AN: This instalment is dedicated to prettyinpinkgal and CeciliaP., for helping me find information, and to pheecat, for being a sweetheart.
Also, fifty points will be awarded to whoever can spot the completely pointless, misplaced "Mallrats" reference.
Masumi had never felt so sure of what he really wanted before, yet he had never been more confused. On one hand, he and Maya had permanently buried the hatchet; on the other, he still had no idea what she thought about him, other than the fact that she enjoyed his sense of humour.
Once the initial shock of happiness had died down, Masumi had realized that while his relationship with Maya had improved greatly, it still didn't mean that they were any closer to becoming romantically involved. Firstly, he was still eleven years older than her and severely damaged. Secondly, he was probably going to act like even more of a moron around her now, thus ruining any chance of her seeing him as anything more than a jester.
For the last few weeks, he'd been plagued by these—among many other, equally depressing—thoughts. As he'd completely lost his poker face when it came to Maya, he was pretty sure that his mental distress was fairly obvious to all of Daito as well. That day alone, he'd been asked if he were alright by four different people. Mizuki had stopped asking, as she knew he wasn't alright and never had been to begin with.
He'd managed to keep himself under wraps while he was with his clients, but it was becoming harder and harder to pretend as though he was the same as ever when his whole life had gone topsy-turvy.
In an ill guided attempt to temporarily numb his feelings, he'd drunk a little bit too much that night. He'd aimed to become fuzzy around the edges, but found, when it was quite too late to do anything about it, that he was having trouble focusing on reality enough to realize that his glass was empty.
"Are you alright, sir?"
Masumi sluggishly retreated from his thoughts, giving the concerned bartender a smile that lit up the room.
"You're the fifth person who's asked me that today," Masumi said. "Do I really look that pitiful?"
"N-not pitiful, sir," the bartender stammered. "Definitely not. Just... pensive."
"You're very diplomatic," Masumi laughed. "I like that in a bartender. But never mind about me; I'm always thinking far too much. There's no way too cure it, not even superb alcohol served by a top notch bartender."
Said bartender murmured "Thank you, sir", wondering exactly why he was blushing at the other man's praise when he had a fiancée at home (who he was quite attracted to, thank you very much). But the fault wasn't his; Masumi owed a sort of universal charisma, which was near blinding when he let it loose, as he currently was. After all, why hold back anymore? If there was anything he'd learnt from the mess that was his life, it was to act however he wished to, rather than to act as was considered appropriate.
I wish Maya was here, he thought (for what was probably the ninth time that day). Then I could release my pent-up flirting energy on its rightful subject, rather than using my poor employees as substitutes.
However, seeing that this bartender wasn't comfortable with having his sexuality put into question, Masumi returned to the main subject of his thoughts: namely a dinner he'd recently had with Maya.
He'd heard from Hijiri that Maya was having trouble portraying Aldis, one of the main characters of "The Two Princesses". Aldis was supposed to be beautiful and charismatic, two traits that Maya's lack of confidence prevented her from displaying.
Upon hearing the news, Masumi had had a strong urge to visit the Nittei Theatre and hold a symposium on Maya's many attractive qualities. But as he didn't want the general public to know that he was a lunatic, he decided to follow a wiser plan of action: he'd invited Maya to a restaurant in Purple Rose's name, and so patched her up with a former opera singer named Kitashirakawa. The middle-aged choir leader had played Aldis in an opera rendition of "The Two Princesses", and was, like Maya, not what you would exactly call "beautiful". Maya had cried as it was announced that Purple Rose couldn't (at least, officially) make it, Kitashirakawa had given her the secret of how to delude yourself into thinking you were gorgeous and Masumi had felt like a waste of space.
He'd been unable to tell Maya that she was more than suited for the role, which was why he was making up for it by thinking of nothing else:
They're both open-hearted, albeit in slightly different manners… and it's not like she's the least bit bad looking… Besides, Maya's exactly the kind of person who would forgive someone for murdering her entire family on account of her or his traumatic childhood.
Masumi sighed, gingerly getting up on his feet. He decided that alcohol wasn't the answer to his problems; his perception of reality was skewed enough already without its aid. After bidding the bartender a fond farewell (to which he received a shy but flattered "Take care, sir"), he was about to leave to make improper advances at his (thankfully female) driver, when he spotted Mizuki, sans her customary sunglasses, in the opening of the bar. She smiled as she met his eye, and Masumi felt his hair stand on end; that smile had an unsettling edge to it.
Nonetheless, he waved at her, motioning her over. While he was quite finished with drinking that evening, he'd appreciate having the company of someone who wouldn't take anything he did seriously. Mizuki inclined her head, and came his way, dragging Maya with her.
His initial thought at seeing Mizuki's companion was "Oh, Maya!". His second, which came after he assessed the fact that he was quite inebriated, was "Oh, no, Maya!". He wanted to escape, but when he saw Maya up close, dressed in a black, shimmering dress, her bare shoulders obscured by a long-sleeved bolero, his wish to vanish waned considerably.
"Good evening, sir," Mizuki chirped as she sidled up to him, discreetly nudging Maya towards him. "Fancy running into you here."
"Yes," Masumi said, "it's quite a surprise to see the vice-president of Daito in Daito's company bar, isn't it? Evening, shorty. You look nice."
"Thanks," Maya said, giving him a friendly smile. "You don't look too shabby yourself."
Masumi's insides turned into soup at that. To prevent himself from grinning like a sop, he said:
"While I appreciate the nice view, I'll have to look a gift horse in the mouth and ask why you're both here? Surely, shorty isn't thinking of joining Daito again?"
"You wish!" Maya laughed. "Mizuki invited me here, and since she graciously offered to pay, I won't be contributing to your tyrannical reign."
"How nice of you, Mizuki," Masumi said, directing a razor-sharp smile at his secretary. "Any particular reason for this bout of uncharacteristic kindness?"
"Well, as you're always talking about Maya these days, sir," Mizuki said, her smile widening as Masumi winced, "I felt that you might want to meet her. Besides, I wanted to witness your repaired relationship with my own two eyes."
"Without the consent of either one of us, it seems," Masumi said, wordlessly communicating "I'll definitely fire you one of these days". He ground his teeth as Mizuki tilted her head with a patronizing smile, which he'd come to learn meant "You couldn't possibly afford to do so, sir, so I'll do whatever I want and you'll just have to put up with it, okay?".
"I don't mind," Maya assured Mizuki. "The more the merrier, right?"
Damn it, shorty, Masumi thought, why must you always say just the thing to make me want to kiss you senseless?
Though, then again, he was always ready to kiss Maya senseless, no matter the occasion.
"Yes," Mizuki agreed, "that's very true. Won't you join us, sir?"
"I'm afraid I'll have to take a rain check," Masumi said. "I've already had a bit too much to drink."
"That's alright," Mizuki insisted. "We're just going to have a glass or so of champagne, and you seem to be rather lucid, sir."
"Be that as it may, I think neither of you would feel up to taking care of an inebriated me."
"I don't know," Maya piqued. "It might be rather fun. I've never seen you tipsy before. It would be a novel experience."
At that, Masumi's resolve to keep well away from Maya was utterly crumbled. It wasn't just because she was encouraging him to stay; he wanted to hear, from her own lips, how she was faring with Aldis. Seeing her now, comfortable, charming and even a little bit elegant in her new dress (which he had bought for her, come to think of it), he was convinced she'd been successful.
"Well," he said, "far be it for me to rob you of that precious, if horrifying, experience."
"Then it's settled," Mizuki said, clasping her hands together. "Maya, why don't you find us a table, while I talk a little bit with Mr Hayami?"
Maya nodded, and started spying the high-class establishment for a free table. While she was otherwise occupied, Masumi took the chance to glare at Mizuki with unrestrained loathing.
"And what exactly do you think you're doing?" he hissed at his secretary.
"I've already explained that, sir," Mizuki said. "It's not like you to be so slow. Are you feeling alright?"
"Well, let's see: I'm drunk enough to flirt with the bartender, and yet, my secretary is trying to get me even drunker, despite the fact that the woman I'm secretly in love with is present. Of course, I'm bloody feeling on top of the bloody world."
"There's no need to resort to crude language, sir," Mizuki chided. "Ah; Maya's found us a table. Come on, sir. You shouldn't keep a lady waiting."
Masumi gnashed his teeth, wondering what he'd done to deserve such a diabolical secretary. While that thought was followed up by, Oh, right, that, and a hundred other things, he still cried:
"I take back what I said before! I'll not curse any of my children with your name! I'll name them all Rei!"
"Wasn't she the one who betrayed your trust first of all?" Mizuki asked, hiding her regret well. Being a closet romantic, she'd quite been looking forward to being repaid for all her trouble by having one of Masumi and Maya's future children named after her.
"Fine, then I'll name them all Karato! At least he minds his own business!"
"Who's Karato? Anyway, sir, I think it would be rude to keep Maya waiting any longer."
Masumi, feeling every inch the martyr, followed his treacherous secretary to a table by the window. Maya was already seated, watching the sun slowly disappear behind the sprawling city with obvious delight. For some reason, finding out that Maya had a fondness of high places made him love her even more.
"What did you two talk about?" she asked them as they joined her.
"Oh, just work," Mizuki said. "Dreary, repetitive work."
Masumi's lip twitched at that obvious slight, but he restrained the urge to pull away Mizuki's chair as she sat down on it.
"But anyway," Mizuki continued, "Maya, what do you say we have something to eat with our champagne?"
"Sure, sounds good. What would you recommend?"
"There's only one thing you can have with champagne; chocolate covered strawberries."
Mizuki snapped her fingers, attracting a nearby waitress.
"Yes, miss?" the waitress asked, matching the décor and atmosphere perfectly.
Mizuki began giving her order, but stopped once she realized that the waitress wasn't hearing a single word she was saying. Rather than writing down Mizuki's request, the waitress was staring at Maya and Masumi. She suddenly grinned hugely, and gave a little skip, disturbing the subjects of her attention immensely.
"Excuse me," Mizuki said, torn between being irritated and intrigued, "but is there something interesting about my guest and your boss?"
The waitress gave another, less gleeful, jump, and hastened to assure Mizuki of how sorry she was over her indiscretion. To make up for it, she practically ran to get their order, only stopping to point out their table to another waitress.
"What on earth was that about?" Masumi said. "I mean, it's not unusual for waitresses to react with unrestrained joy around me," Maya rolled her eyes, "but for some reason, shorty seemed just as fascinating to her." He critically inspected Maya, his expression intently serious. "Maybe she was just overcome by the diversity of gorgeousness at this table?"
While Maya turned as red as the sunset, Masumi revised himself, "Wait, that can't be it, because then she would've looked at you as well, Mizuki."
"You're certainly liberal with your affection today, sir. However, I think I can shed some light on the waitress's reaction. There's been a rumour circulating around the company as of late. It has a very long back-story, but in short, it's generally believed that you and Maya are romantically involved."
Maya and Masumi uttered nearly identical strangled noises. As he was the one with the least amount of aversion against the rumour, Masumi asked Mizuki:
"What? Why? What possible argument can be made for it and why haven't I heard of it?"
"Daito's personnel are expert gossips," Mizuki said. "There was no chance of you ever hearing about it from them. I only know about it because I happened to overhear your assistants talking. Apparently, it came about after a group of office ladies witnessed Maya asking you if you had ever been intimately related with anyone before. It's easy to see how they might've misunderstood the nature of your relationship."
Maya moaned, burying her face in her hands, wondering in how many different ways that day would come back to haunt her. She peeked out between her fingers, thinking that she might feel a bit better after chewing Masumi out for laughing at her misery. He wasn't up to obliging her violent urges, however; he seemed to be, if possible, more embarrassed than she was.
"I'm terribly sorry, shorty," he told her, grimacing with guilt. "No matter what I do, I somehow always manage to cause you trouble."
"Oh," Maya said, still not used to Masumi's impromptu soulful confessions, "no, you don't have to apologize. Besides, I'm pretty sure it was my fault this time."
"But 99,9% of the time," Masumi said, "it's me." He huffed, as though he was annoyed with himself, and gave Maya a crooked grin. "Maybe I stopped developing mentally when I was twelve?"
While Maya had never expected Masumi to admit to being an immature brat, Mizuki had come to that conclusion long ago. In all fairness, it wasn't his fault; he'd just never been allowed to be a kid.
"Here you go!" The waitress's sudden appearance made Maya and Masumi flinch, while Mizuki was as calm as ever. Unlike her poor, confused friends, she never lost her grip on reality.
"Thank you for the speedy deliverance," the secretary said, her voice laced with artificial sweetness.
"I really am sorry for before," the waitress said, colouring as she set down a plate with a sumptuous amount of chocolate dipped strawberries. "It was inexcusable."
"It's alright," Maya assured her. Having been a waitress herself, she knew the trials of the trade. "No harm done, right?"
"Thank you, miss," the waitress said, giving Maya a sunny smile as she expertly popped open the champagne bottle, putting it into an bucket of ice after she'd poured them each a glass. "Well, I'll leave you to your feast, shall I?"
She scurried away to the other waitress, and the two started to enthusiastically discuss what had just happened, attempting to cast discreet glances at Maya and Masumi. In a way, Masumi was touched by their support; in another, he was bloody annoyed. It was all well and fine for them to gossip about it like they didn't have a care in the world, but he was the one who was going to have to deal with the consequences of their frivolity.
"Now that we've established that you're two incredibly awkward people," Mizuki said, picking up her glass, "let's toast to Maya's success."
"Here, here," Masumi said, eyeing his champagne distrustfully.
"Thanks for the support," Maya said, her expression the mirror image of Masumi's as she discerned her drink. She gave it an experimental sip, approved of it with a delighted "Mm!", and set her sights on the strawberries. "But I'm actually completely hopeless. If it wasn't for the charity of certain individuals," she winked at Masumi, who nearly choked on his champagne, "I wouldn't have gotten anywhere."
"You're too modest," Mizuki said. "The ability to attract people is just as—ow!"
The "ow" Mizuki uttered came as a reaction to having her toes trampled on by Masumi.
"You alright, Mizuki?" Maya inquired around a bite of incredibly sweet and succulent strawberry, her concern for the secretary mixed with sheer gastronomic delight.
"Right as rain," Mizuki ground out, shooting a toxic glare at Masumi (who replied with an evil smirk). "It's just an old headache, coming back to bother me. It'll pass soon."
"That's good," Maya said. "You looked like someone had stomped on your foot. Ah, by the way, I realize it's kind of late for me to be saying this now, but are you sure it's alright for me to be drinking this? Isn't the law that you have to be twenty to drink?"
"Perhaps," Mizuki said, "but a responsible adult is here to supervise you. I'll make sure you don't drink more than you can handle. But if you're not sure, I and Mr Hayami will finish your share."
Masumi couldn't help grimacing, thinking, This woman is devil incarnate!
"No, it's alright," Maya said, happily taking another sip of her champagne. "It tastes like potent soda; I think I can handle it."
Masumi couldn't help grinning, thinking, This woman is an angel!
"But back to your success," Mizuki said. "I admit, I was a bit worried about you, knowing that you're childish, insecure and overly conscious about your looks. I'm very happy that you managed to overcome those difficulties. What about you, sir?"
Masumi knew exactly what his evil secretary was trying to do: she was casually insulting Maya to force him, infatuated fool that he was, to pick the girl up.
Nice try, he thought, smirking, but you're too transparent. There's no way I'm going to fall for a ruse I've already spotted...
Or so he reasoned, but when he saw Maya fiddle with her glass, embarrassed and uneasy, he knew he had no other choice than to trigger the trap:
"I knew shorty'd pull through all along. She's an unstoppable force of nature, after all. Nothing and no one can impede her path once she's set out to walk it."
Oh, wow, he thought, observing the reactions his statement had made, I definitely didn't mean to sound so reverent. Damn.
"T-thank you," Maya mumbled, her fiddling intensifying. "T-that's..."
"Sweet?" Mizuki supplied, shamelessly driving her point home by biting down on a strawberry.
Masumi coloured, which made Maya blush in sympathy, even as she tried not to laugh.
"Thank you for that clarification," Masumi said, his polite tone decidedly strained. "By the way, I didn't know you enjoyed making fun of drunkards, Mizuki."
"I didn't know it myself, until now," Mizuki said, despicably cheerful, which served to darken the hue on Masumi's cheeks.
Maya turned her face to the window, her shoulder shaking from repressed hilarity.
"But I wonder," Mizuki continued, "why is it that you were so positive Maya would pull through? Aldis isn't exactly close to her personality."
"Neither was a certain destructive fairy," Masumi said, "but that didn't stop her from acting as though she was impervious to gravity." Maya made an indignant noise, but her smile became even wider than before. "Besides, I think Maya and Aldis have quite a lot in common: they're both incurable optimists, hopelessly naive, too emphatic for their own good, incredibly beautiful, and live in their own little worlds. Perfect match."
Under the impression that he'd made one of his customary speeches, Masumi decided to abandon the conventions of society and enjoy a strawberry. As he came to the conclusion that black coffee and cigarettes had ruined his taste for sweet things, he noticed that Maya and Mizuki were looking at him strangely. Well, Mizuki was; Maya was staring at the table, as red as the time when he'd towered over her with his shirt open.
"What?" he asked. "Have you never seen a man eat a berry before?"
"... Sir," Mizuki said, "could you please go over what you just said about Maya and Aldis?"
"Sure, thought I don't see the poi..."
With a horrible stabbing sensation in his gut, he realized exactly what the point was. The phrase "incredibly beautiful" was the point.
Oh God, his mind screamed at the heavens, please, take me now!
Outwardly, he kept his cool, his voice only slightly unsteady as he said:
"I see nothing wrong with what I said." He poked Maya's cheek, which produced a gasp from the young woman. "You're far too vulnerable when it comes to being complimented, my dear."
"I think it's quite natural for a girl to become flustered when a man calls her 'incredibly beautiful'," Mizuki rationalised.
"You're the very voice of reason, Mizuki. Please stop speaking."
"If you feel the truth makes you uncomfortable sir, then I shall desist."
"You don't need to tease him so much," Maya said. "He probably just meant that I'm beautiful on stage, right? I don't really shine otherwise."
Alcohol has the ability to grant people bravery, and it was very brave of Masumi to not even think of agreeing with Maya before saying:
"Shorty, tell me, when you look in the mirror, do you see nothing more than a blur that you vaguely recognise?"
"... I'm sorry?"
Masumi heaved out a big, longsuffering sigh, giving Maya a pitying look.
"You honestly think that acting is your only astounding quality, don't you?" he said. "Well, I beg to differ. I'm of the firmly rooted, ironclad and indestructible opinion, that no matter what you'd decide to do with your life, you couldn't fail in becoming a great success. 'Acting' served to do no more than trigger the magnificent qualities that were already in your possession: passion, empathy, bravery and perseverance. You could be a shop clerk, and you'd still be an incurable optimist, hopelessly naive, too emphatic for your own good, incredibly beautiful, and live in your own little world."
Maya was trembling; she'd hardly ever been complimented on anything other than her acting, so hearing Masumi, a mystifying, handsome man who didn't mind getting down on his knees for her, say that she'd be a lovely, beautiful person in whatever reality made her stomach flip.
Like she often did when Masumi made her unsure, she became outraged:
"Look, are you just being a jerk, or are you actually drunk enough to exaggerate that much?"
Masumi laughed, drawing the attention of the bar's personnel to him like the light of a flame attracted moths.
"Hmm," he mused, "I'm always a little bit of the first, and right now, I'm definitely the second, but believe me when I say I mean every word. I don't give undue praise, my dear, and you've been due for quite some time."
"You're not serious, are you?" Maya wailed, incensed that she couldn't decide whether she wanted his answer to be positive or negative. "If this is just another round of your 'Bait the Shorty' game, I will kick you somewhere very unpleasant!"
"What, like in the back of a Volkswagen?"
"Be serious! And what the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"I am serious! Why is it so hard for you to accept that someone thinks you've got merits beyond your profession? Besides, I've already made it clear that my interest in you is nowhere near professional. Why are you so agitated about it?"
Because I have no idea why the hell you would be interested in me, if it wasn't for "The Crimson Goddess"! "B-because you always do this: you compliment me, or do something nice, and then you follow it up by doing something incredibly aggravating!"
"So you'd rather I start complimenting you fulltime?"
"W... I-I'd rather you be sincere. Normal, even, if that's possible."
"It's not, but I'll certainly work on being sincere."
"Good. I look forward to not having to be harassed in every eatery I deign to accompany you to."
"You plan to visit a lot of 'eateries' with me, then?"
The way Masumi was smiling at her, as though she was the cutest little thing he had ever laid eyes on, combined with the waitresses' excited tittering in the background, proved to be too much for Maya. With a moan, she chugged down the last of her champagne, putting her overheated cheek against the table.
"This always happen when I'm out with you," she muttered, glaring accusingly at Masumi. "You somehow manage to make me say the most inappropriate things."
"They're called Freudian slips, darling," Masumi drawled, tilting his head to match the level of hers. "The sooner you admit that you find me irresistible, the sooner they will go away."
"In your dreams," Maya sniffed, turning onto her other cheek to emphasize on how she'd never do anything of the kind.
"How did you know?"
Meanwhile, Mizuki sat forgotten, watching the exchange with disturbed awe. She'd witnessed many of her boss's encounters with Maya before, and while they'd always been highly unorthodox, they'd never been quite so... well, they'd never contained the sort of interaction that a grown human being would've labelled flirting. This, however, was very direct, and therefore very dangerous, courting, which meant that Mizuki had to put a stop to it before Masumi did something he'd really regret.
But then again, Mizuki thought, as Masumi tried to tempt Maya to sit up again with promises of him leaving off being seedy, he'll probably never be this open again. Maybe I should let him be. Maya doesn't seem to be taking him seriously, anyway.
After a great deal of coaxing, Maya finally decided to reassume a vertical position, accepting the glass Masumi had filled for her with regal affectation.
"I hereby declare," she intoned, "that all mentions of my subconscious or my career are strictly forbidden."
"As your majesty wishes," Masumi humbly acquiesced. "Do you prohibit drawing attention to your sparkling eyes, charming smile or your hourglass figure?"
"That's especially prohibited!" Maya snapped. "You know what? New decree: all mentions of any of my qualities are banned on the pain of death. Find someone else to amuse yourself with."
Masumi pouted. "You're a poor sport, shorty."
"I'll let that go because it's your first offence," Masumi said, pointing a warning finger at Masumi, "but the next time you refer to me," she moved the finger across her neck, "I will have you executed."
Masumi raised his hands in surrender, and then turned to his secretary with a nefarious quirk to his lips.
"Looks like I'll have to spend the rest of the evening flirting with you then, Mizuki," he trilled, his eyes communicating "I'll make you pay for your offences against me".
Oh God, Mizuki thought, please, take me now!
Once the bottle of champagne was empty and the plate of strawberries had been wiped clean, Mizuki was mortified, Masumi was chipper, and Maya had found that if you were a spectator to the vice-president's teasing, rather than the victim of it, it was actually quite funny. It was interesting, how he always seemed to know exactly what to say to either rile or flatter people, even if they were as composed as Mizuki was. While he'd had to work a little harder to penetrate her defences than he had to with Maya (for obvious reasons), in the end, he had her blushing and gnashing her teeth.
"You're warped," Maya told him as they stood up to leave. "I really can't understand the way you socialize."
"Oh," Masumi said, his smile widening as he saw Mizuki slam down a hefty amount of bills onto the tab, "so it's alright for me to address you, my liege?"
"If you drop the royal monikers, yes. I figure you've already vented all your bullying energy on Mizuki, so it should be safe to approach you."
"My dear, my urge to tease and flirt is never satiated, at least not in lovely company like this. But enough of my glowing wit: shorty, I have a favour to ask you."
"You may ask," Maya said over her shoulder, walking towards the exit, "but I can't guarantee that you'll receive."
Bloody hell, Masumi thought, trailing after her like a dog after its master, but how is it that the whole world isn't as crazy about this woman as I am?
"I'd like to check out the Himekawa mansion," he said, "to make sure you haven't worked the maids and the nanny to death and destroyed Ayumi's room in a fit of spiteful jealousy."
Maya spun around on her heels, but her rant on how he should stop making jokes that weren't funny was cut short by the fact that she had to jump back not to collide with him.
"Nice reflexes!" Masumi enthused. "I see the Puck training really stuck with you."
"Don't 'Nice reflexes' me!" Maya spat. "Exactly why are you walking so close me?"
"Drunks don't really have a sense of personal space," Masumi said, proving this by slouching over Maya.
"Are you really drunk though?" Maya questioned, pushing him away without much difficulty. "You've got even fewer boundaries than you usually do, but other than that, you're the same as always. You're not even slurring."
"I am well and truly smashed," Masumi said, proving this with a silly grin. "It's just that my oratory abilities are so masterful when I'm at normal capacity, they retain a measure of excellence even when I can't see properly. So, what about my question, my easily distracted little poppet?"
"Stop calling me poppet, and since Mrs Himekawa was the one who gave you permission to visit while they were away, I've no right to refuse you, no matter how much I may want to."
"You know," Masumi smirked, taking Maya's hands, leaning back against the wall in the corridor, "I have a memory of you clutching my sleeve, asking me not to go. Don't act as though you don't enjoy my company; I already know you find me hilarious."
Maya half-heartedly tried to tug her hands out of his, but finding that that he wasn't going to give them up without a fight, she resigned herself with a sigh.
"I wanted you to stay because you were finally acting like a proper human being," she sniffed. "I have no desire to spend any more time than necessary with a wired, touchy drunk."
"That would really sting, were it true. You should really stop smiling, shorty, if you want your disdain to seem the least bit genuine."
A loud throat clearing brought them out of whatever world they entered when they bickered.
"I do exist as well," Mizuki reminded them, "in case you'd forgotten."
With what might have been a "meep!", Maya ripped her hands away from Masumi, tying them behind her back.
Mood killer, was what Masumi thought, but what he said out loud was this:
"You've an unforgettable presence, Mizuki, so never fear that you'll be far from my heart. By the way, how did you and my darling shorty get here?"
"In a taxi," Mizuki answered.
"In a taxi?" Masumi snorted. "That will just not do; Mizuki, you'll become penniless, after what you've already spent at the bar. Let's go in my car. I got a new driver, and she'll be lonely without me."
"Are you sure you want to show this side of you to any more of your employees? The amount of rumours circulating about you will skyrocket."
"They've already patched me up with Maya. Anything else they could come up with pales in comparison. Let's go. Maya's already late for her bedtime."
"You really didn't exaggerate when you said you have an endless supply of obnoxiousness," Maya muttered.
Masumi just smiled like a kid, and bumped Maya with his hip.
"You're getting cranky," he said. "We should speed home, before you throw a tantrum."
"Before that," Mizuki said, "sir, I need to talk to you in private. Maya, can you wait by the elevators for us?"
Maya just nodded, feeling that she might need a break from Masumi, however brief. It didn't stop her from pushing her shoulder against his chest, her frown twitching as he stumbled back with a howl of laughter.
"Sir," Mizuki said, once Maya was safely out of earshot, "maybe you should calm down, before you say something unfortunate?"
"I've already slipped up beyond repair," Masumi reasoned, shrugging. "Might as well say whatever I want for as long as I can blame it on being drunk, which, hey, I am."
"Yes, but sir, there's a limit even to Maya's naivety. If you keep calling her beautiful and taking her by the hand, she might just start thinking that you like her a bit more than socially acceptable."
"But I do like her enormously more than would be socially acceptable in any part of the world," Masumi argued. "God, Mizuki, but isn't she wonderful? Everything she says is so, so endearing, and the way she blushes..."
Masumi purred with pure joy, practically skipping with excitement. Mizuki paled; things were far worse than she had presumed.
"Sir," she tried again, "please, try to restrain yourself—"
"I'm always restraining myself," Masumi warbled. "I cannot take it anymore; by damn, tonight I shall live!"
He shot off after Maya, leaving the high heel clad Mizuki in his dust. Once he reached the elevators, he slid up much too close to the actress, saying:
"Hello, my dear!"
"T-that was a short talk you and Mizuki had," Maya said, edging away from Masumi. "Where is she?"
"Hm? Oh, her? It seems I don't know my own speed; I must've outrun her, quite by accident. By the way, shorty, have I told you that I think you're absolutely adorable?"
Maya tried desperately not to colour by thinking that Masumi was under the influence and probably just out to hassle her, but the look in his eyes only served to back his statement.
"You know," she tried to make a joke out of it, even though a flush was spreading over her body, "you really need to stop looking at me like that."
"Like what?" For some reason, his eyes widened, his expression intrigued as well as vulnerable.
"L-like I'm small, furry and helpless."
Masumi was stunned into silence for a regrettably short moment, before he broke it by laughing in such a heartfelt manner, Maya could feel it in her gut.
"You're right," he said, unconsciously moving closer to her. "I'll have to rectify that, because you're not in any way helpless, unless it comes to receiving compliments, and you're definitely not furry."
Maya swallowed at his close proximity, but didn't move away. She reasoned that even if she did move away, he would follow, which would soon entail them blocking the elevator doors, thus causing an inconvenience for all potential elevator passengers.
"You are, however," Masumi continued, "so very, very tiny." He took her hands again, and propped them up against his own. "Look; I can cover your whole fist with my hand."
He grinned as he played with Maya's hands, as though he was a child that had found a new toy. Maya had a sudden flashback to back when she'd been training to become Helen, and had to communicate with people by writing on their palms. A mental image if Masumi throwing a ball of yarn down a flight of stairs and winding it together again popped up, making her giggle before she could stop herself.
Masumi's head snapped up, and when he saw her trying not to laugh, his lips turned up in yet another smile. Maya's breath caught in her throat; there was nothing childish about this smile, nor was it gentle. It was intensely warm and affectionate, with another quality to it that Maya couldn't quite identify, but which unnerved her all the same.
"I do love it when you laugh," he said, and his voice matched his expression perfectly.
There is only so much a teenage girl can take; Maya hung her head, pressing her hands against her 40 degree cheeks. Masumi didn't let off like he usually did, though; he put his arm above her head, watching her shudder as he leaned down, trying to catch her eye.
"Is this another one of those 'If you're being mean, stop it, but if you're not, proceed' moments?"
"I... I don't know what you mean..."
"I think you do, on some level, but that you can't acknowledge it, as it would destroy your mental health."
"... You never make any sense."
"Neither do you. How can someone so empathic not pick up on something as obvious as this?"
Maya was about to tell him to back off and Masumi was about to refuse her, when Mizuki barrelled into him, almost making him fall over.
"Terribly sorry, sir," Mizuki said, slightly out of breath. "I didn't see you there."
"Quite alright," Masumi said, his eyebrows twitching. "I have a propensity to blend into the background. Now that we're all gathered," he pressed the elevator call button, "let's go meet my darling of a chauffeur."
Maya's jaw tensed at that; "my darling of a chauffeur"? I thought he only did that with me, she thought, feeling oddly betrayed. He said he did. Not that I care, of course, and it's not like I even like being called stuff like that, but...
She trailed off, sensing that someone was watching her. She met Masumi's eye, his concentrated expression making her heart skip a beat.
Please, she thought, staring hard at the elevator doors, don't read my mind! You're drunk and mad as a hatter; it's inconceivable that you should be able to read my mind!
She glanced back at him, and was horrified to see that a wicked smile had spread over his lips. He'd read her mind, and was going to pull no punches in teasing her about it.
"Don't worry," he told her, his voice assuring and shaky with mirth. "I'm only calling her 'darling' because you are here, thus endowing me with a good will towards one and all. There's no need to get jealous."
"I'm not jealous!" Maya protested vehemently. "You can call anyone whatever weird nickname you like, and I wouldn't mind in the least!"
"Of course," Masumi concurred. "As long as I don't call them 'shorty', 'poppet', 'my dear' or 'darling', right?"
"I'm going to stop speaking to you now," Maya announced as the elevator opened up, walking into it without another glance at Masumi.
"That's your answer to everything," Masumi said, rolling his eyes.
He waited until Maya had pivoted around, and then scrutinised her face assiduously.
"It does look like any more of my kind of conversation might be fatal to you," he said, surveying Maya's trembling form with satisfaction. "Very well, shorty. I'll let you recover before I try anything else."
Maya proceeded to hyperventilate in the corner of the elevator, while Masumi hummed an airy melody.
"Sir," Mizuki said drily, "you really have to work on your person skills. It's not a good thing for people to be reduced to quivering messes after talking to you."
"Says you," Masumi snorted. "I think it's an excellent way to communicate. I'm sure a certain quivering mess in this elevator would agree, if she could speak."
Maya either laughed or sobbed; it was hard to tell, as she'd hidden her face in her hands and pressed herself up against the mirrored walls. Masumi's smile was so far from the realm of what was appropriate, that had a priest been there, he would've been struck by a strong urge to perform an exorcism.
Mizuki struggled to find some way to make Masumi calm down, but knew that nothing short of pouring a bucket of ice water on him would even break his stride. Seven years of emotional denial, plus a few of sexual repression, were making themselves known with a vengeance.
"It's a relief to see you so happy, sir," Mizuki said, deciding that if she couldn't stop him from throwing himself at Maya, she could at least make him do it in a gentler manner. "You've been rather distracted lately. Like you've had a lot on your mind."
Masumi skilfully dodged the anvil sized hint, and said:
"I've only had one thing on my mind: shorty."
Maya moaned, but remained stationary; with or without her input, the whole situation was bound to be unbearably confusing and excruciating, so she decided to try and tune it out.
"I've been going mad," Masumi continued, "wondering whether or not Maya had it in her to play a placid beauty. Of course, she has no choice but to excel in everything she does, but her wild ways are bound to make themselves known. Her Aldis will probably pick up the dagger and kill Origeld."
"Oh," Maya burst out, stomping around to face Masumi, "but that is it! You can pick on me all you want, but leave my Aldis out of this! My Aldis is spectacular; she'll make your jaw drop!"
Instantly, she knew she'd done the wrong thing; Masumi just looked at her, and then, without a word, hugged her. With a squawk, Maya brought up her arms, hoping that their boniness would discourage Masumi from continuing the contact, but it didn't even faze him.
"My dear," Masumi crooned, drawing her as close as was physically possible, "if you could be mass-produced and sold to the leaders of this world, there'd no longer be any wars!"
"Not this again!" Maya despaired, trying in vain to break free. "Stop this now, or I'll bite you!"
"Go ahead," Masumi offered, putting one of his hands on the small of her back, "while I do this."
"This" meant that Masumi lifted Maya off of her feet, holding her in place against him with his arms. Gasping, Maya instinctively drew her legs up, pressing her thighs against either side of Masumi's hip.
"Ow!" Masumi grimaced. "Well, that'll do just as well as a bite, I guess. How weird, that your legs are nearly as bony as your arms."
"Sir!" Mizuki cried, as Maya screamed, "Are you insane?!"
"Oh, look," Masumi said, ignoring them both, "we've reached the garage." He smiled in face of Maya's murderous glares. "You might want to hold on a little tighter. I'm not exactly steady on my feet right now."
"I hate you," was all Maya said, ducking her head down onto his shoulder.
"Alright," Masumi said, shrugging (which produced a guttural growl from Maya), "but don't blame me when I drop you on your rear."
The elevator doors opened, and Maya's acid reply was drowned out by a shout:
Masumi just smiled at his chauffeur, politely motioning for her to move back so that he could leave the elevator, his wince mixed with glee as Maya tightened her legs' hold on him.
"Hi, Kokubu!" he chirped, wrapping his arms around Maya in a fashion that was even more inappropriate than before. "Were you coming up to look for me?"
"Y-yes," Kokubu said, momentarily losing the ability to close her mouth. "You were gone for a long time; I just wanted to make sure everything was alright..."
"Good ol' Kokubu!" Masumi said, levelling his driver with a look that would've even made the bartender in the Daito bar consider leaving his fiancée for him. "I told you she'd get lonely without me, didn't I? By the way, this gorgeous woman I'm cradling in my arms is called Maya Kitajima, and you know my secretary. Say hi, shorty."
Maya dejectedly rose from Masumi's shoulder, twisting around in his arms to wave limply at Kokubu.
"Hello," she said, her smile soulless. "Nice to meet you. I've heard so much about you."
"Um, hi?" Kokubu said, not quite able to shake the feeling that someone had just kicked her in the gut.
"Master Hayami is quite inebriated," Mizuki explained, "which is why he couldn't suppress the urge to pick Miss Kitajima up against her wishes."
"But she's so tiny!" Masumi said, nuzzling Maya's hands. "Besides, if she really didn't want me to carry her, I would be sans a head right now. Now, let's see if I can walk without falling on my ass, shall we?"
He began walking to his car, remarkably steady for someone drunk up to his ears. Because of his precious cargo, he forced himself to focus on what he doing, rather than to try and smell Maya's hair.
"Miss Kokubu," Maya piqued (nearly scaring the chauffeur to death), "I would just like to say that this isn't how Mr Hayami usually interacts with me."
"No, indeed," Masumi agreed. "Usually, I'm much subtler in my advances. Such as inviting her to dinner on the pretence that I'll profit from it monetarily, giving her various pieces of clothing for safekeeping or dancing with her to check her progress."
He took a moment to think about it, as Maya writhed with mortification, and then cheerfully declared:
"Wow, shorty, but you're seriously naive! You're lucky I'm too much of a gentleman to take advantage of that."
"Oh, really?" Maya said, emphasizing her point by clamping down her thighs on Masumi's hips, a vindictive smirk blossoming on her lips as his face distorted with pain.
"I've taken a few... liberties," Masumi admitted. "But nowhere near as many as I could've."
Maya tried to find the right words to express her monstrous rage, when it suddenly vanished. She blinked, feeling inexplicably light, despite the building cramp in her legs, and spoke, her voice shaky with disbelief:
"This... this is ridiculous, but I think you've actually made my anger short circuit."
Masumi stopped, stared and let out a hoot of laughter that echoed throughout the entire garage.
"You're kidding?" he said, tickled to his very core.
"No," Maya said, shaking her head. "All my anger, embarrassment and nervousness just went up in smoke. Like I reached a higher state of being."
"My god, shorty, but did I make you reach nirvana?"
Meanwhile, Mizuki and Kokubu had already reached the car, as not being drunk and carrying another person gives one an advantage when it comes to speed.
"I can't believe this," Kokubu intoned, watching her boss twirl an indifferent, tiny actress around. "The rumours are true. How is it possible? I've never even seen him spend five minutes without a folder in his hands; how is this possible?"
"Don't try to make sense of it," Mizuki advised her. "Just know that when it comes to Maya Kitajima, Master Masumi and logic no longer go hand in hand."
"Obviously," Kokubu said. "Everyone's heard the rumours, but no one really believed it. I mean, I know Master Hayami is as bad as everyone says he is, but I didn't think he was able to be... you know, to—"
"Love another human being?"
Kokubu spluttered, trying to deny the accusation, but Mizuki just held up a hand.
"It's alright," Mizuki said. "I thought the same thing when I first met him. A man screamed at him that he'd ruined his life; Master Masumi just smiled and asked him not to cause a scene. But when faced with this one girl, he can't hide what he truly is: possibly the most emotional man in Japan."
Kokubu's mouth refused to close yet again as she stared at the secretary.
"But really," Mizuki continued, her brow creased, "it's impossible to work with such a man. One moment, he's perfectly capable and full of energy; the next, he's in such a funk, he works until he's at the brink of death. The results are pretty much the same, but the company is radically different."
Kokubu compared the carefree, laughing Masumi before her with the one she usually served: a silent, industrious and sombre man. Other than their general appearance, she could find nothing in common between the two; even their voices were completely different.
"By the way," Mizuki said, snapping the driver out of her thoughts, "I'd appreciate it if I could ride in the front seat. I've spent the entire evening as either a third wheel or a target; I have no aspiration to fill either position yet another time."
Kokubu just nodded, firmly sunken into a daze as she went about unlocking the car doors. She mechanically opened the door to the backseat as Masumi and Maya arrived.
"Thank you," Masumi said. "Now, my enlightened darling, you might want to hold on a bit tighter."
"I didn't fall for that the first time you tried to pull it, why would I—"
The reason for why she should follow Masumi's instructions became apparent as said man suddenly bent over. Maya shrieked, her stomach plummeting, and tied her arms and legs around Masumi, not caring a whit about how incredibly seedy they must look if it meant she could avoid smashing to the ground back first.
Masumi laughed breathily, trying not to enjoy himself too much as he climbed into the backseat. It was damn hard, as this was probably(/sadly) the single most erotic moment of his life. Maya's limbs tangled around him, her face buried against his neck, her heart hammering against his chest... It was so wonderful, so intoxicating, it made him completely lose his head.
He deposited Maya onto the cushy backseat, but rather than retreating to a polite distance, he propped himself on his elbows, hovering over her. She was blushing so hard it must've hurt, emanating heat like a furnace.
"Well," he murmured, his smile fading into a grin, "doesn't this put you in the mood for something?"
Maya might've entertained the idea for a fraction of a second, if Mizuki and Kokubu hadn't been in the front seat. As it was, she pushed him back and gave him a ringing slap without a moment's hesitation.
Even with that discouragement, Masumi drew back no more than what was absolutely necessary to allow Maya to scurry away. She glowered at him as she did so, roughly tugging down her skirt, which had rode up to her hips.
"Moron!" she barked, trying to master her rapid breathing. "Jerk! Pervert! Bastard!"
"So it wasn't a 'proceed' moment," Masumi sighed, looking more like a child who'd received a slap on the wrist, rather a grown man who'd been punched by a girl. "Damn."
"There will never be a 'proceed' moment!" Maya hissed. "There'll only be 'stay five feet away from me at all times' moments from now on!"
"Relax, shorty," Masumi said, sitting up, hiding the remnant of his excitement by crossing his legs. "I was just joking."
"... Joking?" Maya gaped, and then bared her teeth. "Joking?! You, you... augh!"
"I like playing rough," Masumi said, smirking. "I thought you at least knew that much about me."
Various scenarios of "rough play" came tumbling into Maya's hormone fuelled brain, making her despair, as some of them would surely be incorporated in her already disturbing dreams.
"Excuse me," Mizuki said, crawling, with a little difficulty, into the back seat, placing herself firmly between Masumi and Maya.
"I'm not sure I will," Masumi said, glaring at Mizuki. "What's the reason for this intrusion?"
"I thought Maya might like having a buffer between you and her," Mizuki explained, "at least while you're forced to occupy the same cramped space."
"That," Maya said, scowling at Masumi as she removed her bolero, fanning her face, "she most certainly would. You can't be too careful with these invasive sobs, can you, Miss Mizuki?"
"Indeed, Maya. They can strike at any moment, which is why constant vigilance is needed."
Masumi crossed his arms, sulking as he told Kokubu to drive to the Himekawa Mansion.
"You're both mean," he curtly informed them as the car drove out of the garage and up to the street. "Anyone might become a little bit too overzealous when surrounded with the women he loves."
Had Kokubu been any less skilled a driver, she may have swerved onto the sidewalk at hearing that. As it was, she kept her eyes on the road and her hands at ten and two on the steering wheel, leaving it to Mizuki and Maya to react to Masumi. Maya, who still hadn't been allowed to recover from Masumi's physical shenanigans, just became as stiff as a ramrod, her intense blushing raising the temperature in the car.
"S-sir," Mizuki stammered, "do you realize what you just said?"
"Oho," Masumi said, "so you think this is another one of those slips, like 'shorty is incredibly beautiful'? Sorry to rob you of the sight of me stuttering, but I fully intended to say that I love you both."
"Ah...!" Maya clenched her fists around the fabric of her skirt, her face without defences as she turned to Masumi. He met her gaze with a calm smile, asking her:
"Something wrong, my dear?"
"T-that's..." She swallowed, her throat tight and her mouth dry. "That's not funny."
"I know," Masumi said, "which is why I said it in all seriousness. I love—"
"You're drunk, sir," Mizuki hurried to interject. "You probably don't even know what you're saying."
Masumi frowned, vexed by their (fully justified) lack of faith, and decided to prove his point by hugging his secretary.
"I love you," he repeated, his tone leaving no room for argument. "Your competence, your biting sarcasm, your bleeding heart and your piercing intellect; I couldn't do without any of them. You're like an outstandingly pushy elder sister, who brings me coffee."
"I... Um... Thank you, sir," Mizuki sputtered, awkwardly patting her boss's shoulder. As Masumi had, up until that moment, never given her any hint of having any sibling related feelings for her (though he did enjoy having petty squabbles with her), she wasn't sure how she should act. Mizuki didn't know if she loved him, even platonically, but she did respect him greatly, as he had endeavoured to become a better man simply for the sake of a passionate girl. "That... means a lot."
Masumi touched his forehead to the top of her head before he withdrew, and turned his attentions towards said passionate girl. Predictably, she was red all over and refused to meet his eye, fanning herself frenetically with both hands. Her expression was pinched and her eyes glassy. Even though his wisdom was impaired, Masumi knew that he could make her cry, either by denying her his affections or by pressing them onto her forcibly.
"You don't have to believe me, my dear," he said, replacing his anxiety with joviality. "I won't take offence if you don't. I just thought that you might know that I, um," he cleared his throat, screwed up his courage and continued, "that I love you. For, well," he laughed, rubbing at his neck, "for being you. That's all."
That was more than enough; Maya whimpered, rolling down the car window, and nearly stuck her whole head out of it to cool herself down. Once she'd avoided overheating, she told Masumi, still unable to face him:
"I, I can understand why you'd love Mizuki, but me? I... We hardly know each other!"
"You're not exactly hard to unravel, dear. You wear your heart on your sleeve, so to speak; you show exactly who you are with every word you speak and every gesture you make."
At Maya's thunderstruck expression, Masumi lost some of his alcohol empowered nerve, and backpedalled:
"Of course, it might just be the champagne and the four tumblers of whisky I had talking. I feel like I might just end up in love with a lamppost before the night is through."
Being given that small loophole made Maya calm down enough to begin breathing again. Though she still needed to sit as close to the window as possible to avoid melting into a puddle, she managed to say, giggling uneasily:
"You know, every time I agree to ride home with you, you just get worse and worse. Are you working your way towards breaking some sort of record?"
Relieved beyond imagining, Masumi slumped down in his seat, mouthing "Thank god," before he said:
"Actually, I'm collecting data for a book I'm writing: '1 001 Ways to Aggravate Actresses'. You and Akane Mogami both have your own chapters."
"And I provided way one to way one thousand, right?"
The tension that had previously filled the car to the brim began to vane, and the conversation finally veered onto normal tracks, none of which involved either Maya or Mizuki's loveliness.
Unfortunately, Mizuki decided to inquire about Tsukikage's health, at which Masumi let out a loud, disdainful snort.
"... What was that noise you just made?" Maya inquired, leaning onto the front seat so that she could deliver her glare more effectively.
"That noise," Masumi said, "was a non-verbal expression of my feelings for Tsukikage. Namely," he repeated the snort with even more impetuosity than before.
"Wha—what reason do you have to make insulting noises at my teacher?" Maya couldn't have been more offended if Masumi had just announced that all her beliefs and moral convictions were so in the wrong, it was laughable.
"Hmm, I don't quite know," Masumi mused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Maybe because she's completely insane?"
Maya made a noise of her own; as Tsukikage had been her mentor for nigh on eight years, it was understandable that hearing her being casually referred to as a nutcase made the actress a little miffed:
"She's not crazy! Just... eccentric! She's a genius; she's allowed to have quirks!"
"I'm not saying that she's isn't brilliant," Masumi protested. "I can't deny that she's probably one of the best actresses of this century. That doesn't change the fact that she's whacked out of her gourd. I should know," he tapped the side of his head, "we can smell our own."
"And what exactly is it that you find implies that my teacher is mentally impaired?" Maya knew she shouldn't encourage him to bash her mentor, but as focusing on Tsukikage would minimize the chances of any more awkwardness occurring between them, she had to do it. Sorry, Tsukikage; it's you or me.
"Her teaching method. Who in their right mind would tell a girl, who's just overcome a major trauma, that she has two years to win one of the most prestigious awards in the Japanese acting world, when she's performing in a school shed? Pure madness! DAMN that Tsukikage!"
Masumi savagely unravelled his tie, agitatedly running it through his fingers. Maya was both touched and put off by his anger at her being mistreated, but felt the need to point out an obvious contradiction:
"You know that you use exactly the same method as she did? Using tough lo—um, motivating me by challenging me?"
"That's because I didn't have any other choice." As the backseat was spacious, Masumi succeeded in rising from his seat, pushing Mizuki into it and usurping her place, all in the span of four seconds. While his display of drunken ingenuity and lack of boundaries was still being absorbed, he took Maya's hands in his. "You distrusted and disliked me; I had no other way to motivate you than by manipulation. Tsukikage, however, has your adoration and unending loyalty; she has countless of ways to get you started on your path to greatness. But as she is, as previously stated, short one violinist of an orchestra, she decided to use the most aggravating, melodramatic and hackneyed method to get you going. I mean, of course, you'll succeed, but it's not like you haven't shown that you have the ability to rise to monstrous heights at mindboggling speed before; she's just being repetitive, damn her!"
Maya was conflicted: on one hand, she should slap him for talking about her teacher like that, but on the other, she knew the only reason why he was being so offensive was because he cared about her. Her urge to set him straight combated with her urge to hug him, as well as her urge to rip her hands from his grip and curl up into a little ball.
Sensing her obvious distress, Mizuki came to Maya's rescue:
"Maybe Tsukikage thinks like you do, sir: that there's no way Maya can't succeed."
"Well, of course," Masumi said, glancing back at Mizuki without letting go of Maya. "But she doesn't have to throw her cub off the cliff. She could have just said, 'If you don't win the Academy Art's Award in two years, I will cry', and Maya would've worked equally hard. Don't you think," he whirled around towards the actress again, "that the whole concept of tough love is overrated? I mean, sure, it works, but it's no fun for anyone. Your life should be as pleasurable as possible, my dear, but because those around you keep holding onto warped notions of how to help you, it's not. You're a star; we should all take a step back, enjoy the splendour, and let you do your thing. You have a much better idea of how to live than either Tsukikage or I do, anyway."
Maya was overcome by the impulse to embrace Masumi, and thanked god for the fact that she always froze up in situations like these. She was very close to doing something that she'd definitely regret, however, when the car finally pulled up next to her temporary high class dwelling.
"C-come with me if you must," she stammered, retrieving her hands from Masumi's care to clumsily attempt to open the door. "But make it quick."
"What's with you and car doors?" Masumi wondered, reaching around her to offer his assistance. With one smooth movement, he'd gotten the door ajar, kicking at it to open it wide enough to admit a person.
Maya literally jumped at the chance to escape Masumi, only stopping to slip her bolero back on.
"Really, sir," Mizuki tsked, "you're incorrigible."
She was about to move out, when Masumi held out an arm to stop her.
"I'm sorry, Mizuki," he said, "but you're not invited."
"... And why is that?" Mizuki asked, her eyes narrowing. "I'm not going to leave you alone with Maya for a single second, sir, unless it's for a very, very good reason."
"And here's it is," Masumi said, taking out a briefcase from under the seat. He popped it about, and deposited a fat file onto Mizuki's lap. "That contains some imperative information about the Yuuzuki contract, among many other fun things. This needs to be looked through before tomorrow, or it's fairly certain that we will lose a few millions or so. To me, that will mean nothing, but to you, that will mean being chewed out by Asa."
Mizuki flinched; Asa, who now served as Eisuke Hayami's assistant, had scolded her once before, and she'd been forced to spend the rest of the day in bed, with the covers drawn over her head, to be able to process the psychological trauma.
"Damn you, sir," she swore, giving her employer one last dirty look before she began shuffling through the file. "I hope Maya ends up slapping you so hard your jaw breaks."
Masumi just cackled evilly, hopping out to join his love. Maya was waiting for him by the massive front door, her complexion now a light pink rather than a violent red.
"Where's Mizuki?" she asked, taking an expressive step back when Masumi lumbered up to her.
"She was unfortunately delayed," Masumi said, "so it's just us, I'm afraid."
"Afraid is right," Maya muttered, ringing the door bell with a sigh of outmost suffering. "Behave yourself."
"Don't I always?"
Maya could only reply to that absurd statement by rolling her eyes, which she of course happened to do when one of the maids opened the door.
"W-Welcome home, mistress," the maid greeted, once she'd digested the sight before her.
"I'm home," Maya said, smiling to cover up her intense embarrassment. "Oh, and even though I have a guest with me," she swung her hand back, smacking it against Masumi's chest, "there'll be no need to prepare tea or anything. He'll be leaving very soon."
"Just passing through," Masumi agreed. "By the way," he grabbed Maya's shoulders, "you wouldn't happen to be oppressed by this young lady, would you?"
"Never mind him," Maya growled, slapping away Masumi's hands, taking a firm grip on his lapels. "He's just being very unfunny."
Masumi chuckled, shooting the poor maid a besotted smile as Maya dragged him into the living room. Oddly enough, being manhandled by Maya made him feel a little turned on, though at this point, being hit in the face with a pie by Maya would probably arouse him.
I'm a sick, sick man, he thought blithely, affirming the validity of that statement by being disappointed when Maya's knuckles stopped bumping against his collarbone.
"As you can see," she said, sweeping an arm around to draw attention to the unmarred, spotless state of the room, "I haven't destroyed anything and there are no cowering servants, so really, there's no reason for you to stay."
She advanced on him to push him out, but he sidestepped her outstretched hands, leaving her to stumble while he inspected the room with insulting thoroughness. He ran his fingers across the coffee table to check it for dust, he peeped under the sofa cushion, and even went so far as to see if Ayumi's white piano had been sabotaged.
"Satisfied?" Maya inquired with sharp sweetness.
"Yup," Masumi answered. "The living room's clean. Now, onto the kitchen!"
Maya was about to attempt to put Masumi into a headlock, when Nanny entered the room. As Maya was weak towards the grandmotherly type, she decided to postpone her act of violence until after Nanny left. The good-natured nanny was about to welcome her temporary mistress, when she saw Masumi, who was wearing the goofiest expression hitherto recorded in the history of man, and became sidetracked.
"Master Masumi?" she said, more than a little hesitant about whether she had gotten the right name. "What a, a surprise."
"Please," Masumi said, bowing intricately, "call me Masumi. We've known each other for years, after all."
Nanny was an expert on taking care of young girls; the psyche of grown men escaped her, making her unable to comprehend how Masumi wanted her to respond. But then again, the psyche and wishes of Masumi Hayami was a mystery to all, possibly because said man found it amusing to leave people speechless.
Maya, however, had long since grown immune to Masumi's eccentricities (those that weren't physically oriented, at least), and told Nanny:
"You'll have to excuse him; he's a bit... intoxicated."
"By beauty," Masumi added, slinging an arm around Maya.
"By idiocy," Maya sneered, pinching Masumi's cheek to make him let go. "Leave already; spending time with you exhausts me."
"Oh," Masumi said, rubbing his cheek, "you're staying in Ayumi's room, right? I want to see it. I've always wondered if she's a closet transvestite, or if she collects puppets."
Nanny paled with shock at having the girl she'd raised since childhood mocked so frivolously by the last person she'd ever think would do so. She was gratified when Maya began berating Masumi, as it spared her the trouble of having to do it herself:
"She's not and she doesn't! Besides, it's my room now, so there'd be nothing to interest you."
"How can you say that," Masumi said, looking genuinely hurt, "knowing that I love you immensely? Anything that belongs to you holds the greatest of allure to me, precisely because it has been touched by your lovely hands."
"D-don't say stuff like that in such a loud voice..."
"You're worried about Nanny? Don't worry," Masumi winked at Maya, "I'll take care of it." He faced the increasingly bewildered nanny, his expression dead serious. "I'm very sorry, but even though I love this woman to death, I'd appreciate it very much if you could keep this a secret. I mean, no one could fail to see that I worship the very ground she treads, but she's a bit shy, you see."
Nanny suddenly felt a great longing for the Himekawas. At least they didn't blatantly declare their love for the whole household to hear.
"You're doing this on purpose, aren't you?" Maya bellowed, punching his arm. "You're horrible!"
"And you're wonderful!" Masumi trilled, giving her a quick embrace, skipping back before she could retaliate. "Now, which way to the room that formerly belonged to the cross-dressing puppeteer?"
"Up there," Maya jabbed her finger at the stairs, "and I already told you, Ayumi is neither of those things! Don't just make up random rumours about people!"
"Why not?" Masumi crowed. "It's seems to be all the rage at Daito, and I'm its vice-president; I can't afford to skip out on the trends. It'll give the company a bad name."
With that bizarre statement, he bounded up the stairs, pausing at the floor landing to pick which direction he should go. He went to the right, and was rectified by Maya:
"It's to the left!"
Masumi spun on his heel, saluted Maya with a grin, and went down the left corridor, peeking into every door he passed. Maya put her head in her hands; this night was going to get worse before it got better.
Giving Nanny a weak smile, she went up the stairs after Masumi to make sure that he didn't knock anything expensive over in his stupor. Nanny was still for a moment, contemplating what she would write to Utako (who was far more enthusiastic about gossip than the rest of the family) about this:
Dear Mrs Himekawa,
Do you remember that rumour about Masumi Hayami, which you thought was endearing, but completely impossible? I've just had it confirmed in no uncertain terms by two very reliable sources: my ears and my eyes.
P.S. Master Hayami seems to be under the misconception that your daughter is a transvestite ventriloquist. Will try to amend his opinion.
After a few minutes of searching, Maya found Masumi in her (well, Ayumi's) room. He had a strange, disproving look on his face as he inspected it.
"What's with the roses?" he asked her when she entered, a sour tilt to his lips.
Is he jealous? Maya almost snickered at the thought; Masumi and jealousy went together about as convincingly as tuna and raspberry jam.
"It was Ayumi's idea," she said. "To help me get into character, she told her servants to fill the room with roses every day."
Masumi nodded, but still seemed nonplussed as he walked up to one of the vases, poking at its content. While the fact that Ayumi was a girl might've quelled other men's jealousy, it did nothing to hinder Masumi's. He knew that though Maya might not appeal to everyone's romantic tastes, Ayumi saw Maya's good sides as well as he did, and obsessed about them nearly as much as he did, too. He could think of no reason why she couldn't fall in love with Maya as well.
"I don't like it," he declared, crossing his arms, glaring at the fragrant flowers. "I should be the one filling your room with roses, not her."
"When have you ever given me, or anyone else, for that matter, roses?" Maya laughed. As she had a natural accord with kids (possibly because her outlook on the world didn't differ much from theirs), she felt it easier to deal with Masumi when he was being childish.
Masumi was about to grumble that he had given her roses a downright obscene amount of times before, when he caught himself. Alleging to love someone when liquored up was one thing; claiming to be their secret admirer was quite another.
"I'm going to," he said instead. "After 'The Two Princesses'. If you impress me favourably, of course."
"I'm looking forward to it. So, is everything to your satisfaction?"
"Not quite. Maya, do you remember which side of your face I slapped after you woke up in the hospital?"
Maya felt as though Masumi had slapped her again; she left off trying to rearrange one of the bouquets (which was fortunate, as she'd just been messing it up), and said:
"Why would you ask me that?"
"Morbid curiosity?" Masumi shrugged. "Does it matter? I want to know; you can tell me."
Maya wondered if she should indulge him, critically inspecting him. He endured her scrutiny with a mysterious little lip quirk.
"... It was my left one," Maya finally said. "Is your morbidity satisfied?"
"For now. By the way," Masumi pointed to a table on his right, "What's that?"
"Hm?" Maya walked up to him, following the trajectory of his finger with her gaze. "I don't see any—"
She was unable to continue, as Masumi had just kissed her cheek. She swivelled around, her hand automatically coming up to cover the searing mark Masumi's lips had left on her face. Her mouth opened, ready to hail down abuse on him, when his expression made her change her mind. His eyes were downcast, and he exhibited the same sort of awkward seriousness as when he'd apologized to her about her mother.
"I'm not good with words," he told her, "which is unfortunate, as I've a lot to say I'm sorry about. So I wondered, if, if it doesn't bother you too much, if I could do apologize in a different fashion?"
Maya knew that she should probably refuse him. After all, Masumi used her hands as though they were his own private playthings, had picked her up without permission simply because she was "tiny", not to mention the various incidents that had taken place in his car. But she felt that if she didn't let him express his remorse in the only way he was able to do so, she might as well punch him in the gut; the emotional damage would be the same. And, were she to be completely honest with herself, she was curious about how he would go about making this nonverbal apology.
"... Alright," she acquiesced. "But I warn you: if you do anything untoward, I will punch your nose."
"Naturally," Masumi said, lighting up. "I'll keep the groping to a minimum."
He demonstrated his conviction by sliding her bolero off of her shoulder by pinching hold of its buttons.
"W-what do you think you're doing?" Maya sputtered. She tried to pull her bolero back up, but Masumi was determined for it to stay down.
"Apologizing for the time when I interrupted Tsukikage's crackpot scheme and ended up hurting your arm," Masumi said, all innocence as he smiled at Maya.
"You know," Maya rambled, "sometimes, words really are enough. I accept your apology, and anyway, it was an accident—"
"Caused by my brutishness," Masumi interrupted. "Besides," he smirked, ducking his head down, "actions speak louder than words."
He brushed his lips against Maya's arm; the contact hardly lasted a second, but every part of the actress's body reacted strongly to it. She forced her mouth shut, but a small, not entirely unflattering, sound still made itself heard. If Masumi could see (or rather, hear) the effect his action had on her, he made no sign of it. He simply took her hands, bringing her over to the mirror bureau. He sat down on it, putting him at eyelevel with Maya, and drew her towards him. Before he'd even had time to put a hand on her back, she put her arms up over her chest, nearly boxing his chin in her haste to get them up.
"These again," Masumi muttered, glaring at her arm armour.
"Yes," Maya hissed, "and they will always be there!"
"We'll see about that," Masumi said, putting his chin on her shoulder, tying his arms around her waist. "But anyway, to begin what will certainly be a long, long confession: I'm sorry for making the press write bad reviews about 'Little Women'. If I hadn't interfered, your performance would've been a success."
"It's alright," Maya said, though what she thought was, God, why do you keep doing this to me?
"It most certainly isn't, but no matter. I'm sorry that I acted like a thug towards Tsukikage, and I'm sorry that I let Onodera run around being an ass."
Maya was about to tell him that it really was alright, when he suddenly shouted, pushing her back by of her shoulders:
"Ah! But I had nothing to do with the sabotage of your set! That was all that pipe smoking, pretentious coward's work! I had no hand in it!"
"O-okay, okay!" Maya squeaked. "I believe you!"
"Good," Masumi said, grinning, returning his arm and his chin to the comfortable position they were in before his outburst. "Just so that you know. Now, moving on, about what happened out in the rain..."
For what must've been fifteen minutes or more, Masumi kept apologizing, over big things and little things, things that had upset Maya and things she couldn't even remember. She tried to attend to him, but knew that it wasn't necessary; Masumi was talking for his own benefit, to make himself remember and repent for everything he'd done against her.
Really, she thought, he's such a masochist. As though I hadn't gotten the message already... ugh, my arms are cramping up...
"That's all, I think," Masumi finally said, snapping Maya out of her cramp related woes. He leaned back against the mirror, but kept his hands on her waist. She glanced down at his grip, flushing as she saw how natural it looked.
"Are you quite finished with using me confessional?" she asked him, stretching out her arms, using her soreness to distract herself from other, far more pleasant, sensations.
"Not yet," Masumi said, giving her waist a light squeeze (chuckling when she let out an "Eep!"). "What do you ordain for me to purge my sins, enlightened one?"
"To never, ever do that again," Maya said, pinching his hands (pouting as he only sniggered), "to recite ten Hail Marys, and this."
"This" turned out to be Maya embracing him. It wasn't anything like the hug she'd given him when he'd visited her last time; she held onto him tightly, her chest pressed up against his.
"M-Maya?" For the first time that evening, Masumi didn't instantly grab at the chance to fondle Maya. "What—?"
"Don't misunderstand," Maya said, grateful that Masumi couldn't see her frazzled expression. "I'm just sick of you apologizing, and since you're rubbish with words, I thought that I should say 'I forgive you already' in a way even you can't fail to get."
Masumi sucked in a breath, and felt his ribcage rise against Maya's breasts. He became dizzy, but his imbalance didn't stem from drink; it was caused by utter confusion and boundless happiness.
Unable to contain himself, he locked his arms around her, crushing her against him. Maya gasped, freezing up, but as she got used to being constricted, her panic died down. Strangely, she didn't mind it, even though she could hardly breathe. While it was far more intense than anything Masumi had ever done to her before, he was, for once, not doing it to be annoying or to make her blush; he did it because he needed to ascertain he was forgiven with his whole body in order to believe it.
I wonder, Maya thought, what it's like to be so hated, you expect people to be disgusted at your touch?
She suddenly realized that she didn't know the first thing about him. She'd treated him like vermin for years, and while she'd been fully justified in disliking him, she hadn't made any effort to understand him. He'd given her so many hints that he was unhappy with what he was doing, that he liked her, that he cared, yet she'd been so set on hating him, she'd refused to see them. Well, there was also the fact that she'd been a teenager with a resounding lack of analytical ability, and that Masumi had committed one bad deed after another and was unable to explain his motives for any of them, but still.
As she was beginning to become stiff, she adjusted her position, and immediately regretted it. It made her see that while Masumi was embracing her out of purely platonic reasons, that didn't change the fact that she had just rubbed her chest against him. It was like she had opened a floodgate: she could feel his heat, his heart beat, his hands and his hair against her cheek with such unbearable clarity, she nearly whimpered.
Sensing her distress either by the increase in her body temperature or heart rate, Masumi released Maya, allowing her to stagger back and get some air.
"I know," he started, staring at his lap. He tried to phrase his thoughts again, with more success, "I know I'm... strange, and contrary, and stupid, but please..." he looked up, his expression pained and earnest, "don't forget that I love you."
Probably, the proper response to that announcement was to humour him by saying "I will", and then send him on his merry way. Even if she believed him to be sincere in his sentiment, namely that he was going to try his best not to hurt her again, it was only rational to show some caution against the man who had previously destroyed your life for reasons as of yet unknown. But Maya wasn't a rational person; she was empathic through and through, which was why her response was to pat Masumi's hair.
"That'll do," she said, giving him an approving smile.
Masumi gawked at her, which was always satisfying. He rose from his perch on the bureau, and slowly approached her. When she didn't back away or break eye contact, he brushed away the hair from her forehead, bent down and kissed it.
When she didn't react negatively to the touch, he grinned, as though he couldn't quite believe what he was seeing but found it very gratifying all the same.
"You're weird," he murmured. "I really don't understand you in the slightest."
"Well, it's a good thing," Masumi reasoned. "We'll never have a dull moment together. Anyway," he shook his head, tearing himself from Maya, "I've trespassed for far too long. Good night, shorty. Sweet dreams."
"Same to you," Maya said, waving at him. "Don't break anything on your way out."
"I can't give you my word," Masumi laughed, "but I'll try my best."
With one last glare at the roses cluttering the room, he swaggered out, and Maya could hear him hum a ditty out in the corridor. Once the sound of his voice became faint, Maya deemed it safe for her to collapse onto the floor.
She hugged herself, shivering with an abundance of feelings she didn't want to name, as they were all too much for her to bear.
She'd met so many different people, passionate, petty or tragic, but she'd never seen someone become so happy over just being accepted by another person. Someone who could flirt with the worst, yet be stunned by a simple hug. Someone so starved for emotional contact, he could hardly believe it when it was granted to him.
"What the hell is wrong with him?" she sobbed to herself, not bothering to wipe the tears from her eyes. "Why... what happened to him?"
She didn't understand how someone so incredibly warm, who seemed to love teasing, flirting and playing above all, could ever hide behind a persona known as the Demon. Being raised to work at a company since childhood, with a father who openly showed that he was only interested in his son's talents, rather than the son himself, surrounded by people who never let him know what they truly felt about him and then made up whatever rumour they could think of behind his back... She'd only worked for Daito for a short while, and she'd hardly been able to stand all the gossip, the feeling that someone always wanted to take advantage of her. Masumi had endured it far longer than her, so used to it that he casually joked about it.
She remembered what he had jovially told her when they'd ridden home from Panna, when she'd asked him why he was such a jerk:
"Well, there's the fact that I was raised by a father who was emotionally nonexistent, or the fact that I make a living by using people as merchandise. Take your pick."
Why didn't I understand right then and there how incredibly sad he is? she asked herself, so upset that she was hiccupping. Why didn't I comfort him? Why was I so focused on only seeing the worst in him, that I couldn't see anything else?
The thought of what would've happened if Rei hadn't talked to him, or if Mizuki hadn't told her the truth about the "The Two Princesses" audition, turned her cold. To never have danced with him, teased him or forgiven him... She thought that the only way to repay them would be to name her future children after them, when she caught herself:
Why does it feel so important that I became friends with him? She was so stunned by the revelation that she stopped sobbing. He's interesting, and funny, sure, but... why can't I stop thinking about him?
She realized that that wasn't an unusual affair: the night after they'd eaten together at Panna, she'd lain awake until after midnight, cursing him and his tie. The same occurred when he'd come to reclaim his accessory, though with some variations. Even when she'd claimed to loathe him, to never want to see him again, he'd never been far from her mind.
"Don't forget that I love you". The phrase, coupled with memory of Masumi's closeness, made her chest constrict and her jaw tense.
He didn't mean it, she tried to convince herself. He was drunk; he was just exaggerating, or joking.
But his expression when he'd begged her to see what he felt for her hadn't been mirthful in the least, nor had it been animated. He'd been subdued, as though he'd thought that she wouldn't believe him, but had to say it anyway.
Was he serious? Her stomach plummeted, much like when Masumi had dipped her without any prior warning. Does he really...?
Her breath hitched, a powerful shudder running through her body as she thought:
He loves me?
The actress felt that the world had, in the course of one evening, become an infinitely stranger place, one that she was terrified of exploring.
Mizuki was about twenty pages into report before Masumi came to rejoin her, looking as though he'd received the gods' blessing and eternal love.
"You look chipper, sir," she remarked, her voice laden with dislike.
Masumi didn't say anything; he just radiated divine happiness, signalling Kokubu to drive off. Once they'd left the Himekawa premises, he spoke, his voice choppy with elation:
"She hugged me."
Mizuki left off trying to wade through Yuuzuku file, her animosity disappearing as she said:
"Really? Congratulations sir; that's certainly a step in the right direction."
"I might've ruined it slightly by hugging her brains out in return," Masumi admit, rubbing his neck sheepishly, "but she even let me kiss her cheek," he started counting the liberties he'd taken on his fingers, "her arm, and her forehead."
"... Are you serious?" Maya was hardly able to tolerate being told she was pretty, so Mizuki really couldn't picture her letting Masumi have his way with her so easily.
"Well, she only did it because I was being incredibly morbid, and I kind of stole the first peck, but still!" Masumi was practically jumping in his seat, seething with joy. "And she grabbed my collar, and pinched my cheek, and I just love her so much, I could die. Oh, and speaking of love, look out there."
He pointed at the little window in the back of the car. While the events of that evening should've taught Mizuki never to trust a drunken Masumi, she obeyed his request, and was rewarded with a kiss on the cheek.
As Masumi had no inclination towards teasing Mizuki by physical means (that was a vice entirely directed towards Maya), the secretary knew that he must've had some serious reason behind the intimate act.
"I'm sorry for slapping you," he told her, shamefaced. "You were just trying to make me realize something hopelessly obvious about myself, and I should've listened to you."
"It's fine, sir," Mizuki assured him. "You can't help the fact that you're emotionally stunted."
"Indeed I can't," Masumi agreed. "But... it feels better now. Despite everything that's happened to me, despite everything I've done, I can still love, and people can still forgive me. It's like... I can finally breathe."
He was, for what might've been the first time in his life since his early teens, completely unguarded, showing exactly how overcome he was by a concept that was elementary to other people. He was torn between laughing and crying, burying his shaking hands in his hair, saying:
"Who knew you could be happy without having to ruin your abusive stepfather?"
It was the fact that he spoke this with complete sincerity that made Mizuki realize that her employer was far more tragic than she could've imagined.