drew herself up. "No more," she said, her voice low but deadly. "I see now, that nothing good whatsoever can come out of enduring your presence. I... I don't want to see you ever again. If you come within so much as 50 metres of me, I'll, I'll scream! I really will! Do you understand?"
Masumi watched the hate in her eyes and the pride in her bearing. Though he should have been trying to come up with a way to save him from this exile, he was preoccupied with thinking that Maya really was engaging, whether she was smiling or shouting at him.
"I am helpless to deny you anything," was all he could say, the ghost of a smile on his lips.
For the span of a second, surprise overtook Maya's anger.
"Don't... don't try anything!" she hissed. "It won't work. I'll never be manipulated by you again. I'll succeed, no matter what you try do to stop me. In fact," she smirked, and it was easy to see that the expression was new to her, awkward and out of place, "I'll let you come congratulate me on getting the lead role when 'The Crimson Goddess' opens. I'll even buy you a ticket."
Masumi couldn't trust his voice, so he merely nodded, acknowledging her challenge. Maya wanted something more from him, a derisive remark, a mocking compliment concerning her newfound confidence, anything. Seeing that he wasn't the least bit inclined to accommodate her, she escaped, crying again because of his apparent indifference.
"She'd certainly gotten louder through the years," Onodera remarked. "And a lot more obnoxious."
Masumi inclined his head ambiguously, forgetting what it was he was responding to immediately afterwards. He was too focused on going through exactly what had happened and how he could recover from it to attend to Onodera.
"But what was she going on about," the director continued, "when she talked about jackets and impersonations?"
Masumi instinctively started to nod, before his brain registered that this was a question that couldn't be answered by a head movement.
"It's nothing," he said, his voice as blank as his face. "Just a misunderstanding."
"If you say so," Onodera said, shrugging. "Well, I'll be heading back to work. Goodbye, Masumi."
Masumi waited until his colleague had entered the building before he stiffly made his way towards the pillar Maya had leaned against while waiting for him. He mimicked her action, tilting back his head, exhaling slowly, until his lungs were completely drained of air.
He involuntarily drew in a breath, watching Mizuki run towards him.
"Sir," Mizuki repeated, touching his arm, "are you alright?"
"Hi, Mizuki," Masumi said, smiling questionably. "Did you see that?"
"Yes, I did, so could you please tell me if you are alright?"
"Shorty can really astound you, can't she?" Masumi continued, ignoring Mizuki's concern. "When she screamed at me, I swear, I couldn't even breathe. Don't let the flower printed dresses fool you; should she put her mind to it, she could terrify the pigment out of paint."
"Sir, she was upset, she didn't know what she was saying. She'll soon come to her senses."
"You didn't see her eyes, Mizuki. Those weren't the eyes of someone who'll calm down with time. She's really fed up with me this time. But you should've seen her up close!" Masumi enthused, a feverish tinge to his skin. "It was as though she was trying to make me burst into flames! But something good came out of this, you know, far better than anything I could've calculated."
Mizuki wanted to shake Masumi and shriek at him to react like a normal person would at being scorned by someone they loved, but merely said:
"Something good? That's hard to believe."
"Weren't you listening? She told me she'd invite me to see her play the Crimson Goddess! She's never spoken about playing the Crimson Goddess, at least not without adding something like 'but maybe it's impossible for me, since Ayumi is so much better'. Do you know what a huge step that is for her? Do you know how much confidence hating me must give her? How much more... more..."
Masumi trailed off, his peculiar smile vanishing. He lowered his head, hiding his eyes behind his hand, murmuring in monotone:
"This really is fortunate..."
Maya had never felt so sure of herself before, yet she'd never been more disoriented. On one hand, she had managed to enter the audition for one of the lead parts in "The Two Princesses" (long story short, the actress who was supposed to play opposite of Ayumi chickened out). On the other, she was constantly in danger of bursting into tears.
Whenever she was alone, with nothing or no one to distract her, she felt hazy and irritable. She impatiently waited for the day of the first audition, overwhelmed with the desire to prove herself. She had never truly felt like that before; usually, she went to an audition with the sole intention of finding another role to have fun with. The circumstances had changed drastically this time around, however: not only was this a role that could save her career, but it was one that would enable her to avenge the pride she'd lost at the hands of Masumi Hayami.
The mere thought of him turned her stomach and made her eyes sting. She'd been laughed at and humiliated, but no embarrassment measured up to that of being fooled so casually by someone like him. To think, she'd actually begun to enjoy his enigmatic humour, that she'd actually deigned to believe that he was a good person. She counted the offences he'd made against her, and was amazed that she'd even entertained the notion. She was ashamed that all it took to turn her head was charisma and a few anecdotes, and promised herself to be more guarded in the future.
But while she spent most of her waking hours alternatively longing for the audition and cursing Masumi, there were moments when she felt listless and introspective. During those moments, she wondered how things could've gotten to this point. How Masumi could've laughed with unmitigated delight at her mistakes and insults, could've embarrassed himself for her sake, and then just turn into a completely different person? There wasn't any rhyme or reason to his conduct, no consistency. If he liked her, then why would he mock her like he did? If he didn't care the least bit about her, why would he go through all the trouble of establishing a moderately amicable relationship with her, only to end it just weeks afterwards?
At this stage of her thoughts, she abruptly interrupted herself, too tired, frustrated and sad to continue. Anyone could tell her that Masumi Hayami was the worst of the worst, so why should she bother searching for an alternative explanation? It's not like she owed him the least bit of consideration. If it had truly been a misunderstanding, then it was up to him to correct it. She wouldn't even acknowledge his existence until he did.
But every time she'd come to this conclusion, a sentence, spoken with a weak grin, played in her head:
"I'm helpless to deny you anything."
It made her hate him all the more, even as it drove her mad with the want to see him again.
"Here," Mizuki announced, her voice an octave higher than usual to catch her boss's attention, setting down a cup of coffee on his desk.
Masumi roused himself out of his work, gratefully accepting his secretary's offering:
"Thank you. It smells good."
This was quite unlike his usual humour; he was a man that spared no expenses when it came to complimenting coffee or teasing his underlings.
"Master Masumi," Mizuki began, "I'd like to talk to you about Maya, and—"
"I thought you might," Masumi interrupted, sighing away the steam from his coffee. "You always do, don't you?"
"Can you blame me for being concerned, when it's so obviously distracting you?" Mizuki countered. "Sir, there's no point in pretending that you're not bothered by it. Just let me help you deal with it, and you'll be able to go back to pulling her metaphorical pigtails in no time."
"You're very gracious, Mizuki, but you've overlooked something: I don't want or need your help. At least not concerning Kitajima. I do need your help with Blue/Red Productions, so if you could get me an appointment with their president, that would be—"
"Sir, you are exasperating," Mizuki curtly informed him. "The woman you've loved for I don't know how long has suddenly broken off all contact with you due to a stupid misunderstanding, and you're just going to sit here and act as though it doesn't even concern you?"
"Of course it concerns me," Masumi protested. "I'm devastated. It's just that I've come to an undeniable conclusion: my feelings don't count."
"... I'm sure you have a perfectly logical and not at all idiotic reason for making that statement, so I'll humour you: why are your feelings unimportant in a matter that largely concerns you?"
"I'm glad you ask," Masumi said, sipping serenely at his coffee. "You see, my feelings are abysmally unproductive. Even if Maya were to come to like me, rather like a funny uncle, she has 101 reasons as to why she would never fall in love with me. So rather than building castles in the air, I've decided to be efficient."
"And exactly how is having her alienate you productive?"
"Anger is the best motivator there is. Before, it was an awkward task to fit goading Kitajima into my schedule. Now, I don't have to do anything. She just needs to think of me, and she'll be livid enough to take on an army."
Mizuki wasn't, in any way, shape or form, an emotional person. Even so, she had to restrain herself not to collapse onto her knees, hitting the desk with her fists, calling out "Why, why, why?" to whatever celestial deity that would care to listen.
"And you think you could endure such a sacrifice?" she said instead. "To separate from her, on false pretences, for an indefinite amount of time, just because it's efficient?"
"I never said I wouldn't find it hard. But it's not like we were in contact much before, anyway. We talked, what, five times a year on average? I'm connected to her on a more important level now."
"I may regret asking this, but what exactly do you mean?"
"As Purple Rose, I'm a source of comfort, of unwavering dedication. As Masumi Hayami, I'm an inexhaustible supply of confidence and drive. Mizuki, this is going to sound bizarre, and it is, but in a way, this is the best thing that could've happened to me."
I was right, Mizuki thought, pursing her lips. I regret asking.
"Your disapproving stare has no effect on me," Masumi said, averting his eyes nonetheless. "I mean it, because right now, I'm probably the most important man in Kitajima's life."
"... Sir, do you seriously intend to tell me that you intend to maintain your relationship with Maya on a purely metaphysical level? As a nameless admirer and a hated adversary?"
"I've done it before. I don't see why I shouldn't be able to do it again."
"Well, I do. I know it's hard for you to face the facts, but Maya isn't a child anymore and you're not the same man you were back then. In the last months, you've used every single excuse at your disposal to meet with her under as intimate circumstances as possible. And she let you do just that."
"As I used trickery and extortion, she didn't really have a choice in the matter. Besides, I acted like a complete jackass on each occasion."
"Maya's main offence against you wasn't that you'd purposefully excluded her from her friend's production, or that you'd ganged up with Onodera against her. It was the fact that the affection you've shown her might've been false that hurt her the most. Doesn't that give you some kind of hope? Doesn't that make you think that maybe she could come to—"
Masumi put his cup down with a clatter, subtly telling Mizuki to stop. She did, but only after seeing his dark expression.
"... And here I was," he said, "thinking I could slink away as the noble martyr. I guess my track record doesn't really allow for that, does it? The truth is, Mizuki, that I'm absolutely terrified of Kitajima."
While many others would've scoffed at this statement, Mizuki knew it to be true. She also knew how hard it must've been for Masumi to admit it, so she said nothing, allowing him to muster up the courage to continue.
Masumi rose up from his desk, turning his back on Mizuki.
"I'm not myself when I'm with her," he said. He chuckled, shaking his head, and corrected himself, "No, the problem is that I'm too much like myself when I'm with her. There's something about her that makes me lose my judgement. Even if I tell myself that next time we meet, I'll treat her no better than anyone else, when I'm face-to-face with her, I can't resist doing everything in my power to usurp her attention. I'll say anything to surprise her, to entice her, to rattle her so much that she'll only see me. It's childish, I know, and painfully obvious, but I don't know how to stop doing it.
"If it had continued like that, there's no doubt I would've betrayed myself eventually. I... I almost kissed her once. If I had..." He let out a shaky, soundless laugh. "Well, suffice to say, the expression 'opening a can of worm' wouldn't even begin to cover it."
He spun around, leaning against the window, his smile contradicted by the lines in his forehead.
"Mizuki," he said, "I know you see Maya and I as star-crossed lovers, and I can't tell you how grateful I am for that. But it's painful, to love someone when they see you, at best, as a somewhat tolerable companion. I'd rather be rejected by her on false grounds than to have her see what I truly am, and not want it. To be useless to her, to be nothing more than a blot on her conscience... I'd rather die."
Though he was still grinning unconvincingly, Mizuki knew that he meant every word. Despite his highly inappropriate sense of humour, death was a subject Masumi shied away from making a punch line out of.
"We all have our roles to play. I forgot mine, and fate saw fit to remind me of it. That's all."
"So that's it? You're really not going to do anything about this?"
"I'm not going to change my mind about it just because you keep repeating that sentence. I see no reason as to why I should intervene. Maya's in the audition, will go to any length to show me up and is more or less guaranteed the role. As you might recall, I have a day job to tend to; I can't keep running after her. Ah, speaking of work," Masumi said, sensing that Mizuki wanted to say something (most likely about his sanity or lack thereof), "remember the time when I asked you to schedule meetings for me, and you would say nothing more than 'Yes sir', and not add, 'but only if you patch things up with the underage object of your affection'? I look back onto those days with fond reminiscence, wondering if they're ever to come again."
"Fine, sir," Mizuki pressed out. "I'll contact Blue/Red Productions post-haste. But I'm right when I say that you're handling the situation all wrong."
"How fortunate then, that it's my situation to handle. Your interest in my personal life is touching, Mizuki, but let's keep our relationship professional."
"... Of course, sir. I apologise for my rude behaviour. I'll do my best not to let it happen in the future. Excuse me."
Mizuki bowed, smiled frigidly and left, her near military stride betraying her anger. Masumi watched her go, filling up with dread, as he suspected he'd just made a powerful enemy.
Karato Hijiri understood theatre, felt right at home in the industry, because he was constantly playing a role and could appreciate the work that went behind it. He juggled several aliases at once, slipping in and out of them faster than an actor could change in and out of costume. This had the unfortunate side effect of making most of his life feel unreal, as though he was watching a live-feed from someone else's eyes.
There were, however, some jobs that he quite enjoyed, even though he sometimes had to assume another identity to perform it. His favourite was, without a doubt, acting as his master's link to Maya Kitajima. Not only did it enable him to connect with Masumi, to see a side of him that was denied to others, but he'd found that Maya made a fascinating subject of study.
Not that he had thought about it that much (or at all, really), but Hijiri never would've guessed that Masumi would fall for someone like Maya. She'd seemed so ordinary, nothing more than a spirited child, really. He never doubted his master's choice, though; Masumi saw things that escaped others, and clearly, he'd seen something rare and admirable in Maya.
Just a few months ago, Hijiri had had the pleasure of discovering it for himself. Maya'd caught him in the act of delivering his master's customary bouquet to her, and he could see right away how earnest she was in her love and gratitude towards the man she'd dubbed "Purple Rose". He felt they had that in common, as well as their longing to become someone else. It didn't take long for her to make him realize why Masumi would be so concerned about her welfare: her passion had no doubt struck a chord with him right away.
The one downside to the job was that while Maya loved "Purple Rose", there was a certain amount of bad blood between her and Masumi Hayami. Hijiri understood how such a contradiction had come to be; Masumi was a man made up of extremes, sensitive but bound by duty to be ruthless. He hoped that his master would clear up the misunderstanding sometime in the future, but knew not to hold his breath for it. If there was one word that would describe Masumi perfectly, it was "Guarded".
Still, he performed his task with utmost care and professionalism, the only outlet of his true feelings being the occasional insightful remark or admonishment.
At his master's request, he attended the audition for "The Two Princesses". As he'd predicted, Maya passed the first screening with flying colours, yet she was avoided by all the journalists. "Maya Kitajima" was still a controversial name, and while her sudden appearance would make a good story, they hesitated, uncertain if the public had forgiven her or would boycott any article mentioning her. This suited Hijiri perfectly; he was so proud of Maya on his master's behalf, he wanted to start their "interview" as soon as possible.
"Maya Kitajima, right?" he greeted her. "Congratulations on passing the first screening."
Maya tilted her head slightly, too surprised at his unexpected appearance to do much else.
"I am Matsumoto from the weekly magazine 'Seven Journal'," he continued, giving her his (fake) business card. "Please, could you give me an interview?"
She clearly wished to ask him what he was doing there under an assumed name, but let him continue without comment:
"This audition concerns your comeback into the entertainment world." He held out the microphone of his recorder to her, turning the aforementioned device on. "Your fans must be very worried about how you've been doing lately. Could you please say a few words for them?"
As soon as Maya understood that Hijiri wanted her to give a message to Purple Rose, she lit up, practically shaking as she accepted the microphone with a stammered "Yes".
"Then, I would like to say to my fan..." Maya swallowed, cradling the microphone as though it was a delicate china cup. "I've passed the first screening... and I will try my best for the second one! When I was blacklisted from the entertainment world, you must have been very worried. I'm truly sorry! But I'm fine now; the present me really wants to act! I will fulfil my fan's expectation and become an actress. I joined this audition to become a better actress. I will do my best to return to the stage as soon as possible! For your sake..." She stopped, catching her slip with a nervous giggle, and corrected herself, "That is, for the sake of all the fans who care about me! I won't be disheartened again!
"And the last thing I want to say is..." she smiled lovingly, and Hijiri thought that Masumi would've probably have paid a fortune to have her smile like that at him normally, "please watch me! Forever and ever..."
Hijiri was, despite his detached life style, a realist. While he wished nothing but the best for both of them, he wasn't sure that Masumi would ever find the courage to realise Maya's dream of meeting her benefactor, nor that she would accept him even if he did. That's why the end of the interview disconcerted him to the degree that he paled.
"Thank you very much," he said, turning off the recorder. "Thank you for your time, Miss Kitajima."
Without waiting for a reply, he strode towards the exit, only to stop dead as Maya exclaimed:
"Mr Matsumoto! Please come interview me at the second screening! Please! Please come again!"
One didn't need to be in love with the girl to be unable to deny such a heartfelt request.
"... Okay," Hijiri complied. "Please do your best for your fan."
"Thank you! Thank you so much!"
Hijiri hurried to escape, lest he be asked to perform any other uncomfortable tasks. In his haste, he nearly ran into a woman out in the hall.
"Excuse me, miss..."
The woman, an unusual creature with ink black shades and a severely elegant hair cut, smiled coolly.
"Think nothing of it," she told him, her voice matching her intriguing appearance perfectly.
Hijiri glanced after her as she passed him and walked into the room he'd just left. He couldn't put his finger on it, but she seemed... familiar, somehow.
Unbeknownst to him, Mizuki was experiencing the same vague sense of déjà vu about him, dismissing it on the same basis as he had: she would've surely remembered it if she'd met with a person with such distinctive hair before.
"Hello, Maya!" she said, startling Maya off whatever fluffy pink cloud she'd been on. "I take it from your expression that you passed the first screening. Congratulations."
"M-Mizuki!" Maya cried. "W-what are you doing here?"
"Now, don't be too overwhelmed with joy," Mizuki admonished. "We're in public, after all."
"Oh," Maya grimaced, "I'm sorry. I was just surprised, since I haven't seen you in so long... How come you're here? Daito doesn't have any business with Nittei, do they?"
Before Mizuki answered, she saw the need to discourage the crowd of journalist that were beginning to take an interest in her and Maya. Like her boss, she had the power to repel the pushiest of newspaper men with nothing more than a glare. The crowd shied back, deciding that while the reunion between the women would make a highly interesting article, it wasn't worth their job. Journalistic integrity was a wonderful thing, but it didn't keep you fed.
"I'm here to see you, actually," Mizuki said, satisfied that their conversation would be undisturbed. "We have a lot of catching up to do, haven't we?"
"I guess we have..." Mizuki had shown next to no personal interest in Maya before, so naturally, she was a bit suspicious of this sudden attention. "But how did you know I'd be here?"
"I heard that you'd joined the audition, so I came to see how you were doing. Would you mind having a cup of coffee with me?"
"Um... I don't know... I promised Rei I'd come straight home after the audition..."
"I understand," Mizuki said, sighing heavily. "So all the time I spent as your manager didn't mean enough for you to sacrifice half an hour for me. Very well, I'll just take my leave then..."
"Eh? Oh, no," Maya grabbed Mizuki's arm to stop her from leaving, "I didn't mean that at all! I'm sorry, Mizuki; I really appreciate all you've done for me. Of course I'll go with you."
Mizuki could sympathise with Masumi's inability to keep from teasing Maya; it was the easiest thing in the world to do, and your slight efforts were always rewarded in full.
"Then let's hurry. I know a place right down the street."
Ten minutes later, they were safely installed in a cosy café with a coffee each. Maya stirred hers nervously, wondering what it was Mizuki wanted to talk about. She had a sneaking suspicion of what the topic might be, but couldn't make sense of why Mizuki would be interested in her relationship with Masumi.
"Again, I'd like to congratulate you on passing the first screening," Mizuki said, raising her cup. "Here's to your success at the next one."
"Ah, thank you," Maya said, copying her former manager's movement, taking an experimental sip of her black coffee. She made a face, pouring in a liberal splash of cream before she deemed it fit for consumption. "It was really tough, but I think I managed to amuse the judges."
"You've become quite the professional, haven't you? Nothing like the girl who tried to order curry at a French restaurant."
"I wish that was true," Maya sighed, surprising Mizuki by not even blushing. "Somehow, I always manage to embarrass myself when I eat out. I can't even eat at a noodle restaurant without saying something so stupid, and so loud, that everyone just stop and stare at me. But it's not my fault, really! It's because of hi..."
She broke off, a shadow passing over her face, and left off speaking altogether.
"... I'm sure you're wondering why I came to see you," Mizuki said, seeing that Maya had lost the desire to communicate.
"I... I did wonder," Maya admitted. "And I think I know why. Did Masumi Hayami send you?"
Mizuki, who was accustomed to dealing with a subservient, bewildered Maya, didn't quite know how to respond to the acid accusation.
"I can safely say that no, he did not," she finally said. "In fact, I'm probably the last person he wants talking to you."
"I would ask why," Maya muttered into her cup, "but since I'm not the least bit interested in anything Hayami does or thinks, I won't."
Mizuki's eyes narrowed as she observed the young woman. While Maya's preoccupation with her drink might indicate disinterest, Mizuki knew that when she became truly upset, the actress would seize upon any form of distraction, whether it came from food, drink, tearing up flyers or fiddling with her clothes.
"This is curious," Mizuki remarked. "I thought you and Master Masumi had a truce. What's he done now?"
"I... I really don't want to talk about it." Maya caressed the ear of her cup frenetically. "Suffice to say, the 'truce', if such a thing ever existed in the first place, is off. For good."
"I'm sorry to hear that, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to be insensitive and ask you why that is?"
"I really..." Maya licked her lip, blinking. "Can't you just ask Hayami?"
"I asked about you yesterday. He refused to divulge a single word on the subject, which distressed me, as he can usually go on about you for hours at a time."
"... He does like to talk, doesn't he? It's one of his many talents: he can talk until his throat's sore, without meaning a single word."
All of Mizuki's calculations and strategies were destroyed by that sentence; Maya was obviously a lot more pissed off than she thought she'd be. Masumi's name has only been mentioned, and the actress was near tears, her voice crackling with anger and sadness. While it made it much harder to talk to Maya, Mizuki felt triumphant at her former client's distress, since it meant that Masumi had meant more to her than anyone had initially thought.
"It may seem to you as though he just speaks for the sake of hearing his own voice," she said, "but I assure you that he never opens his mouth unless he has a mission for it to complete."
Maya was silent, and it was easy to see why: her eyes were glassy, her body held rigidly still to contain an emotion too powerful to comfortably display in a public café.
"I'm probably not the most convincing source in this matter," Mizuki continued, "but I think that whatever's happened between you and Master Masumi is nothing more than a misunderstanding, blown out of all proportion. Besides, it's hardly beneficial for either of you to separate like th—"
"Oh, it isn't beneficial, is it?" Maya growled, clenching hold of the hem of her jacket. "I did what was beneficial. It gave me absolutely nothing. Hayami might've benefited from getting to humiliate me even outside of work, but I'm tired of being his target. And if you," she inhaled sharply, unable to keep the tears back, "a-and if you're here to talk about him, then I refuse to stay!"
Maya moved out of her seat, but was hindered by the hand Mizuki closed around her wrist.
"Stay and finish your coffee," the secretary told her. "I'm the one who's out of line, so I should be the one to leave."
She rose with her coffee in hand, finishing the last of it in one impressive gulp.
"But before that," she said, releasing Maya, "I'd like to give you something to think about."
Maya didn't reply, too busy with trying to calm down, dabbing at her eyes with a paper napkin. The glances she cast at Mizuki in between hitched breaths, however, were attentive.
"Master Masumi, for all his faults, is a very good worker. Every spare moment her gets, he fills with reading miscellaneous reports about the state of the entertainment world at large. He checks up on every studio and theatre in town, whether they're affiliated with Daito or not. Do you really think he could fail to be among the first to find out that Yukari Kitazono had dropped out of 'The Two Princesses'? A play that not only stars a Crimson Goddess candidate, but Tsukikage herself?"
"N-no, but so what?"
"So then you agree that it's impossible for him not to have known about the audition when you came to see him a few weeks ago, as it had been announced days before your meeting?"
That served to dry Maya's tears. "W... what do you mean?"
Mizuki smirked. "I thought that might interest you. Master Masumi has told me numerous times that anger is the most potent motivator there is. Tell me, if he hadn't provoked you into going to Nittei, do you think you would've ever even found out about the audition?"
Maya's mouth opened and closed, but no matter how much she exercised it, she couldn't answer Mizuki's question.
"I've come to care a lot about both you and Master Masumi," Mizuki confessed, her gaze never leaving Maya's. "I don't want either of you to suffer like this. Goodbye, Maya, and good luck."
Maya merely stared at her, nodding slightly for politeness's sake, before she was forced to turn away, biting down hard on her lip. She clasped her hands around her coffee, a repressed sob making her entire body shake.
She had barely managed to keep it together ever since Masumi made his true intentions known. It would've been easier if she'd just hated him; she'd resented his very existence for years. But this time, there was a nagging feeling of doubt eating away at her, making her unable to accept his betrayal without questioning it. Yet she couldn't come up with a single theory as to why he would pretend to shun her and say nothing when she returned the favour.
As Maya couldn't make head or tails of anything that had happened between her and Masumi, or of why she should obsess over it, she broke down and bawled like a frustrated child, discomfiting the entire clientele of the café. Her coffee was cold by the time she recovered from her fit, which had only rendered her capable of coming to a very unhelpful solution: Hayami was either a thoroughly cruel man, or a good man with severe schizophrenia.
That night, Hijiri arrived at the Hayami mansion late in the evening to give his young master an account of Maya's progress in the audition. He and his master had developed a routine when it came to these unorthodox reports: they met in Masumi's study, and all the information concerning the actress was to be recited in a concise and factual manner. This professional veneer fooled no one, but as it served to ease Masumi's discomfort with sharing his secret with someone else, Hijiri was more than happy to play along.
He was therefore surprised when his master ushered him into his private sitting room, and asked him, while casually swirling a glass of bourbo:
"How has Kitajima fared today? Has she taken the judges by storm, or merely wowed them?"
Though put off by this uncharacteristic perception, Hijiri showed no sign of his alarm. He gave his report, telling Masumi how Maya had stood out in both of the tests in a way that had indubitably impressed the judges favourably.
"She never fails to cause a stir wherever she goes," Masumi mused. "You can't even take her out to dinner without her upsetting half the restaurant at some point..."
He set his untouched bourbon down with a wistful sigh.
"Is there anything else of interest?" he asked, without any visible enthusiasm.
"There is," Hijiri said. He took a moment to enjoy the intrigued look on Masumi's face before continuing, "I made further use of my disguise as a reporter to interview Maya on her feelings concerning the audition and her comeback to acting. She credited quite a lot of her success to the unwavering support of her fans."
He retrieved a tape from his inner pocket and put it down next to his master's drink.
"She's eager to have you know how grateful she is," Hijiri said.
Masumi stared at the tape for an uncommonly long time before he reached out and picked it up. He turned it over, inspecting it from every angle, as though it was brilliant gem rather than a blocky piece of plastic. He spoke while he was still in deep thought, making his voice weak and hesitant:
"Karato, you don't mind doing this, do you? Keeping an eye on Maya in my stead?"
While Hijiri prided himself on his unflappable poise, he couldn't help raising an eyebrow at that. Masumi had only once asked him about what he felt about acting as a link between him and Maya, and that was when he had hired him for the job.
"No, Master Masumi, not at all," he answered firmly. "I consider it a great honour that you would entrust someone that important to you in my care."
Masumi smiled wryly, taking his bourbon and downing a good third of it in one go.
"It's good to know that there are at least two people on my side," he said once he'd recovered from the burning sensation the liquor had left in his throat. "Excellent work, Hijiri. If there's nothing else, I should like to retire."
Hijiri hesitated, loath to leave his master in such a strange, maudlin mood, but ultimately had to admit that there was little he could do to remedy it. Masumi wasn't exactly confiding, even when he was in good spirits.
"There's nothing I have to add," Hijiri conceded, bowing. "Good night, Master Masumi."
"Good night, Hijiri. Sleep well."
Once his spy/confidante had left, Masumi picked up the tape again, contemplating whether he should snap it in two. While it would be rude to destroy something so heartfelt, it would be shameless to listen to it, as he had no real right to receive the praise it contained. Considering how mortified Maya'd been at showing herself vulnerable to him, how it had made her wild with anger to have her trust broken, he should've locked the tape into a drawer and forgotten about it.
But as Masumi didn't have any self-respect to speak of, and as his regard for Maya's integrity was outweighed by his need to hear her voice express something other than contempt, he still listened to the tape throughout the greater part of the night.
"Ah! It's Master Hayami!"
It was always a pleasure for the office ladies to see the vice-president stride past, lending the otherwise bleak and middle-aged scenery of Daito a dash of colour.
"He's so cool and handsome!" an office lady with short, curly hair proclaimed. Incidentally, she had mentioned this fact many times before.
"I wish he'd look at me just once!" another gushed, touching up her ponytail in case the proposed situation did, against all odds, occur.
Their friend and colleague merely sighed, pushing her glasses up her nose.
"You might as well give it up," she tragically intoned. "He's already spoken for."
A freak lightning storm could've hit the lobby, and the office ladies wouldn't have been more horrified than they were by that statement.
"What?" Curly screamed, grabbing the lapels of Glasses. "By whom?"
"I-I don't know her name!" Glasses exclaimed, trying to ward off her overzealous friend with some help from Ponytail. "But I've seen her! I've seen her together with him!"
This served to cease all choking related activities on her friend's part.
"What does she look like, then?" Curly asked. "Tall, gorgeous, foreign super model, what?"
"But that's just the thing!" Glasses waved her friends together so that she could whisper to them, satisfied that Curly wouldn't try to manhandle her anymore. "She was... she wasn't... well, she was unique to look at, I'll grant you that, but she wasn't, you know, popularly pretty. In fact, she was sort of... plain looking."
"Plain?" Curly drew back, as though she'd been physically wounded. She'd thought that if she would lose Masumi to anyone (which was the most likely outcome), it would be to a beautiful princess of some faraway European country or a vivacious American heiress.
"Master Masumi, dating a plain girl?" Ponytail said. "Are you sure you haven't just misunderstood the situation? Maybe it wasn't him, or maybe she was only a client he had to suck up to?"
"Oh, girls," Glasses sighed, giving her fellow office ladies a patronizing pat on the back. "I, too, tried to deny it at first, but the facts are unforgiving. First of all, it was undoubtedly him. I don't think there's another man in all of Tokyo that's been blessed with a face like his. Second of all, I saw them at 'The Celestial', so all hopes of it being nothing more than a business arrangement are dashed right there. Then there's the fact that she had the audacity to ask him if he was a virgin!"
Glasses had obviously gotten top score in her rhetoric course in high school; her delivery was perfect, making her listeners reel back with outrage.
"She didn't!" Ponytail hissed, while Curly denounced her friend to be a "Liar!"
"I'm perfectly serious," Glasses said, pleased at the dramatic effect of her words. "Half the restaurant heard her. But here's the strangest part: he laughed at it."
The abstract thunder storm from before could've killed half of the people in the lobby, and it wouldn't faze the office ladies more than that factual titbit. Masumi, the proud, stone-faced demon, laughing in the face of such crass impertinence?
"And it wasn't even a chuckle or anything!" Glasses continued, made upset by her own recollection. "He laughed so hard, he actually choked on his food! And what's more, he kept trying to touch her the entire time, squeezing her shoulder and whispering into her ear," Curly let out an envious sigh, "and what's more, she only seemed annoyed by it!"
"What? How dare she?" Curly was slowly starting to overheat, overwhelmed by shock, despair and hate for this plain mystery woman, who lived out her fantasy without showing the slightest bit of appreciation.
"Well, it was a bit more of a flirty kind of annoyed," Glasses admitted, to spare Curly of part of her misery. "You know, when your boyfriend puts his head in your lap, and you say 'Hey! Who told you you could use me as a pillow?'. Besides, she kept asking about his friends, if he'd had any girlfriends, that kind of stuff. But I'm telling you, he was completely warped when he was with her. He acted like a... like a real kid. He even pulled her pigtail!"
The elaborate, impossibly romantic image the two office ladies had painted of their boss was now utterly ruined; they sagged onto the other, trying to support each other in their mutual disappointment.
"But what was even stranger," Glasses went on, ignoring her friends distress, as it would disrupt the flow of her narrative, "was that he never said her name. He called her nothing but 'shorty' and 'my dear'."
Ponytail stirred at that, making Curly slide of her shoulder.
"What's the matter?" Glasses inquired.
"Beyond the obvious," Curly added.
"I've heard that before," Ponytail murmured. "I've heard him say that before to someone... but who was it?"
This was too much for Curly; with a strange sound, she nearly collapsed, forcing her friends to drag her onto one of the benches in the lobby before they could continue their conversation.
"Try really hard to remember," Glasses urged. "You hold the key to this mystery."
"Well, gee, and I wasn't feeling enough pressure already," Ponytail dryly remarked. As she already had a boyfriend she was fairly pleased with, she wasn't quite as serious about Masumi as, for example, Curly was. Even so, she was intrigued, as there'd already been a rumour floating about Masumi showing signs of infatuation.
Ponytail pondered for a whole five minutes, making her colleagues tremble with anticipation. Finally, she exclaimed:
"Oh my god, I know who it is, I know who it is!"
"Who, who?" Curly and Glasses cried out in chorus.
Ponytail opened her mouth, triumph clearly written all over her face. Seconds turned into minutes, yet no dramatic unveiling was forthcoming.
"Oh, no," she finally wailed, clutching at her hair, "I forgot! I forgot her name! Oh, damn!"
"What? What do you mean, you forgot? How can you forget something so important?"
"I'm sorry, but at that time, she was just some super plain girl! I didn't really commit her to memory, I mean, I didn't see any point in it back then... Oh, but, but, I do know that she was an actress!"
"That kid, an actress?" Glasses said. "Though now that you mention it, she did seem a little bit familiar..."
"Yeah," Ponytail murmured, "doesn't that concept, 'plain actress who's talented enough to be scouted by Daito', sound like you've heard it before?"
The office ladies thought hard about this, ignoring the fact that they were still on the clock. Suddenly, Ponytail burst out:
"AH! The Crimson Goddess candidate! What's her name, Mimi Kiriya? Well, anyway, it was her he called 'shorty', back when she used to work for Daito!"
"Maya Kitajima?" For Curly, things went from disastrous to apocalyptic. She knew exactly how homely, clumsy and childish Maya was, having served her and Mizuki tea on several occasions. "You're kidding, right? It can't be her, can it? She's so... meh! Hey," she turned towards Glasses, "Maya Kitajima wasn't the girl you saw with Master Masumi, was she?"
"... I don't know," Glasses said. "It... it could be. Like I said, he only called her 'shorty', and he doesn't look like the sort of guy who reuses nicknames. Ah, they actually talked about that, about if he ever called anyone else weird names. He said that she was the only one that made him feel silly enough to say such things."
Curly would've surely have liked to contributed something to the discussion at this point, if she hadn't been busy slowly collapsing in on herself. She lied down on the bench, groaning pitifully, wondering if she could get a sick day out of "extreme disillusionment".
"There, there," Glasses cooed, patting her friend's head, "it's alright. I was really crushed at first, but I got over it pretty soon. Now, I support them."
Curly uttered no more than a forlorn moan, leaving it up to Ponytail to ask the necessary questions:
"You support them? But they're a complete mismatch!"
"That's what makes it so romantic! He's rich, handsome and aloof. She's poor, plain and sweet. Together, they overcome obstacles like age difference, cultural difference and the disapproval of their friends, family and the public, all for the sake of their love. It's got 'classic' written all over it!"
Curly stirred out of her gloomy daze. "Do... do you really see it that way?"
"Sure I do! Master Masumi obviously likes her quite a lot, and I don't think she's much different. I mean, it's Masumi Hayami! Who could say no to that face?"
"No one," was the collective opinion. Therefore, the three office ladies felt there was nothing stopping them from spreading the news of the vice-president and the actress's liaison all over the company.
"Mr Hayami, are you tired? You've been handling everything by yourself."
Thanks to so-called assistants like you, who're only good for brownnosing, was what Masumi thought, so he was being quite kind in comparison when he said:
"It's better being busy than doing nothing at all."
"Now, don't talk to me after I'm done reading this report." Lest you wish to be strangled.
Suffice to say, Masumi wasn't in the best of moods, so the assistant let it go at that, confining his displeasure to his mind:
They said he's in love... I wonder who came up with that nonsense... As I thought, this workaholic can't be in love!
Masumi certainly didn't act like a man in love, from the assistant's point of view. He was working harder than ever, going through documents or negotiating with other businessmen more often than not. He only smiled when it was financially necessary, and practically lived in the office. The assistant, who was happily married, by the way, had obviously never felt the bitter pain of heartbreak, or he would've recognised the symptoms in Masumi immediately.
Masumi only once looked up from his work that car ride, and that was to see what time it was. His expression as he stared at his watch was pinched and troubled, making the assistant feel inappropriately triumphant.
It's half past one... The second test must be taking place...
Without warning, Masumi's features were contorted with pain, his eyes screwed shut and his teeth bared.
"M-M-Mr Hayami?" the assistant stammered, his eyes the size of saucers. "I-is something wrong? Should we pull over?"
Masumi started violently at the assistant's voice, nearly dropping the documents in his lap down onto the floor.
"What?" Masumi glanced at the assistant, his expression revealing that he'd forgotten the other man's presence in the car. "Oh! No, it's not necessary. My mind just wandered where it shouldn't have. I'm sorry to have alarmed you."
Masumi could've started spewing blood right then and there, and it wouldn't have taken the assistant by any greater surprise than that humble apology.
"I-it's quite alright," the assistant assured Masumi. "As long as you're not hurt."
Masumi couldn't help but to smile at that, and befuddled his assistant even further by saying:
"And there I was, lecturing you on efficiency, only to be caught daydreaming myself. I'm sorry for my rudeness; I guess I'm more tired than I want to admit."
The assistant glanced out the back window, checking to see if they had driven through a portal to the Twilight Zone. As this wasn't the case, he was forced to respond to Masumi, rather than jumping out of the car:
"It's no problem, sir. I don't mind."
Masumi just sighed, making a valiant attempt to immerse himself in work before exclaiming:
"Damn it, but why the hell shouldn't I move to the Bahamas?"
"Congratulations for your contract with Nittei Theatre, Maya!"
Contrary to the predictions of the press, Ruri Egawa hadn't become Ayumi Himekawa's next partner on stage. Rather, it was the "dark horse", the infamous Maya Kitajima, that nabbed the role after only two of the intended three tests. It had hardly been a contest; Maya's skill and hunger for the role, as well as her love and understanding of acting in general, was far greater than that of any of her rivals'.
She and her friends chose to celebrate in a quaint manner: with the cheapest fizzy drinks, snacks and beers available. While their futures were all bright, the cash flow of the present was rather low. Maya didn't mind; in fact, to her, the pretzels, chips and bottles of sparkling lemonade made up a handsome table. She was having a great time, able to forget her troubles by seeing her friends so happy, when Rei said the one thing that could upset her:
"I wonder what Hayami will say when he finds out you got the part? I'd pay good money to see his expression."
Everyone laughed at that, jokingly agreeing that they would gladly spend the last of their savings to see the vice-president vexed. They trailed off once they realized that the one they were celebrating hadn't made a single sound.
Maya's lips were tightly pressed together, her posture rigid and her shoulders squared.
"I don't care what he thinks about anything," she ground out, her chin raised, "and least of all what he thinks about me."
The word "stunned" doesn't quite serve to fully describe the surprise her friends felt at that out of character comment; "flabbergasted" is a much better fit.
"H-how come?" Rei asked. "You seemed to be on good enough footing the last time you met. I mean, he donated an absurd amount of money..."
"He's such a generous man, isn't he?" Maya sneered, her words coated with bitterness. "His shameless scavenging for money must all be so that he can donate more to charity, of course."
Seconds after she'd voiced her scornful view of Masumi's philanthropy, she dissolved into a fit of tears, biting down hard to prevent herself from making any sound.
"Maya," Taiko called, immediately moving to her friend's side to embrace her, "what's wrong? What's Hayami done to make you so sad?"
"Besides the obvious," Sayaka snapped, glaring at Rei. As her androgynous colleague was the one who had promoted Hayami, she felt it likely that it was her fault that he'd been allowed to harm Maya like this. Rei didn't even pick up on her hostility; she was too confused to do more than stare at Maya.
The actress managed, with tremendous effort, to hold back her tears long enough to give a shaky outline of the vice-president's latest offence against her:
"I met him again, after our show. I, I wanted to know why he was sponsoring you, if he had some weird motive for it that would get you into trouble. There wasn't, by the way; he just liked your performance. I said I didn't want to perform for Daito, he said, 'Well, good, because Daito doesn't want you anyway, and by the way, your rival, who's much better suited to play the Crimson Goddess than you are, is going to perform with your mentor, and there's nothing you can do about it. Check it out for yourself if you don't believe me'. Oh, that damn... I really hate him!"
She rubbed at her eye, letting out a sharp, hitching breath.
"... It's surprising, how much emotion you're showing," Rei said, propping her head up on her hand, peering inquisitively at Maya. "Hayami has done that sort of thing a dozen times before; what makes this time so special?"
"Rei!" Sayaka exclaimed. "What a horrible thing to say! Why shouldn't she be upset, just because Hayami has made it a habit to be an ass?"
"But it's been ages since she saw him," Rei pointed out, "yet she's still livid about it. I'm just curious about why she feels so strongly about being mocked by someone who's done it countless if times before."
"You don't have to explain anything," Sayaka told Maya, reaching out and grasping her hand. "We've no need to know."
"I do," Rei objected. "I need to know whether I should betray someone's trust or not."
"Eh?" Maya said. "What do you mean?"
"I'll tell you if you tell me," was all Rei had to add.
"It might make you feel better," Mina suggested, horribly curious about what the hell was going on, "to get whatever happened with Hayami off your chest."
Maya sucked in a big breath, slowly letting it out as she rose to her feet. She'd paced about the room for about a minute, when she suddenly stopped and spoke:
"I know I shouldn't even have talked to him. He's a liar; I shouldn't have believed a single word he said. But he... he seemed really sincere. He spoke about really stupid, silly things, and laughed like he really meant it. I just thought that maybe this time, it wasn't about Daito. That maybe he just wanted to see how I was doing. It's the least he could, after all the crap he's pulled. But, like always, he was just waiting for the right time to strike."
She let out a harsh, mirthless laugh. "I told him I never wanted to see him again rather forcefully. I think Hayami and I are both praying that we don't meet ever again."
She tried to appear haughty, her arms crossed and her lips twisted into a smirk, but anyone could tell that her bravado was false. But even that feeble attempt at a stern front was so unlike the open and honest Maya they knew, no one could figure out what to say to console her.
"So let me get this straight," Rei said, as unconcerned as before, "you've told Hayami that you never want to speak to or even look at him again, basically severing all ties to him?"
"Yes," Maya muttered, tired by the effort it took to mask her true emotions, "that's exactly right."
"Then I guess," Rei said, "I can tell you about what Hayami told me. I only agreed to keep it a secret because of you, but if you want nothing to do with him, then my relationship with him is at an end as well. My vow of silence has been rendered null and void."
"Eh? W-what are you talking about? When did you speak to Hayami?"
"Ah!" Sayaka cried, pointing at Rei. "It's about that time Maya fell into the lake, isn't it? Finally!"
"W-what?" Maya reddened with indignation. "What's that got to do with anything? And why does everyone keep on bringing that up?"
"On the day which shall forever be known as the day that Maya fell into the lake," Rei said, heedless of Maya's yowls of humiliation, "I took the chance and spoke to Hayami, because I felt that he was being too generous with his attention, and that people might misconstrue that as him being... 'interested' in Maya."
As even this admission made her friend splutter wildly, Rei "forgot" to mention that she'd also thought that Maya herself might've been among those who misinterpreted Hayami's intentions.
"To avoid being labelled as a pervert, he told me what his true aim was: that he wanted to help you, to make up for what happened with your mother. He takes complete responsibility for it, and fully admits to being a complete ass about the whole affair."
Rei waited for some sort of reaction from her friends, but as everyone seemed to have opted for dropping their jaws, she continued:
"I don't know why he acted like he did towards you about Nittei, but I have a good guess. He told me that anger is one of the most potent motivators there are. He probably wanted you to get confident enough to fight against Ayumi and Tsukikage on your own, even though you had next to no prospects."
Maya still couldn't speak, though her mouth was wide open. Her face, which had been scarlet just a minute before, was drained of colour as a cold despair gripped her.
"He... he wants to help me?" she finally croaked. "He... he... Are you sure?"
"Pretty sure," Rei confirmed. "Well, it's hard to tell with him, but I'm inclined to believe him. What about you?"
Maya clearly demonstrated her belief by letting out a faint wail, pacing in the small space like an agitated dog.
"Oh, god," she moaned, "oh, no... What have I done? I knew something was off, but I was too proud, too stupid to admit it! Mizuki even came and, and... oh, damn! I really am a fool!"
She ran out of the room, calling back to her friends over her shoulder:
"I'm going to Daito, bye!"
"Wait, Maya!" Rei called out. "It's already late; couldn't you meet him tomorrow?"
"I can't!" Maya said, her hand clenched tightly around the door frame. "The things I said... and he just smiled... I really need to take them back, as soon as possible."
"I understand why you're impatient," Rei said, "but do you think you're up to facing him like this? No matter how good his motives are, he's not exactly the type of person who hesitates at taking advantage of other people's agitation. Just wait until tomorrow, when you're less guilt ridden."
"... Okay," Maya said, taking a deep breath. "You're right. I shouldn't let him see me make a fool of myself again. The only reason I freaked out in the first place was because he deliberately antagonised me. It's just... now that I look back, he did look so very sad when I told him to stay away from me. Not like normal people look sad, but he was smiling so sweetly, I actually felt like forgiving him for a second. You know," she chirped, plopping down by the table again, "for someone rumoured to lack human emotions, Hayami smiles far more than anyone else I know."
Smiling hugely herself, Maya raised her glass of cider, saying:
"To Hayami! If it weren't for his exasperating guidance, I would've never gotten to where I am today!"
The members of Tsukikage and Ikkakuju troupes were flexible people, so rather than refusing to toast the man who'd been their mortal enemy just five minutes ago, they shrugged, brought up their glasses and cried:
No matter how good Masumi was at dancing, reciting Shakespeare or giving praise to those who deserved it, there would always be a wall between him and the entertainers he marketed. To them, he was simply the Boss; a mysterious creature who only lived to accumulate as much money as possibly, like a greedy dragon jealously guarding its pile of gold. His pleasing appearance was merely a ruse, a clever bait to put his victims at ease while he bled them dry. His countenance might be congenial, his intentions honourable, but there wasn't a single person in his employ who believed him to be anything other than "the demon of Daito". They didn't mind, though; he was their demon, after all.
The rumours of him being in love were dismissed as idle gossip made up by office ladies who'd spent too much time watching the dramas the company produced. Any restless behaviour on his part could easily be contributed to working too hard and sleeping too little; Masumi could hardly smile at a woman without it being interpreted as a marriage proposal, so the chances that he'd be able to fall in love without anyone in the entertainment world noticing were slim to none.
One evening, however, at a party celebrating the premiere of a film engineered by Daito, the vice-president displayed a rare moment of weakness that made even his greatest critics momentarily doubt that he'd sold his soul to the devil. He was on his very best behaviour, dancing more than he usually did, with a good word for everyone and a smile that had lasted for hours on end. He'd just convinced the director to work on another of Daito's feature films, through sheer small talk with a sprinkling of flattery, when a waiter approached him with the message that someone wished to see him out in the hallway.
"Someone wants to see me?" Masumi asked, genuinely puzzled. He didn't know anyone who'd seek an audience with him in such a timid manner. "Who?"
"Actually, sir," the waiter murmured in a confidentially low tone, "it's... it's a girl."
"What?" Masumi couldn't help smiling; women usually didn't go through waiters when they wanted to establish contact with him. "What sort of..."
Without warning, his expression and demeanour took a 180 degree turn. A breath thudded out of him, his features devoid of their usual superiority and replaced by disbelief.
"This girl", Masumi said, grabbing the waiter's shoulder with a trembling hand, "she... she didn't happen to be rather short, with brown, long hair, probably wearing a childish dress?"
"Uh... y-yes, sir," the waiter stammered, his expression almost identical to Masumi's. "Sh-she fits your description to the letter."
After releasing the servant, Masumi did the unthinkable; he laughed, shaking his head, and covered his eyes with his hand. Turning his face to the ceiling, he mouthed a single word to it:
This state of vulnerability lasted for just a second. Letting his hand fall down to his side, he courteously excused himself from his company and made his way to the corridor, almost breaking into a run. He arrived at his destination sooner than he'd thought, causing him to stumble slightly as he came to a stop. As he steadied himself, he happened to lock eyes with the very reason for his unrest.
For a moment, he couldn't speak, too grateful to be able to see Maya again, realizing exactly how much he'd missed her and her aura of constant befuddlement.
At hearing her stutter a greeting, he returned to reality, closing his eyes briefly to collect himself. He wanted to sound casual, jaunty even, but his voice was decidedly frosty as he said:
"Good evening, Miss Kitajima. What brings me the unexpected honour of your company?"
She was taken as unawares by his tone as he was; she flushed, deflating as she murmured:
"Um... I... I, I'm sorry for just barging in like this... It's just, I have something to talk about with, with you..."
"That's interesting," Masumi said, ignoring the voice in the back of his head that demanded to know what he meant by acting like a sarcastic bastard. "I have this memory of you foreswearing all contact with me, using such words as, 'If you come within so much as 50 metres of me, I'll scream'. Am I mistaken, or have you forgotten about it?"
Maya's fingers started twisting around each other. "I... haven't forgotten. That's why I'm here, actually. I just want you to know that I... I take back what I said. I was angry at the time, and I wasn't thinking straight. So... I'm sorry."
If Masumi had gone with his first instinct, the guests milling around the entrance to the promotion party would've witnessed a grown man lifting a girl off the floor, crushing her to his chest as he thanked her over and over again. Fortunately, Masumi had long since learned to disregard his impulses when it came to dealing with Maya.
"... I can't say that I don't appreciate the gesture, Miss Kitajima," he said, "but I'm afraid I can't possibly accept it, as I'm not worthy of it."
"Eh?" Maya's face fell, so distressed her fingers ceased their activity. "What do you mean, you're not—"
"Nothing has changed since we last met. I've made no attempt to contact you, or vice versa. Why should regret what you said, when, as far as you're concerned, your anger was completely justified?"
As he spoke, he stepped towards Maya, forcing her to back up against the wall. He maintained a polite distance, as well as a civil smile, but it would be fatal for Maya to let her guard down.
"I had time to think about it," she said, "and I decided that I had overreacted. That's all."
"You seemed to have needed a lot of time to think. And even if you did feel you were a bit forceful, the fact remains that in your eyes, I should be nothing more than a lying, conniving backstabber. Not the sort of person you'd pay a social call, wouldn't you say?"
Maya might've slipped up right there and then, if her previous run-ins with Masumi hadn't taught her how to think on her feet.
"I-it's not a social call," she huffed. "I came, um, I came to tell you that I got the role of one of the two princesses in Nittei's play, so whatever you meant by separating me from my friends, I'm afraid that it backfired. So ha."
Any hope Masumi had of being able to keep his facade up vanished at the silly little grin of triumph Maya ended her speech with. His lips cracked into a genuine smile, a tiny snigger escaping from them. But to show Maya that she'd need more than just her charm to win him over this time, he placed his hands on the wall by either side of her shoulders, effectively trapping her without decreasing the distance between them.
"If that's the case," Masumi said, "then I have to ask, why would you greet me with a tepid apology, as you only do when you're truly ashamed by your behaviour, rather than a wild declaration of your superiority, as is your habit when you want me to acknowledge you? Other than that," Masumi continued, ignoring Maya's attempt to answer his questions, "if you came to scorn me, why is it that you lack any hostility normally associated with such an act? You haven't even glared at me, and I've been as ungracious as possible."
"Well... I, I felt that I really went over the line the last time. S-so I wanted to get an apology out of the way first. And I truly feel that I wouldn't have gotten as far as I have if it weren't for you, even if you never had the intention of motivating me."
To Masumi's acutest horror, Maya smiled at him, her lips shaped by gratitude. He drew back, staring at her mouth before he turned his back to her.
"I'm sorry," he told her over his shoulder, "but frankly, I think you're lying through your teeth. I'm quite busy, so if you'd excuse me..."
He resolutely strode towards the party, reassured by the knowledge that she'd call him back. She did, but the subject of her cry startled him:
"Wait! D-did you know about 'The Two Princesses' audition when you told me to go to Nittei?"
Masumi stopped dead, his eyes blindly flickering over the festivities of his colleagues while his panicked mind tried to map out a plan of action.
"Why, Miss Kitajima," he said, facing her with a worrying lip quirk, "what a decidedly strange thing for you to ask. So what if I did? What would that change?"
"W-well," Maya stuttered, "it could mean that you wanted me to enter the audition—"
"And why would I want that? It contradicts my official interests in every aspect possible, so why would you ever think that that would be the case? People don't tend to give the people they scream 'I hate you' at the benefit of a doubt."
Maya struggled not to let anything show in her expression, but she knew that she couldn't lie to Masumi; he'd see through her in an instant, as he had so far. She refused to volunteer any information though, leaving it up to Masumi to dig it out for himself:
"Miss Kitajima, answer me honestly: did your friend, Rei Aoki, tell you anything about me?"
"... Yes, she did. I... We were celebrating, and... you came up. I got upset, and told them what had happened the last time we met. So Rei told me that you'd only wanted to help me, because you felt bad about... about what happened with my mother."
Masumi said nothing; he merely pressed his lips down on a grimace, glaring a hole through the marble floor while thinking of a proper response. Maya suddenly remembered what Mizuki had said about Masumi's method of communication: "He never opens his mouth unless he has a mission for it to complete". She wondered what goal he had in mind now, if he would admit all his involvement in her affairs or if he would plead ignorance.
"I will admit," he finally said, "to telling your friend that those were my intentions. But even so, any efforts I've made to redeem myself have been feeble. I've fed you and given your friends financial advice. Why should you think I'd staged an elaborate scheme just to get you to Nittei, when I wasn't even certain that you were coming to see me that day, or that you'd be able to get into the audition anyway? I'm sure that Miss Aoki would've hardly spoken that warmly in my favour."
Had Maya been more favourably received by Masumi, she might've tried to keep Mizuki out of the whole mess and say that she'd come to that conclusion herself. But as it was, she was frazzled, disoriented and too happy to be getting somewhere with him that she said, without considering Mizuki's precarious position:
"Mizuki came to talk with me during the audition. She told me that you always kept yourself updated when it came to anything concerning 'The Crimson Goddess', so it wouldn't have been possible for you not to have known about the audition when I came to see you. If you didn't support me, you would never have encouraged me to go to Nittei at that time; you would've waited until the audition was over. It took me a while to be able to trust her, but if both Mizuki and Rei are convinced that you're looking out for me, then I believe them. And... and I believe in you."
Never before had Masumi been presented with so many options. He could think of at least fifteen different courses of action that would guarantee Maya to alienate him forever, and ten that would exploit her newfound trust in him monstrously. He was tempted to follow the latter sort of game plan, but he knew that from that moment on, he would never be able to be calculative with Maya again. Not after nearly losing her, simply because he felt he needed to "stay in character".
It was hard to determine what it was he truly felt deep down, as he hardly ever travelled into those territories, but he settled on being both relieved and annoyed.
"It seems that some interpret 'Don't tell anyone'," he said, "as 'Tell the one person I really don't want to know if I've had a squabble with her'."
He'd made the right decision; Maya mirrored his emotions, her body visibly relaxing before she exclaimed:
"It was hardly a squabble! I threatened never to see you again!"
"Yet here you are. I knew you couldn't stay away for too long."
"I only came because of what Rei said," Maya said, crossing her arms. "I fully intended never to see you again."
"Hmm... I guess you wouldn't have," Masumi mused, tilting his head. "Your determination has always been impressive. No matter how much you must've yearned to see me, you would've held fast to your resolution."
"Could you be serious for just one minute?"
Masumi saw that he'd left his guard down too early; the conflict was far from absolved, but he couldn't tell why. She'd apologised for her rudeness, he'd admitted towards caring about her, so what more needed to be said?
"I said all sort of terrible things to you," Maya said, her hands clenched into fists. "I screamed that I hated you, as loud as I could, and you just stood there, taking it, knowing I was wrong about you. Why didn't you say anything?"
While Masumi's new policy dictated that he should honest with Maya, there was no need to reveal too much at once.
"At the time," he said, "I felt that any offer of peace I could make to you would be rejected."
"But you didn't even try!" Maya cried. "You always try! Even when my mother died, and I hated you more than anything, you wouldn't leave me alone for a single second! Why was this time different?"
Masumi faltered; he'd never seen Maya like this before, so earnestly bewildered, staring at him as though he wasn't an antagonist, but an equal. Before, he'd learnt how to anticipate Maya's reactions by trial and error, but he found that the current situation called for far gentler measures.
"I didn't see any need for reconciliation," he said, his tone as flavourless as possibly. "You were on the right track, with the right confidence. My presence wasn't required."
Masumi would've expected her to be vexed by his explanation; he hadn't counted on her to look as though she'd been slapped, and then say, hurt and dejected:
"So never seeing me again... it didn't bother you? Maybe you were actually relieved?"
"Yes, you were, weren't you?" Maya's lower lip trembling ever so slightly. "You were glad that you didn't need to bother looking after me anymore, that you just had to watch me from the sidelines—"
"Shorty, I assure you," Masumi interrupted, "that that is as far from the truth as you can get. I thought of at least a hundred ways to get you to talk to me again, but I decided that you were better off without me, and..."
He trailed off, seeing that Maya was grinning at him, her expression one of self-satisfaction.
"But... you already knew that," he said, hardly believing his own deduction even as he confirmed it.
"I'm not all that analytical," Maya chirped, "but even I can see that poking fun at me is one of your favourite pastimes. That's why I got so mad at you: I thought you were being a coward, choosing Daito over me, even though you liked me more. But you're my ally now, aren't you? Through thick and thin?"
Logically, Masumi knew that he should be nonplussed at Maya's trickery and insight. But he always enjoyed a challenge, and Maya's new character development certainly offered him one.
"I'll give you whatever support I can manage," he drawled, leaning his shoulder against the wall next to Maya, "but don't expect me to answer to your every whim. While I find you amusing, Daito pays the bill. Of course, if you can pay me the same amount as they do, I'm yours to command; as it is, all I can offer you is some publicity and scintillating conversation."
Finally, Masumi was hitting the right note; Maya pouted to hide a smile, mimicking his cocky stance and tone perfectly as she said:
"I hardly think that smutty anecdotes and cryptic answers constitutes as 'scintillating conversation'. Speaking of cryptic, what did you mean when you said, 'you were better off without me'? I'm amazed your ego allowed you to say that, by the way."
"It's not that hard for you to figure out, surely?" Masumi said. "While I might enjoy your company, you have little to gain from 'enduring my presence'." Masumi was satisfied to see that Maya winced at the quote. "The most precious things I have to offer you are insider knowledge, such as the audition at Nittei, and the confidence to use that information to your advantage. When you taunted me, telling me that you'd buy me a seat to your performance as the Crimson Goddess, I felt that my work was done. I had no more excuses to bother you anymore. Even now, we don't even need to speak to each other. Shorty, even if I've helped you out, there's no need for you to feel any obligation towards me. Whatever I've done for you, I've done out of my own initiative, to make up for my mistakes. We could part here, and be no more than business partners."
Masumi concealed his vulnerability well, his voice steady and his body language calm. Maya had no idea that she had the ability to severely damage Masumi's mental health with a single word as she spoke:
"I can't say that you're not unbelievably aggravating at times, just as I can't say that I haven't imagined pushing you off a cliff a worrying amount of times. But... you're interesting. And even if you annoy me more than any other person I've ever met, you... well, we have the same strange sense of humour, so I think it would be best if we became friends. I mean, where else am I supposed to find someone who can tell me Onodera jokes?"
Masumi had always wished for Maya's companionship, in whatever form, but he had never truly believed he would gain it. To have her offer him her friendship in such an easy manner overwhelmed him to the degree that he couldn't find the right words—or any words at all, actually—to describe how moved he was. He turned his face to the wall, shielding his expression from view with his arms.
"Mr Hayami?" Maya moved closer to him, trying to find a crack in his barricade. "What's wrong?"
"The world, apparently."
Before Maya could question him, Masumi pushed himself up off the wall, some traces of wonder and disbelief remaining on his features despite his efforts to erase them.
"You're a sweet girl, shorty," he said, his voice and temperature heated. "Much too sweet for your own good. You can't go around befriending people like me simply because they make sex jokes about pipes and send journalists to interview you. You might as well jump into a lion's mouth for shelter, for all the cautiousness you're showing."
"Wha—what do you have to complain about? And it's not just because of that, it's—wait, what was that about journalists?"
Masumi's eyes widened as he realized his slip of the tongue. He sighed, harshly running his hands through his hair. He wasn't used to not being aware of what effect each and every word he spoke would have, and happiness seemed to have short-circuited the part of his brain that usually helped curb his emotions.
"Never mind about the journalists," he said, his calm volume contrasted by his mussed hair. "They're completely without consequence. Well, I know you've come a long way, so let's celebrate this new, hopefully permanent, truce in the right way." He snapped his fingers to get the attention of a nearby waiter (a wholly unnecessary action, after the show he and Maya had put on), and said, "Champagne, please."
The waiter responded with admirable haste, and soon, Masumi and Maya held a glass each.
"You shouldn't call it a truce," Maya informed Masumi, her stern glare undermined as she inspected her champagne cautiously. "We're human beings—not two warring countries."
"You say that now," Masumi said, "but that's only because this whole affair has made you forget about me being a prat."
"Like I could ever forget about that," Maya snorted, holding her glass up to the light, watching the amber bubbles rise and pop with a smile. "You know, when I came home from Panna, I was so mad at you, I actually had to scream into a pillow to avoid having to murder someone."
"Really?" Masumi was strangely pleased by that. "I guess we ought to toast to your longsuffering nature, then."
He touched his glass to Maya's with a pretty clink, and then downed the champagne in one go. Maya looked exactly as she had when she'd seen him unconcernedly drink black coffee: amazed and a bit reproachful.
"Aren't you going to drink?" Masumi asked her. "Should I have called over the waiter serving milk instead?"
Fixing Masumi with a disdainful scowl, Maya upended the glass, hardly tasting the liquid as she guzzled it down. The only ill effect she suffered from the speedy ingestion was a slight hiccough.
"Only you could make throwing back alcohol cute," Masumi cooed, tugging her glass out of her hand.
He motioning over a waiter again, placing the empty glasses on his tray.
"I'm sorry to leave you," he said, "without even properly congratulating you for getting signed by Nittei, but I'm afraid I need to get back to work, before someone comes looking for me. Goodbye, shorty, and thank you for making such a fuss over me. I really do appreciate it."
He'd hardly taken a step before he was hindered, this time by a small hand clutching at his sleeve. Maya retreated straight after the contact, not meeting his eye as he inquired what further business she had with him. With a pang of displeasure, Masumi realized that while the emotional barrier between him and Maya had crumbled ever so slightly, the physical one was as solid as ever.
"I'm sorry," Maya said, "I know I'm being incredibly nosy, but I'd really want to know: why didn't you just tell me that you wanted to help me in the first place? Why go through all this trouble?"
If he'd had the courage needed to be completely candid, Masumi would've answered, "Because I was of the opinion that you hated my guts to the degree of preferring to walk deliberately onto a bear trap than ever accepting my assistance." As it was, he felt it more prudent to sound sane:
"Shorty, in terms of will, you are a mountain. If I try to move you with flattery and good intentions, all I get is a stony silence in return. No, explosions and millions of tons of pressure are the only tools I can use to get you anywhere."
"Is... is that really how you see me?"
More in his element now that Maya wasn't on the offence, he said, while tidying his disarranged hair:
"You see me as an ageless entity; I'm merely extending the same courtesy to you."
He knew full well that she'd never meant to compliment him, but it was soothing to see her stutter and blush. He even felt relaxed enough to reach out and ruffle her hair, chuckling at the hiss she let out.
"See you around, shorty," he said. "Don't befriend any more strange men, alright?"
"No danger of that," Maya said, her eyebrows twitching. "I've learnt my lesson."
Masumi's laughter resounded in the hallway, loud enough to reach the ears of the partygoers milling around the entrance. Maya ran to the elevator to escape their gazes, while Masumi met them full on as he rejoined the jovial gathering. He stopped as he reached the entrance, his easy smile replaced by deep-seated fury. He took a step forward before his hand suddenly shot out, grabbing the arm of Mizuki, who'd been cowering behind a pillar.
"A word, Mizuki," he growled, dragging her out into the hall.
"S-sir, don't you think you should get back to the party?" Mizuki stammered, hopping to keep up with Masumi's stride.
"I'm sure they can survive for another five minutes without my witty repertoire," Masumi said, increasing his pace vindictively.
He didn't release her until the sounds of the party were a distant buzz, and even then, his voice didn't rise above a harsh whisper:
"I ask you to leave my personal life, which is none of your concern, well alone, and you proceed to meddle like there's no tomorrow!"
"I had to meddle, sir," Mizuki said, once she'd recovered from the rough treatment, "because it is my concern, both as your friend and as your secretary. If I had left things as they were, you would've worked yourself to death."
"Do you really think I'm any better off now?" Masumi hissed, his voice echoing out into the empty space around them. "I was finally going to be able to get over this damn one-sided obsession, but because my wishes apparently mean nothing, two people who had promised me their silence saw fit to break their word, without even mentioning it to me!"
"All I did," Mizuki said, "was drop Maya a hint. You never forbade me from doing that. Besides, it wasn't my interference that made the penny drop. You should be yelling at that Rei person, not at me."
"And let another person know I'm an idiot? I'll pass."
Robbed of his righteous anger, Masumi deflated against the wall, slowly sliding down into sitting position.
"You're not an idiot, sir," Mizuki assured him. "You're just in love."
"Are you sure that that isn't the same thing as being a great big idiot, in this case?" Masumi murmured.
Mizuki stayed silent, as she knew that that was a purely rhetorical question. In Masumi's mind, the answer was perfectly clear.
"... Whenever I think of how I was," he began, "before I met her... I feel like I'm going over the memories of a complete stranger. A stupid, arrogant, selfish stranger. I should've realized from right from the start, from the first moment I saw her recite a three hour play just because she loved it, how important she'd become."
He leant his head back onto the wall, his face marked by fatigue.
"I don't want her to hate me," he said quietly. "To have her friendship, and to lose it... It's something I really want to avoid."
Mizuki bit back on a "Finally, the truth!", feeling that the timing was a bit off, and offered a softer response:
"Even if she did find out that you love her, she wouldn't hate you. This whole bizarre incident just goes to show that she's far happier having you with her than being without you."
Masumi closed his eyes and smiled before he got up on his feet again.
"Let's get back to the party," he said. "I want to walk in when the gossip is at its height and cast the entire room into an awkward silence."
Masumi succeeded in his aim admirably; a hush descended over the party when he returned, and it was only after a smattering of false laughter that conversation could start up again. For the first time that evening, Masumi truly enjoyed himself, torturing his colleagues by evading their every attempt at asking him who the girl he'd talked to had been.
Most of the party guests, or at least those who were somehow connected to the staff at Daito, already had a hunch about who the mystery girl was, due to a piece of gossip that was being industriously spread throughout the company. But Masumi's presence hindered them from sharing their suspicions with their peers, so it was with some measure of relief that they saw him off an hour later.
Masumi abandoned the cold shoulder act he'd adopted against his secretary by telling her, as they rode down the elevator:
"I'm going to apologise to her. Properly, I mean. I'll explain... well, not everything, but a great deal to her."
"Good for you, sir. It's certainly a step in the right direction. When we you planning on having this heart to heart? Next week, maybe?"
"Well, counting the time it will take me to get up my courage and to find the right words..." Masumi did the math in his head, murmuring numbers to himself before saying, "I could possibly manage it sometime during the spring four years from now, I think."
Masumi had driven up to the Himekawa mansion innumerable times before, as he was one of the family's closest friends and found them to be amusing company. However, the current situation was vastly different, as the mansion wasn't inhabited by its owners, but rather by one Maya Kitajima, and the object of his visit wasn't to attend a light-hearted dinner party. Masumi got out of the car in a slow, hesitant manner, staring up at the mansion as though it was home to a great evil spirit instead of an uncommonly mild mannered girl.
Okay, he thought, walking into the mansion, ignoring the butterflies in his stomach. There's nothing to worry about. You'll just go in there, apologise, she'll say, "How dare you", punch you in the face and another part of you will die. Standard procedure.
Despite this inspiring pep talk, the jitter in Masumi legs refused fade away. It got worse the further down the corridor he got, and by the time he'd reached the living room, it had reached his fingers. Even Nanny's enthusiastic greeting did little to ease his nerves.
"Would you like me to tell Miss Kitajima that you're here?" she asked him.
"... No, it's alright," he said. "I'll find some way to lure her down."
In reality, he was just trying to buy some time to steel himself. He glanced around the room after Nanny had gone to prepare some tea, searching for something he could use to calm down with. He briefly considered juggling the fruit from a crystal bowl, but decided that tinkering with Ayumi's white piano would make him look a little bit less like a nutcase.
He pressed down a few random keys, just to get the feel of it, before he tried to play something a bit more complex. He knew a bar or two from "Fur Elise", but felt it was a bit uninspired, so he played the only other song he could remember. It was strange, but he relaxed almost immediately at the familiar melody. It reminded him of far simpler times, when his worries more or less consisted of pleasing his father and evading slightly psychopathic cousins. Some might have considered this sort of nostalgia to be far from comfortable, but as Masumi's current troubles involved having to apologise to the love of his life for killing her mother, he appreciated the comparative calm of his childhood. Well, the periods of his childhood that weren't fraught with death, rejection, hate and crippling grief.
Now that I think about it, Masumi mused, most of my life has been completely miserable, if not all of it. No wonder I'm so attached to Maya. Like a drowning man grabbing onto driftwood.
He looked up the piano, greeting Maya with a faint smile:
Maya returned his smile and rushed to his side.
"What a beautiful melody!" she said. "I didn't know you could play."
"I learnt it when I was child." He began playing anew, mostly to distract himself from Maya's closeness. "Do you know this melody?"
"Hmmm..." She leaned a little closer, watching his fingers move over the keys. "It rings a bell, but that's all."
"It's Schumann's Traumerei. I used to be a somewhat versatile pianist, but now, I can only play this."
Maya glanced at him, her lips pouting in a pensive manner. She was just about to ask him a question, when Nanny returned with a whole cart of tea and tarts.
"Please," the old lady said, beaming, "enjoy this tea!"
"Thank you!" Masumi said, abandoning the piano to survey the cart. "It looks really good."
With a knowing smile, Nanny left the room, her intuition telling her that Masumi and Maya wished to be left alone.
"You must be surprised to see me here," Maya said, joining Masumi in his perusal of the sweets. "You probably came to see Ayumi, right?"
"Utako did ask me to check up her and the nanny," Masumi said, "but that's not why I'm here. I'm fully aware of you and Ayumi exchanging lives. I came here to see you."
"Really? What about?"
"... Take a seat on the sofa, my dear. I'll be with you in a moment."
Despite her reservations, aptly expressed by a raised eyebrow, Maya complied, taking the cookie tray and a cup of tea with her. While Maya was making herself comfortable on the sofa (which was a very easy thing to do), Masumi ambled up to the maids standing by the door.
"I'm terribly sorry," Masumi told them, upping his charm another notch, going from "Pleasant" to "Dazzling", "but I have something private to discuss with your temporary mistress. If we require your assistance, we will call for it very loudly."
The maids murmured, "Yes, sir,", curtsying before scampering away. Closing the door behind them, Masumi took one last steadying breath before turning to Maya.
"I didn't know you knew the meaning of the word 'private'," Maya said, blowing on her tea. "Usually, you just say what you want to say when you want to say it, completely ignoring everyone else around you."
"Pardon me," Masumi said, approaching the sofa, "but I'm not the one who made inquiries about copulation in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Besides, this is of a rather... delicate nature."
"Delicate?" Maya laughed, popping a sugar cookie into her mouth. "Are you sure you're allowed to use that word?"
For once, Masumi praised the fact that Maya was unable to take anything he said seriously. Her flippant rudeness was just what he needed to collect himself.
"You're utterly cruel, my dear," he said, moving over to the cart to get some tea. "Not only are you hogging all the cookies, but you're being deliberately dismissive of me. For shame."
"I'm not purposefully withholding the cookies," Maya said, twisting around to be able to look at him. "You're free to take three steps, sit down, and enjoy them with me. And if you want me to pay any sort of attention to you, you need to stop beating about the bush. Come on; tell me what's going on already."
"As you wish." He set down his unsipped tea, walking to the side of the sofa so that Maya could meet his eye without having to make her spine resemble a corkscrew. "I have two things I need to discuss with you. The first order of business is that I'd like you to get me a ticket for your show."
Maya stopped enjoying her cookie mid chew to better be able to focus a look on Masumi that spoke loudly of "Hrm?".
"Why would I need to give you a ticket?" she asked, after she'd swallowed her sweet. "Doesn't Daito's influence stretch to the ticket office?"
"Daito's influence stretches to remote villages in Siberia. I just thought that it would make a nice challenge, that's all."
Maya, who'd reached to retrieve another cookie, stopped and turned to Masumi with narrowed eyes.
"... Challenge, you say?" While Maya wasn't the least bit competitive, she'd come to relish any victory over Masumi she could scrounge up. Besides, deep down, she knew that he never gave her a challenge he didn't think she stood a good chance of winning.
"It's simple," Masumi said. "Since your comeback, you've only performed in venues like storage sheds, school auditoriums and outdoor theatres. Suffice to say, none of these plays quite have the prestige you'd expect a show a Crimson Goddess candidate performs in to have. 'The Two Princesses' will be your chance to let the world, or at least Tokyo, know that you're really back. I just thought that having me in the audience would give you an extra incentive. You know, 'I'll work my hardest so that Ayumi and Tsukikage won't be disappointed in me, but especially so that cur Hayami won't be able to sneer at me'."
Maya pouted; she'd gotten used to the way Masumi seemed to be able to peer inside her head, but it still annoyed her.
"Very well, you elitist," she sniffed. "I'll send a ticket. Or do you want me to send two, so that you can take one of your curtain girls on a proper date?"
"No, thank you," Masumi laughed. "I don't think they could stand spending a whole evening with me. Make sure you get a seat in the first row, right in the middle. I want to be able to see you, and, should the occasion call for it, throw popcorn at you."
"You're such an exemplary young man. Now, will you please sit down and have a cookie before you go onto the second thing you wanted to talk about? My neck is getting sore from having to look up at you."
"... Let's remedy that, shall we?"
"What do you...?"
Masumi answered her half uttered question by getting down on his knees.
"What are you doing?" Maya started to smile, sure that Masumi was joking around, but the carefully blank expression on his face convinced her otherwise.
"This may surprise you," Masumi murmured, "but I hardly know. I... I've never really had to do anything like this before. I'll just have to play it by ear, I guess."
"Play what by ear? What are you so serious about?"
"... I'd like to begin by saying that I'm truly sorry about whatever pain I've ever caused you, which is truly staggering in its abundance. I do not exaggerate when I say that I regret it all. Every last offence.
"But what I'm most sorry for is the way I treated you and your mother."¨
He closed his eyes, grimacing as his hands started to tremble again. He continued, forcing his eyes open:
"I... I've never really felt as though I belonged to a family. So, I thought you valued being an actress above being a daughter. It was a callous mistake to make. I played with you and your mother's lives, kept you from each other for nothing more than publicity. For that, I am... I am... more than sorry."
He had intended to say more, but found that he was completely unable to form even the simplest sentence. He had always stopped himself from thinking too deeply about what he'd done to Maya, but now, he couldn't escape having to confront it. Even though he'd sympathised with Maya pretty much since he first met her, he'd done everything to deny it. If he had just faced up to it sooner, he would've brought Maya and her mother together the very second he'd received news of her whereabouts. Instead, he'd had to prove to himself that he was a businessman above all else, even though he already knew that that was a lie, and his cowardice had caused one woman to die and another to hate him. But more than that, he had cost two deserving people their happiness, all to uphold a false sense of security. It was so pathetic, so sad and, above all, so stupid, he would've laughed if he could.
But he couldn't even move. His throat felt painfully tight, hardly allowing him to breathe, and his vision was blurry as he stared down onto the carpet. With a start, he realized that he was on the verge of tears; it had been such a long time since he'd cried, he couldn't even recognize the symptoms of it anymore.
He panicked, and was about to, for some unfathomable reason, apologize to Maya, when he felt a light, gentle pressure against his cheek. His eyes snapped up and met with Maya's, and it was only when he saw her fond smile that he realized that she was stroking his cheek.
"You should see your face right now," Maya said, letting her hand fall onto her lap. "You look like a fish."
As he couldn't trust his voice to produce anything more intelligible than an inquisitive gurgle, Masumi used his extensive body language ask the question: "Did you just stroke my cheek?".
"You were so sad," Maya explained, for once understanding him perfectly, "so I felt like comforting you. It must've taken you a lot of courage to apologize to me, and I thank you for showing me what you really feel. It means a lot to me.
"It really was a stupid mistake to make, to think that I would rather be promoted than meet with my sick mother again. But I don't think it's your fault that you couldn't see that, and even if it was, you obviously regret it a lot, and you've done your best to make up for it. I'm grateful for it, and I forgive you."
Masumi's impression of a fish became even more immaculate.
"W-what?" He stared at her as though she'd morphed into the Crimson Goddess. "You... you forgive me? Why?"
Maya tilted her head, taken aback by his question. "You didn't expect me to forgive you?"
Masumi let out an incredulous huff. "Of course I didn't! I'm not a bloody narcissist! I had hoped that you might've been able to see, some day far in the future, that I'm not the same as I was then, but I never really thought... I mean, I wished you could, but I just... I couldn't see how it was poss—"
Masumi was once again interrupted in his morbid thoughts by Maya touching him, though this time, she went a step further. She bowed down her head, placing her forehead against his shoulder, her arms loosely wrapped around him.
Masumi decided to accept the fact that he no longer knew a single thing about the world, and felt rather good about it. A world in which Maya could hug him with ease was a world he'd love to explore.
"You know," he breathed, touching his fingers to her shoulder, "you're more capable of playing Aldis than you think."
Maya righted herself, about to ask him to elaborate when she noticed exactly how close they were. She turned a lovely shade of pink, drawing back, tying her hands behind her back, as though she was afraid they would do something she wouldn't approve of.
Classical Maya, Masumi thought. She gets so caught up in the moment, she doesn't even realize what she's doing.
"You're already benevolence itself," he told her. To assure her that he was sincere, he took her hand, lightly pressing it against his forehead.
Maya was torn between being uncomfortable and pleasantly surprised, but let Masumi hold onto her hand. Something swelled in her chest as she met his eye; she has no idea he could look so affectionate, and the fact that she was the one who'd inspired that feeling was... strange, not to mention just a little bit unsettling. Yet she was disappointed when his fingers left hers and he stood to leave.
"Eh?" She got up onto her knees, grabbing onto Masumi's sleeve. "Y-you're going?"
"I'm afraid I have to, shorty," Masumi said, glancing at her grip on his suit, laughing gleefully on the inside. "I wasn't built to withstand this degree of intimacy. It's a miracle that I can still speak in whole sentences, so I doubt I'll be a worthy companion to you. It'll have to be another time."
Maya worried her lip, but nodded, letting go of Masumi's clothing.
"I didn't know you were so squeamish," she mumbled, stealing a glance up at him. "It's a bit sad, don't you think? You're nearing thirty, and you can't even say you're sorry without getting tongue-tied."
"I'll admit that I'm emotionally stunted," Masumi said, "but it's just as handicapping to reveal too much. Shorty, you could wear a mask of lead, and I'd still be able to tell exactly what you're thinking."
"Oh?" Maya did her best impersonation of Masumi's enigmatic smile. "Then what am I thinking right now?"
Masumi gazed intently at her, making her mysterious smile quiver at the edges.
"You're thinking that you'll miss me once I go," Masumi said.
Maya, who had prepared herself for the ridiculous and the obscene, started violently at this conclusion.
"Ah... uh..." She stared down at the sofa, scratching at the upholstery. "Y-you're just guessing..."
Masumi raised an eyebrow, looking down at Maya with disbelief.
"No way!" he laughed, his mirth making Maya wince. "I was joking, but you really want me to stay?"
"Not if you're going to gloat about it. I just... I've never seen you like this before, and I probably never will again, and I'll feel like a pig, being the only one eating these cookies."
"Let's remedy that, shall we?"
Masumi leaned down over Maya, forcing her to lie down on the sofa, and snatched a cookie from the coffee table.
"There," he said, popping it into his mouth. "Happy?"
"Ecstatic," Maya said drily. "Don't you have some dark, cold void to return to?"
"Thank you for reminding me," Masumi chirped, smiling brilliantly. "Good night, shorty. Don't bother the maids too much."
"Good night, Mr Hayami," Maya chirped back, her eyebrows giving off a slight twitch. "Don't bother the braided office ladies at Daito too much."
"I'll make no promises," Masumi said, waving at her over his shoulder.
Maya waved back, waiting until he was gone before she slid down onto the sofa, staring up at the high ceiling as she organized her thoughts.
So, the impossible had happened: Masumi had swallowed his pride (which must've been quite a mouthful), and told her he was sorry. Not only that, but he had looked truly remorseful while doing so, his head bowed and his voice unsteady...
Why am I blushing? she thought, covering her face with her arms.
For some reason, the sight of an emotional Masumi made her thoughts go into a physical direction. She wondered why that was, when it suddenly dawned on her: Masumi was simply an extremely physical person. Her image of Masumi as a walking, calculative brain crumbled as she recalled several instances where he'd been anything but: when he'd pulled her out of the lake, when she'd made a fool out of herself in "The Celestial", when they'd danced and he'd heard the sound of thunder, and of course, the entire car ride home, when he'd harassed her with his open shirt and cupped her face. It was only now that she began to see a pattern: whenever Masumi was especially amused, concerned or otherwise moved, he expressed it by touching her. No wonder that she hadn't been able to stop herself from hugging him before; he had practically conditioned her to react like that when faced with his vulnerability.
But I guess I can't keep blaming him for everything anymore, she thought glumly. Pity. It made life so much easier.
She had the option of taking her deduction even further, namely to see that there was another red thread running through all the incidents: Masumi had been reacting to what she'd said or done. But she wasn't quite ready or able to take that leap yet; she just assumed that was how Masumi was around everyone who tickled his fancy.
"Poor office ladies," she chuckled, startling a maid who had entered the living room to see what had happened between the actress and the businessman. "They must have the most hazardous job in the world, with that man on the loose."
Masumi practically oozed into the backseat of his car, glad that he had a driver, as he felt incapable of performing any action that didn't involve staring into space and slowly imploding with joy.
"You can drive home," he told his chauffeur tonelessly, propping himself up against the car door, immediately sinking into his thoughts.
The driver complied, his only reaction to his employer's uncharacteristic listlessness a raised eyebrow. Unlike other members of Masumi's staff, he wasn't nosy.
Curious or not, he was about to get to know Masumi far better than any of his colleagues.
"Have you ever felt," Masumi asked, almost childlike in his earnestness, "as though your life is nothing more than some god's plaything? That you're made to experience the most intense of emotions, simply because a bored deity likes laughing at the faces you make as you jump from utter despair to mindless elation?"
"... Can't say that I have," the chauffeur answered, briefly considering taking a detour to an asylum, just to make sure Masumi was in his right mind.
"You're lucky," Masumi murmured. "It's an incredibly annoying feeling."
Apparently bored with existential talk, he closed his eyes, trying to figure out what place he had in this brave new world, where he could cry and shorty could hug him.
While he usually overflowed with imagination, he really couldn't picture how his life would be like from this point onwards. He just slumped down on his incredibly comfortable backseat, suddenly finding himself seconds away from falling asleep. Emotions had that effect on him. The last thing he did before losing consciousness was to make a note to himself:
Thank Mizuki and Rei by naming my future children after them.
A/N: ... What? I like my Maya sassy and my Masumi bewildered by life in general. There's nothing wrong with that.
(Maybe there's a little bit wrong with that).