AN: Edited by the magnanimous prettyinpinkgal.

And once again, and I really can't stress this enough: drink responsibly when in the presence of a billionaire. Seriously, just don't drink at all.



Masumi woke up feeling as though his brains had been replaced with molasses. He rolled onto his back, groaning as he rubbed his eyes, and he had to blink a few times before the world came into focus.

He laboured up onto his elbows, kicking the covers off him, wincing as various parts of his body ached and smarted. One place hurt in particular; he slid down his pyjama bottoms, and discovered that he had bruises on either side of his hip.

"The hell...?" he murmured, scratching his head. "How'd I get these?"

As his mind wasn't up to the task of thinking, he decided to belay searching for the truth behind his injuries until after he'd gotten some industrial-strength coffee into his system.

He was about to call for a servant, when someone knocked on his door. Hoping to god that the person behind the door had anticipated his need for painkillers, he croaked:

"Come in."

To Masumi's surprise, Asa entered, looking, as always, as though he had a kabuki mask on. To Masumi's delight, Asa was carrying a glass of water and some aspirin, making him able to forgive the assistant for the way his loud, gruff voice made his head throb:

"Good morning, Master Masumi." Asa placed his cargo on Masumi's bedside table. "I thought you might be in need of these."

"Indeed I am," Masumi said, practically diving at the medicine. "Thank you, Asa; I shall treasure you forever."

Both he and Asa raised an eyebrow at that heartfelt sentiment. Where'd that come from? Masumi wondered, knocking the pills back, emptying a fourth of the glass with one gulp. Oh well, no matter. I daresay he's in the need of some appreciation.

"Your father sent me here to inquire about your wellbeing," Asa said. "You were a bit... out of character yesterday. He wanted to know if you felt up to working today."

Masumi narrowly avoided rolling his eyes. In other words, he sent you here to scold me into a state of living death if I'm unable to close the Yuuzuku contract.

"I'm fine," Masumi said, dismissing Asa's false concern with a wave of his hand. "I've worked with chronic laryngitis; I think I can manage working with a headache. Besides, I know exactly how to win Yuuzuku over."

"I'm glad to hear that, sir."

Masumi had known everything there was to know about Yuuzuku for weeks. He smiled, remembering that he had managed to con Mizuki into thinking she had to go through a report with nearly a hundred pages in the span of one evening to avoid being chewed out by Asa. He wondered why he'd done that (other than to mess with his lippy secretary), when it all came back to him with painful clarity: he had told Maya that she was incredibly beautiful.

"Oh, no." He got up on his knees, a look of unmitigated terror on his face. "Oh, no."

"Something wrong, sir?" Asa asked him. If he had been given towards displaying human weakness, Asa would've near mirrored his young master's expression. Masumi made it a point never to show his true emotions in front of anyone who could report them back to his father, which meant that the strongest feeling Asa had ever seen him display was a slight smile.

Masumi ignored his father's assistant, too busy thinking that he had picked Maya up and carried her like a little child, and then followed it up by making her an overwhelmingly lewd offer.

"Oh, god!" he said, his voice strangled, knotting his fingers into his hair. "Nononono... this isn't possible..."

"Sir?" Asa's curmudgeonly mask began to slip. "What—"

He was startled into silence as Masumi let out an otherworldly howl, which was prompted by the memory of telling Maya, in no uncertain terms, that he loved her.

"Sir!" Asa exclaimed, watching Masumi writhe around in his bed. "What on earth's the matter?"

Masumi faced Asa, red with mortification, and said, his voice weak and trembling:

"Asa, could you kindly tell my father that he should look for another heir, as I will most certainly die from embarrassment before the day is out?"

"And what is the source of this fatal distress, sir?"

"I may have acted a bit... unwisely." Masumi felt his bruises twinge, laughed nervously, and rephrased himself; "I may have acted like a savage. When I got home, did I do anything... regrettable?"

"Beyond organizing a party in the kitchen with the servants, sharing gossip about various actors in our employ and promising to give them all a raise, nothing much."

Masumi might've whimpered, if the fact that he had confessed to his nineteen-year-old crush while stinking drunk didn't eclipse all other faux pas he could possibly commit.

"Though there was the fact that you intimated that your father and Tsukikage would be a good match," Asa added, "since they're both, and I quote, 'short one Pac-Man game of an arcade'."

Masumi paled; he'd not only mocked his father in front of their household staff, but made fun of his obsession as well? For the next couple of days, things would be very uncomfortable in the Hayami mansion.

Resigning himself to his fate, Masumi oozed out of bed, lumbering up to his closet. As he wondered whether he should go with a dark suit, to suit his mood, he composed a mental list of the many problems he had to deal with because of his own folly:

Apologize to Father about Tsukikage (though my criticism was well-founded, if poorly worded).

Find some way to keep Mizuki from finding out that I was just yanking her chain yesterday. She will destroy me if she finds out the truth.

Find some way to make up for the mental distress I must've caused Maya by my drunken debauchery. Preferably in a way that downplays the, you know, "I love you" part, but still checks whether she minds it or not.

Masumi let out a maudlin noise, throwing a randomly picked suit and an equally haphazardly selected shirt on his bed.

Of course she'll mind it, he thought. A grown man, who should be trusted not to sexually harass or otherwise inconvenience her, not only hints that he wishes to copulate with her, but casually tells her that he holds her in a regard that's near illegal in several countries.

"I will take care of everything," Masumi told Asa, unable to completely erase the grimace on his lips. "After I'm dressed, I'll apologize to Father, and after breakfast," his stomach lurched at the thought of food, "well, after coffee, I'll sweep Yuuzuku off his feet. There's nothing for you to worry about."

"I trust there won't be," Asa said curtly. "I would give you a lecture on how grossly inappropriate your behaviour has been for someone in your position," Masumi tensed, "but I'm sure your father will do so far more competently."

Masumi sucked in air through his teeth, but went about choosing a tie without comment.

"By the way," Asa said, just as he was about to leave, "I'd like you to congratulate you on your courage."

"Excuse me?"

"There aren't many men who are brave enough to combine brown and purple," Asa said, nodding at the suit and shirt on Masumi's bed, his stone face cracking into a miniscule smile.

He shut the door behind him, leaving Masumi to rectify his fashion mistake.

I'm so bloody pathetic, Masumi bitterly reflected, stuffing both of the garments back into the closet, that even Asa can't resist taking shots at me.

But oddly enough, he wasn't feeling nearly as dismal as he should have been as he properly colour-coordinated his outfit for the day. Once the initial surge of utter humiliation had gone away, he'd calmed down almost immediately. Sure, he was about to get the scolding of the century, and it'd be a miracle if he could ever get Maya to agree to be in the same room as him again, but still. Things could've been infinitely worse... Probably.

... He could've proposed to her, for one.


Maya woke up for the third time under the duration of seven hours. She glanced over to her alarm and let out a sigh of relief when she saw it was seven o'clock; she no longer had to force herself to go back to sleep.

Though she'd had no more than two glasses of champagne the evening before, her head hurt and her entire body felt like a mess. This may have been caused by her dreams, which had all been about a certain touchy-feely vice-president. Usually, she slept soundly through these dreams, even though she knew that her relationship with him would never allow that sort of interaction, but last night, things had been far too intense. There had been banter, a little bit of biting, and worse yet, Masumi had kept saying that he loved her. Obviously, her mind wanted her to sort out her issues surrounding Masumi suddenly declaring his love for her, but frankly, she'd rather go without solid sleep for years than to so much as poke at that subject, even if she was provided with a twelve-foot pole for the purpose.

He was drunk, she briskly surmised, hopping out of bed. It didn't mean anything. If I hadn't been there, he would've probably told Kokubu that he loved her, instead.

Satisfied with her mental bluff, she skipped over to the mirror bureau to comb her hair, when she was paralyzed by a flashback. Masumi had practically been unable to leave her be yesterday, and the memories of him holding her hands, hugging her close, squeezing her waist and kissing her face made her knees weak. She sat down on her bed heavily, futilely trying to rub the heat out of her cheeks.

"Mou!" she murmured to herself. "Just because he's comfortable with his body doesn't mean that everyone else is!"

To distract herself from the fact that she was far less adverse towards coming in contact with his body than what was proper, she decided to return to grooming herself. She scrutinised her face in the mirror a bit more closely than she usually did, trying to see what it was the Masumi thought was so "incredibly beautiful" about her. As far as she could see, she was so normal looking, she might as well have been named Jane Doe. She tilted her jaw, but her face was remained plain, no matter what angle she viewed it from.

Maybe it's like with Aldis, she thought, pouting. It has to do with attitude, rather than my actual appearance... But then again, I'm always yelling at him, so that can't be it, can it? Though he seems to like that, the pervert...

She took her brush and was about to utilize it, when she caught her reflection and saw that she was grinning like a fool.

"Oh no," she intoned, her expression contorting with panic. "Did... did I just smile like a sop, just because I thought about him? Oh, god."

She slumped down on the bureau, her brush still stuck in her hair. Like she often did when she was overwhelmed, she started chanting, in a vain attempt to convince herself that everything was alright, even when it certainly wasn't:

"He's just a silly, ageless entity, he's just a silly, ageless entity, he's just a silly, ageless entity..."

She was forced to stop her ritual of delusion as a maid knocked on her door.

"C-come in," she called, fumbling to remove the comb from her hair (ripping out several strands by the root in the process).

The maid entered, and, politely refraining from asking Maya exactly why she was clutching her scalp whilst making very expressive grimaces, announced:

"I'm terribly sorry, but a man from Nittei called. They need you to come to rehearsal as soon as possible."

"Oh, good," Maya said, her pained expression lighting up in a smile. Yay! Distraction! "I'll go right after breakfast."

"I'll ready the car for you," the maid said, curtsying before she retreated into the hallway.

"Ah! Wait!" Maya scrambled up, tripping over the pouf in her haste.

"Yes, Mistress Maya?" the maid inquired.

Maya reviewed what she wanted to inform the maid, and therefore blushed, as it was completely ludicrous and would pretty much guarantee that the Himekawa staff would laugh at her behind her back (if they weren't already). Still, she felt it necessary to make sure that everyone in Tokyo knew that she and Masumi were in no way involved, even if that meant being ridiculed:

"I just wanted to say that yesterday... Mr Hayami wasn't himself. He's... he's usually not so..."

Seeing that her temporary mistress was having trouble finding a suitable word, the maid helpfully supplied one:


"No," Maya frowned, "he's always that. Well, to me, at least; he usually tones it down around other people, though. But the thing is that he and I... we're not together. At all."

"You don't need to worry about that," the maid assured her. "No one here thinks that."

"... Eh? I-I mean, good. That's certainly a relief. But, just for the sake of curiosity, why is it that you don't think that?"

"Appearances are extremely important in the entertainment industry," the maid stated. "Especially for someone like Master Masumi. There's no chance he'd risk his reputation for someone who's at least ten years younger than him."

Maya felt as though the maid had nonchalantly fired an arrow into her.

"Besides," the maid continued, suffering from the misconception that she was comforting Maya, "you and Master Masumi didn't look the slightest bit like lovers. More like... a brother and sister comedy duo."

The hairs on the back of Maya's neck rose. Brother-sister comedy duo? she thought, offended for reasons she couldn't understand (and wouldn't try to). That would certainly bring a whole new meaning to the word "dysfunction"!

But she reasoned that the maid had only born witness to Masumi's inspection of the Himekawa living room, and therefore didn't know about the outrageous flirting that had transpired beforehand. Her opinion would've been decidedly different if she had.

"I'm sure he would be delighted if he knew you thought so," Maya told the maid. "If there's one thing he loves doing above everything else, it's confusing people."

As Maya had resolved not to think about Masumi anymore than necessary, she missed the bitter undertone in her voice. The maid, however, didn't, and therefore promptly excused herself to let Maya dress.

Alright, Maya told herself as she rifled through her wardrobe, you will do your very best not to let Masumi get to you today. You did nothing wrong, so it's not right that you should waste time brooding. Let him worry about his behaviour; I won't lend him another thought.

As one might think, this conviction didn't last very long.


Masumi felt that he would've paid any amount of money to be able to rent someone else's mind for the day, as his was proving to be absolutely useless.

After he'd guzzled down a cup of black, concentrated coffee, he'd gone to face his father's wrath. For thirty minutes, his father had chewed him out about his manners, how badly he could've damaged the Hayami name with his careless behaviour, how he always had to watch how he acted out in public, even when he was among his employees. Whatever superficial energy the coffee had given Masumi was drained by that lecture, and he'd left for work with his spirits low and his head throbbing.

Despite his melancholy, he closed the deal with Yuuzuku without ever needing to excuse himself to go throw up. His hopes that the worst the day had to offer had passed were, however, dashed when Mizuki sidled up to him after the meeting, murder flickering in her eyes, and growled:

"I thought I would be the one to carry the torch during these negotiations, but you seemed to be quite up to speed on Yuuzuku. You even knew what his mother's maiden name was."

"Yes, well," Masumi swallowed as Mizuki advanced on him, hurrying behind his desk to put a solid obstacle between them, "I was rather muddled last night, so it's understandable that I should forgot that I had in fact read the repo—"

"Oh, really?" Mizuki put her palms down on the desk, leaning forward, looking very much like a predator about to spring at its prey. "Are you sure you didn't lie to be allowed to molest a poor young girl without any distractions?"

"In my defence," Masumi said, sitting down in his work chair, "I was completely sauced. I couldn't be expected to show other people basic consideration if it stood in the way of quality time with Maya. Besides, why did you think I'd leave off going through the Yuuzuku file until the day before I had to convince him to basically leave his life's work in our hands?"

"Oh, I don't know. Could it be because lately, you've done precisely everything to avoid thinking about Maya, including waiting until the last minute to do your work?"

"That's not because of Maya—"

"Stop kidding yourself, sir. Everything you do is because of Maya."

Masumi made a face; he already knew that, but to hear Mizuki blurt it out so confidently pained him. If he was going to be in love with a tiny actress who wasn't old enough to vote, he'd at least want to go about it in a subtle manner. Now, all of Daito (and probably part of his household) knew about it.

"Alright then," Masumi said, leaning back in his chair, heaving a sigh, "now that the fact that I'm a pervert is out in the open, could you please help me find some way to apologize to Maya for being a grubby old man?"

"That's a lifetime commitment, I'm afraid," Mizuki said, smiling sweetly.

"You're not only cruel," Masumi told her, chuckling, "but you're also incredibly unhelpful. As I was allergic to emotions until just a few months ago, I think a little assistance from a mature, intelligent woman is exactly what I need to not screw everything up again."

Masumi had said precisely what Mizuki needed to hear: that he would follow her advice and not be an ass about Maya anymore.

"Well," she said, retracting her hand from their threatening position on the desk, placing them on her hip instead; "you usually use flowers to express yourself, don't you? Why not send her a bouquet and a card, professing yourself to be sincerely sorry for your behaviour?"

"It would lack impact," Masumi said, frowning, "seeing as a certain ambitious, curly haired usurper has already taken it upon herself to fill Maya's room with roses every damn day."

"Sir, while it's strangely sweet that you find Maya so loveable that you see Ayumi as a rival for her affections, I'm quite sure she will appreciate your gesture in a whole different light."

"Even so, I don't want my gesture to play second fiddle to hers. I can picture it now: Maya receives my bouquet, smiles as she reads the card, and then stuffs the flowers into one of the already occupied vases, where they will fade into obscurity."

He was so agitated by the possible scenario that he hopped out his chair and began pacing about the office.

"Sir," Mizuki said, "to Maya, intent is far more decisive than action, which is proven by the fact that she even agreed to become friends with you in the first place. As long as you let her know you're sincere, you can do anything. You could send her a straw of grass with the card, and she'd not be more touched than she'd be by a room of roses and a card."

Unfortunately, Mizuki had unwittingly put an idea into Masumi's head, an idea that completely missed the point of her speech.

"Mizuki," Masumi said, rummaging around his desk for his contact book, "when do we have that meeting about the new show in the Daito Town Building?"

"About twenty minutes from now. Why, sir?"

"Hmm." Masumi drew out his slim, black contact book from under a stack of documents. "That might not be enough time. If I'm not done by then, go make up some excuse for my lateness."

"And what are you doing now that would consume so much time?"

Masumi looked up from his book, smiling impishly. "I'm showing Miss Himekawa that she's ten years too early to compete with me when it comes to performing grand gestures. For seven years," he plopped the book down onto the desk, putting the telephone receiver to his ear, "I've wowed Maya with every device imaginable. I'm not about to let some princess beat me at my own game."

Mizuki tried asking her boss what the hell he was going on about, but he just shushed her, dialling an unknown number with poorly suppressed glee. She nearly groaned as the mystery was cleared up by this sentence:

"Hello, Nanny? I have a favour to ask you..."


Maya was pleasantly refreshed when she was driven home from a seven hour rehearsal. While she always loved becoming someone else, immersing herself with Aldis had been particularly enjoyable this time around for a very simple reason: Aldis had no idea who Masumi Hayami was.

She felt as though she'd taken a shower after being submerged in thick mud, rinsing away thoughts she had no desire to entertain. She was actually confident that she could spend the rest of the day in relative peace; if Masumi choose to pop up in her thoughts, she knew that she could combat him with the help of acting.

I love my work, she thought, nearly whistling as she walked up the stairs to the Himekawa residence. She'd barely rung the buzzer before the door was opened by the same maid that had attended to her that morning.

"I-I'm home," Maya said, a bit jarred by the speedy service.

The maid smiled at her with far more genuine feeling than she usually did, and said, a strong undercurrent of excitement in her voice:

"Welcome home, Mistress Maya. A delivery came for you when you were out."

"A delivery?" Maya said, allowing the maid to take off her jacket. "I haven't ordered anything."

"It's a gift," the maid said, quickly stowing the jacket into the coat closet. "They brought it up to your room; would you like to go see it before dinner?"

Perhaps it was due to a certain vice-president's influence, but rather than accepting the maid's proposal without question, like she usually would've, she inspected the servant's face to uncover exactly why she was so eager. She was startled as she realized that the maid had exactly the same expression on as the waitress at Daito's had had last night: like she was watching a particularly touching romantic comedy.

"Yes," she intoned, her heart rate increasing with anticipation, "alright. Why not?"

She forced herself to walk at a normal pace, though she desperately wanted to rush up to her bedroom and confirm her suspicions. She hopped up the stairs two at a time, breaking into a trot when she reached the second floor landing. She stumbled into her room, and gasped when she laid eyes on the gift the maid had been so adamant she see.

The roses that usually cluttered the room were gone, replaced by an incredible variety of flowers. Daisies, lilies of all varieties, baby's breath and carnations in all possible colours... It was as though her room had turned into a flower shop, their scents mixing together into a sweet, if slightly bizarre, perfume. She staggered around, inspecting the artfully arranged bouquets with reverence, smelling them and caressing their petals all in turn.

Once she had finished her tour of the flowers, of which she only knew the name of half, she walked up to her mirror bureau, where someone had placed a glass dome. It contained an exotic, fragile looking orchid, a tiny little lawn of grass and an envelope. She gingerly raised the glass dome, set it down on the floor, and picked up the letter. Compared to the rest of the deliveries, it was disappointingly plain, yet Maya felt that she would appreciate this gift the most of all.

She opened one of the bureau drawers and took up a hair pin Ayumi had left behind, slicing the envelope open with it. She unfolded the letter with fumbling fingers, and read the following:

Dear Miss Kitajima (a.k.a Shorty),

A thousand pardons for my unseemly behaviour last night. I cannot tell you how mortified I was when I woke up this morning and realized what I had done. But you'll be happy to know that I was punished for my base actions not only by the mother of all headaches, a firm scolding from nearly everyone in my immediate acquaintance and bruised hips (which I have your bony legs to thank for), but I'm also the laughingstock of my household. Butlers, maids and secretaries alike snigger as I walk past.

But though I have suffered for my misdeeds, I know that it's not enough. Therefore, I give you permission to either punch me in the gut ten times or slap my face an equal amount of times. If you have some other method of punishment you'd rather wish to exercise, please, let me know, and I will bow to your will.

Your lowly servant,

Masumi Hayami

In the span of a minute, Maya had reread the letter three times, her expression changing from breathless surprise to wide eyed confusion to mirthful amazement.

"This man is warped," she muttered to herself, unaware the she was voicing this sentiment to three servants and Nanny, all of whom had found some pretence to enter her room.

"Isn't this beautiful?" Nanny asked Maya, choosing to ignore the girl's comment. "I've never even seen some of these flowers before."

"Yes," Maya agreed, placing the glass dome over the orchid, "it's magnificent. He must've spent a fortune on it."

She laughed, reading through the letter once again, nearly skipping as she thought of how to respond to it. While she was currently living in a mansion, she didn't have enough money to fill Masumi's room with anything, so her return gift had to be something modest. What could she get him that would make him howl with laughter? Even more challenging, what should she put in her letter to him so that he would understand, once and for all, that she was his friend?

"I'm sorry," Maya said to one of the maids (who was admiring a stunning bouquet of lilies), "but can you have to car readied for me after dinner? Oh, and I'll need paper and an envelope."

"Of course, Mistress Maya," the maid said, taking one more sniff of the flowers before she went to do as she was bid.

There was a spring in her step as she went down to the dining room, after Nanny had assured her that the gardener would take care of the orchid. It was such a relief to see that Masumi was still his ridiculous, exaggerated self that she spent the entire meal composing a message to him. After about two servings of coq au vin, the letter was to her satisfaction, meaning that Masumi would splutter at her insolence while reading it.

She felt, as she folded it up and stuck it into the envelope, that while she was finally comfortable with thinking about Masumi, she wasn't quite up to meeting with him. Her body temperature had risen by two degrees just from being reminded of his closeness the other night; seeing him face-to-face would probably give her a fever.

Oh well, she thought, closing the envelope, I'll figure out what to do when I'm out. Oh, but his face is going to be priceless! I wish I could have someone take a picture of it! I'd frame it and put it on my desk!

As usual, she was completely unaware of her own feelings, but this was possibly the first time that she knew exactly what effect her actions would have on Masumi: she would amuse and flabbergast him.


When Masumi finally arrived home from a gruelling day of work, he was near dead to the world. Though it was still early enough to enjoy a late dinner, he denied all food and went straight to his room. His headache had returned after a short break, and his health had deteriorated even further as Asa had chided him for arriving late to the meeting about the show being performed at the theatre in Daito Town. Masumi was glad that his father's assistant no longer worked at Daito; had he known the reason for his tardiness, a whole other, far more cataclysmic, speech would've been prepared for him.

He lay in his bed, sans his tie, shoes, socks and belt, about to turn off the light and enjoy an unhealthy power nap, when there was a knock on his door.

"Come in," he called out against his will, forcing himself up into sitting position. If Asa had come to bear down on him again, he wanted to show as little vulnerability as possible.

Thankfully, it was only Michi, the cook, who was carrying a tray and had a packet stuffed under her arm.

"Ah!" Masumi sighed with relief, jumping up to his feet. "Mrs Michi, let me help you with that."

"Thank you, sir," she said as he took the tray from her hands and set it down on his desk. "You didn't come down to dinner, so I thought I'd bring it to your room instead."

"Thank you," Masumi said, so starved for a little bit of kindness that he had to restrain himself from hugging her. "That's very gracious of you. I'm sorry if I made you worry; I was just so tired, I thought I'd sleep a bit before eating."

"I'm sorry to disturb you then, sir," the cook said, putting down the packet next to the tray. "I could come back later, if you want."

"No, it's alright." Masumi's mouth watered as he glanced down at the plate Michi had brought, which was laden with succulent roast beef and a complex-looking potato salad. "Your food has revived me. What, however," he tapped the package, "is this?"

"It came with a messenger just now," Michi said. "Apparently, it's from someone named Maya Kitajima."

Masumi's heart skipped a beat. While he'd been quite intent on wolfing down his dinner before he did anything else, this turn of events compelled him to tear the package open.

Inside, he found a bottle, to which a letter had been attached by way of a festive string and a gold star sticker. He hauled the bottle out and inspected its label. He let out an indignant laugh as the bottle turned out to be the home of non-alcoholic champagne, muttering, "The cheek of the woman!" to himself.

"Could you bring me a champagne glass, please?" he asked Michi, still looking at the bottle with inordinate fondness.

"Y-Yes, sir," Michi said, bowing slightly before she hurried away.

Sweeping the cardboard box the champagne had arrived in off his desk, he sat down, tugging the letter off of the sticker. With a swift flick of a letter knife, he'd opened the envelope and unfolded the paper inside. The letter read as following:

Dear Masochist,

You are a silly ass. I have no desire whatsoever to be drawn into your morbid little games, so shut up about this whole "punishment". If you are so keen on having me smack you around, just act like your usual charming (read: bloody goddamn annoying) self, and I'm sure I will be driven to violence sooner rather than later. Also, I hope Mizuki gave you what for today; I can't even imagine what trials that poor woman must suffer through, having to spend the whole day with you. No, really; it's so horrible a scenario, my brain blocks it out to protect my subconscious.

Your superior in all matters,

Maya Kitajima

P.S. That orchid you sent me, while lovely, would've died after two days if I was the only one to care for it. Next time you have to apologize to me (which will no doubt be a common occurrence), please, send a cactus.

Masumi was still laughing by the time that Michi came back. He wiped tears from his eyes, motioning for the cook to put down the glass on his desk, unable to speak even the simplest sentence. He mimed his gratitude to her, which she received with a quick nod before she left to completely re-evaluate her opinion of her young master.

Masumi calmed down enough to unscrew the champagne bottle, pouring himself a liberal glass. The drink was by no means excellent, but it didn't matter in the slightest. It was the thought that counted, and the thought behind Maya's gift was hilarious.

But beyond the fact that she thinks I'm a masochistic sob, Masumi thought, sipping the non-alcoholic champagne, how should I interpret this speedy delivery? Did she start working on a reply the very moment she got home from rehearsal? And if she did, does it mean that she was touched by my gift, or that she just wanted to tell me that I'm an overly-dramatic bastard?

Not for the first time, and definitely not for the last, Masumi had no idea whether he should dare hope for the best when it came to Maya, or if he should prepare for the worst: Did Maya truly care for him, or did she just enjoy calling him an ass?


Masumi was in trouble. Oh, but was he ever. He sincerely doubted that he would survive this night with his dignity intact. In fact, he was fairly certain, as he paced around the Nittei Theatre's lobby, smoking fervently, that his dignity was already a thing of the past.

It was intermission, and soon, "The Two Princesses" would begin again. And after the play was over, he would be forced to confront his worst nightmare: Maya Kitajima.

He'd had weeks to steel himself for the encounter, but found that no amount of prepping could've left him unfazed as Maya appeared before him as the most beautiful woman in the world.

Dear god, he thought, smiling grimly, but she certainly wasn't exaggerating when she said her Aldis was spectacular. Half the audience's infatuated with her!

He momentarily regretted his decision to stop covering up his feelings for Maya, as it meant that his distress was visible to anyone who cared to glance at him.

Calm down, he told himself, leaning back against a wall. She'll go back to being befuddled, easily overwhelmed and nonthreatening once the play ends. Of course, she'll also become increasingly aware of the fact that she can turn my head by simply showing off a little bit of collarbone, as I'll be drooling over her—oh Lord, I'm doomed.

He was trying to distract himself by blowing smoke rings when a familiar face caught his eye.

"Sakurakouji?" he said out loud, before he could stop himself. A conversation with his rival in love was hardly ideal, as he was already unstable enough without adding that kind of provocation.

"Ah!" Sakurakouji stopped, nearly spilling his paper cup, full of steaming hot coffee, onto himself. "G-good evening, Mr Hayami."

"Sorry if I startled you," Masumi lied. "I just wanted to congratulate you on your recent successes. Everywhere I go, I hear the name 'Sakurakouji Yuu'."

"Thank you," Sakurakouji said, his smile turning a shade sheepish. "That's very kind of you."

Masumi struggled to keep his sociable, impersonal smile in place. It annoyed him that the actor was nearly as tall as him, and that he looked halfway believable in a suit. The last time he'd seen him, Sakurakouji had been a gawky, self-centred teenage boy. Now, he was a young man, handsome enough to turn heads as he walked past.

"You're not going backstage?" he said, despite knowing the answer. Something had happened between Maya and Sakurakouji, and as it had happened a little bit after Shigeru had appeared on the scene, it was easy to deduce what.

"No," Sakurakouji said, his expression turning dark. "I've only come to see the show."

For a fleeting moment, Masumi saw himself in Sakurakouji's grim visage. The realization that that's what he must've looked like when he tried hiding his agony over Maya made him smile. Calling Sakurakouji's bluff, he asked:

"Are you sure you haven't come to see her?"

Sakurakouji's coffee was once again in danger of splashing onto its owner's suit.

"I've known you since you were a head shorter than me," Masumi said, hardly able to restrain a guffaw at the actor's wide-eyed surprise. "Suffice to say, I've learnt a thing or two about you. You don't need to worry: she's as healthy, impetuous, impertinent, whimsical and sweet as when you saw her last."

While Sakurakouji wouldn't have used either "impetuous" or "impertinent" to describe the Maya he'd known, he had to admit that the other adjectives suited her quite well.

"You're close to her?" he asked the vice-president, not quite able to mask his disbelief. Whenever Masumi Hayami had come up in his chats with Maya, she'd made a face, as though she'd gotten a bad taste in her mouth.

"In a fashion," Masumi said. "We decided that a friendship would be mutually beneficial, as it would enable us to be an outlet for each other's frustrations."

"Frustrations?" Instantly, seedy images invaded Sakurakouji's mind. "W-what do you mean?"

Masumi debated on whether he should let the actor suffer under his vulgar misconception or if he should tell him the truth. As Maya would kill him four times over if she ever found out that he'd purposefully been giving people the wrong idea about them, he decided to be sincere:

"I'm probably the one person she can call a bastard without restraints, and I find it great fun to tease her until she calls me a bastard. Didn't you tease her, back when you were kids?"

"Um, no," Sakurakouji said, hardly able to believe that he was actually having this conversation. "Not really."

"Really?" Masumi smiled at the actor, who was struck by how different the vice-president looked when he was under the influence of genuine feeling. "How could you resist it?"

Sakurakouji had no capability of answering that question, and Masumi didn't expect him to. With a cheerful "Enjoy the rest of the show", he walked away, leaving the actor to absorb what had just occurred.

This wasn't, however, the first time that Sakurakouji had seen Masumi display out-of-character behaviour, so he was able to recover from his shock by the time his coffee was cool enough to drink. A few months ago, he'd seen Masumi praise Maya in a voice loud enough to force the actress to slap her hand over his mouth to make him stop. He'd had no idea what to make of it at the time, other than the fact that Masumi had really liked Maya's performance, but in the light of recent discoveries, he felt his stomach drop to his feet.

He can't… like her, can he? he thought. No; no way. I mean, it's MasumiHayami. I'm sure not even half the rumours about him are true, but where there's smoke, there's fire.

But Masumi definitely hadn't acted like a man only interested in business when he was talking about Maya. He'd acted like... like an especially eloquent teenager.

As he'd never understood how Maya could disconnect from the rest of the world by simply watching a play, Sakurakouji spent the rest of the evening in an agitated state of mind, as the fact that Masumi Hayami wascurrently closer to Maya than he was haunted him.


Maya always felt fuzzy around the edges when she had to return to her original self after the end of a play. She couldn't quite remember how she was supposed to act once she was off the stage, without a script to follow. She actually had to line up her characteristics and determine which were hers and which belonged to Aldis. She wasn't beautiful, she wasn't graceful, she wasn't nearly as forgiving, and so on.

She walked out of her dressing room, in a daze as she dabbed her wet face, when a journalist hesitantly approached her:

"Are you Maya Kitajima? The actress who played Aldis?"

Maya knew, in the back of her mind, that it was incredibly wrong of her not to react until the journalist said "Aldis". She made an effort to collect herself enough to answer his question:

"Eh? Yes, that's me."

The journalist's expression clearly told her that he wanted to contest that. Maya decided to take it like a compliment.

"T-that's great!" another journalist stammered, looking as though his hopes and dreams had been shattered. "I was just looking for you."

"Your Aldis was spectacular," the first journalist said, having enough presence of mind to bring out his pen and notepad. "What's your opinion regarding the show that marks your return to the stage?"

"Eh?" Maya nearly grimaced; she'd just emerged from what was, she had to admit, essentially a trance, and they expected her to be able to form a coherent sentence? "Well..." She smiled, remembering how she'd felt on stage. "It made me happy. I was really happy on stage."

"Oh? Why's that?"

"Well... I don't know how to explain it. Let's see..."

"Because Aldis is a happy girl."

Maya, who'd been fighting not to flit off into her imagination up until that point, suddenly returned to reality with a painful thump of her heart. She spun around, and observed that Masumi was just as smooth, suave and slightly distant as ever. She tried to mimic his appearance, but could only think that not too long ago, she'd wrapped her legs around him and rubbed her chest against his.

Blooming bright red all over, her lips scrunched up into a mortified squiggle as she greeted him, her voice matching her frown:

"Good evening, Mr Masumi. D-did you enjoy the play?"

Masumi was taken aback by her powerful reaction to him, and amazed the press by emulating it. He was crimson and miserable as he told her:

"I'm sorry, Maya. I have failed you as an adult." He spread out his arms, turned his face sideways and pinched his eyes shut. "Please, feel free to unleash your boundless fury on me."

Maya's expression lost some of its "Oh god, please kill me now" qualities at that.

"... Sorry," she said, her lips slowly shifting from a frown to a smile, "but... what exactly are you doing?"

"Making myself a target for your monstrous rage," Masumi answered, still assumed in his ridiculous position. "Though I know I've no right to dictate any terms, I'd be very grateful if you could keep your blows above the belt."

If the press was stunned by this subservient gesture, it was nothing compared to what Maya felt. She blinked, her mind in a whirl about how she should react to such a bizarre show of surrender. At last, hilarity won out, and she laughed with unrestrained delight.

"You silly ass!" she cried at Masumi, once her mirth had died down enough for her to form complete sentences. "What the hell did you think you'd accomplish, letting a girl beat you up in front of a crowd? Idiot!"

The press winced collectively, taking a few steps back in preparation for Masumi's reaction to such blatant provocation. Their caution was needless; Masumi merely let his arms fall to his sides, his tone dry as he replied to Maya:

"I was trying to show you how regretful I was by sacrificing my dignity. Some people would've appreciated the gesture."

"Oh, yes," Maya scoffed, "because everyone loves being labelled as a violent nut in the media. You know, I think I've been too soft on you. Until you learn to communicate like a normal human being, I shan't speak to you."

She demonstrated her conviction by turning away from him, studying her nails nonchalantly.

"Oh, shorty," Masumi beseeched her, "don't do this. You know very well that I'm incapable of doing anything normally."

Maya pretended not to hear him, pouting thoughtfully while she examined her cuticles. Masumi grimaced, then said:

"I liked your Aldis."

Maya looked up from her hands, smiling at him, her expression saying, "See, that wasn't so hard, was it?"

"What did you like about her?"

"... I can't really express it. I can commend your technique, your delivery, your dedication, but what really touched me is something completely different."

"What was it?"

"I can't believe I'm saying this, especially in front of witnesses, but... her air."

"Her air? What do you mean?"

"I mean the feeling she projected. It was like... everything became brighter when she stepped onto the stage, like the very temperature rose. Like she was spring personified."

Maya's lips parted, while Masumi pursed his.

"Oh, god," he said, "but that really sounds childish, doesn't it?"

"No, don't say that," Maya said, stepping closer to him. "That was exactly what we were going for. Aldis is spring; Origeld is winter. You must be very sensitive," she smiled as Masumi's brow furrowed, "to pick up on that."

"Not really," he said. "You and Ayumi are just so good at emoting, it touches even my black, shrivelled heart."

Maya rolled her eyes. After seeing Masumi become jealous over a few vases of flowers, she just couldn't see him as an evil mastermind anymore.

"So what about your promise to give me roses if I wowed you?" she said. "Though I should let you know that I'm sick of flowers altogether, especially if they're from you."

"Then should I give you a cactus instead?" Masumi inquired.

"Oh, yes," Maya laughed, "please do! After months of roses, a cactus is exactly what I need to remind me of my true self."

"Then it's settled," Masumi said. He took Maya's hand, without asking for permission, and shook it. "In commemoration of your dazzling performance, I shall stack the lobby full of cactuses."

"One will suffice quite well, thank you very much." Maya retrieved her hand, trying not to think about what had happened last time Masumi had taken it in his. "You know, you coming here was actually a blessing in disguise. I was having difficulty becoming myself again, but as soon as you arrived, Aldis just vanished."

"She probably couldn't survive when confronted with such impurity," Masumi suggested, all while grinning like a man untouched by the evils of the world. "Or maybe," he reached out and ruffled her hair, "Maya just wanted to come out to put me in my place?"

"It's highly probable," Maya growled, slapping his hand away, hurrying to undo the damage it had dealt to her locks. "You really need to stop doing stuff like that. It makes you look like a geezer."

"That was exactly what I was going for." He pinched her cheek before she could block him, laughing at her enraged hiss. "You were truly beautiful tonight, my little racoon, but I'm glad you've returned to your plain, hilarious self."

"It's a shame that you only come in one variety: bloody annoying," Maya said, making a face at him.

"Sticks and stones," Masumi chirped. "See you when I see you, kiddo."

He brushed past Maya, bumping against her shoulder, baring his teeth in an elated grin as she huffed. The grin faded when she grabbed him roughly enough to stop him in his tracks.

"So you're just going to cause a scene," Maya told him, her hand still clamped around his arm, "infuriate me, and leave me to clean up the mess?"

"Yes," Masumi said blithely. "It's what I do, after all."

"And you do it very well," Maya said, her eyes narrowing. "But I think it's time to break a bad habit. After the run of 'The Two Princesses', my friends and I are going to have a party. Would you like to come?"

At Masumi's stricken expression, Maya quickly backpedalled:

"I, I know it's not really your scene—I mean, you've seen my apartment—but it'd mean a lot if you could just, you know, stop by."

"Are you sure I'm as welcomed by your friends as I am by you?" Masumi questioned. "I don't want to ruin your celebration, my dear."

A number of journalists started at that little nickname, but Maya and Masumi were, as usual, oblivious to them.

"You wouldn't," Maya assured the vice-president, moving her hand up to his shoulder. "They're interested in you. You should come and dispel some of the mystery."

Masumi wasn't quite sure if any amount of dispelling would make Maya's friends accept him. The looks they had given when he'd come to the outdoors theatre to collect his tie had contained distinct elements of dislike and distrust. He couldn't blame them, of course; Maya was impressionable, which had been stated a number of times before by vastly different people, and he was, he had to admit, more than a little adept at manipulating people. He could tell them that in front of Maya, he was as cunning and deceitful as a kindergartener (which was another fact that had often been pointed out, mostly by Mizuki), but he doubted that they would believe a single word of it. Still, as Maya's eyes were trained on his and her hand was unconsciously squeezing his shoulder, he had no choice but to say:

"I'll try my best. I'm not, like I've told you before, built to process emotions. Don't be surprised if I start shooting sparks in the middle of a heartfelt toast to your brilliance."

"You really sound like a robot," Maya marvelled, "do you know that?" She rapped her knuckles against his chest, saying, "Dink, dink."

"State of the art technology," Masumi boasted. "Don't worry, though; I'm having a heart installed soon."

Maya was about to tell Masumi that he was far too fond of being depicted as superhuman, when it came to her attention that not only was she way too close to him, but her hand was still on his chest. As the situation was nowhere near as compromising as the one that had occurred in Daito's underground garage, she managed to withdraw from it with something akin to poise.

"Very well," she sniffed, turning her face away from Masumi. "I guess a vague attempt is all I can expect from you. If you do manage to crawl out of your dark pit, the party starts at nine on the closing night."

"Were it possible to extract that wonderful sweetness that flows from your lips," Masumi told her, smiling fondly, "honeybees would be out of a job, my dear. Once again, I bid you farewell."

"Farewell," Maya said, "and thank you for coming."

"It was my pleasure."

He smiled at her one last time, before swivelling around to meet the press. The smile he gave them had a strong overture of "Print anything about this, and you're out of a job". Needless to say, his instruction was obeyed to the letter.

Once Masumi had left, Maya drew in a big breath and slowly expelled it. Once she was done collecting herself, she turned to the journalist who had approached her first, her smile beautiful as she asked:

"Now, where were we?"


"With every day, 'The Two Princesses' gains popularity. Every performance of it is sold out."

Masumi didn't exactly know why, but lately, it had become easier to endure his father's presence. The fact that Eisuke Hayami couldn't love him as a son, as well as the other unpleasant factions of his personality, didn't weigh on him as much now that the elderly businessman wasn't his sole connection in the world. Masumi sat in a gaudy, inappropriately tasselled armchair in his father's study, and felt, for the first time, relatively at ease in the old man's presence.

"It seems that Ayumi's performance is the largest draw," Eisuke observed, adjusting the blanket spread over his legs, "but what about the other candidate for the Crimson Goddess? What are they writing about her?"

"Generally speaking," Masumi said, rising from his seat to rifle through a pile of newspaper on his father's desk, "the critics are favourable. 'The audience sighs before the beautiful Aldis'," he fought the urge to grin, "'Excellent interpretation by Maya Kitajima', and the like."

"And to your impartial eye," Eisuke said, picking up a glass of wine, "how did the candidates fare? Were their performances as good as the press would have me believe?"

While Masumi was madly in love with one of the candidates, he was also a professional:

"The superiority of Ayumi is obvious. Her Origeld has a deeper intensity. She has great theatrical experience and knowledge, as well as a lot of practice and superb recitation. When it comes to theatrical skills, Maya Kitajima isn't a threat to Ayumi yet."

"Then Ayumi is the favourite for the Crimson Goddess?"

"As of now, yes. But it should be mentioned that Maya Kitajima has never played a role like that of Aldis before. She had to face a character that played on all her weaknesses, yet her acting wasn't the least bit lacking. She knows how to make her characters seem natural, no matter how far they are from her actual personality. More than that, she has a strong spirit. She didn't hesitate to participate in this play, even though her rival was playing the opposing lead. She freely admits that Ayumi is superior to her, both in talent and popularity, but the only thing she really cares about is being on stage. With every line she speaks, she stands out more and more, and her emotive acting won over the audience from the first.

"This part has made the entertainment world forget the fact that Maya Kitajima was blacklisted not too long ago. At this rate, she might just be able to fulfil Tsukikage's," absolutely ludicrous, "ultimatum."

"Really? That girl has a year left to win the Academic Arts Awards; she must have a will of steel to still pursue it, when she's already admitted that Ayumi is her better."

"It's not so much a will of steel, as it is a love of theatre. More accurately, she's obsessed with it. She wants the role of the Crimson Goddess because she thinks it would be fun to perform; she has no idea that most actresses want it for the prestige it represents, rather than for the challenge."

Eisuke threw his head back and let out a throaty laugh. "That sure sounds like the sort of girl Chigusa would pick to carry out her legacy! But whether she makes it or not, I entrust you with 'The Crimson Goddess'. I trust you with my dream of seeing that lost masterpiece performed once again; you must do it, no matter the cost."

All the comfort Masumi had scrounged up vanished at that moment. He'd almost forgotten about the promise he'd made himself all those years back to avenge his lost pride and his mother's death, had almost forgotten that Eisuke saw him as nothing for than a tool to procure something he had no right owning.

To think, he thought, pursing his lips in distaste, I could've turned into this man. God forbid; death would be preferable.

"I know, Father," Masumi said, trying to keep his voice as neutral as possible, even though loathing was his primary emotion at the moment.

Eisuke just nodded, quite aware of Masumi's conviction to his cause. Like most paranoid, controlling people, Eisuke enjoyed testing those around him, no matter how many times they had proven their worth to him before. The fact that Masumi actually was planning to destroy him was nothing more than a coincidence.

"By the way," Eisuke piqued, "Masumi, are you in love?"

It was a fortunate thing that Masumi had raised his shields at his father's mention of "The Crimson Goddess", or he might've something done something regrettable, like asking Eisuke how the hell a psychotic degenerate like him could possibly know that. But even with his defences up, he had to light a cigarette with a huge, horribly gaudy lighter (which seemed to be the type of item his father favoured the most), before he answered:

"No, Father. I'm not."

"I see," Eisuke said, his face disinterested as he nodded knowingly again. "But even you must think of settling down. The heir to the Daito Art Productions can't remain a bachelor forever."

Masumi felt like rolling his eyes; once you reached a certain age, it seemed like every casual conversation began with the phrase, "So, when are you finally going to settle down?" Lately, Masumi had had to restrain himself from answering the inquiry truthfully: "Well, since I lack the ability to trust and nurture, and I break down at emotional contact, I should say never, so stop asking."

Well, he thought, watching his father pull out a folder from under his blanket, if it was Maya asking, I'd probably just say "The very moment I find a woman who makes me laugh just by squeaking".

"Take a look at this picture," Eisuke said, tapping the folder he'd placed on the table.

Masumi quickly deduced that the folder, which had an elaborate, Art Nouveau border, wasn't related to work.

"Are you by any chance trying to arrange my marriage?" Masumi asked, not sure whether to be disturbed or amused. His father had never shown any interest in his son's romantic life (or lack thereof), except for attempting to set him up with profitable women. "Father, I've already told you that I have no intention of marrying—"

"Until now," Eisuke interrupted, "you've never even wanted to hear about marriage. You've always refused without even looking at the photos of the candidates I've painstakingly selected." Masumi repressed a snort; his father went either by income or by the dowry when he picked out potential brides for his son, paying no heed to their personality. "But now," Eisuke gave the folder a hard, triumphant tap, "take a look at this!"

While his entire body repelled against the prospect, his mind reasoned that the sooner he humoured his father, the sooner this farce would be over with. When he flipped open the folder, however, he experienced a very unpleasant shock, strong enough to prompt the exclamation:

"Ah! This person...!"

The picture in the folder depicted a truly beautiful woman, who managed to exhume gentleness and grace even in a Polaroid. She had all the features any man would want in a woman, with her thick, blue-black hair, her sparkling eyes, straight nose and full lips. Masumi felt nothing but dread, however, as he knew that this woman would cause him no end of trouble, namely because his father would stop at nothing to patch them up. The woman was none other than Shiori Takamiya, granddaughter of "Emperor" Takamiya, one of Japan's most powerful men.

"You shall have a marriage interview with that girl," Eisuke told his son, his tone leaving no room for arguments. "It's an order, Masumi!"

"I'm sorry, Father," Masumi said, even though the prospect of going against his father made his mouth go dry, "but I can't. Please understand—"

"Why should I understand?!" his father roared, making his otherwise unflinching son wince. "This woman is beautiful, pleasant, and connected! What possible reason could you have for rejecting her in this thoughtless manner?!"

"Until I've staged 'The Crimson Goddess'," Masumi said, trying to appeal to his father's obsession, "I don't want to be distracted by marriage. It would take up too much of my time."

As Eisuke knew nothing of the work it took to manage a marriage, he barked:

"I've had enough of this! Do you know how much Daito would gain from this person? You can't even grasp that?!"

Masumi ground his teeth to keep himself from saying something stupid; he knew his father wouldn't appreciate being told that the wellbeing of Daito was the centre of his life, not Masumi's.

"When the other family decides on a date for the meeting," Eisuke continued, "I shall answer in your name." He directed a piercing glare at Masumi, emphasizing its dictatorial message by jabbing a finger at his son. "And you will obey me, Masumi!"

And that was the drop (or rather, the ocean) that flooded the cup. For once in his life, Masumi was feeling relatively good about himself: he was on good terms with his employees, he had managed to avoid using underhanded tactics to further Daito for a few months now and Maya actually liked him. And this man, who had tormented, pressured and robbed him of everything he loved, was attempting to do the same thing once again, and all because he would stand to gain something from it.

Righteous anger usually has a fiery effect on people; Masumi, however, became cold and collected under its influence, and said, his voice as smooth as ever:

"You may do what you wish. But if you force me to attend this meeting, I will do everything in my power to offend myself to her. The choice is yours: will you let me be free to make my own life-altering decisions, or will you risk alienating yourself to the Takamiya family?"

His father was clearly disinclined to choose either alternative, dismay and surprise written all over his face.

"What manner of insolence is this?" Eisuke growled, his outrage muted by disbelief. "I brought you up, gave you a chance at a career outside of street sweeping, and this is how you repay me? Ungrateful child!"

"As you denied me my childhood," Masumi said, leisurely blowing a smoke ring, "and made me unable to connect with people for fear that they would assassinate me, I should say we're about even."

Eisuke stared at his son, unable to believe what he was seeing. While he'd never understood his heir, as he was only interested in the results he brought about, he'd thought that this kind of rebellion would've been impossible for him to carry out.

"I've entrusted you with my fortune," Eisuke bellowed, becoming hot under collar for what must've been the first time in some five years, "treated you like a son—!"

Masumi stunned his father into silence by interrupting his rant with a loud, harsh laugh.

"So when it's financially profitable," he said, actually amused, "I'm your son? I'm sorry, Father, but we both know that I'm nothing more than a live-in vice-president to you. And as such, you have no right to whore me out to anyone, not even if it would be good for the company."

Eisuke wasn't easily distressed, but seeing the person you'd practically raised to obey you look at you with disdainful superiority would make anyone speechless.

"Now, if you would excuse me," Masumi drawled, casually flinging Shiori Takamiya's folder onto his father's cluttered desk, "I'm exceedingly tired, and would like to rest before dinner. See you then, Father."

Masumi made his way down the corridor and into his room, never once losing his haughty expression. It wasn't until he was behind closed doors that he let loose a low, pitiful moan, burying his hands in his hair.

About halfway through the argument, Masumi's common sense had come back online and told him that this was definitely the wrong way to deal with his father. No matter how much Eisuke deserved to be told that he was a pure and utter cad, nothing good could be gained by it. All this outburst would result in was that his father would try and spy out the reason for his dissent, and with all the gossip flowing around Daito, he would find it in no time. And even if he didn't, the tension in the mansion would now be so thick, one would need a saw to cut through it.

It's all because I never got to throw tantrums when I was a teenager, Masumi thought, flopping down onto his bed like a bag of dead weight. Now I'm making up for it, times ten.

After indulging himself in a one-minute pity session, Masumi decided to devise a plan of action. He needed to anticipate his father's moves if he was to keep Maya out of their struggle for power.

If he wants to control me, Masumi thought, inappropriately excited, he will have to earn that right, just like Maya has. If he wants war, however, Masumi smirked, his chest filling up with heat, then he just has to say the word, and he will have it.


"I'm home!" Maya called out into her sorely missed, wonderfully tiny little apartment.

"Welcome home!" a choir of voices replied from the living room.

Giggling, she shed her coat onto the floor (on which a mountain of jackets had already been deposited), and skipped into the living room. All her friends, from both Tsukikage and Ikkakuju Theatre, greeted her warmly by toasting to her success, and bid her to sit down on a cushion that had been reserved for her. She was given a glass and a can of beer, and she was touched to notice that it was of a more upscale brand than the alcohol the actors usually treated themselves to.

"Let me take care of that cactus," Rei volunteered, pointing at the plant Maya had set down next to a bowl of peanuts.

"Thanks," Maya said, giving the cactus, which had been decorated with silver charms, one last fond glance before Rei set it down on the window sill. "You can't believe the weird looks people gave me on the train here. It's like they'd never seen a cactus before."

"What's the story behind that, anyway?" Hotta asked, feeling that Maya's fellow travellers had every right to wonder what had possessed someone to dress up a cactus like a Christmas tree.

Maya hesitated, taking a large sip of beer to give herself time to think. While she had assured Masumi that her friends were dying to meet him, she knew that they'd prefer the meeting to take place in an interrogation room. But as she'd have to bring up the vice-president at some point, anyway, she decided to answer truthfully:

"I got it from Hayami. We ran into each other on the opening night, and he agreed to give me a cactus instead of a bouquet. But since he can't resist upstaging everyone, he had to put it on a huge, marble pedestal, and cover it in trinkets."

Like always, her friends were disturbed by how wide Maya's smile became when she admonished Masumi.

"Oh, and by the way," Maya said, "he might be coming around here, just so you know."

To brace herself for the storm, Maya took another gulp of her beer, intensifying the fuzziness in her head into a full-on buzz.

"What?" the members of Tsukikage Theatre cried, driving Maya to near drain her glass.

"Why, exactly?" Rei asked. While she had a more relaxed attitude towards Masumi being involved with Maya than the others, she also found him to be the most annoying man on the planet, and would rather not be forced to spend an evening with him.

"Because," Maya paused to hiccup, "because you should meet him. He's a lot more fun, now. Like... like a puppy."

Needless to say, this statement was questioned by severely raised eyebrows.

"No, really," Maya insisted. "He's exactly like a puppy. I mean, not a well-behaved puppy; the kind of puppy that jumps up at you, digs up the yard and barks when it knows it shouldn't, but who's clever nonetheless. I mean, he stops when you tell him to. Or when you hit him on the nose, at least."

Somehow under the impression that she had provided a satisfactory explanation for why they'd like to meet Masumi, Maya returned to her drink, finding that its slightly bitter taste went great with peanuts.

"Did... did Masumi jump you?" Taiko said, paling with the rest of the thespians as their suspicions were voiced out loud.

Maya had unfortunately enough been enjoying a fistful of peanuts at that moment, and nearly choked on the snack.

"What?!" she shrieked, after guzzling the rest of her beer to avoid having a coughing fit. "No, he's never jumped me!" She started laughing, saying, "He's twice as big as me; if he jumped me, he would squash me flat!"

"Yes," Rei cut in, "but has he done anything... inappropriate?"

The truthful answer to that was, "Oh god, yes". The answer that wouldn't freak her friends out was "No, never". Maya chose the middle ground:

"He's been a bit infuriating, but he hasn't done anything truly bad. I mean, not since my mother, and he only did that because he's emotionally handicapped."

"While I'm sure that's true," Rei said, "how do you know that?"

"Wow," Maya paused in her effort to get another can of beer open, "I've really kept you out of the loop, haven't I? Okay, here goes," she cleared her throat, "so, when I was living at the Himekawas, Hayami came to visit me. He told me that he was very sorry about my mother, that he thought I'd prefer being an actress over being a daughter. I said 'I forgive you', he stared at me as though I was mad, and peace was forged."

Once again, she assumed, rather than observed, that her friends were okay with her explanation, and went back to her beer. Her friends weren't the least bit okay with her explanation; rather, it only made them more curious about what the hell had happened between her and Masumi.

Before they could subtly urge Maya to spill the beans about her relationship with the billionaire, a knock on the door distracted them. Maya perked up, but Rei signalled for her to stay put, and went to get the door. When she opened it, she found nothing but a bottle of champagne out in the hall.

"Huh," she said, bringing the bottle inside, putting it down on the kitchen/living room table. "Weird. Who could this be from?"

"It looks really expensive," Mina commented, glancing at the bottle's artfully designed label. "I think it might even be imported from France."

"Could it be Purple—" Sayaka began, trailing off as Maya shoot up off of her pillow.

Maya vaguely recognised the label; it was the same champagne that Mizuki had ordered at the Daito Bar. As Mizuki was far too mature to ring someone's doorbell and then run away, that left only one candidate.

"Oh, no," Maya mumbled to herself, grinning, "but that just won't do."

She ran out into the hall, crying back to her bewildered friends:

"Don't worry; I won't be long! I'm just going to catch a stray puppy!"


Masumi wondered if he should donate his body to science, and leave it up to them to figure out why he always did the opposite of what his brain told him to do.

He'd explicitly told himself not to do anything that would draw his father's attention towards Maya until he'd safely defused the rumours about them, and here he was, about to bolt back home like a scared rabbit after leaving a supremely expensive champagne bottle on her doorstep.

Oh, well, he thought, reaching down to unlock his car door, at least I haven't done anything comprising, so even if he's had me tailed, he wouldn't be able to—

"Mr Hayami!"

Masumi jumped, nearly tossing his keys up in the air. He willed his grimace to transform into a smile as he turned around to face Maya. Facial expressions didn't matter in the least, however, as Maya had decided to greet him with a hug, pressing him up against his car.

"M-Maya?" Masumi stammered, glancing down at the actress, grabbing onto the roof and the hood of his car to steady himself. What the hell?

Maya beamed up at him like a spotlight, and chirped:

"Hello, mister! I'm going to kidnap you now!"

She detached herself from Masumi and grabbed his hands, pulling him towards her apartment building.

"Maya," Masumi repeated, nullifying her efforts with very little difficulty, "are you drunk?"

"Pshaw!" Maya exclaimed, as though she was offended by the mere notion. "I've only had two glasses of wine and a beer; I'm super sober!"

"Allow me to doubt that statement," Masumi said drily. "'Super sober' people don't usually run out onto the street to kidnap people."

"You know," Maya said, digging her heels into the ground, "it's kinda cold, so the sooner you could get a move on, the better. Geez, you're heavy."

Though she pulled at him with all her might, she couldn't even budge him an inch.

"Listen," Masumi unconcernedly explained, even as Maya violently tugged at his arm, "I appreciate what you're trying to do, but I think that it would be disastrous for me to come up, seeing as your friends all hate me."

"They don't hate you!" Maya huffed, ducking under his arm to push at his back instead. "They just don't trust you."

"Even so," Masumi said, leaning back to impede Maya's efforts, "I think it'd be best if I left. This is your night, shorty; you shouldn't have to worry about me."

Maya seized her attempts to propel Masumi forward to give him another rib cracking hug, before stealing under his arm again, telling him:

"Puppy, come up. We've all been waiting for you."

"Did..." Masumi had no defences against such an exuberant, affectionate Maya, and found that his common sense was losing against his desire to spend more time with her. "Did you just call me 'puppy'?"

Seeing that she'd hooked him, Maya let him go and ran down the path. She clapped her hands, crying:

"Come on, puppy! Come, come, there's a good boy!"

Masumi followed Maya with outmost dignity. "I am not some animal at your beck and call, miss. I have a name."

"And that name's puppy! Come on, lil' pup, you're almost there!"

"I'm not above biting you," Masumi politely told Maya as he made it into the building, kicking his shoes off at the entrance.

"Don't I know that all too well," Maya said, giggling to herself.

Masumi was about to ask what she meant by that, when Maya took his hands again and lead him up the stairs. At the last step, however, he stopped, prompting Maya to ask:

"Puppy, what's wrong? Do you smell another dog?"

"Putting the dog shtick aside," Masumi said, "I'm a bit... concerned. I've never really been to a party where I cared what the other participants think of me."

"There's no need to worry," Maya assured him. "I won't let them bully you."

"That's not quite what I was worried about..."

But Maya decided that she'd had enough of Masumi's insecurities, and practically manhandled him into her apartment. Masumi winced as the door closed behind him; there truly was no going back now. Well, there was no going back without looking deranged and cowardly, at least.

"Your coat please, sir," Maya said, holding out her arms to him, her stiff posture and professional smile reminding Masumi of the waiters at "Panna".

"Thank you," he said, draping his jacket over Maya's arms.

Maya bowed before mechanically dumping the garment onto the clothes heap on the floor.

"Now come meet your new friends!" Maya said, once again dragging him by the arm. "But please, no sniffing in inappropriate places."

Masumi wanted to whimper; as if merging with this group wouldn't be hard enough, without being introduced with that lovely little line.

"Everyone," Maya announced as she and Masumi stumbled into the living room, "say hello to Mr Hayami."

The greetings of the thespian group varied exceedingly, from Hotta's loud "Good evening, Mr Hayami!" to Rei's subdued "Hi".

"Puppy," Maya said, "say hello to everyone."

"Good evening," Masumi said, barely able to keep the mortification out of his voice. "I'm sorry to disturb you, but apparently, I was kidnapped."

"And how," Maya said. "Now, sit."

She pointed at the pillow she'd occupied before a bottle of champagne had disrupted the evening. Masumi followed her order without much thought; it wasn't until he'd gotten comfortable that he realized that he'd been just been mocked.

"You're a mean drunk," he curtly informed Maya.

"No I'm not," Maya said, plopping down next to him, forcing her friends to scoot, "since I'm not drunk."

She took another draught of her beer, much to Masumi's chagrin. If she was this free spirited after one glass, who knows what damage a second one could cause?

"Oh, that's right," she said, licking away a foam moustache, "would you like something to drink or nibble on? A bowl of water, a plate of kibbles?"

Masumi flushed, somehow endeavouring to be both amused and exasperated, while a large part of the Ikkakuju Troupe smothered their laughter.

"No, thank you," Masumi ground out. "I'm quite content."

"Don't be shy," Maya said, patting his back. "I think I have an old slipper around here somewhere. Wouldya wanna slipper, huh, boy? Wouldya wanna slipper?"

"I am sorry," Masumi said, his shoulders squared and his voice frosty, "but I'm disinclined to masticate any and all footwear you have to offer, Miss Kitajima."

"That's no good," Maya chided. "Your teeth will go bad. Ah, Rei, where'd you put the champagne?"

"In the fridge," Rei said, after swallowing a spiteful chuckle. "Do you want me to bring it out?"

"... No," Maya decided, drawing her knees up to her chest. "No, I'll save it for the most special day of my life."

"Is there any reason for why you're showing my gift such reverence?" Masumi said, hoping that he might've found a way to regain some control of the situation.

"Of course I'm treating it with awe," Maya said. "A little, stray puppy came a long way to deliver it; I'll treasure it forever."

That was too much for anyone to bear; the whole room burst out into laughter, while Masumi covered his eyes, waiting for his intense embarrassment to pass.

"That's quite enough," he said once his complexion had returned to normal. "Really, what's with the canine-themed harassment? I have never, not even once, done anything reminiscent of a puppy."

"Sure you have!" Maya protested. "You're always fetching me things," she pointed at the adorned cactus on the window sill, "and you love playing. Plus, you've got such a thick coat," she ruffled Masumi's hair, "and such a cute muzzle," she pressed down on his nose, "how could you be anything but a puppy?"

"Those... those are all very good points," Masumi said, too frazzled to make any attempt to tidy his hair, "but even if I somehow endeavoured to be a dog, I certainly wouldn't be a puppy."

"Yes you are!" Maya slid up behind him, wrapping her arms around him, putting her chin on his shoulder. "If you had a tail, you'd chase it, and that's what being a puppy's all about."

Never had Masumi been so torn about how to react. Part of him wanted to screech "I would not chase my tail!", another wanted to say, "If you say so" and continue to enjoy Maya's snuggling, while a third was all for spinning around and returning Maya's affection tenfold.

But, as he was thirty years old and in front of witnesses, he was disinclined to follow any of these base instincts, and addressed Rei instead:

"So, how much has she really had to drink? A six-pack, a keg?"

"Sadly," Rei said, biting down on an evil laugh as Maya made an affronted sound and slapped Masumi's shoulder, "she's only on her second glass. Oi, Maya, I think you're making Mr Hayami just a little bit uncomfortable."

"No, I'm not!" Maya cried confidently. "Am I?" she asked Masumi in a small voice.

Truth be told, she was making him uncomfortable, as her face was mere inches from his and her chest was pressed against his back. But as it was hardly in the spirit of civilisation to admit that a minor's proximity was making you edgy, Masumi rephrased his distress:

"As this is the complete opposite of how you usually treat me, yes, shorty, you're making me uncomfortable."

Maya pouted, but let go of Masumi, settling back into her place next to him.

"So that's how it is," she said, glaring at him. "You can dish it out, but you can't take it."

Masumi could feel the colour drain from his face. He turned his head, and was met by four very unfriendly gazes, belonging to Rei, Mina, Sayaka and Taiko.

"Mr Hayami," Rei said, her tone chill enough to turn water into ice, "what is it that you can apparently give freely otherwise, but have trouble receiving in a crowded room?"

"Please," Sayaka added, "be as precise as possible. Spare no details."

"We're all eager to find out more about you," Mina said, her smile deceptively sweet, "so don't hold back."

"Tell us all about how you usually act with our dear, innocent Maya," Taiko said, her usually reserved manners gone, the glint in her eyes as hard as the one in Rei's.

Masumi, being Masumi, would've been able to come up with a perfectly acceptable explanation for Maya's statement in five to ten seconds (despite being terrified), but it was still a great relief when Maya spoke up:

"He's always teasing me, coming up with stupid nicknames, but when I do the same, he becomes all offended. It's unfair!"

Masumi let out a small sigh as the murderous energy emanating from the remaining member of Tsukikage Theatre evaporated.

"It's not that I become offended," Masumi assured Maya, "it's just that I'm not used to it. I don't think I've ever been called by a nickname before, actually. Not a cute one, at least."

"Never?" Maya gasped. "Not even 'Masa'?"

"Especially not Masa."

"How about... Masarin?"

"Not even once."

"Then what have people been calling you? You can't go through life just being called 'Mr Hayami'; that's depressing."

"Well," Masumi crossed his arms, "there's the usual: 'Demon of Daito', 'cold-hearted workaholic', 'devil workhorse', 'black-hearted, modern day Genghis Khan', and so forth. Imaginative, sure, but not exactly useful in social contexts."

Maya and a large portion of the room blushed, as they had often utilized those nicknames in the past.

"But that's horrible!" Maya said. "You're none of those things; you shouldn't have to put up with it!"

"It's alright," Masumi said, smiling at her outrage. "I chose to work in a position where I knew I would have to offend people, and I have acted enough like an ass to earn scorn. Besides, expression, in whatever form, is the lifeblood of this industry. I wouldn't want an employee who isn't creative enough to compare me with ruthless conquerors."

While it would take quite some work for the members of Tsukikage Theatre to even be able to trust Masumi as far as they could throw him, that speech was a good start. A self-aware person is always appealing, especially one that can make fun of himself.

"But I don't want that," Maya insisted. "You're always so sad; if you just let it show, people wouldn't misunderstand you, and no one would call you a demon. Why can't you just act like you really are, instead of making people feel like idiots when they realize they've basically been picking on a handicapped person?"

"I... I never really thought of it that way before," Masumi admitted. "I've always been introverted; the fact that weakness is frowned upon in my line of work merely helped enforce that."

"Well, stop it," Maya said, her tone leaving no room for arguments. "Flirt with office ladies, tease actresses, compliment your underlings; if you don't, I'll never speak to you again."

Masumi laughed in a way that made Hotta murmur, "Wow" under his breath.

"If it's for the sake of our friendship," Masumi said, "then I guess I'll have to reform, starting with my behaviour toward you."

He picked up Maya's beer glass, and said:

"I'd like to propose a toast to Maya, for her unique ability to amaze even the most cynical of people."

While the members of Tsukikage Theatre knew that this man had been their worst enemy a few years back, they weren't petty people. They joined Masumi and the Ikkakuju Troupe in his toast, as they agreed wholeheartedly with its message.


Dear god, Masumi thought, bemusedly staring at the glass of mineral water in front of him, but how did this happen?

An hour or so had passed since he'd been forced to attend Maya's victory party. While Maya had let up on calling him "puppy", she'd refused to let him go, telling him that he had to stay until the last guest had left. As everyone assembled in the apartment was on friendly footing with each other—with what seemed to be a million things in common—and the supply of refreshments was plentiful, he doubted the party would end for quite some time. Maya had left him to speak with her friends about what had happened behind the scenes of "The Two Princesses", and while Masumi had been able strike up a few conversations, he was still very aware of the fact that he was at least five years older than anyone else in the room.

Feeling older than he ever had before, Masumi sighed as he unravelled his tie, reminding himself that he had far worse problems to deal with, like his darling father. He hoped to god that Eisuke had forgone having him followed, but knew that it was unlikely for controlling, paranoid, disgruntled, bitter old men to show respect for anyone else's privacy. Masumi had thought that he'd enjoy fighting with his father, but was disappointed when he discovered that Eisuke didn't do arguments: he did passive aggressive, snide comments.

After Masumi had made it clear that he would chose who to spend the rest of his life with, Eisuke had hardly deigned to look at him, unless he'd made a poignant remark about unappreciative people and wished to underline it with a glare at his son. As there was no way to reply to that without stooping to his father's level, Masumi endured the comments in silence, mentally rolling his eyes.

In true Hayami fashion, it was forbidden to mention the incident that had caused the rift in the family, yet wherever Masumi went, people told him he should settle down, or gave him an ill-disguised lecture on how a man would have to be crazy to let a beauty like Shiori Takamiya away. Eisuke never dirtied his hands with emotions; he left it up to other people to express his wishes.

In a strange (most likely unhealthy) way, Masumi thought he would've preferred this state of affairs, if it wasn't for Maya. If his father managed to figure out that she was behind his unwillingness to marry a stranger, Masumi was sure he would do everything in his power to find some way to scare her away. Her position as a candidate for the Crimson Goddess might earn her immunity against some of his rougher strategies, but Masumi still feared that things would soon become very uncomfortable for both him and Maya.

I've only just managed to get her to like me as a friend, Masumi thought, biting down unconsciously. Can't he just leave me alone until after I've proposed to her?

"What's wrong, puppy?"

Masumi jerked out of his thoughts in time to feel Maya pat his head, and so managed to prevent himself from shivering.

"You look troubled," Maya added, sitting down much too close to him.

To Masumi's knowledge, Maya had stopped at her second glass of beer, yet it was clear that that glass had been one (or two) too many. Her complexion was rosier than it usually was, her movements more relaxed and her sense of personal space completely distorted. She was so close to Masumi, she had to tilt up her chin as high as it could go to look him in the eye, her arm touching his side.

Masumi cleared his throat, discreetly nudging away, and said:

"It's nothing. I just had an argument with my father."

"What about?" Maya asked, leaning forward. "Allowance?"

"Nothing quite like that," Masumi laughed. "Actually, it was about something completely different."

"What, what, what then?"

Masumi pursed his lips, wondering if he was so desperate for proof of Maya's affection for him that he would willingly upset her.

But then again, he thought, smirking, she did say I should share more.

"Well," he said, "actually, he's quite adamant that I enter into an arranged marriage with the daughter of a powerful businessman."

He drank from his mineral water before he glanced at Maya, and nearly choked on the liquid when he saw her expression. She looked absolutely crushed, as though he'd just announced that Tsukikage had died.

"W-what did you say?" she stammered, grabbing onto his shoulder. "You didn't say yes, did you?"

"Hm?" Masumi put down his glass, and smiled at Maya. "I didn't say yes to what?"

He felt inordinately satisfied as Maya grimaced with frustration.

"Mou-ou-ou-ouuu!" she moaned, shaking him. "I hate it when you're like that! Just say 'yes' or 'no', damn you!"

"If I'd said yes," Masumi said, calmly enduring Maya's abuse, "there wouldn't have been an argument, would there?"

"If you said no," Maya said, releasing Masumi's shoulder, "then you could just say so, couldn't you?"

"And miss you letting out the longest 'mou' in the world?" Masumi sniggered. "Not likely."

Maya just crossed her arms with another "Mou!"

"Things became a little tense after that," Masumi continued. "My father thinks I'm ungrateful, since he's provided for me all my life, and sees no reason as to why I wouldn't want to marry the prospective bride he picked out. He doesn't realize that marriage is more than just a matter of convenience to some people." He sighed, suddenly feeling very tired. "I know he doesn't love me—he made that clear from the first—but I thought that he at least saw me as a person, and not just as one of his pawns. But then again," he smiled sardonically, "you can't expect too much out of a cold-hearted billionaire in way of parenthood, can...?"

The fact that Maya's eyes were brimming with tears completely erased all thoughts from Masumi's head.

"Could you please come with me?" she asked him, her voice low and trembling.

Powerless to do anything else, Masumi just nodded, allowing Maya to take his hand, shooting a glance at her friends as he rose with her. Like he'd expected, they were nonplussed, and weren't calmed when Maya told them:

"I'm just going to talk to Mr Hayami in private. I'll be right back."

Before Masumi could think of a way to convey that the talk was going to be completely platonic, Maya had dragged him out into the corridor and into her room. She didn't turn on the light; she just closed the door behind them and navigated through the small space with help of the glow from the street lamps outside the window. She took one of the futons from the corner of the room and placed it on the floor to act as a very large pillow.

"Sit," she told Masumi, kneeling in front of the futon.

Naturally, Masumi was a bit hesitant towards assuming an intimate position with Maya in a dark room, especially as the woman in question currently had a vague sense of propriety. But, as he was a sap and Maya was still blinking away tears, he did as she bid and sat down on the folded futon.

"You said your father doesn't love you," Maya said, "and you smiled."

"Yes, well," Masumi said, rubbing his neck, "that might've been a little inappropriate, but that's just how I deal with it. It's nothing, shorty. I've known he doesn't love me for a long time, and I haven't loved him in return."

Maya just stared at him, dragging her nails across the floor as she closed her fingers into fists. Her tears started falling as she spoke:

"My mother..." Her breath hitched, but she continued, "I was such a stupid child. I was always off in my own world, while she worked her hardest. All she asked from me was to help out, to do well at school, but I couldn't even do that. Instead, I ran away to become an actress. Me, plain and useless, an actress! She must've been worried sick.

"But even though I was so difficult, even though I caused her nothing but trouble, she loved me. She really, really loved me. So why can't," she drew in a sharp breath, "why can't your father love you?"

The question hit Masumi like a blow. He suddenly realized that he didn't have the slightest idea why Eisuke had become the man he was today; other than the fact that he had left his home at an early age, he knew nothing about his father's childhood.

"I... I really don't know," he finally said. "He just... he does love, but only intangible objects, like his company, and the Crimson Goddess. It's like loving an actual flesh and blood person would be too much for him to bear," he smiled, "or too troublesome, at least. Besides, I'm only his adoptive son—"

"I know that!" Maya interrupted, using both of her sweater sleeves to wipe her tears. "That doesn't mean anything! He married your mother, he took you in, he made you his heir; why should it be so bloody difficult to love you as well!?"

Masumi watched as Maya aggressively erased the traces of her sadness, his eyes wide as saucers. He'd been taught to fear and respect his father, so hearing a normal person give him her view on Eisuke was refreshing. He couldn't help chuckling, at which Maya snapped:

"What's so funny?"

"Ah, nothing, really. It's just that I never thought that I'd get to see you cry for me, rather than at me."

Maya smiled faintly, muttering, "Idiot."

"True. But really, it's alright, shorty. It's not like I've gone my entire life without knowing a parent's love. If you should feel sorry for someone, feel sorry for Tsukikage."

"Eh? What about Tsukikage?"

"If you want to know, you should ask her. I hardly think she'll appreciate it if I tell her most emotional student about her tragic past without her consent. Now, come on, lest your friends think we've sneaked out the window to paint the town red."

But Maya wasn't done yet, which she demonstrated by taking hold of Masumi's arms.

"... What you said to me," she said, her gaze firmly set on her lap, "when you were drunk... Did you mean it?"

Masumi experienced a very unpleasant thrill at the question, but as Maya wasn't looking at him, he was able to compose himself and give a suitably ambiguous reply:

"Oh, no, shorty; you only get one heartfelt confession per 24 hours. But so as to not to leave you high and dry, I will say that you're my most treasured drinking buddy. No one makes me forget about my troubles as well as you do."

Apparently, that was exactly the answer that Maya had wanted; she snapped her head up and offered Masumi a brilliant smile. Then, without warning, she launched herself at him with such force that he toppled over onto his back, while exclaiming:

"Oh, puppy! I promise, I'll take care of you!"

As Masumi's lower body was still perched on top of the futon, Maya started to slide down Masumi's chest with a squeak. By the time she was able to get up onto her elbow, she was right at eyelevel with Masumi, unable to stop staring at him as she assessed the situation.

Her whole body was on top of Masumi, and he'd clamped his hands around her waist to keep her from slipping down even further. While that was all extremely bad in itself, what truly made Maya quake with mortification was the compromising position of her leg, which was wedged between Masumi's. Her first instinct was to roll off of him and run to the next zip code, but her stupid body had frozen up.

"Ah," Masumi breathed, seeing the panic in Maya's eyes, "d-don't overreact. We'll," Masumi swallowed, forcing himself to think of anything but the placement of Maya's leg, "we'll sort it out in no time."

"Oh, god!" Maya whispered, dangerously close to either crying or giggling uncontrollably. "I'm sorry, but I think I might die now."

"Nonsense!" Masumi said, his voice heady with false cheer. "What's a platonic mauling between friends?"

He slowly raised Maya up by her waist, while she got up on her palms, her arms trembling as she pushed herself back onto her knees.

"You see?" Masumi said, sitting up (with a little difficulty, as his limbs were as steady as jelly). "Nothing to it."

Maya just moaned forlornly, burying her head in her hands, curling up into a ball.

"There's no reason to be embarrassed," Masumi insisted. "It's a mistake any inebriated teenager could've made."

"It's not that," Maya said, peeking out between her hands. "It's just that the balance is all screwed up now."

"Balance? What balance?"

"The balance between you and me. You're always winning over me, and now, finally, I had the upper hand. I was going to tease you into unconsciousness, but now, it's impossible. Damn it!" Maya smacked her palms against the floor. "How annoying!"

Masumi's face was carefully blank as he said:

"Shorty, I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to laugh hysterically for the next five minutes or so."

"At least wait until I'm out of the room!" Maya commanded, scrambling up onto her feet.

Masumi nodded, biting his lip hard to stem his amusement. The precise moment Maya entered the hallway, he started laughing like possessed, collapsing back onto the floor.

"It's not that funny!" Maya cried, sliding the door shut behind her with a bang.

She stomped into the living room growling, ignoring the stares of her friends as she placed her forehead on the table, wrapping her arms around her head to block out the sound of Masumi's voice.

"I may end up regretting asking this question for the rest of my life," Rei sighed, "but what just happened?"

"Something I will never speak about," Maya murmured behind her arm fortress. "Not in a thousand years!"

Rei rolled her eyes and returned to her discussion about the Boxer rebellion with Sayaka.

True to his word, Masumi returned five minutes later, looking very refreshed.

"Ah," he breathed, plopping down next to the curled up Maya, "that was just what I needed, though it was rather dehydrating."

Maya glared at him as he gulped down the rest of his drink. Ugh and bleargh. I hate it when he's all smug and superior. He's been getting his way far too much... God, I'd give my right leg for a way to pull him down a peg!

Uniquely enough, the way to put Masumi into his place was presented to her in a bowl of agemochi. With an impish smile, she selected an agemochi that was more or less square, and addressed Masumi:

"Mr Hayami, could you please turn this way?"

"Since I've got nothing better to do," Masumi said, shrugging, "alright."

Once he followed Maya's directive, his jaw was seized and his chin tilted upwards.

"S-Shorty?" Masumi stammered. "What are you doing?"

"I'm going to place this on your nose," Maya explained, holding up the agemochi so that Masumi could see it.

"... Alright," Masumi said, attempting to nod. "... Why?"

"Because I wanna teach you a new trick!" Maya warbled.

"I don't," Masumi said, pulling his jaw from her grip. "I'd like to think I've been a good sport up until now with the whole puppy thing, but I draw the line at having an oily snack placed on my nose."

"Aren't you uppity," Maya said, frowning. "I recall a certain letter, in which you told me I could punish you however I wished. Well," she smirked, "I've chosen my punishment."

Masumi's expression rather resembled that of a man who's just discovered that he's stepped onto a hive of killer bees.

"Alright," Rei suddenly spoke up, "that's it. I'd like to think that I've been a good sport up until now, but enough is enough. What exactly happened between you that would enable Maya to 'punish' you?"

Masumi's expression transformed into that of a man who, after having dislodged his foot from a killer bee hive, has found out that an army of fire ants is crawling up his pant leg.

"... It's a long story," he said, in a very vain hope that Rei would say "Oh, then I don't want to hear it". "In summary—"

"No summaries," Rei interrupted. "Please, tell us the whole thing."

If Masumi had still been "The Demon of Daito" to the assembled actors, they would've all kept quiet and wondered what the hell Rei was doing, provoking one of the most influential men in the entertainment industry. But as they had consumed quite a large percentage of the alcohol they had amassed for the evening, they had no trouble thinking of Masumi as "Maya's Puppy", and therefore started to chant:

"Tell us! Tell us! Tell us!"

"Very well," Masumi acceded, holding in a large, pained sigh. "If the story is in such popular demand, who am I to refuse to tell it?"

He cleared his throat, prayed to god, and began his tale:

"Back when Maya was staying at the Himekawa mansion, I may have visited her when I was in a... less than presentable state."

"He was as drunk as a fish swimming in a barrel of rum," Maya helpfully supplied.

"Thank you," Masumi pressed out, "for that colourful, if exaggerated, description. Nonetheless, I wasn't quite in my usual frame of mind. As a result, I may have..." Masumi cleared his throat again, "I may have asked the servants if Maya was terrorising them."

Jaws were dropped and eyebrows raised; Maya, who was as unassuming as humanly possible, terrorise someone else's household staff?

"And?" Maya said, malicious joy evident in her smirk.

"And..." Masumi flushed, but valiantly carried on, "and I inspected the living room to see if Maya had destroyed anything."

Though the stares he was getting were plainly humiliating Masumi, Maya said, enjoying herself far too much:


Masumi hung his head, murmuring, "And I might have implied that Ayumi was a transsexual puppeteer in front of said girl's nanny."

As such a declaration needs time to be properly digested, the room was cast into silence after Masumi's confession. Once everyone was on the clear that the man before them, heir to a fortune and proprietor of billions, had invaded someone else's home and made an ass of himself in front of all of its members, the room erupted into wild guffaws.

"That's the best thing I've ever heard!" Keiko exclaimed, so weak with laughter and unsteady by drink that she had lean on Taiko. "Oi, chief, we should hire him! He'd make one hell of a straight man!"

"Wow," Rei said, the hard glint gone from her eyes, "but that's really embarrassing. I can see why you didn't want to tell us."

Masumi just nodded, too busy preventing a complete loss of his self image to give a more substantial reply.

"Isn't he silly?" Maya said, practically glowing with happiness. "And now, for an encore, he'll perform a trick."

"Oh, come on!" Masumi said, ducking away from Maya's outstretched hand. "I've just had my year-supply of confidence siphoned from me; surely, that's punishment enough?"

"That was Rei's punishment," Maya said, taking a firm hold of Masumi's jaw, "not mine. Besides, the crowd wants a show, doesn't it?"

The crowd answered by enthusiastically crowing:

"Trick! Trick! Trick!"

"Majority rules," Maya said, gingerly placing the agemochi on Masumi's nose. "Now, stop laughing, or you'll make it fall."

With a deep, cleansing breath, Masumi managed to overcome his trepidation enough to be still.

"When I say, 'go'," Maya told Masumi, her voice shaky with mirth, "you'll try and catch the agemochi with your mouth, alright?"

As all head movement was denied him, Masumi showed his understanding of the rules by giving Maya a thumbs up. While he waited for her to give the command, he wondered how on earth he'd managed to go from being a lonesome avenger to becoming the plaything of drunken youths.


Masumi tilted his head, snapping after the agemochi as it tumbled down from his nose. He missed it by a few millimetres, and he felt, as he watched it skirt across the table, that he was never going to be able to take himself seriously again.

"Aww!" the crowd yelled. It was embarrassing enough to attempt the trick in the first place, but to fail? That had to smart.

"Ah!" Maya cried, snapping her fingers. "So close! Still, it was a good show. Give him a hand, folks!"

The "folks" were more than eager to comply, applauding Masumi loud enough to warrant a broom jab from the tenant living underneath them.

"... I feel I've lost an integral part of my humanity," Masumi said, hiding his eyes behind his hand.

"Then stop being a human!" Maya said, petting him. "Come here and be my puppy!"

"I don't think you understand how much responsibility having a pet entails," Masumi said, removing his hand to look at Maya, his eyes narrowed with psychological pain. "You'd have to walk me, feed me, keep me entertained and teach me not to jump up at people. The only perk is that I'm housetrained."

"I don't care!" Maya insisted, hugging his arm. "You're my puppy, and I'll make sure you have all the black coffee and squeaky toys you could ever want!"

If there was any proper way to reply to that sentence, Masumi was unable to find it. He merely sighed heavily, masking his eyes behind his hand again, the physical contact with Maya being the only reason as to why he hadn't collapsed into a mortified pile on the floor.

Deeming Maya to be safe from any improper advances (they couldn't say the same about Masumi, though), Sayaka and Rei went into the kitchen, on the pretence of filling up the near empty bowls of peanuts and chips, to have a confidential chat.

"I don't believe it," Sayaka said as she tore open a package of seafood flavoured chips. "It's just not possible."

"I know," Rei agreed, desolately pouring peanuts. "It boggles the mind and most probably ruptures the fabric of reality: Masumi, the Performing Puppy."

"He's not even drunk! Why is he letting her boss him around like that?"

"Well, it could be that he's truly sorry for his behaviour in the past, and is trying to make up for it. Or..."

"Or he's trying to win our trust in a wily scheme to destroy our hopes and dreams?" Sayaka supplied hopefully.

"It's possible," Rei admitted, though her "or" had been of a completely different sort, namely, "Maybe he just really likes Maya."

As they had no more bowls to fill, they ended their discussion on that unhelpful note. During their brief absence, Masumi had processed his trauma and stabilised his self-image, gaining enough confidence to ask Maya:

"So, while you're inebriated enough for the lines between humans and animals to blur, are there anymore tricks you want me to learn? I graduated top of my class in college, so feel free to get a little technical."

Maya grinned like a child who'd been given a new toy. She mulled over all the things she could make Masumi do, and settled on this command:


Masumi sighed, but put his fist in Maya's hand.

"I think I might be overqualified for this job," he drily observed.

"I'm just warming you up," Maya said. "Roll over."

"As there's next to no free space here," Masumi said, glancing around, "and as I still have some dignity left, no."

"Then bark."

"Not likely."

"Oh, you're so boring! Alright, fine, play dead, then."

"Now why would I...?" Suddenly, Masumi groaned, grabbing at his heart, and tumbled to the floor.

Maya laughed, clapping her hands with delight. "You're such a showman, puppy!"

"I'm merely an amateur," Masumi humbly stated, still splayed on the floor. "Now, if you don't mind, I'll just stay here and sleep until it's time to go home."

"No way!" Maya violently protested, tugging at his lapels. "You have to talk to me during the whole party! Otherwise, I'll never forgive you."

"Never is a long time," Masumi said, aiding Maya in her task to get him upright again. "But I'm a boring old man, shorty; you'd be much better off talking to one of your friends."

"No," Maya said, taking a firm hold on Masumi's shirt sleeve, as though she was afraid he would run away. "I want to talk to you, so you can't leave."

Masumi felt something swell in his chest; his hopes that Maya might actually return his feelings were dashed, however, when she added:

"I haven't teased you nearly enough yet; you have to stay until I've broken your spirit."

The fact that Masumi was only mildly disappointed by this was yet another testament to his bizarre mind.


It wasn't until after midnight that the last of the guests left, and Masumi was freed from his role as Maya's puppy. As Maya had decided to imbibe another beer, despite the strong protests of nearly everyone in the apartment, things had gone from "hard to manage" to "bloody impossible" towards the end. She'd serenaded everyone, hugging them while she'd done so, and had more often than not clung onto Masumi as though he was a life raft in a stormy sea. While he was flattered that she'd paid him the most attention all throughout the evening, having her climb all over him had put him in a precarious position.

Though it had been tough to feign disinterest while the love of his life was calling him "wonderful" and, frankly, copping a few feels, Masumi thought he'd managed it admirably. Apparently, his surroundings agreed, as Rei told him while they were cleaning up the apartment:

"I'm sorry about Maya. She just really can't hold her liquor."

"It's alright," Masumi said, picking up a bowl someone had knocked onto the floor during one of the many drinking games. "I'm sure that no one will be more regretful about it than her tomorrow."

Rei chuckled, murmuring, "If she'll remember any of it."

She walked into the kitchen, clutching a wide array of glasses to her chest. She suddenly let out a dismayed exclamation, dumping the glasses into the sink:

"Maya, get up! You'll catch a cold."

Masumi peeked into the crowded kitchen, and discovered that Maya was lying on the floor, curled up like a cat. Apparently, she'd felt, upon brushing her teeth, that the walk to her bedroom was too far, and so decided to sleep in the kitchen instead.

"Come on, Maya," Rei pleaded, taking the bowl Masumi passed her. "You can't sleep on the floor."

Maya's response to that was a defiant "Mrrm!".

"She's right, shorty," Masumi said, crouching down next to Maya. "You just need to walk a few pitiful metres, and you'll be in a cosy futon's embrace. Doesn't that sound more tempting than a cold tile floor?"

Maya just said "Meh," and motioned at Masumi to go away.

"It's going to take a lot of elbow grease to get her to budge," Masumi told Rei.

"Of course," Rei sighed. "If you could keep trying to get her to move, I'll get the futons ready."

"Will do," Masumi said, resisting the urge to salute.

When Rei had gone, Masumi nudged at Maya, saying:

"Oi, shorty, you can't sleep here. Get up, and I'll help you to your bedroom."

Maya cracked open her eyes to glare balefully at Masumi.

"Quite botherin' me," she muttered, and then turned over onto her other side.

"So that's how it is?" Masumi smiled, hovering over Maya. "Just a few minutes ago, I was 'a wonderful, sweet puppy', and now you don't want anything to do with me?"

Maya surprised Masumi by rolling onto her back, looking straight up at him.

"I'm sorry," she said, patting his knee. "I'm just so tired; I totally don't wanna to move."

It was obvious that she was telling the truth; even as she was speaking with him, her eyes fluttered shut, and it was only with visible effort that she managed to keep them open.

"... Then you don't have to."

Maya was too sleepy to react properly as Masumi slid his arms under her back and knees, merely murmuring "Eh?". It wasn't until he'd raised her up into the air that she realized what he was doing.

"You're always doin' this," she slurred as he slowly got up onto his feet.

"Well," Masumi said, relieved that she wasn't reacting like she had the last time he'd picked her up without permission, "you're so tiny, it seems like a waste not to."

Maya didn't bother answering that; she just leaned her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes. With some difficulty, he managed to manoeuvre his way out of the kitchen without accidentally banging Maya against anything.

The wide-eyed stare Rei directed at him when he entered the bedroom/study made him realize that maybe it wasn't common practise for platonic friends to carry each other around.

"I improvised," he said. "I hope that's alright?"

"... Yes," Rei said, "that's fine. Just put her down here."

She drew down the covers of a floral patterned futon. Masumi got down onto his knees, and carefully lowered Maya onto the futon. He was about to rise, when Maya hooked an arm around his neck and drew herself up against him.

"Good night," she murmured against his cheek.

Every hair on Masumi's body rose in response to him feeling Maya's breath against his neck. It was typical; Maya had been throwing herself at him all night, and the thing that completely tore through his defences was a gust of wind.

"G-good night," he stammered, painfully aware that Maya's roommate was a spectator to his awkwardness. "Sweet dreams."

As Maya showed no signs of releasing him, Masumi took it upon himself to untangle her arms around his neck and lower her back onto the futon. She closed her eyes as soon as her head touched the pillow, and was asleep soon afterwards. He left it up to Rei to pull up the covers over Maya, attempting to regain a little calm before the inevitable confrontation with the androgynous actress. He didn't know how much his expression had revealed, or how Rei would interpret it, but he did know that he'd let something compromising show and that the actress was far more observant than her friend was.

By the time he'd slipped into his coat, he was composed enough to smile at Rei when she joined him in the hallway, despite the fact that she was looking at him with unease.

"Thank you for helping me clean up," she told him. Masumi could see that she was just stalling for time, trying to come up with the best way to question him about what had just happened.

While Masumi wasn't exactly known for his helpfulness, he decided to make an exception for Rei and give her what she wanted:

"It was nothing. Rather, I should thank you for telling Maya about my true intentions. I would've never done so on my own accord."

That was exactly the sort of in Rei had wanted:

"Why didn't you tell her? I know you didn't want her to know before, because you thought you wouldn't be able to motivate her if she knew, but you didn't even speak up when she severed all ties with you. Why?"

Masumi had two options: he could tell Rei the whole truth, which she certainly deserved, or the carefully edited one, which left out all mentions of how he felt he'd rather die than be truly rejected by Maya. As the occasions when he'd spoken to Rei could be counted on one hand, he felt it would be more prudent to start small:

"I have no confidence when it comes to her. I'm used to having a goal to achieve in my relationships, but I'm not arrogant enough to have one when it comes to her, or with anyone of you, really. I can't manipulate you into trusting me, and I don't want to. I just want to make amends."

"... And is that all?"

That confirmed his suspicions; Rei'd seen his weakness and interpreted it correctly. But as he'd prepared for it, Masumi said, without faltering:

"Like I said: I'm not arrogant enough to attempt anything else. Good night, Miss Aoki."

"Good night, Mr Hayami," Rei said, too deep in thought to smile or attempt any other courtesy.

As she closed the door after him, Rei felt that she really disliked Masumi. He always came flouncing onto the scene when you least expected it, defied all your expectations and then just left with a cryptic statement. She couldn't understand anything he did, and as it seemed that he was quite fond of Maya and vice versa, that was unfortunate.

She tiptoed into her and Maya's room, sighing as she glanced down at her conked-out roommate.

When you wake up, Rei thought, turning off the light, you'll have a lot of problems to deal with, Maya. And yet again, that problem is Hayami.


Masumi was so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of his thoughts, he was surprised when he found himself backing into his garage, as he'd been certain he'd end the night by accidentally ramming his car into a tree.

The thought Maya likes me played over and over in his head as he silently made his way to his room. While a normal man would've been walking on clouds at the thought that a woman they loved exceedingly might return his feelings, Masumi felt weighed down by the possibility. While he had absolute confidence in himself in some factors, he had none when it came to his personality. How would she react when she realized that he was little more than an emotionally disturbed child, with nothing to offer her other than a few jokes, gifts and a whole heap of unresolved issues?

He stopped as he reached the second floor landing, paralyzed as his morbid imagination conjured up an image of how disappointed Maya would be at seeing who he really was: a sketchy, unfinished man. He was violently reclaimed from his self-deprecating ponderings by Asa's voice:

"Welcome home, Master Masumi."

After recovering from a near heart attack, Masumi addressed his father's assistant:

"I'm glad to be home, old man. I didn't hear you approach; were you mayhap an assassin before you came into my father's employ?"

Asa didn't take kindly towards being called "old man", and it was evident that he didn't appreciate being called an assassin either:

"I would watch my tongue if I were you. Your father has been worried sick about you."

"I'm sure he's been sitting by the phone," Masumi said, "anxiously awaiting my call. Asa, I feel I have a duty to inform you that I am in fact thirty, so while you might always see me as the innocent little twenty-four year old I was when you took care of me, I'm quite capable of looking after myself."

"The longer this conversation continues," Asa said, fixing Masumi with his best kabuki glare, "the more I think I shall have reason to doubt that."

Masumi laughed, slapping Asa's shoulder in a friendly fashion.

"Touché, old man," he told the stunned assistant. "You know, you're quite witty when you want to be. Why couldn't you have acted like this way back when you were my assistant? We could've been the feared duo of Daito, always ready to crack down on incompetent employees with a devastating quip."

While Asa had watched Masumi growing up and worked by his side for years, he could honestly say he had no idea who the man in front of him was. Masumi had never been hostile towards him, but he'd never been more than necessarily polite, either. To see his young master show an active interest in him as a person was therefore more disturbing than flattering, prompting Asa to ignore his advances:

"Your father is waiting for you in his study. You'd be wise not to make him wait any more than you already have."

Masumi sighed as Asa passed him, quenching the urge to cry out, "We could've been great together!" after him. All kidding aside, it was time to face the music.

But Masumi was unable to put the kidding aside, as it was the one thing that prevented him from succumbing to despair. So he wondered, while he marched to Eisuke's study, what sort of instruments would be best used to compose his father's theme song?

Having been more or less groomed to work in show business, Masumi'd made it a habit to try and make out what story the people he met were part of: if they belonged to a comedy or a tragedy, what music should be played when they made their entrance on the stage and whether they were the lead or merely considered themselves to be. As he feared and despised his father, he hadn't directed the habit at him, but now he was actually quite curious: would his father's stage debut be heralded with a maudlin violin or a forceful orchestra?

Upon entering his father's study and meeting Eisuke's gaze, Masumi felt that while he didn't know precisely how he should introduce him to the audience, cavalry drums would somehow be involved.

A minute passed, and his father took no initiative to end the silence.

"I'm home," Masumi said experimentally.

"Welcome home," Eisuke said, something about his tone making Masumi shiver. "Where have you been?"

"I was with friends," Masumi answered, drawing himself up in an attempt to look as though Eisuke's stare had no effect on him. "I'm sorry I didn't call. I didn't think it was necessary."

"And why wouldn't I want to know where my heir is?"

Masumi drew in a deep breath, but still shuddered all the same. Apparently, his father's repertoire contained more than just caustic remarks; he also owned the gift of chilling blood with a single sentence.

"As you've never shown any interest before," Masumi said, lighting a cigarette, "I just assumed I would bother you if I called."

Masumi concentrated on the taste and the feel of the smoke in his mouth, as it might very well be his last cigarette.

At least, he thought, I went down fighting.

After enjoying what was possibly the best inhalation of toxic gas in his life (and lord knew, there were a lot of contenders for that title), he glanced at Eisuke. What he saw changed his life: his father was smiling.

It wasn't a pleasant smile; it expressed nothing but Eisuke's delight at being able to rebuff Masumi's attempts at rebellion without much effort. Masumi knew this very well, but the fact was that it had been years since his father had smiled at him.

"I'll allow you this one indiscretion," Eisuke told him, "but that's all. You know very well that you can't truly defy me. I made you; that's the simple truth of the matter. It'll be back to business tomorrow, and you will at least meet with Shiori Takamiya."

Masumi was used to being disappointed. It seemed that nearly everything in his life was destined to take a turn for the worse sooner or later, which was why he'd decided to set his hopes incredibly low: get Maya see him as an equal, and not vermin; get his father to talk to him about something other than business once a month; and so on. His ambitions were set high (marry Maya, destroy Eisuke), but his actual expectations were miniscule. So why was it that his father's complete disregard for him was causing him pain now, when he'd had years to steel himself against it?

Probably, he'd never stopped being bothered by it. He just hadn't been able to express his true feelings about the matter until now.

"... You know," Masumi said, moving closer to Eisuke, "when I was in high school, I read that in a lot of cultures, children are viewed as continuations of their parents. When I read that, I thought that that must be what I am to you: a continuation."

The look of astonishment on his father's face wasn't unexpected, but it still stung.

"You specifically chose me," Masumi continued, grinding out his cigarette in an ashtray on the table by his father, "to carry on your life's work. You raised me to become like you, and it worked. We're not of the same blood, but we've become incredibly similar nonetheless. It feels stupid to admit it, but I really thought that you saw me as a way to live even beyond death."

Masumi was right before his father, closer to him than he'd been in years, but he couldn't look at him. Despite his best efforts, emotion slipped into his voice:

"For five seconds, I felt accepted by you. For five second, I felt connected to you in a way that actually mattered. But then I realized that if you truly thought of me as a part of you, as something other than the means to an end," he turned his head, meeting his father's gaze, "you would've at least thought twice before you left me to die."

Even though Eisuke was never squeamish about being confronted with his sins, for the simple reason that he didn't consider them to be sins, Masumi's allusion to the kidnapping incident stunned him. Eisuke was a practical man; he discarded memories and feelings that hindered him from functioning at maximum capacity. Masumi wouldn't be surprised if he'd forgotten all about it until now.

As Masumi had been like that himself, if not slightly worse, his voice was soft, rather than accusatory, as he asked his father:

"Why are you like this? What made you become like this?"

Eisuke drew himself up, emoting the full extent of his pride as he coldly informed Masumi:

"That's none of your business."

Masumi experienced a shock similar to the one he'd felt when Eisuke had hung up on him while he'd been pleading for his life. After everything that had happened between them, he wouldn't even try to explain himself? He really didn't think Masumi was worth that small amount of consideration?

"That silence cuts both ways," Masumi said, matching his father's frigid demeanour. "Goodnight, Father. See you tomorrow."

Masumi turned on his heel and marched towards the door.

"Masumi!" As his roar had no effect on his son's stride, Eisuke grabbed the ashtray and banged it on the table, spilling its content on the floor. "We're not done—"

"Enough!" Masumi whirled around, flushed with anger. "I've had enough of this! For twenty years, I have lived solely for your convenience! All I want is this one decision, this one freedom, and you're too controlling to even allow that!"

"No," Eisuke countered, no longer fazed by Masumi's insubordination, "I'm not too controlling; I'm too practical. You say that you refuse to meet Shiori Takamiya because you don't want to be distracted from procuring 'The Crimson Goddess'. If I were to tell you that she'd be willing to wait for you that long, what would you say?"

That served to dam Masumi's pent-up rage quite effectively. Eisuke wasn't exactly well-versed in the art of compromising, so Masumi had never even considered that he'd suggest they meet halfway.

"... I would consider it," Masumi lied.

Eisuke just smiled again, very much resembling a cat about to pounce on a canary with a broken wing.

"I don't think you will," he said, leaning back into his wheelchair. "And I think I know why. Men like us choose our battles carefully. We don't waste our energy fighting for abstract concepts like freedom. If you truly just felt that you didn't want to get married, you would've still met with her and gently hinted to her that you weren't interested in a commitment. There must be some definite reason for why you don't even want to be seen with Miss Takamiya."

Masumi honestly didn't know what disturbed him more: that his father was about to expose him, or that he actually understood him well enough to do so.

"Masumi," his father said, unconcernedly brushing some cigarette ash off of his blanket, "I don't think you were being entirely truthful when you told me you weren't in love."

Masumi quickly calculated that nothing he could say would bring about any positive results, so he declined to say anything but:


Seeing that Masumi wasn't going to discuss it, Eisuke decided to be lenient and wait until he had enough evidence to force him to admit his guilt. "Goodnight, son. You have to be up at 7 o'clock; Yuuzuku is coming over for breakfast."

Masumi nodded numbly and quietly exited the study. The doors hardly even clicked as he closed them behind him.

Eisuke let his Cheshire cat grin fade, his expression introspective as he glanced at the cigarettes his violent outburst had caused to fall onto the floor. It'd been a long time since he'd been truly angry, and strangely enough, he felt refreshed rather than aggravated. Perhaps it wasn't surprising; his whole life had been made up out of a long string of conflicts. If he hadn't learnt to enjoy being furious, he wouldn't have become nearly as successful as he currently was.

When he was young, he'd had so many passions to fuel him: the desire to be rich, to be powerful, to be able to merely point at what he wanted to own it. He'd become all he'd aspired to be, but had found that these accomplishments weren't without their disappointments. He'd lost that passion he'd had when he was an active businessman, that fire that cried at him to consume everything in his path. He'd never realized how much he'd missed it until he'd seen it in his heir's eyes.

His reveries were interrupted by a knock on the door.

"Come in," he called out, half-hoping that it was Masumi, ready to launch another tirade at him.

Asa, his most (only) trusted servant, entered. Though he had a face that could make a child cry and a voice that could stun a screaming baby into silence, Asa moved with the grace of a cat.

"Are you alright, Master Eisuke?" Asa inquired, politely refraining to observe the pile of cigarettes on the floor. "I thought I heard shouting."

"It was nothing," Eisuke said. "A trifle, really. I'm ready to retire, Asa. See that this," he gestured to the ashy mess on the carpet, the corner of his lips rising, "is cleaned up before Yuuzuku's visit tomorrow."

"Yes, sir," Asa said, before pushing his master's wheelchair out of the room.

Asa had spent a great amount of time with Eisuke, yet he was surprised when his employer started chuckling.

"What are you laughing about, sir?" he asked. Usually, Asa refrained from commenting on anything the chairman did, but as he'd been clean-shaven the last time he'd heard Eisuke laugh, he felt he had a right to take this small liberty.

"I was just thinking," Eisuke said, rubbing his hands, "that it's been far too long since I've broken another man's spirit. It'll be interesting to see if I still have it in me to divide and conquer."

While Asa wasn't, by any measuring stick, among the most sympathetic of men, he couldn't help but feel sorry for Masumi. If there was anything he'd learnt during his years of service, it was to stay out of Eisuke's line of fire, unless you wished to suffer for the remainder of your natural born life.