AN: Edited by the fantabulous prettyinpinkgal. Pardon the OC. No, really; I sincerely apologize for his weirdness.

This took me six months to write. It will take you, at most, 45 minutes to read.

... I do believe I'm going to go cry in a dark room now.

Crimson and White

Maya wasn't adept at dealing with boredom. Ever since infancy, she'd always been busy doing something practical, whether it was helping out her mom in the restaurant or desperately trying to progress as an actress. That's why she didn't take well to having nothing much to do but stare at the ceiling during what should rightfully be the most hectic time of her career.

Nearly three weeks had passed since Tsukikage had told her that to continue as her potential successor, she needed to qualify for and win the Academic Arts Award in only two years' time. Maya had wasted no time in doing whatever she could to find some way to better her chances, all to no avail. There were currently no productions or companies who were willing to take a chance on an actress who was, technically, still blacklisted. Tsukikage hadn't allowed her to act with her friends, and Maya didn't dare to ask her to reverse the decision, afraid that her mentor would be disappointed by her lack of independence.

As today had been declared a "vacation day" for the underground theatre, she couldn't distract herself by watching her friends rehearse. Everyone but her was away at work and wouldn't be home until late in the afternoon. Usually, she would entertain herself by taking a long walk, but the weather was bleak and uninviting, the wind so strong it made the window panes rattle. While she was a born optimist, she'd begun to grow restless and worried, more and more of her time going towards fretting about how she could possibly succeed, when everything seemed to be designed to work against her.

Ayumi is really amazing, she thought, abandoning her attempt to leaf through a movie magazine she'd already read through five times in the last hour. She's my age, yet she's so confident. Of course, she's much prettier than I am, and her parents are amazing as well, and she's been an actress much longer than I have…

She sighed heavily, collapsing onto the kitchen table, rubbing her forehead on the surface.

Stop it, stop it, stop it! she told herself sternly. It's no use comparing myself to Ayumi; I should just concentrate on my own career… which is nonexist—stop it!

She was in this position when Rei entered the room, rolling her head to and fro on the table.

"You should really stop fretting," Rei said, instantly assessing the cause for Maya's eccentric behaviour. "It'll only make things worse."

Maya shot up, her forehead bright red, trying to set a carefree smile onto her lips.

"Hi Rei!" she chirped, the exaggerated volume of her voice making Rei wince. "How was work?"

"It was one of the better days," Rei said, sitting down, depositing her bag and the mail on the table. "No one tried to give me their phone number, at least. But getting back to you writhing around like a wounded seal, I'm telling you, you'll only exhaust yourself if you don't stop thinking about the Academic Arts Award."

"I know," Maya murmured, dropping her act of unconcern, "but it's hard. I mean, I've got nothing else to do."

"You just have to be patient," Rei assured her, beginning to sort through the mail. "I'm sure Tsukikage'll let you act with us soon."

Maya smiled, but said nothing, far from convinced that Tsukikage would show such mercy for her most troublesome protégée.

"O-ho," Rei said, pausing in her task of dividing the mail into bills and junk mail, "but this is interesting."

"Hm? What is?"

"This is." Rei handed an envelope over to Maya. "It's addressed to you."

Ordinarily, one wouldn't question such a simple statement, yet Maya felt compelled to, as the envelope was far beyond the quality she felt entitled to receive. The surface of the envelope had a pearl-like sheen, and her name and address had been written beautifully upon the back with a fountain pen.

"Hmm, no return address," Rei said, inspecting the letter together with Maya. "I guess you'll have to open it to have any idea what it's about."

Maya nodded, skipping over to the kitchen to retrieve a fruit knife. She carefully, almost surgically, cut the envelope open, not wanting to tear such exquisite paper more than what was absolutely necessary. Peering inside, she saw that the fruit of her labours was a folded up card, embossed with a golden, organic pattern, as well as another tiny, purple envelope. Rei whistled, and they both admired the print before flipping the card open.

Miss Kitajima, due to your excellent accomplishment in the

field of acting, I would be honoured to invite you to dine with me and an assembly of likeminded colleagues this Sunday at 6 o'clock. Your presence would be essential. Instructions and answer card are in the purple envelope.

"Eh?" was Maya's opinion on the whole matter. "M-me? Essential?"

"Well," Rei said, taking out the purple envelope, "you have become a bit of a legend in your absence. But what I want to know is who sent this?"

She glanced at the back of the envelope, and as she read the address already scrawled there, her eyes opened wide.

"Maya," she said slowly, "don't be alarmed, but it seems that Atsushi Heianzan has taken an interest in you."

While Rei had obviously meant for this revelation to amaze Maya, all the actress said was:

"Who?"

"I forgot," Rei muttered, disappointed that her dramatic delivery had been for nothing; "you know next to nothing about the entertainment industry, do you? Okay, listen up, because this is important: Atsushi Heianzan is genius director, very well known and respected, though he retired a few years ago. Still, having his support more or less guarantees success."

"What would someone like that want with me?"

"Maybe he wants a cute girl to add a little aesthetics to a gathering of middle-aged thespians?"

Maya stuck her tongue out at Rei, snatching the purple envelope from her. She pulled out a thrice folded letter, which read:

Miss Kitajima, nothing would honour me more than the pleasure of making your acquaintance. I've followed your career with avid interest, and was delighted to hear that you've decided to compete for the role of the Crimson Goddess once again. I would love to speak with you, as would the other guests of my dinner party.

Should you decide to accept my invitation, you'll have no need to worry about transportation. Simply send me the answer card in this envelope, and on the night in question, a car will come pick you up in a timely fashion. If you're in some way unable to come this Sunday, please send me a note of when you're free. I shall postpone the dinner until that date, as this party cannot be complete without you.

I impatiently await our meeting,

Atsushi Heianzan

"Looks like you're more popular than you thought," Rei commented, having read the letter over Maya's shoulder. "I wonder why he's so anxious to get a hold of you?"

"I've no idea…" was Maya's original hypothesis, when several peculiar features about the situation connected in her mind: a rich, elderly gentleman, who's very knowledgeable about theatre and shows a great interest in her for seemingly no reason, invites her to dinner in her hour of need, asking her to send her answer in a purple envelope…

Her voice and hands trembled as she asked Rei, "Do… do you think it might be Purple Rose?"

"W-what?" Rei glanced down at the purple envelope, backtracked through her friend's train of thought and arrived at the same conclusion. "Oh! It's certainly suggestive… but it couldn't be, could it?"

"I... I know it's unlikely, but... it's possible, isn't it?"

"But Purple Rose is always so extremely cautious… do you really think he'd address a letter to you in his own name, and put it in a purple envelope? He should've known your mind would leap to that conclusion right away."

"I don't know," Maya muttered, rereading the letter. "I mean, he's seen my class memorial photos… he probably knows I'm not that smart…"

"Please, don't insult yourself so flippantly. Anyway, I don't mean to dampen your spirits, but don't build your hopes up too much. It could just be a coincidence."

"Mmm… but either way," Maya said, perking up, "it's a great honour to be invited by such a famous man, isn't it? Do you think I should go, Rei?"

Rei gave the pretence of mulling it over before she burst out, "Of course you should go! Why wouldn't you go? This is exactly the kind of promotion you need. Who knows what famous directors or actors will be there?"

"B-but," Maya mumbled, "I don't know if I'll be able to handle it on my own… I just know I'll do something stupid…"

"You would, wouldn't you? Like cracking oysters open with your teeth and spilling wine down someone's cleavage… But maybe you get to bring a guest, you know, Maya Kitajima plus one."

"Oh," Maya let out a premature sigh of relief, "let's hope so."

Rei procured the last item in the purple envelope, which was a stiff card of curious design, which declared that Maya could bring up to four guests.

"Waaah," Rei said, "he must like crowds a lot. That you're allowed to take exactly four guests is a bit… suspicious, don't you think?"

"Just a little. But now that I can invite you, Sayaka, Mina and Taiko, I won't have to worry about making a fool of myself… as much."

"True. Between the four of us, you'll probably be safe. However, there's still the matter of what you're to wear."

"Eh? W-what about it?"

Rei gave Maya, who was clad in one of her customary dress and cardigan combinations, a critical look over.

"There's nothing wrong with your style, per say," Rei said, "but it doesn't really blend into the fancy dinner scene. Do you have anything that's… elegant? Eye-catching?"

Maya tilted her head, mentally going through her wardrobe. After a minute or so, she returned from her thoughts, pronouncing sheepishly:

"Sorry, but no. Things like that never seem to fit me."

"Ah, well," Rei sighed, "I didn't really expect you to, anyway. We'll deal with it later, but for now, let's head over to the others and invite them. The looks on their faces are going to be awesome, because unlike some people, they actually know something about theatre, other than that it contains a stage."

Maya pouted at the criticism, but was forced to admit that it was well put.

OXOXO

"Atsushi Heianzan!?"

Rei beamed; finally, she had received the audience she deserved.

"The one and only," she chirped. "And you're all invited to come!"

The announcement was followed by a great flurry, everyone crowding around the one wardrobe in the apartment to scavenge out something suitable for the oncoming dinner.

"By the way," Rei said, watching her friends scrutinise their findings, "can anyone lend Maya a dress? Her lack of self-esteem prevents her from buying anything remotely suitable for a fancy party."

"Hmm, that's true," Mina mused, looking Maya up and down in the same way that Rei had. "While printed dresses are cute in general, I don't think Atsushi Heianzan will be especially impressed by it."

"'Gorgeous' probably wouldn't be enough to catch his eye," Taiko said, standing in front of a mirror, pressing a black dress up to her body. "He's worked with some of the most beautiful women ever to step foot on stage. It's a safe bet that he won't turn his head for anything short of 'ethereal'."

Maya let out a sound of abandoned hope and desolate despair. With only a few days to prepare, she sincerely doubted she could be made into anything more than "passable".

"There, there," Rei comforted her, squeezing her shoulder, "don't give up already. Besides, Heianzan wants to talk to you, not use you as an adornment."

"You might be fit for both duties." With an impish grin, Sayaka rose from her pile of various garments, carefully extracting a blue dress from it. She held it up against Maya, critically inspecting how it fit over her chest. "We're about the same size, aren't we? Though you're a bit more voluptuous."

"Um, thanks?" Maya took the dress from Sayaka, her eyes widening as she saw its design. "B-but do you really think this'll suit me?"

"Only one way to find out," Rei said, nudging Maya out of the room. "Go put it on."

With a speed that only seasoned actresses and models can manage, Maya complied, returning less than minute after her departure. She blushed, and not without reason: the dress, while modest enough in adornments, had been cut in a manner that accentuated every curve that naturally occurred on the female body.

"You look lovely, Maya!" Mina gushed.

"Stunning," Taiko agreed. "This'll definitely catch his attention."

"Why, Sayaka!" Rei said, raising a sly eyebrow. "I didn't know you had such a risqué taste."

"Risqué is right!" Sayaka laughed. "I bought that back when I still thought I had a growth spurt left in the chest department. Needless to say, I show off a bit more cleavage than culturally acceptable whenever I bend over wearing that. But it looks wonderful on you, Maya. You can have it, if you like."

"Really?" Maya smiled broadly, being weak towards flattery and gifts. "Thank you! I'll take real good care of it."

"Just don't spill anything noticeable on it, and I won't mind."

"I'll try," Maya said, spinning around to watch her skirt flare out, "but I'm can't make any promises that it won't be drenched in sauce and wine by the end of the evening."

"You're wise not to," Rei said, poking at her friend's heap of clothes with her toes. "But what are you going to wear then, Sayaka?"

"I was thinking that I'd wear this one, perhaps," Sayaka said, pulling up a red dress that was like Maya's in design, but with a much steeper back.

Rei concisely expressed her thoughts on the dress with a wolf whistle.

"Why thank you," Sayaka giggled, "that was the desired effect. Oh, but this is going to be fun! Too bad you can't bring Hotta, right, Mina?"

Mina glowed red as she stammered protests, trying to make herself heard over her friends' laughing. Maya realized, as Mina hid her face in a white dress that would suit her slim frame to perfection, that this would probably be the first time that she'd ever actually looked forward to a fancy social event. She'd have her closest friends with her for support, and to meet someone like Atsushi Heianzan, whether he was Purple Rose or not, was bound to be exciting. She could foresee no possible complications, except for food spillage.

She obviously didn't think too much about whom else a director interested in "The Crimson Goddess" might want to invite...

OXOXO

It was a surreal experience for Maya to ride to Heianzan's mansion in a limousine, with her and her friends donned up in their very best outfits. Even when she'd been working for Daito, she hadn't dressed up much, as her image was that of a simple, modest girl. While she'd spent the whole week impatiently anticipating the dinner, now that it was really happening, she felt something akin to stage fright. What if she failed to live up to Heianzan's expectations? What if she spilled a whole bowl of soup onto him? What if her hair arrangement suddenly came undone in the middle of the dinner? They might seem to be petty concerns, but as Maya had never had to worry about such things before, she took them seriously.

"Relax," Rei told her, squeezing her hand. "You look gorgeous, and if anything happens to your hair, your makeup or your dress, we're all here to back you up. Sayaka's on hair duty, Mina is your make-up artist, Taiko'll fix any wardrobe malfunctions and I'll play the distraction, in case you spill something on yourself."

That cheered Maya up more than she could say, but it wasn't enough to prevent her stomach from sinking to her feet as they pulled up to the mansion. Maya had a rather limited experience of luxury buildings, but she could tell that it was on par with the Hayami mansion, at least.

"Gah!" Sayaka croaked as she emerged from the limousine. "I didn't know this sort of place even existed in Tokyo!"

"Are we even in Tokyo anymore?" Mina wondered. "We drove for ages."

"Wherever we are," Rei said, "it's a place of whimsy and wonder. Marble statues, hedge sculptures, fountains; the whole shebang. You alright, Maya?"

"What?" Maya broke out of the trance the gorgeous surroundings had put her in. "Oh, yeah, I'm fine. Heart's racing a mile a minute, but otherwise, I'm perfectly confident."

They discussed whether they should go up to the imposing entrance and ring the bell, when a man came out of the mansion to greet them:

"Good evening, ladies, and welcome. Please, come in; it's a chilly evening."

The ladies followed him into the mansion, where they were greeted by two servants, who took care of their jackets.

"My name is Shukunami," the man said, "and I'm Atsushi Heianzan's assistant. You're the first to arrive, so would you mind waiting for the other guests in this room?"

He directed them to a sumptuous room, riddled with comfortable-looking sofas and loveseats. It was also as large as Rei and Maya's apartment, which was why the girls all had to fight to keep their jaws in place.

"Help yourself to the fruit while you wait," Shukunami offered, gesturing over a huge bowl of fruit on the coffee table. "I'm sure the others won't be long."

With that, he left, allowing them to gush without restraint. They praised everything from the grounds to the kind demeanour of Shukunami, and were just about to inspect the fruit bowl closer, when said servant's voice caught their ears:

"... if you'd wait here with the other guests. I'm sure the last members of our party won't be long."

Everyone turned towards the door, readying brilliant, as well as slightly nervous, smiles. The door opened, and all intentions of being courteous were sucked out of the room. The girls weren't usually impolite, but when faced with the last man you'd ever want to see at the last place you'd ever expect to meet him, you could do little more than gape and glare.

Masumi Hayami, escorted by his secretary Mizuki, seemed to mirror their reaction; his sociable smile froze on his lips when he made out who his fellow guests were. But rather than staring at them as though they were giant puddles of oozy goo, his smile widened, as he was a man who'd learnt to enjoy bearing witness to strange twists of fate.

"Good evening, one and all," he said, his eyes sweeping over the indignant gathering. "How are you?"

Maya, being the one most used to having Masumi pop up at unexpected times, questioned his presence in the following words:

"What are you doing here?"

Masumi was about to answer her rudeness with a good-natured smile, when he saw how she'd dressed up. After a thorough examination of her face, hair, and outfit, he told her, something akin to childlike wonder in his voice:

"You look very nice, shorty. Pretty, even."

Maya, who'd never even been called cute, let alone pretty, had no choice but to blush like a boiled lobster.

"T-thank you," she said, though it obviously grudged her to accept the compliment.

"But really," Masumi said, rubbing his chin, walking up to her, "I feel like I'm witnessing something so inordinately strange, the world isn't ready for it yet. I wouldn't even have recognised you if you hadn't looked at me as though I was a giant cockroach. You're unique in that aspect."

"I find that hard to believe," Maya growled.

Masumi just laughed at the barb, as he was a man used to being insulted and now found it amusing.

"Still the same toxic shorty," he said, "even when you're all dolled up."

"Why are you here?" Maya might've been able to take Masumi seriously, if he hadn't had the unfortunate habit of mixing up his praise with mockery.

"I was invited by Atsushi Heianzan," Masumi said. "He said the whole evening would be a waste if I refused to attend, so here I am. What about you and your friends, shorty? Aesthetic adornments to lend colour to a middle-aged gathering?"

Before Maya could reply to that, the door to the sitting room opened, and Shukunami entered.

"The last of the party has arrived," he announced, "so please, follow me to the dining room."

"Guess we'll have to cut things short," Masumi told Maya, grinning at her before he rejoined his secretary.

If Maya hadn't been wearing meticulously applied lipstick, she would've stuck out her tongue at him. Reluctantly, she and her friends followed after him, and immediately regretted it, as the exasperating vice-president stopped suddenly.

"Good evening, Mitsugi, Ayumi," he said, his voice loud enough to ensure that everyone in the hall heard it. "What a pleasant, if awkward, surprise."

"Awkward?" Mitsugi said, his hand on his daughter's shoulder. "Why do you say that?"

At that point, Maya, who'd started at the mention of Ayumi's name, pushed her way to Masumi's side and proceeded to stare at the Himekawas.

"Oh." Mitsugi felt Ayumi stiffen, replicating her rival's reaction. "I see what you mean."

Knowing that this could go on indefinitely, Masumi took the initiative to end it by snapping his fingers in front of Maya's eyes.

"Oi, shorty," he said, "it's rude to stare."

Maya blinked, turned red all over and glared at Masumi.

"Of course, you can stare at me all you want," Masumi said, smiling amiably. "I don't mind the gaze of a pretty woman. Now, I'm starving and very eager to question Mr Heianzan's sick sense of humour, so let's hurry to the dining room."

"A sound idea," Mitsugi said, steering his daughter away from Maya and towards the dining room (with some difficulty), following Shukunami's lead.

Maya marched after Masumi and Mizuki, nervously toying with her fake diamond ring. To think that she'd be forced to spend a whole evening making chitchat with the man who had tried again and again to destroy her career, as well as her far-superior rival... it just wasn't possible to have that much bad luck.

This is a nightmare! she thought, narrowly avoiding biting her lip. Purple Rose wouldn't do this to me... would he?

Her activity of wearing away the silver plating on her ring was interrupted as Shukunami showed his master's guests into the dining room. After that, she was too busy gawking to entertain any maudlin thoughts.

The room was a big as her grade school's auditorium, and was as full of colours and details of luxury as the sitting room had been. But the room was oddly empty as well, probably because it only contained a comparatively small round table lined with chairs, one of which was occupied by an elderly man.

At the groups approach, the man rose, smiling hugely at them all.

"Welcome, my friends," he said, his resonant voice creating an echo, "and thank you for accepting my invitation. I'm honoured that you all decided to come."

"We were honoured to receive them, Mr Heianzan," Masumi said, being the one most equipped to make small talk with such a famous man. "However, we're a bit surprised at the guest list. Am I correct in assuming that you've never met anyone here before?"

"You are," Heianzan said, stroking his white beard. "In my old age, I've come to realize that I haven't socialized nearly as much as I should. You've all interested me, in one way or another, and I should dearly like to get to know you all."

"Oh?" Masumi smirked, tilting his head. "Then it's just a coincidence that everyone here is connected to 'The Crimson Goddess'?"

The whole group started, excluding Mizuki, who, like her boss, had already figured out Heianzan's angle the moment she'd laid eyes on the complete party.

The director didn't seem to be the least bit perturbed at being found out. Rather, he seemed delighted, showing off his high quality dentures as he laughed:

"Ah, you got me! You're just as sharp as the rumours have it, Mr Hayami! Well, now that it's out in the open, I guess I don't have to come up with an excuse for the seating. Come, come, sit down, my friends! Dinner will soon be served!"

Seating? Maya hesitantly approached the table, and saw that there was a card on every plate. Each card had a name printed on it, and without exactly knowing why, Maya's stomach twisted into a knot. If the evening was going to continue like it had begun, then of course she would be seated by...

"Mr Hayami and Miss Kitajima," Heianzan chirped at them, gesturing towards the two seats to his left, "your place is here. Miss Himekawa and Miss Aoki, you're to my right."

I knew it... Maya dejectedly took her seat, resigning herself towards being miserable for the remainder of the evening.

But it wasn't enough that the scourge of her life was to her right; Mitsugi was on her left, and she had even less to say to him than she had to say to Masumi, if that was possible.

"Poor Miss Kitajima," Masumi said, somehow endeavouring to sound both sympathetic and mocking. "This just isn't your night, is it?"

Maya was spared from having to find a polite way to snub Masumi by the servants' arrival. Maya steeled herself, convinced that a parade of unfamiliar, froufrou French food was about to commence. She was pleasantly surprised, for the first time since she'd arrived at the Heianzan mansion, when the servants placed platters of wholesome, Japanese food in front of her.

"I've been all over the world," Heianzan said, rubbing his hands together, greedily eyeing the serving of tofu in front of him, "but no cuisine can measure up to dear old Japan's. Dig in, everyone! Talk amongst yourselves. I never talk during a meal, unfortunately, as it upsets my digestion, so you'll have to entertain each other."

This was easier said than done. The seating had been artfully arranged so that more than half of the guests had been surrounded by strangers. Ayumi and Rei had started up some small talk, while Sayaka, who'd been jammed between Mitsugi and Mizuki, nervously accepted the bowl of rice the producer offered her.

Maya spent as much time as she could on picking out food to delay the inevitable. She had to talk to someone; she'd look like a fool if she just sat there, silent and sullen, the whole meal. But should she choose the rock or the hard place?

Mitsugi seemed to be a lot nicer than Masumi, but then again, he was also her rival's dad. She had no idea how keep their conversation free from mentions of Ayumi, as she was probably all they had in common. She wanted to ask him about what Ayumi'd been like when she was little, but as there was a great chance that said girl would overhear, she refrained from doing so.

She glanced at Masumi. He might be a bit easier to talk to, but was it really worth the headache? She always lost her temper with him, mostly because he made it his aim to anger her, and she really didn't want Heianzan to see her screaming at Masumi. But hopefully, the vice-president would be on his best behaviour; Heianzan was still important in the entertainment world, so he wouldn't risk looking bad in front of him, would he?

"Is there anything you require of me, Miss Kitajima?" Masumi inquired, never looking up from his plate.

Maya swallowed a squeak; Masumi'd given no sign, up until that moment, that he'd seen her staring at him. But rather than to blubber and mutter like she usually did, she decided to be ultra super polite:

"Oh, no! I wouldn't dare to disturb someone as esteemed as you, Mr Hayami. Please, ignore my rudeness."

She'd hoped that he'd be too stunned for retaliation, but his reaction was simply to snigger.

"You know you could never disturb me, Miss Kitajima," he said, smiling graciously at her. "Besides, as our host is too busy enjoying his meal without complications, you're the only one I can talk to, anyway."

Crap! Maya hadn't thought of that. Now it looked like she was stuck with Masumi, but as Mitsugi, Sayaka and Mizuki had already started a three-way conversation about some director Maya had never heard of, it was just as well.

"I'm honoured that you should consider me a worthy subject," Maya said, regally dipping a piece of sashimi into a dainty bowl of soy sauce.

Masumi lost some his composure at that, having to cover his mouth not to let out a laugh that would echo throughout the room.

"Not at all," he said once he'd recovered, humbly inclining his head. "It is I who should be glad that you've decided to put up with me. To ensure that your good humour doesn't waver, and that this evening will not end up with you trying to drown me in the soup, I'll pick a nice, inoffensive subject: have you seen any good plays lately?"

Maya, who'd begun to sag, perked up at that.

"I have, actually," she said. "I saw 'The Tempest' at the Odin Theatre. It was really good! The woman who played Miranda was really pretty, and Kaleban moved really well. He just raised his arm, and I shivered!"

"What was your favourite part, then?"

"Hmm... it's hard to say... I think I liked that scene with Ariel, when he sings to Ferdinand, the most. There was one part of it, that was so, so... melodious, and beautiful."

"How did this melodious part go? Do you remember?"

Maya nodded, and opened her mouth to recite it, when she suddenly remembered where she was.

"Ah," she fiddled with a clump of rice, "y-you mean, here? I don't know..."

"Why not? I'm sure everyone will enjoy it."

"Be that as it may, I wouldn't enjoy embarrassing myself in front of everyone. I'll just show it to you, alright?"

Maya turned towards Masumi, not realizing that the movement made the whole table stop to look at her.

"I'm grateful that you would go so far out of your way merely to accommodate my whim," Masumi said, mimicking Maya's action. "But really, you needn't do this if it'll trouble you."

"Thank you for your concern," Maya said, her dry tone assuring him that she didn't believe him in the slightest, "but it's fine. I know that my embarrassment will only amuse you, so it doesn't matter if I get it wrong."

Masumi couldn't contain himself; he laughed loud enough to guarantee that Maya got an audience.

"You know me far too well," he said. "What a burden it must be. But while I don't mind being verbally abused by a pretty lady, I'd much rather see her perform Shakespeare. Go on, shorty; wow me."

Maya felt an urge to do the exact opposite of what he commanded, as she so often did, but as that meant that she would have to make actual conversation with him, she opted to please him with her simple re-enactment. She took a deep breath, closing her eyes to be able to concentrate. When she opened them again, she was a completely different person, a playful quality to her quirked lips. She'd looked pretty before, but now, she was downright ethereal, her voice rhythmic and soothing as she spoke:

"Full fathom five thy father lies. Of his bones are corals made; those were pearls that were his eyes. Nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea change, into something rich and strange. Sea nymphs hourly ring his kneel; hark! Now I hear them—ding-dong bell!"

She blinked a few times, emerging from whatever state of existence she entered when she acted, smirking at Masumi once she'd regained her bearings.

"How's that?" she asked, a small remnant of Ariel's airy tone left in her voice.

"... You were right," Masumi said, a slight smile on his lips. "That was really beautiful. And I'm sure that everyone else thinks so too."

He made a sweeping gesture, making Maya aware that precisely everyone at the table had seen her little performance, and then went back to his food with a serene grin. Maya did what was appropriate for a girl in her situation: she blushed, hoped to sink through the floor and reappear in a desolate wasteland. Her wish to drag Masumi with her to the same lifeless desert so that she could murder him in peace was perhaps slightly less appropriate, but fully understandable.

"That was very good," Mitsugi told her, a kind, if awkward, smile on his lips. "Have you studied 'The Tempest'?"

"N-no," she stammered, struggling to keep herself from either glancing at Ayumi or glaring at Masumi. "I... I saw a performance of it a few days ago and it just kind of... stuck."

"You saw it once?" Mitsugi said. "You could remember all of that from watching it once? That's impressive!"

"Not quite," Masumi said. "One of Maya Kitajima's many unearthly powers is the ability to memorize Shakespearean dramas as though they were nothing more than takeout menus."

"I-I don't do that!" Maya protested. "I just remembered those lines because I liked them!"

"So when I saw you recite all three hours of 'La Traviata' from memory when you were thirteen, I was just hallucinating?"

"Y-you saw that?" Maya croaked, her complexion matching her lipstick.

"I sure did," Masumi said. "Despite your fluttering voice and shifty eyes, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Had I known you were capable of such feats, I would've signed you onto Daito the first time you barrelled into me. God, how much trouble that would've spared me..."

Maya seriously contemplated kicking his shin to make him shut up, when a surge of conversation came her way. She could memorize whole plays when she was just thirteen? She'd seen "La Traviata"? What did she think of Utako's performance? She was forced to answer these questions and more for the duration of the dinner, talking almost nonstop for the following hour. In contrast, Masumi didn't speak another word, smiling placidly as he focused on sampling a little bit of every dish, from the decorative fishcakes to the potato stew.

While Maya was slightly unnerved by the attention at first, she found that Mitsugi was just as kind he looked and, even better, had no qualms about sharing anecdotes about his daughter (all of which were rewarded with a piercing glare from said girl). When she had eaten her fill, she had completely forgotten her previous woes (namely one Masumi Hayami).

"Well," Heianzan spoke, making all of his guests start, "now that we're all fed, what do you say we retire to the library for some drinks?"

While it wasn't as though they had any choice in the matter, they were eager to accept his suggestion. They'd had no problem talking amongst themselves, but he was the reason as to why they were all there. Though his works were well-known, Heianzan was an elusive figure, as he kept his professional and private life completely separate. That he would be interested in them, and invite them into his home in such a heartfelt, if bizarre, manner, was an unprecedented honour.

Masumi, however, was less concerned about Heianzan than he was about Maya. If he was right about why the bearded genius had decided to invite her, then she might be in for a rough time.

I've already stuck my neck out too much tonight, Masumi thought. Besides, she's a big girl. I'm sure she'll manage on her own. Probably... I mean, she's not adept at masking her emotions, and she's ridiculously sensitive, and she'll probably be cross-examined about her currently stagnant career in front of everyone she really doesn't want to lose face in front of...

"I'm sure she will be fine, sir," Mizuki said, giving her employer a patronizing pat on the shoulder, her voice hushed so that the others wouldn't overhear. "There's no reason for you to worry so much about her."

Masumi flushed, glaring at his free-spoken secretary.

"Kindly refrain from voicing my private thoughts out loud," he told her, his voice pleasant despite his dark scowl.

"I think you're doing a pretty good job of that yourself," Mizuki said, flippantly ignoring Masumi's displeasure. "You're as easy to read as a book."

Masumi was more riled by that than he cared to admit, and before he could stop himself, he asked her:

"Pray tell, exactly how am I being obvious? I've hardly spoken."

"That's part of it. You only spoke to make her look better, and then spent the rest of the meal looking incredibly satisfied with yourself, despite the fact that you had no one to talk to."

"That was unwise, wasn't it?" Masumi agreed, wincing in memory of his (slight) indiscretion. "Fine. I'll lay low for the rest of the evening, by which I mean I'll be arrogant and taciturn."

"Very good, sir. I'm sure you'll manage it admirably."

As a petty form of revenge, Masumi bumped Mizuki with his shoulder when they walked into the library, making her stumble into Mitsugi. Her lips were severely pursed as she looked back at him, while his were turned up in a friendly grin.

"Sit down wherever you'd like," Heianzan said, gesturing towards the plush armchairs and sofas grouped around an ornate oak coffee table. "There's wine and orange juice in the decanters. I think it's easy to tell which is which."

Maya felt a rush of relief as she sat down on an enormous sofa with her friends. The hard part of the evening was over (namely the part where she had to directly converse with Masumi). She fully intended to sit back, relax and enjoy her orange juice.

Unfortunately, Heianzan had other plans:

"Since Mr Hayami has been clever enough to see through my transparent ruse, I'll cut straight to the chase: I love 'The Crimson Goddess'. I sincerely do. It was the play that inspired me to become who I am today, and even though I've given up hope of being able to direct it, I want to make sure that it's left in good hands. That it's left in the best hands."

There would've surely been an appropriately dramatic silence after that announcement, if Masumi hadn't ruined it by drawling:

"If that's truly your intention, then why didn't you invite Tsukikage? She's the one who calls the shots when it comes to the Crimson Goddess. You could almost say that 'this party cannot be complete without her'."

"Um, well," Heianzan coughed, scratching his cheek, "of course, you're right... Tsukikage and I have a bit of a history, so I thought she might decline to come, however I might've phrased the invitation..."

"Ah," Masumi said, smirking, "now I remember. While 'The Crimson Goddess' was still running, you used to send Tsukikage boxes of wagashi from your father's shop, didn't you?"

Heianzan choked on his wine, while the rest of the party had to clamp a hand over their mouths not to laugh out loud. Heianzan was, however, more than able to laugh at himself, and chortled at the memory of his youthful (well, middle-aged) indiscretion.

"How on earth did you know that?" Heianzan asked Masumi after he'd finished reminiscing.

"My father told me," Masumi replied, wondering for how long he could delay the inevitable. Not even for another second, apparently:

"Ah, yes, Eisuke was quite a fan of Tsukikage as well. Now, Miss Kitajima, I wonder how you're faring? Do you think you can live up to her expectations?"

Maya and Masumi both shared the thought Bloody hell! before Maya haltingly tried to answer:

"Um... w-well... I will do my best, and work as hard as I possibly can," she glanced at Ayumi, and was strengthened by her rival's smile, "and I think my performances won't disappoint. I want to act."

"To what point and purpose?"

As unexpected as Masumi's question was, no one was more surprised by it than the vice-president himself. He'd had no intention of interfering (beyond the mention of Heianzan's wagashi related courting), but he couldn't resist. He could see that Maya's lacklustre response had disappointed both the director and Ayumi, and knew that the only way to give them what they wanted from her was to bait her. When he made Maya mad, she directed her anger at its rightful source, rather than at herself.

"I-I'm sorry?" Maya stammered. "What do you mean?"

Masumi resisted the urge to grimace; Mizuki was going to tease him forever for this. "I mean: why are you even in the competition for the Crimson Goddess if you only want to act? I'm sure Tsukikage won't ban you from acting if you lose and that Ayumi will keep her disdain of you to a minimum, so why don't you just give up, if all you have to motivate you is 'I'll do my best'?"

Barring Heianzan, who enjoyed drama in all its forms, and Mizuki, who knew what Masumi's real purpose was, the whole party was ready to jump to Maya's defence. Maya beat them to the punch, however, and tried not to growl as she said:

"I have plenty of motivation, Mr Hayami, and I have plenty of reasons to want to play the Crimson Goddess. I just don't want to put myself forward."

"Sho—Miss Kitajima," Masumi said, "what Mr Heianzan desires is an accurate report on your mental state. So are you going to keep up the meek and humble act, or are you going to be sincere?"

Maya bit down hard, hardly able to remember the last time she'd been so furious. She forced herself to calm down, on account of not wanting to be further embarrassed in front of those she respected (and Masumi), and answered him in a strained voice:

"I apologize if my social decorum made me appear at a disadvantage. The truth is that I really want the Crimson Goddess. I've never encountered another role that's as fascinating or challenging, and I want it more than anything. But even if I were unable to get it, for whatever reason, I would keep acting. It's what I love, and what keeps me alive."

For one unguarded moment, Masumi joined the others in their reaction of astonishment, though his expression was mixed with another element: admiration. Mizuki helped him snap out of it by kicking his ankle, though she did it harder than what was strictly necessary. After rewarding Mizuki's violence with a glare and a mouthed "Thank you", Masumi surveyed the effect Maya's words had had on the crowd. Heianzan was suitably impressed, while Ayumi was practically glowing with some weird sort of pride.

Damn, I'm good. "My, my, but it's scary to see you confident, Miss Kitajima. It feels like the sky will begin to fall any minute now."

Maya felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise, and she very nearly hissed.

Why the hell is he trying to pick a fight with me?! she thought. Is he trying to make me look bad in front of Mr Heianzan? That bastard!

Masumi could practically feel her vehemence, but bore it with a smirk. Misunderstandings are the food of one-sided love, I suppose.

"That's lovely, Miss Kitajima!" Heianzan enthused. "I have to admit, I was worried for you; you just disappeared after your mother's death. I thought that I might never see you on stage again."

Lord, Masumi thought, taking an irate sip of his wine, but this man has the delicacy of an enraged elephant!

"I, um, I went through a bit of a crisis, back then," Maya admitted. "But I know now that no matter what happens, I'm an actress. And I'm sure my mother would be proud of me, were she still alive."

A highly unpleasant sensation pierced Masumi. The aftertaste of wine in his mouth turned unbearably sour, and his hand trembled slightly when he put down his glass.

Were she still alive. He raised his hand, pretending to scratch at his temple to hide his frown from Maya. With a deep breath, he regained his calm; this wasn't the time, and especially not the place, to show vulnerability.

"I'm sure she would," Heianzan agreed. "There are very few people who can come back from a difficult situation with such conviction."

Maya smiled brilliantly at the praise, forcing Masumi to look away. Maya's smile was infectious, and he definitely didn't want anyone to know that he was as suggestible as a five-year-old when it came to her.

"So," Heianzan (the smarmy bastard, Masumi pettily added as a suffix) said, "what roles do you have lined up?"

Were Masumi more impulsive, he would've stood up and delivered a lecture on proper social procedures to Heianzan, as the elderly entrepreneur had obviously never been formally schooled on the subject. But, with the circumstances being what they were, Masumi kept his mouth shut and watched Maya's smile disappear with a sting of disappointment. Even if he couldn't look at it, he liked knowing it was there.

"Ah... um..." Maya touched her hair, before she realized that she had no loose strands she could fiddle with. "I... I don't have any part at present." She started running her index finger around the rim of her glass. "It's... it's been a bit hard, finding a good production, and—ah!"

She drew back her finger, shocked to find a sizeable cut on it. While everyone, including her, was too startled to act, Masumi took command of the situation by kneeling down by her, pressing the cuff of his dress shirt against her wound. They both stared at the makeshift band aid, its pristine whiteness slowly becoming stained with blood, and then looked at each other. Masumi, while just as flabbergasted as Maya over what he'd just done, smiled and said:

"Alas, far too late, I realize I have a perfectly good handkerchief in my pocket."

"Ah," was all Maya said, tears suddenly springing to her eyes.

In another show of quick thinking, Masumi moved up as he brought Maya's head down, making it look as though she'd had a dizzy spell.

"Whoa!" Masumi cried, hiding Maya's face against his shoulder. "Shorty, don't tell me you're one of those people who can't stand the sight of blood?"

Eh? Maya tried to lift her head out of instinct, but Masumi, predicting that she would, placed his free hand on her neck.

"M-Maya," Sayaka stammered, touching the actress's arm, "what happened?"

Reassured that Maya wasn't going to attempt move, Masumi answered Sayaka's question while taking his handkerchief out of his pocket:

"She hurt her finger on the wine glass." He removed his cuff from Maya's cut, wrapping it up with his handkerchief instead. He took the glass from her hand, accidentally smearing the thin trail of blood on it with his thumb, and set it down on the table. "There's a nick in its rim."

While everyone was focused on the glass, he rose with Maya in tow, licking his thumb clean before his mind could tell him that that was not something civilised adults did. With a quick glance around the room, he ascertained that no one had seen his indiscretion (not even Mizuki, thank god), and addressed Heianzan:

"Do you have something I could use to properly treat her wound?"

"Ah, yes," Heianzan breathed, "t-there's a bathroom down the hall with a first aid kit in it."

"Excellent." He clinically tilted Maya's chin up, and noted that she'd overcome to urge to cry for the moment, most probably due to extreme astonishment. "Well, shorty, let's hurry, before you die of blood loss."

"W-wait a second!" Sayaka stood up, barring his path. "T-there's no need for you to exert yourself anymore; we'll take her."

As Masumi was an expert at reading people's true intentions, he saw that the actress wasn't the least bit concerned about him. Rather, she just didn't want to leave Maya in his care.

"It's no bother," he assured her. "Besides, I'd like to wash my cuff before the blood sets, so if you don't mind..."

While Sayaka looked more than just a little bit terrified, she didn't budge.

"Thank you for your help," she said, her voice a bit steadier than before, "but I really think Maya'd like to have a friend with her, if she's afraid of blood."

Ah, Masumi thought, foiled by my own inventiveness.

"Very well," he acquiesced. "I'll bring one of you along for moral support. Will that satisfy you?"

Sayaka nodded eagerly, sitting down again with a thump, as it was taxing to stand up to a billionaire, even if you detested him. Masumi intently scrutinised the members of the Tsukikage Theatre, and was about to pick Rei, because she looked the most sensible, when he spotted a small purse in Mina's lap.

"You in the white dress," he said, pointing at her before jerking his thumb back. "You're coming with me."

"Eh?" After a second of hesitation, Mina rose, slowly approaching him. "A-alright."

Masumi just sighed, not used to entertaining the wishes of provocatively dressed young women, and put his hand on Maya's back to guide her out of the room.

When they were out in the hall, Masumi turned to Mina, saying:

"I assume that bag contains make-up?"

"Y-yes," Mina affirmed with a slight jump. "Why?"

"Because shorty will probably need it," Masumi said, gesturing to Maya, who was a few seconds away from dissolving into tears. He patted her shoulder, drawing her towards the bathroom as she choked down a sob. "You did well to hold out so long, shorty. Cry to your heart's content," he winced as she sniffed loudly, "once we're behind closed doors, if you don't mind."

Maya took his advice to heart, and cried freely once the door to the bathroom door was locked behind her. Masumi made her sit down on the covered toilet before he began rifling the medicine cabinet for supplies, leaving Mina to try and discern her friend's distress:

"Maya, what's wrong?"

"I can't do it!" Maya cried, a black trickle of tears running down her cheek. "I just, I can't do it! I should be fighting, but absolutely no one wants me, and, and I can't do anything on my own!" Her breath hitched, and she tried rubbing away her tears, only succeeding in smearing her face with mascara. "Ayumi must be so ashamed of me!"

"Oh, yes," Masumi drawled, waving away Mina, getting down on his knees before Maya with a first aid kit in his hand, "because she wasn't brimming with glee or anything when you made your little announcement about the Crimson Goddess."

He ripped out a few squares of toilet paper, and began wiping at her face, ignoring the looks he was getting from the girls.

"But I really can't understand why you're so distraught," he told her, gently dabbing at her eyes. "You have a solution right under your nose."

Maya stared at him with obvious unease, and it wasn't until he'd finished cleaning her left cheek that Masumi realized why.

"Not me!" he laughed, giving her another square of paper to blow her nose on. "Daito would love to have you back, but there's no chance of that happening in this millennium, is there? I meant that you have a whole troupe of promising young actors at your disposal."

"Ah, but..." Maya tried to wipe her nose as discreetly as possible, while Masumi politely directed his attention to her hand. "I don't think Tsukikage would want me to ask them. She wants me to become independent."

"I'm pretty sure she doesn't want you to have to start your own theatre just to get a role," Masumi reasoned, slowly unravelling the handkerchief bound around Maya's finger. "Just ask her. Now, let's see if you need stitches."

He flippantly discarded the soiled handkerchief, his attention focused solely on Maya's wound.

"It's not so bad," he remarked, showing the shallow cut to Mina (who let out a sigh of relief). "The bleeding has already stopped. I'll put some disinfectant and a plaster on it, your friend will fix your make-up, and I'll make sure that the conversation never turns to the direction of your inactivity when you return. Alright?"

Maya nodded numbly, watching Masumi go through the first aid kit with disbelief.

"But I... it's more than just not being able to find a role," she told him, her eyes beginning to sting again. "I have less than two years to win an award that the best actors in the industry fight over. It feels a... a little bit hopeless."

Mina patted her friend's shoulder; Maya'd done her best to hide it, but it was clear that her chances of living up to Tsukikage's astronomical expectations were slim, if not near impossible.

Masumi, while just as touched as Mina was, reacted very differently; he snorted, pressing a sterilized cotton swab against her wound.

"Ouch!" Maya bared her teeth, glaring at Masumi. "What are you snorting about?"

"Oh, nothing," Masumi said, shrugging. "It just that it really riles me, as a professional, that such a once in a lifetime talent is bogged down with a completely needless, baseless inferiority complex."

Maya, who had been ready to enter into a screaming match with him, paused at that, her mouth open.

"Is it possible that you can't see that?" Masumi sighed, sticking a small plaster over the injury. "No matter; I doubt I can do anything about the train wreck that is your self-confidence. Let's go about this logically, then: the requirements for winning the award are, as I've already told you, to have impressive past achievements, popularity with audience, tremendous acting ability, to regularly play leading roles, and to make a significant contribution to the arts world. You with me so far?"

"Y-yes," Maya stammered. "But, what—?"

"Your past achievements," Masumi continued, "are so numerous, I've no wish to waste my time recounting them here. Let me just say that it's not usual for people to go from being at the bottom of their class to becoming a superstar in less than five years, with nothing to rely on but talent and some threadbare connections. Your popularity with the audience can't be denied; MBA TV's post-box was jammed full with protests when you were forced to resign from 'The Glittering Sky'. And as for contribution..."

He broke off, furrowing his brow, debating whether he should say what he truly wanted to say, or just leave it be and force Maya to cheer herself up. His argument with himself ended when Maya asked him softly:

"What contribution have I made?"

While Masumi loved Maya for her complete lack of pretentiousness, her modesty drove him to distraction. This might be why he sounded a bit harsher than he wanted to when he explained the wonder that was Maya Kitajima to said girl:

"Through a series of bizarre coincidences, your mere existence has become a significant contribution to the arts world. Shorty, do you really not realize how much you've changed since you began acting? Tsukikage would've still been a bitter hermit if she hadn't discovered you, and Ayumi wouldn't be half of what she is today if you hadn't come and challenged her. There are millions of people out there who'll remember your performance for years to come, if not until their dying day. I mean, even I love watching you perform, and I'm very picky..."

He regretted making that statement the very second after he'd uttered it; Maya was staring at him as though she'd never seen him before, and Mina, who usually had impeccable manners, was gaping. He rose, fighting to keep his body temperature even, and said, smirking:

"But no matter. I might as well be telling a white wall to turn itself black; no amount of pep talks will ever be able to put a dent in your beloved inferiority complex. Well, take care. I'll leave first."

"Ah, wait!" Maya grabbed onto his wrist, unwittingly dirtying her palm on his bloody cuff. "Um, thanks for your help. I r-really appreciate it."

"... It's nothing," he said, sneaking a peek at her over his shoulder. "You're easy to take care of. Remember to wash your hands before you go back."

With a faint "Ah!", Maya let go of Masumi, her nose scrunching up as she observed the mess on her hands. When she looked up again, Masumi was already gone.

"That was... strange," Mina concluded.

"Really strange," Maya agreed tonelessly. She felt rather strange herself as she turned towards the sink to wash away the blood on her hands.

"I had no idea he was such a good nursemaid," Mina said, winking at Maya.

Maya giggled, but when she saw the crumpled, neglected handkerchief on the floor, stained with her blood, her humour waned. Even though he'd spent nearly the entire evening antagonizing or ignoring her, he'd also helped her out far more than he'd had to. And his face, when he'd told her that she was a contribution to the art world... it was as though he was genuinely incensed by her lack of confidence.

It only annoyed him as a professional, she convinced herself as Mina helped her reapply the foundation of her makeup. If he sees an asset that isn't being fully exploited, of course he'd get mad. There's no other reason for him to care the least bit about me.

It was rather hard to keep believing that, however, in the face of the memory of Masumi's expression as he'd wrapped his cuff around her bleeding finger, his wide eyes and parted lips revealing that he had moved without thinking. That he would have an instinct to protect her... to take care of her...

Maya ruined the lipstick Mina had applied by nibbling frantically on her lip, earning her a stern scolding which she barely registered.

OXOXO

Masumi had to take a minute to recover from his intense embarrassment before he rejoined the party.

Why is it, he thought, grimacing up at the ceiling, that I always have to think one thing, and then do the complete opposite? I explicitly told myself not to interfere anymore, and what do I do? I play nursemaid and life coach! I should've just let the girl in the red dress have her; shorty must think I've got multiple personalities now.

Once he was sufficiently calm, he entered the library and announced that all was well with Maya:

"The cut was superficial. She'll be back as soon as her nausea passes."

"Thank goodness," Heianzan said, breathing out a sigh of relief with the rest of the party. "We were all terribly worried about her."

You should be, Masumi thought darkly, you caused it. But, as even he wasn't quite that rude, the reply he spoke out loud was:

"Shorty's as resilient as an ascetic monk. There's no need to worry about her unless she's hanging off the edge of a ten story building by one hand."

Oh, right, Masumi thought, taking his seat while all of the room stared at him, I don't usually talk like this. Damn, but shorty warps my thinking.

"Shorty?" Heianzan said. "Is that your nickname for Miss Kitajima?"

Masumi lips twitched slightly as he suppressed a frown; tonight just wasn't his night.

"I've known her since she was thirteen," he said. "It's just a stupid nickname that's become a habit."

"Sir," Mizuki said, pointing at Masumi's cuff, "didn't you clean yourself up?"

"Huh." Masumi blinked, wrinkling his nose at the half congealed blood stain. "I guess in all the excitement, I forgot. But it's fine; this isn't the first time she's bloodied my shirt, though I hope it'll be the last."

"She's bled on you before?" Heianzan chuckled inappropriately. "Miss Kitajima seems to become more and more of a wonder as the night progresses."

That comment eased Masumi's dislike of the elderly director; while he was without manners, he at least recognized genius when it was waved in his face (which, gods knew, Onodera somehow managed to ignore).

"It was actually back when she was thirteen," he said, unable to avoid grinning at the memory. "She'd spent several hours standing on her tiptoes so that she could peek in on a drama school's rehearsal, when two guard dogs attacked her. I helped her to infirmary, and she repaid me by leaving a stain on my shirt," he tapped at his heart, "right here."

"Ah," Ayumi breathed, "that was when she came to Ondine Theatre, wasn't it?"

"Hm?" Masumi raised his glass, taking a sip before he turned a smile in Ayumi's direction. "Oh, you were there too?"

Ayumi started at Masumi's artful display of indifference towards her. He'd never been exactly attentive of her, leaving the duty of sucking up to her to Onodera, but he'd never acted as though he'd forgotten that she was in the same room as him, either.

"Yes," she said, forcing herself to smile instead of furrowing her brow. "It was my group that was rehearsing. It was the first time I met Maya."

"Seems like quite the day of destiny," Heianzan remarked.

You've no idea, Masumi thought. "It certainly made me realize what sort of person she was. I've never met another person with such a clear-cut case of escapism. And I mean that in the best possible way," he added, as the Tsukikage Theatre's remaining members glared at him.

"Of course," Mizuki said. "In what culture isn't being accused of having a mental illness a compliment?"

"Exactly," Masumi said, nodding sagely.

"You're certainly in a strange mood, Masumi," Mitsugi said, intrigued by his friend's display of humour. Masumi was an extremely private man, only able to relax in the most informal surroundings available. To see him crack jokes in a stranger's pompous library was an unprecedented occurrence. "Not only have you teased our host, but you've fondly reminisced about your youth. Will we be hearing about your romantic exploits next?"

Masumi let out a surprised laugh as Ayumi blushed on account of her father's indelicacy.

"That will only keep you entertained for half a minute, if even that," Masumi told the producer, "and it will offend the sensibilities of everyone in the room. No, I'm afraid that you'll have to look to another subject to discuss. But I do have one request: please, don't ask Miss Kitajima about her career."

This entreaty was directed at Heianzan, who sucked in a breath through his teeth and said:

"That request poses a bit of a difficulty to me. As you've already uncovered, I invited you because I wanted to know all there was to know about the revival of 'The Crimson Goddess'."

"Then you could've just invited me," Masumi said. "I know everything about Tsukikage, Miss Kitajima and Ayumi. It would be an honour to be your private informant, Mr Heianzan, and I promise that my reports will be detailed. After all, I'm as personally involved in the whole mess as any of the candidates; the only difference is that I can give you a better, more objective account of the state of affairs than either of them."

The room was momentarily stunned by this stream of eloquence. More than one person felt a bit disconcerted by Masumi's apparent abundance of knowledge; Ayumi pursed her lips disapprovingly as Sayaka, Rei and Taiko shuddered, images of Daito's spies taking pictures of them from behind shrubs and trash cans popping into their heads.

"I can hardly deny such a tempting offer," Heianzan said, his amusement winning over his confusion. "Very well; when Miss Kitajima comes back, I will never mention either her career or 'The Crimson Goddess'."

"Thank you," Masumi said, bowing his head. "I'm sure Miss Kitajima will appreciate it."

Indeed, Maya found it a relief that when she returned to the library, the swelling of her eyes hidden by eye shadow and foundation, Heianzan didn't address her. Instead, he said, after she and Mina had settled back into their seats:

"Love has always fascinated me. Whether we want to admit it or not, we all have our own idea of what love is or what it should be; no two people have the same view. As our company is very varied, I thought a discussion on the subject would be very fruitful. So, let's begin by hearing from the only married person here: Mr Himekawa, what's your idea of love?"

Mitsugi was caught off guard by the question, but as he was an expert on the subject, he quickly found his voice:

"Maybe my view of love is rather boring, but I think trust and humour are the most important ingredients. To have someone who will support you no matter what, and who you can truly communicate with... I can't picture anything more desirable than that."

"True," Heianzan agreed. "Makes even me want to get married. What about you, Miss Himekawa? Do you share your father's view?"

As Ayumi was nowhere near as familiar with the concept as her father, she had to think hard to come up with a proper response. The fact was that she understood love in a purely theoretical fashion; she'd never felt it off stage or off camera. To her, romance couldn't even begin to compare with the satisfaction acting gave her, so she adlibbed her answer:

"Love is a passion that takes over your entire body. You feel it in your chest, your arms, your fingertips, your legs, your toes, all the way to the tip of your nose. It's a driving force, that makes you want to better yourself as much as possible to be worthy of it."

Ayumi impressed even herself with her improvisation, while Mitsugi fretted over his daughter's overtly physical description.

"Ah, to be young and passionate again," Heianzan sighed. "Now then, ladies, what are your views on the subject?"

The remaining members of the once proud Tsukikage Theatre mulled over the question.

"We've all been too busy with acting to put much thought into it," Rei finally admitted. "I think that we'll have to use Maya as our spokesperson."

"Eh?" Maya said. "Why me?"

"You're the only one of us who's ever had an official boyfriend," Sayaka said, giving Mina a sly glance. "That makes you the resident expert."

Maya laughed, colouring slightly at the assessment. "I'm hardly an expert! I just have a little experience."

"So regale us with your wisdom, Miss Kitajima," Heianzan insisted.

"... Well," Maya unconsciously popped her heels in and out of her shoes while she thought, "to me, love meant being understood. It meant being seen for who you really were, and still be loved for it, and vice versa. To be accepted so completely, and so be allowed to get so close to someone else..." She smiled dreamily, though there was a sad look in her eyes. "It's a very special feeling."

Masumi experienced an incredibly strange mix of guilt and jealousy at the end of Maya's speech. When Maya talked about love, she was of course referring to the feelings she'd had for Shigeru, and since Masumi was responsible for the loss of her first boyfriend, it was only natural for him to feel like a louse when the subject came up. But as humans are self-centred creatures, he couldn't help being miffed; he saw who Maya truly was with more clarity than Shigeru could've ever mustered, and he gladly accepted all of her. Why was it so impossible for her to see that?

Because you killed her mother, a voice in his head helpfully supplied. Other than that, you're alternatively mocking and praising her, eluding her every attempt to figure you out because you're scared of her.

For the umpteenth time, Masumi wondered how it was possible for him to be logic personified in his mind, yet irrational in everything he did.

"You are wise beyond your years," Heianzan commended, giving Maya an approving smile. "But now that we've heard from a married man and two lovely young ladies, we must know what the entertainment world's most eligible bachelor thinks of love. You did tell us, Mr Hayami, that your love life could be summarised in thirty seconds, but even so, you must have some stand on the issue."

Masumi could tell them the truth: that he couldn't remember a time when he hadn't defined himself by his love for another person. As he usually did, he chose to give them a rendered version of the truth:

"I have a strictly Buddhist view on love: it will only lead to suffering."

Heianzan laughed, as though the other man's cynicism amused him greatly. "That's a harsh opinion! You're surrounded with chronicles of true love every day, yet you've developed such a glum view."

"On stage," Masumi said, "love might have a happy ending, but I've yet to witness it in real life. Or rather, I've only witnessed one truly happy couple, namely Mitsugi and his wife," he gestured at his friend, who looked pleased by the offhand acknowledgement, "but I see them as the exception to the rule."

"You can't be more than thirty," Heianzan said, leaning forward with interest. "In my experience, people usually wait to become disillusioned with love until they're in their forties."

"I've always been precocious," Masumi said.

As the vice-president's body language communicated that he had nothing more to add on the subject, Heianzan addressed Mizuki:

"Do you too feel that love is destined to end in heartbreak, Miss Mizuki?"

"To some degree, perhaps," Mizuki said. "But I've been lucky enough to observe an example of true love in real life."

Masumi suddenly felt uneasy; Mizuki was discretion embodied in human form, but she also despised being made to look foolish. As Masumi had pushed her into Mitsugi out of sheer childish spite, there was a great possibility that she'd feel entitled to pay him back by disclosing some of his secrets.

As it unfortunately turned out, he was right:

"I knew a man once," Mizuki said, expressively not looking at Masumi, "who came to love a girl younger than him. He would do anything for her, simply because he loved everything that she was. In fact, he did do anything for her. If she was in trouble, he came to her aid without hesitation. If she or even one of her friends became seriously ill, he paid for their stay in the hospital. If she needed a place to collect her thoughts, he gave her a sanctuary, all without ever asking for anything in return. The only thing he couldn't give her was his name."

Masumi nearly winced as he saw Maya start; obviously, Mizuki's charming story had reminded her of her own mysterious benefactor.

Mizuki, he thought, seeking solace at the bottom of his wine glass, I shall murder you once this is over.

"He didn't tell her his name?" Heianzan said enthusiastically. For all his joviality, there was nothing that appealed to the director more than tragic, unrequited love.

"He didn't even show her his face. The man was rich, but he also suffered from a deep psychological trauma, and couldn't even stand the thought of being rejected by the woman." Mizuki ignored the waves of hostile energy emanating from her boss. "The prospect frightened him more than death itself. But, as the years went by, and the woman became even lovelier, he came to the realization that he couldn't live in the shadows anymore."

"What happened? Did he tell her?" Maya asked, taking a personal interest in the story. Thankfully, as she was naive enough to qualify for a world record, she didn't realize that masked admirers who supported young women from the shadows were in short supply. It was statistically improbable for there to exist more than one mysterious benefactor in the greater Tokyo area.

"He tried," Mizuki said, smiling slyly at her boss, "but ultimately, he waited too long and lost her to a younger, more decisive man."

"It's probably just as well," Masumi drawled, his apparent indifference to the story counteracted by the hand he'd tightly clasped around his wine glass. "Wealthy men make lousy lovers."

Maya shot him a glare that said, "Who asked for your opinion?". Masumi replied by smirking, which made Maya blush, as she understood that he meant "Want to challenge my theory?".

"M-maybe so," Maya stammered, "but he did everything he could for her. That means that he was passionate about her, doesn't it?"

"Just because he's willing to sacrifice a bit of wealth for her doesn't mean that he's entitled to anything," Masumi stated matter-of-factly. "It doesn't mean they're compatible, or that they would be happy together."

"But he loved her so much!" Maya said, getting worked up despite herself. "That must account for something, surely?"

"Anyone can fall in love, shorty. It doesn't mean that they're a good person."

"But he helped her without asking for anything in return! Doesn't that kind of devotion deserve to be acknowledged?"

As Masumi's reply to that was a bitter snort of laughter, Maya, who'd had every intention of defending Mizuki's example of true love until the last drop of blood had been spilt, became speechless.

"And this is why I hate talking about love," Masumi remarked darkly. "It's basically an emotion that brings out every base, selfish urge in people, yet it's lauded as something noble. I suppose it's because the media has built it up as something ultimately gentle and fulfilling, when it's anything but; it's brutal.

"Though I guess," he continued, smiling sardonically, "it would be hard to market the truth: that it's something that alters every aspect of your personality to better suit someone who may or may not end up loathing you completely. Falling in love is like taking a wrecking ball to your identity, yet people actually actively pursue it. It's... idiotic."

Once he became wise to the fact that he was receiving highly interested and disturbed looks, he felt the need to add, "Or so I would imagine it to be."

There was an uncomfortable silence, as no one knew how to respond to the outburst and Masumi was too embarrassed to attempt to explain himself. It was Mitsugi who finally took a stand, chuckling as he told Masumi:

"Masumi, you should've become an actor. That was a wonderful delivery, with just the right amount of bitterness and vulnerability. There's not a woman in the room who doesn't feel like comforting you."

"Dad!" Ayumi gave her father a vicious elbow jab, because there were some things you just didn't say.

"I'm sorry if I sounded a bit... passionate," Masumi said. "I guess working in theatre has affected me more than I thought."

"But this is very surprising," Heianzan said, thoughtfully stroking at his beard. "I would've never thought that you'd be such a sensitive person, Masumi."

"Sensitive?" Masumi laughed at the absurdity of it. "I'm sorry, but I really have no idea what you mean."

"You view love as an act of assimilation so powerful, you meld with the one you love even against your own will. Wouldn't you call that sensitive?"

"It's not an actual viewpoint," Masumi said, heat gathering underneath his collar, "just... a vague notion. I make no pretence of having any kind of expertise on the subject."

"Why, sir," Mizuki spoke up, "you've never been in love?"

"I didn't say that," Masumi said, scowling at his lippy secretary. "I just meant that I haven't much to add to the subject, that's all."

"Oh, now I understand," Mizuki said. "You mean that you were in love, but it wasn't mutual? Or maybe you didn't even tell her about your feelings?"

Oh, Mizuki, Masumi thought, were it legal, I would give you the mother of all pay cuts for that.

"It's not something you can just blurt out in the passing," he said, a slight growl slipping into his voice.

"So you were too shy to tell her what you felt?" Heianzan cut in.

"It's not a question of shyness," Masumi protested. "I just don't want to put someone I respect in a position she wouldn't be comfortable..."

He stopped, realized what he was doing, and very nearly groaned. But rather than collapsing in on himself, he said, apparently through with humouring directors he despised on principle:

"As my love life has already been established as something wholly uninteresting, I respectfully request a change of topic."

The disappointment the guests felt at this sparse reply was palpable, but no one was quite rude enough to pursue the subject further.

"We'll say no more about it," Heianzan promised, smiling hugely (unwittingly fanning the flames of Masumi's loathing for him). "Instead, let's talk about something nice and inoffensive, like what's your most memorable theatre visit?"

As Masumi was disinclined to do anything but look distant and untouchable, Heianzan directed the question at the rest of the guests. As everyone in the gathering had more or less dedicated their lives to theatre, they had no difficulty in answering his query. Mitsugi talked about the first show he'd ever seen, "Hamlet", while Ayumi spoke about the first time she'd seen her mother perform. Rei, Sayaka, Mina and Taiko enthusiastically told the others of the Ikkakuju Troupe's performance, "Destiny", and of how much it had inspired them. Maya was far less decisive than the others, and ended up naming at least five different shows that she'd enjoyed exceedingly. Mizuki's most treasured performance was, surprisingly, a show she'd seen when she was a child, entitled "The Moon Walks". She even wore a sentimental smile while she iterated its plot.

Masumi had seen hundreds of different shows, many of them performed by the elite, but though he could name any of them as his favourite, he felt himself compelled to tell the truth:

"I once saw a performance that was, in itself, engaging and creative, but didn't really become truly amazing until you considered the circumstances around it."

"What were the circumstances, then," Heianzan asked, "that made this performance so legendary?"

Masumi paused, briefly wondering if he should open up yet another can of worms. But as he was, at heart, a man of action, he said:

"I saw an actress cry out in the rain once. She was absolutely crushed, so miserable that she didn't care that she was getting soaked to the bone. Apparently, her friends and fellow actors had been caught out in the storm, and weren't going to be able to make the curtain call."

Maya gave a jerk, becoming ramrod straight, as she understood what incident Masumi was referring to. She bit down hard, but let Masumi continue:

"With twenty minutes to prepare, she changed a play that had originally contained dozens of interacting characters into a solo performance. The strange thing is that she made it work. The audience was mesmerized and hung onto her every word. And what's truly amazing," he smiled faintly, "is that she did all this without having even a sliver of self-confidence. She just wanted to continue pursuing a dream." He shrugged, leaning back into his armchair with a faraway look in his eyes. "It made me sit up and take notice, at any rate."

Maya was, she'd like to think, a tolerant person. If she wasn't, she would've left Heianzan's mansion the very moment she'd discovered that Masumi was under its roof. This bizarre, incomprehensible speech, however, was far more than she could bear.

"That's in incredibly poor taste," she said, her voice tight with anger, "even for you."

Masumi surprised her by chuckling, smiling crookedly as he told her:

"Yes, it's in monstrously poor taste, but I'm not as out of line as you might think."

"Oh, really?" Maya crossed her ankles, placed her hands in her lap and smiled politely, looking every inch the lady. "Then tell me: what would you call recounting an unfortunate incident, one that you had caused to happen, as your favourite performance? I would call it 'horrible'."

"As would I," Masumi agreed, his smile fading. "But that has no bearing on this conversation, since I didn't cause the 'unfortunate incident' I'm referring to."

Though Maya had promised herself to keep frigidly calm, she lost her composure at that. "So our set and our truck simply chose to destroy themselves? What an interesting theory."

"Sarcasm really isn't your strong suit," Masumi informed her. "Neither is analytical thinking. Have I ever given you cause to see me as a man petty enough to smash up someone's set?"

Maya stared at him as though he was mad and hissed, "Yes!"

"Okay," Masumi cleared his throat, "maybe I shouldn't try and assert my innocence by bringing my character into it. But fact is that you've no proof of my involvement."

"No proof?" Maya abandoned her elegant pose, clutching at her skirt hard enough to turn her knuckles white. "I have proof. The ones you tricked into doing your dirty work told us every—"

"And what did they tell you?" Masumi interrupted. "Was my name even mentioned once?"

"N-no... but Onodera told them what to do, and he's your lackey!"

"Onodera had his own reason for wanting your theatre to fail. We're not a part of a hive mind, shorty; he's perfectly capable of independent thought and action."

As he could see that he wasn't convincing anybody, Masumi decided to make his defence a little bit more heavy-handed:

"The ugly truth is that the only thing that can prove that I wasn't involved in this crime is that it doesn't fit my MO."

Without asking the host for permission, he took out a cigarette from a steel case in his inner pocket and lit it with a matching lighter. He took a drag from it, and no one but Mizuki noticed that his hand was shaking slightly. Once he'd inhaled a decent dose of nicotine, he continued, looking as though he was talking about the weather:

"I'm brilliant at manipulating people. It's what I do best, and I always play to my strengths. Do you really think that I'd use as melodramatic a method as physical sabotage, when I could've just turned the judges' heads in my favour? And even if I did, do you think I would've been so sloppy in covering up my tracks? It was the work of an amateur, and I stopped being an amateur at the cloak and dagger routine back when you were learning the table of multiplication. Furthermore," he put his cigarette to his lips again, his eyes blank, as though he was speaking without really attending to his own words, "the fact that you were even considered to win the National Drama Competition proves that I had no intention of interfering with your success."

While Maya and the others balked at his cold-hearted brand of logic, Mizuki had to restrain herself not to squeeze his shoulder in a show of support. She could only imagine what it must feel like to only be able to defend yourself by saying that if you'd committed the offence, you would've committed it more efficiently.

"I... I..." Maya felt she'd gone in way over her head; there was no way she'd ever be able to understand a man like Masumi. "Why are you telling me this now, in front of everyone?"

"Because if there's anything this evening has shown," Masumi said, his expression still dim, "it's that whether we want it or not, we're all connected by 'The Crimson Goddess'. I felt that this was the one thing I could do to partially clear the air," he grinned faintly, "and this was the only place I could do so without risk having a fruit basket hurled at me."

Completely ignoring Masumi's slight, Maya eagerly leaned forward, asking him:

"Then, will you tell me why you—"

"No," Masumi interrupted. "I only intended to make socialisation a little bit easier. My motives are my own; they're of no use to you."

Maya drew back as though she'd been stung, then hung her head to hide the fact that she was blinking away tears. The tension of the room was thick as gruel, which might be accredited to the fact that Rei, Sayaka, Mina and Taiko were glaring at Masumi with unrestrained dislike, while the rest of the library's inhabitants had little to no idea what was going on.

And yet, it was one of those clueless inhabitants that took the initiative to straighten things out. Ayumi gave Masumi her sharpest smile, which was usually reserved for Onodera when he was being particularly smarmy, and said:

"Whether you think she'll benefit from knowing your motivation isn't the issue. She wants to know what it is, and it seems to me that you have an obligation to tell her."

"A-Ayumi, darling," Mitsugi stuttered, "that's a little bit too blunt!"

Ayumi paid her father's admonishment no heed. "Don't you think it's shameful for a grown man to mistreat a young girl and then not even attempt to explain his behaviour, Mr Hayami?"

Masumi and Ayumi had never had much of a relationship. Before Ayumi became a Crimson Goddess candidate, he'd simply been a friend of the family and she'd been the daughter of a friend. They'd had no inclination to seek out each other's companionship, as they had little to nothing in common, except for Mitsugi and Utako. Now, however, Masumi saw that he and the pretty actress were more alike than he'd assumed: they were both sharp-tongued and fiercely protective of Maya.

"Generally speaking," he said, shrugging, as if he didn't really have much interest in the subject, "yes. But a grown man can do whatever he wants, even if it's shameful."

Ayumi pursed her lips and gave the vice-president a look that clearly communicated that she'd lost all respect for him.

"I don't see why you can't tell them, though," Mizuki suddenly cut in. "It's really quite simple."

Oh, but that is it! Masumi snapped his head in Mizuki's direction, and levelled his secretary with a glare that would've vaporized lesser beings.

"I don't recall asking for your assistance, Mizuki," he said, his voice heated with barely restrained anger.

"I'm not speaking up to help you," Mizuki said. "I'm speaking up because you've just besmirched Daito's reputation in the presence of two Crimson Goddess candidates, a famous director, an important producer and the leading members of a popular troupe. You might be fine with being demonized, but you're here as a representative of Daito Art Productions, and as such, you have a duty to not make it look as though we're a collection of robbers and saboteurs."

Masumi managed to suppress his homicidal urges enough to grind out:

"You may say whatever you wish. I'm washing my hands of this."

He demonstrated his conviction by staring out into space, his world limited to his cigarette.

"Thank you, sir," Mizuki said, inclining her head. She then turned towards the increasingly bewildered gathering, and began her explanation:

"This was before my time, but am I correct in assuming that Master Masumi's first offence against you," she gestured at Maya and her friends, "was manipulating the press into writing bad reviews about your performance of 'Little Women'?"

"Y-yes," Maya stammered, "I think—"

"That was you?" Ayumi interrupted, scowling at Masumi.

Masumi didn't react to Ayumi's venomous inquiry, leaving it up to Mizuki to stem it:

"Yes, it was, but more importantly, has he done anything to sabotage you since?"

"If it's true that he wasn't behind what happened at the National Drama Competition," Rei said, "then... no."

"But," Maya added, "he's been bothering Tsukikage about giving him 'The Crimson Goddess'!"

"So beyond doing his job," Mizuki said drily, "he hasn't caused you any problem. In fact, didn't he hire you to substitute for someone in one of Daito's plays, Maya?"

"He..." Maya fingered the hem of her dress frenetically, but spoke forcefully, "he didn't have another choice. The curtain was about rise, and he had to find someone to fill in fast. It was just coincidence that I was there, anyway. He just grabbed what he could find."

"And do you think he would've grabbed an enemy and given her free publicity without trying to find another solution to the problem? But it doesn't matter. The point is that Master Masumi hasn't been hostile towards you for four years now; maybe it's time to re-evaluate your opinion of him."

Maya was seriously thinking about doing just that, when another sardonic laugh from the man in question derailed her train of thought.

"So you're asking four girls," Masumi told Mizuki, grinding out his cigarette in a crystal ashtray on the table, "to revise their opinion of a man who has shown no qualms about destroying their theatre in the past simply because he hasn't done anything intentionally bad lately, based on a testimony from his secretary? You're a good employee, Mizuki, but I fear you'll never be a great psychologist."

Mizuki had a strong urge to let out an aggravated shout and then just tell Maya, "Look, he's in love with you, alright?". If there was anything she'd learnt from working with Masumi, it was that he required either a tragedy or a miracle to break out of his carefully constructed Demon of Daito character.

"When you were working for Daito," she told Maya instead, "I took your friends' letters and threw them away. I did everything I could to keep you apart, and I regret it every day. You needed your friends by your side when your mother died, and it was my fault that you had to endure that grief alone. Do you hate me for it?"

It was easy to guess Maya's answer, as she was shaking her head profusely, but Masumi prevented her from voicing it out loud:

"You isolated her on my orders. I don't need to be defended, Mizuki. I can handle things on my own."

"Except you can't, can you?"

Masumi sighed loudly, but he was grinning when he turned to Ayumi. "So you've come to finish what you've started, have you?"

"You say you can handle things on your own," Ayumi said, ignoring Masumi's levity, "but you don't seem to be handling them at all. You're hurting people without telling them why, you admit guilt but you refuse to apologize, and frankly, you seem to delight in causing confusion. How can you justify such childish behaviour?"

Masumi just shrugged again, and the passive gesture made Ayumi gnash her teeth. "Do I need to justify it?"

"Yes," Ayumi said, her voice pure steel. "I don't want to work with such an irresponsible man, and I doubt that Maya is any more open to the prospect. Tell me, how do you plan on staging 'The Crimson Goddess' without anyone to play the lead?"

There really was something incredibly formidable about Ayumi. Masumi couldn't remember the last time he'd been stared down with such cold intensity, and he'd negotiated and argued with some of the most powerful people in Japan. Maya was gaping at her rival with obvious hero-worship, while Mitsugi took a maudlin sip of his wine.

"My," Masumi said, "but that's quite unfortunate. Is there any way I can prevent this unprofitable turn of events?"

"It's very simply; be an adult, and take proper responsibility for your action."

"By which you mean that I should tell Miss Kitajima the reason for my behaviour and apologize?"

"It would be a good start, yes."

Masumi responded to that simple request by rising to his feet.

"This may come as a shock to you," he said, "but 'The Crimson Goddess' isn't the most important thing in my life. I value my privacy far more. So, as I am a shameless and irresponsible man, I shall leave to avoid anymore confrontation."

"You're leaving?" Heianzan exclaimed. "But it was just getting good!"

As the whole room levelled him with unflattering stares, Heianzan coughed, adding, "I mean, please, there's no need for you to leave. We'll soon have everything straightened out."

"I will have to decline your invitation to clear the air," Masumi said. "I'm of the opinion that there's nothing I can say that will appease either Ayumi or Miss Kitajima, and that my presence is causing discomfort."

"I don't see why you have to defend yourself in the first place," Heianzan said. "You've been doting on Miss Kitajima all evening; why should your company cause offence?"

Masumi felt as though the air had been sucked out of his lungs. If he'd dared to look at Maya, he'd see that she was experiencing the same symptom.

"... I'm sorry?" he finally said.

Heianzan grinned at the other man's meek reaction. "Please, Mr Hayami, do sit down again."

"Well," Masumi said, obeying Heianzan's request after some initial hesitation, "it'll be interesting to hear what you're basing your theory on."

"Oh, it's very interesting, I assure you," Heianzan said, rubbing his hands gleefully. "In my experience, people often say things because they want a certain reaction or result; they don't really mean it. Usually, people only do this once and again, but you, Mr Hayami, seem to view speech altogether as nothing more than a tool to get what you want. It's like you and your words are completely separate entities."

Masumi swallowed; it unnerved him that it was possible for someone to dissect him so thoroughly in less than two hours' time. He managed to compose himself, however, smirking as he spoke:

"How odd: a manipulator that isn't sincere. While you're right in your supposition, I don't see how my speaking habits relate to Miss Kitajima."

"And here's where it gets really interesting." Heianzan leaned forward, looking as though he was having the time of his life. "People lie to make themselves look better, but you've been doing the opposite: you've been doing everything in your power to make Miss Kitajima shine, even though it's damaged your own image exceedingly."

It was a good thing, for once, that Masumi was a master at disguising his emotions, as it enabled him to express his anxiety with a faint laugh.

"So first," he said, leaning back into his chair, crossing his legs, "I'm sensitive, and now I'm self-sacrificing? You'll need a lot of evidence to back that up."

"Thankfully," Heianzan said, "I have every word you've spoken this evening and every gesture you've made at my disposal."

Though Masumi was starting to feel nauseous, he let Heianzan proceed without trying to stop him, knowing that it was best to meet accusations head-on:

"You dedicated the entire dinner towards showing off her talent. You made her act out that beautiful scene from 'The Tempest', and then you proceeded to tell everyone that she's been able memorize entire plays since she was thirteen. You practically acted as her PR manager."

If Mizuki had lacked both delicacy and common sense, she would've said 'I told you so' to Masumi. As tact and logic were the most prominent traits of her personality, she was silent, watching her boss with mingled feelings of sympathy and nervousness. Even though she'd made it perfectly clear she knew how he felt about Maya and approved of it, she still had to force him into the conversation if she wanted to discuss something about the tiny actress. To be confronted by a stranger about his conduct towards her... anything could happen from here on in.

Masumi's face was blank and his voice near monotonous when he responded to Heianzan:

"I was merely teasing her. It had no deeper meaning."

"It's possible, of course," Heianzan agreed, nodding half-heartedly. "But even so, I doubt you'd risk coming off as a cad by telling her to give up the Crimson Goddess in a crowd that's largely sympathetic towards her. I rather suspect you insulted her to prompt her into making that wonderfully inspirational speech about how she lives to act."

Masumi was about to deliver a brilliant defence that would leave no one in doubt of the fact that he was nothing more than a bully that delighted in aggravating innocent young women, when Maya exclaimed:

"Ah!"

Masumi turned to her out of instinct, and his blood froze at her expression of elevation.

"Of course!" she continued, looking like a child that had just solved a perplexing riddle. "It's all so obvious now!"

And that was it for Masumi; he threw away all pretence of indifference, plainly bothered as he spoke:

"I'm sorry, but what? No, shorty, there's nothing for you to say 'It's all so obvious now' over!"

"But it makes sense!" she told him eagerly. "It makes such a lot of sense, I'm an idiot not to have realized it myself!"

"How is it that you're still alive, when you'll clearly believe everything a suspect stranger tells you?" Masumi asked her incredulously. "First, it's Tsukikage, and now, it's this guy? Do you have any self-preservation instinct at all, shorty?"

"Whatever!" Maya cried triumphantly. "I understand now! Back in the bathroom, you did your best to encourage me, and when you said too much, you got embarrassed and had to throw me off the scent by insulting me. You're not evil; you're just clumsy!"

"Please, shorty," Masumi begged her, his whole body turned towards her, "think this through one more time. It's nice to dream, but all of that can just be explained by the fact that I'm fickle."

"No one's that changeable," Maya countered. "It was like you were two completely different people, with two different objectives. But if what Mr Heianzan said is true, then you always had the same objective. You just expressed it bizarrely, which, come to think of it, is just like you!" She slapped her hand to her forehead, breathing, "God, but I'm stupid!"

"You're not stupid," Masumi said, unaware that his earnest expression only served to enforce Heianzan's theory. "You were just being logical. When have I ever given you reason to believe that I care about anyone but myself?"

"Actually..." Rei hesitantly spoke up.

Masumi grit his teeth. And yet another person who I barely know has an opinion on my mental state.

Though the vice-president's scowl discouraged her, Rei continued:

"A while back, Mr Hayami, you came to take Maya to see 'Juliet'. And while you antagonized her into going, I felt that that was just your way of giving her confidence to move forward. I think you've been doing that for a long time... ever since 'Helen Keller', actually."

To give himself time to think about how to get out of this disaster, Masumi lit another cigarette, but even nicotine couldn't help him out. No matter how he tried, his expression remained stormy, the most concrete thought he could form being, "Why couldn't Maya figure this out on her own?".

Mizuki was right; eventually, he wouldn't have been able to stand being nothing more to Maya than a nameless admirer. That's why he'd treated her kindly (well, more or less) when they were in private; he'd wanted to give her some sort of hint about who he really was. But he know realized that it had been a useless endeavour, as deductive reasoning wasn't among Maya's talents and as he'd purposefully misled her when she'd gotten too close to the truth.

The gods must've been laughing like mad when they thought up my existence, Masumi thought bitterly. Bastards.

He felt rather like laughing himself, but as he didn't want to appear to be both defeated and demented, he just expelled a cloud of smoke and said:

"And here I thought my identity as 'the Demon' would protect me from prying eyes. What you say is true, though I cannot fathom why you should consider it any of your business how I interact with shorty."

"'The Crimson Goddess' was being threatened," Heianzan objected. "I had to protect it, and the only way to do that was to expose you. Sorry," he added as an afterthought.

Masumi was about to give the director a curt reply when Ayumi spoke up:

"I thought you were mistreating Maya for your own gain. I couldn't just sit by and do nothing." Her lips quirked into a femme fatale smile. "You should be glad I didn't do anything but argue with you. The last person who was in your position ended up with a destroyed career."

Mitsugi sighed, wondering whatever had happened to the innocent little girl he'd read bedtime stories to, while Maya was trying not to swoon.

"I was merely trying to protect the good name of Daito," Mizuki said, meeting her employer's glare with a sunny grin. "You should really learn to separate your personal and professional lives, sir."

This is the most outrageous case of "The pot calling the kettle black" I've ever encountered! Masumi thought, biting down on his tongue to prevent himself from succumbing to the practice of childish name-calling.

"As for me," Rei said, "I've been bothered by your schizophrenic attitude for years, so I couldn't resist interfering."

"And, well," Maya smiled awkwardly, "this whole thing was sort of about me, so..."

Though Masumi knew he should feel relieved by this turn of events, he wasn't. The one thing that had comforted him when Maya had snapped at him that she hated him was that she didn't know that he really felt and was trying to accomplish. The next time she rejected him, it would be because she found what he really was impossible to tolerate, no matter what she might gain from the association.

He wasn't equipped to deal with that, so he asked them, schooling his features to express irritation:

"Do you really think you've done either Maya or me a favour? All you've done is to undermine my position, essentially making me useless to her."

"What do you mean?" Heianzan said, leaning forward with interest. "Surely, you don't mean to tell me you can't motivate her just because she understands that you're trying to do so?"

"I motivate her with hate," Masumi said, finding it hard to sound flippant when his mouth was painfully dry. "She has the self-image of a rusty spoon; no matter how much she accomplishes, she seems to be incapable of feeling pride. She needs to compare herself to someone who's loathsome, devoid of moral fibre and generally repulsive to feel the least bit confident." He spread out his arms, as if to say "Tadah!". "Just being in the same room as me makes her feel superior enough to declare her aspirations loudly, without reservations, whereas she would usually whisper it. It was a perfect arrangement, but now, thanks to your well-intended meddling, I will have to think of some way to restore it."

He ground out his second cigarette and rose, as cool and detached as when he'd calmly explained that he was a professional crook.

"Thank you for inviting me, Mr Heianzan," he told the host, bowing, "but I'm afraid I have to leave early. Please, excuse my rudeness. Ah, Mizuki," he said, seeing his secretary stir in the corner of his eye, "could you get my coat? I'll be waiting for you outside."

Thinking that he'd taken care of those that would hinder his departure, he was unprepared for the light touch on his sleeve. He quickly deduced that it was Maya, and therefore drew back from her as fast as he could.

"Yes?" he said, addressing her calmly, as though he hadn't just scurried away from her like a frightened animal.

It took a moment for Maya to recover from being so thoroughly rejected, but when she spoke, her voice was strong:

"You can't just leave like this."

"I challenge your theory," Masumi declared, brushing past her with as little contact as possible, ducking out into the corridor before she had time to renew her objections.

Maya stared after him, trying to organise her wild, flurried thoughts and so come up with a feasible plan of action. She gave up after about five seconds, marching after him with a hiss:

"How annoying!"

OXOXO

Maya decided that while mansions were wonderful, from an architectural viewpoint, she would never be able to live in one. It took her ten minutes to find her way outside, as she'd almost compulsively taken a left when she should've gone right. At one point, she'd actually had to stop one of the maids to ask for directions, and as she'd been told that the door leading out had been some ten metres from where she was standing, it was understandable that her temper was less than wholesome when she went out to meet Masumi.

Thank god for tatami mat apartments, she thought, pushing the doors open with more force than was strictly necessary. I wasn't designed for luxury, I suppose.

She found Masumi sitting on the steps leading down to the dirt driveway, looking up at the night sky. He turned his head, acknowledging her presence with a nod before he returned to his stargazing. To have her efforts rewarded so nonchalantly made Maya's eyebrows twitch, but rather than smacking the back of Masumi's head, she sat down next to him. She shivered; the cool evening air had chilled the marble, making her feel as though she was sitting down on a block of ice. She persevered, rubbing her goose-pimpled arms as she asked him:

"Could you please talk to me?"

"Of course," Masumi intoned monotonously, not even glancing at her. "What would you like to talk about?"

"You know what I want to talk about," Maya sighed, curling up to preserve heat. "Look, could we just have a normal, straightforward conversation, where you say what you mean and not what's beneficial?"

"While it's not an unreasonable demand," Masumi said, "I'm afraid I can't oblige it. I will always do what's beneficial over what's right, and we've nothing 'normal' to talk about."

Why is it, Maya thought, sucking in a deep breath, that I feel as though I'm wandering around in a gigantic maze whenever I speak with this man?

"I'm not asking for much," she said, twisting her body towards him, trying to catch his eye without success. "I just want to know why you've been treating me like you have."

"I'm disinclined to tell you," was all Masumi said.

Maya'd told herself that no matter what Masumi said, she would be polite and patient. She pardoned her following outburst with the fact that she'd forgotten how provoking the vice-president could be when she'd made that vow:

"Oh, I'm so sorry for intruding in your little bubble of solitude, but did it ever occur to you that perhaps, and this is just a crazy thought, you're not the sole inhabitant of this world?"

When he didn't react to her heady sarcasm, she let out an exasperated moan; this was going to take a lot of time and effort.

She got up and stood on one of the steps in front of Masumi, hoping that the added height as well as the proximity would give her a psychological edge over him.

"You can't just go around doing whatever you please," she told him, hugging herself to generate some warmth, "and then just ignore the people who're affected by your actions. You, you can't just separate yourself from the world, and say that people should only react to what you want them to react to! That's so arrogant, it borders on hubris!"

Masumi finally looked up at her, wearing a very slight smile. In his usual way, he opted to act before he spoke, unbuttoning his tuxedo jacket as he beckoned her closer. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously, she hesitantly crouched down, and was rewarded by having the jacket slung over her shoulders.

"I make no pretence of thinking myself above anyone else," he told her. "I'm acutely aware of how limited I am. That's why I'm going to make you hate me again, shorty. It's the only productive course of action."

Since Maya's first meeting with Tsukikage, her life had become a series of strange events. Even so, she felt that being enfolded by Masumi's warm jacket while said man was telling her to hate him was the oddest thing she'd ever experienced.

"I... I really don't understand," she said weakly, her aggression melting away when faced with Masumi's uncharacteristic passiveness.

"... Words are such useless things," Masumi said. "Anyone can say anything, without needing to mean a single word. After all, all the world's a stage, so how do you know when someone is telling the truth or merely acting? Why should you believe in an apology offered to you by a well-known liar?"

Maya was about to ask him what apologizing had to do with anything, when she realized what he was referring to: her mother.

"And even if I did apologize," he continued, "what then? It doesn't make up for anything, especially not for what I did. Then again," he buried his hand in his hair, unwittingly causing it to rain blood flakes from his dirty cuff, "nothing could make up for that."

Maya watched him like a woman possessed, inordinately fascinated by his distress. It wasn't the first time she'd seen him depressed, but it was the first time she'd seen him so out of sorts that he didn't even notice that he had dry blood all over his cheek.

"While I'm used to being a villain," he said, "I'm not used to being a fool. What happened was an accident, but as I'm the one that allowed it to occur, I have a responsibility to set things right. But I'm a villain, and therefore ill-equipped to be in someone's debt, so I will most probably never find a way to make up for the damage I've done. The one way for me to be of use is to be cruel. I don't know how to be kind, shorty; I'd rather you hate me, and fortunately, that's easy to arrange.

"I killed your mother. I isolated a blind woman, kept her from her estranged teenage daughter, because of promotion. Just keep that in mind, and it'll be easy to hate me, whether I'm helping you out or not."

Maya was so overwhelmed by this speech, she sagged down onto the steps, regarding Masumi in the same way one might look upon a mystical beast of legends long past.

"I think I could travel all over the world for the rest of my life," she said, her voice tinged with wonder, "and never find another person who's even half as bizarre as you."

Though he knew that he should be deadly serious, Masumi couldn't resist making a quip:

"You say that like it's a bad thing."

Maya smiled, rolling her eyes. "It's bad for you, at least. Do you even realize how convoluted this whole thing is?"

"You've no idea," Masumi murmured, copying Maya's smile without meaning to. "But that doesn't mean it can't work out for both of us."

"Yes," Maya snapped, squeezing her eyes shut, "yes, it does. I refuse to be put in that position again."

Masumi's lips parted with surprise; he was used to Maya being furious at him, but the way she was looking at him, like she was determined to bring about a certain result, was new. For some inexplicable reason, that expression of confident, focused anger made him short of breath.

"After my mother died," she told him, her voice low and rough, "I hated you with all my heart, and I loathed myself just as much. Day in, day out, I did nothing but hate. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep; I didn't even care if I lived or died. The only reason I even got back on stage was because you helped remind me that life is more than just misery, that it can be so incredibly wonderful if you just go after what you truly want."

Masumi could see that she was speaking directly from the heart, that she had as little idea as to what she would say next as he did. That someone could show their true feelings with so little inhibition was, in his opinion, nothing short of a miracle.

"But don't you think," Maya continued, "that I would've understood that a lot sooner if you'd just stopped acting like a goddamn tyrant and said, 'I'm sorry for what happened'? If you'd just shown me that my mother's death was an unfortunate accident, rather than leaving me to think it was some sort of divine punishment for my selfishness?"

Masumi was quite certain that he wouldn't have been able to respond to Maya, even if she hadn't leaned forward, putting her hands on either side of his feet. While he could detect a slight tremor in her voice, he knew that she was too intent on making her point to even contemplate crying. She scanned his face, and Masumi could see that while he agitated and confused her, she wasn't berating him to make him feel bad. She was trying to understand him.

If Masumi hadn't been eleven years older than her, responsible for her mother's death and on a flight of stairs leading to another man's house, he would've asked Maya to marry him right then and there. That was probably a bad thing.

"Other than that," Maya said, seeing that Masumi wasn't going to add anything to the conversation, "I'm incredibly sick and tired of being manipulated. I'm not some sheep you can herd around. If you want to help me out, then do so, and I'll be grateful to you. But if you ever try to use the same tactics as you did tonight, I will shut you out. We might be connected by the Crimson Goddess, but that doesn't mean I have to put up with your condescension."

That toxic speech made Masumi truly realize why he'd fallen so deeply in love with Maya. It wasn't just her drive or her spirit; it was the fact that she had such a firm, unwavering belief that life should be an honest and joyous thing that had drawn him to her so forcefully.

He'd lost that belief before he'd lost his last baby tooth.

"I don't mean to be condescending," he finally said. "It's just... Shorty, you have to understand that I was raised to become the perfect businessman. I wasn't encouraged to feel empathy, other than in the form of suspicion. I know that that doesn't excuse my behaviour in the least; I just want you to understand that kindness and remorse... I don't know how to express them. I only know how to antagonize and manipulate. I sincerely don't know how I can help you without the use of hate."

Truth be told, Maya hadn't hated Masumi for a long time. More specifically, her hate had faded into a mild dislike after he'd delivered her to her friends after "The Yasha-Hime Story" and smiled at her gratitude. Even when she'd thought about all the things he'd done or caused to happen, she just hadn't felt the same antipathy towards him as she had before.

Maybe hate functioned the same way love did; to truly hate someone, you had to understand that person. Maya could safely say that she had absolutely no idea who Masumi was, but his bewildered, defeated expression made her think that perhaps it wouldn't be as impossible to figure him out as she'd previously assumed.

For some reason, that realization made her so happy, her demeanour was sunny as she spoke:

"Why so glum? You might be good at playing the bad guy, but that doesn't mean you can't try something else. I really enjoyed your pep talk, despite your fluttering voice and shifty eyes."

Masumi'd thought that nothing short of extremely powerful medication would've been able to soothe the crippling insecurities he had concerning Maya. Having the girl in question not only smile at him, but tease him as well, completely nullified his anxieties, prompting him to laugh his head off.

"You're mean, shorty!" he told her, his voice scratchy with mirth. "I open up and you bully me in return!"

Maya made an affronted sound. "Like you don't deserve it!"

"That's beside the point. I'm delicate, shorty. You have to be gentle with me."

Maya blubbered at this outrageous falsehood, but was prevented from properly reacting to it by Mizuki's appearance. She stood in the doorway, clutching Masumi's coat, staring at the macabre scene before her with undisguised wonder.

"Hello, Mizuki," Masumi said, swivelling around to smile at his secretary. "Is that my coat you're carrying?"

"... Yes," Mizuki finally answered, handing the heavy garment to her boss. "Here you are, sir."

"Thank you," Masumi said, rising to his feet, draping the coat over his arm. "Ah, and you might want to know that Maya's now the evil mastermind in our relationship. She's breaking my spirit, little by little, by heaping biting remarks onto my poor self."

"I am not!" Maya protested, getting up. "I just told you the truth!"

"See how she yells at me?" Masumi sighed.

It's astounding, Mizuki thought, how two of the most stubborn people in the world can manage to resolve an enormous conflict in just five minutes.

The doors opened again, revealing the rest of the party's participants. They shared Mizuki's wide-eyed reaction, but as they lacked the secretary's insight into Masumi's psyche, it took them far longer to digest Masumi's benevolent smile.

"Hello again," he said, waving at them. "I'm sorry you had to witness my dramatic storm out. I can't even begin to excuse such childish behaviour."

"T-that's quite alright," Mitsugi hurried to assure him, cutting off whatever (far more acidic) reply Ayumi'd prepared. "We were too intrusive."

"Not at all," Masumi said. "It was unreasonable of me to think that no one had any right to question my behaviour, just because I was procuring positive results."

"I'm glad you think so," Ayumi said, her airy tone telling Masumi that she still thought he was an idiot.

Fair enough, Masumi thought. "So am I. But you must excuse me; I feel I owe Mr Heianzan an explanation and an apology. Good night, everyone," he bowed, his hand on his heart, "and thank you for your patience."

He turned to go back into the mansion, when he remembered something rather important:

"Since you're pulling it off with far more flair than I ever could, shorty, you can keep my jacket if you want."

Maya started, blushed, grimaced, and then threw aforementioned jacket at its owner.

"Thank you kindly," Masumi said, catching the garment with one hand, "for all your assistance this evening. I'm in your debt."

"It was nothing," Maya assured him. "I didn't do anything, really. It was all thanks to Heianzan and Ayumi."

"If you hadn't chewed me out," Masumi said, "I would've just pretended that this whole evening had never happened. Only the harshest of guidance will get me anywhere, and no one treats me worse than you do."

"Please," Maya ground out, "it was my pleasure. Good night, Mr Hayami; just let me know if you need to be put in your place again."

"That," Masumi said, bowing theatrically, "I shall. Good night, Maya, and good luck. Few need it more."

On that ambiguous note, Masumi entered the mansion again, followed by Mizuki. Maya pursed her lips, not sure whether she should be glad or apprehensive about Masumi's sudden change in behaviour, as it would probably entail in him making fun of her even more than before. Her contemplations were cut short as Sayaka exclaimed:

"What the hell did you do with him?"

"Eh? W-what do you mean?"

Despite having known her for about five years, Maya's friends were sometimes still amazed by the sheer depth of her naivety.

"Less than ten minutes ago," Sayaka patiently explained, "Hayami refused to speak to anyone, and now, he's singing like a lark. Did you perform an exorcism or something?"

"I just spoke to him in his own language," Maya said, "which meant I was crude, pushy and mean. Worked like a charm."

While reluctant to believe that the cold vice-president would meekly submit to a teenage girl just because she was calling him names, Sayaka had to admit that it was probable that only curses could get through to Masumi.

"Acknowledging his bad behaviour is the least he could've done," Ayumi spoke, ignoring Mitsugi's heavy sigh. "It's annoying, the way some people can get away with anything just because they have a title tacked onto their name."

Maya had to exercise her very sparse amount of self-control not to squeal like a schoolgirl at that.

"W-well," she stammered, looking at her knotting fingers, "I think he's going to try his best to make up for it, at least. Um, t-thank you for standing up for me, Ayumi. It... it really meant a lot."

Ayumi observed Maya's embarrassment with a mingled sense of pleasure and frustration. While it was always nice to be acknowledged, it was a bit hard to maintain a legendary rivalry with a girl that idolised you. She strode up to Maya, her tone forcing the tiny actress to look her in the eye:

"I want to support you, Maya. Like Masumi said, the Crimson Goddess ties us together, and she deserves the best possible candidate. It would petty of me not to support you just because it would lessen my own chances. I'd never be able to live down the shame if you lost your chance to play the Crimson Goddess just because you lacked connections."

Maya sometimes felt that her rival was inhabited by a noble samurai's soul; she'd never met anyone else who had as strong a will as she did.

"Thank you," she said, "but while I appreciate your support, you don't have to exert yourself on my account. I've been relying on others too much; it's time I choose my own path."

While Ayumi only had to use a fraction of her substantial self-control to suppress an urge to hug Maya, she was still very touched by her resolution.

"I'm sure you'll succeed in finding the right path," she said, offering her rival a dazzling smile.

"Ah... um... t-thanks," Maya stuttered, staring at her hands again. "G-good night, and... and have a continued pleasant evening?"

While it was a hindrance at times, Ayumi felt that it was rather nice to have such a profound effect on someone.

"Same to you," she said, holding out a hand to Maya. "I look forward our next competition."

Maya enthusiastically shook Ayumi's hand, glad that she'd finally found a person that didn't take shameless advantage of their ability to turn her into an ineloquent mess.

Maya and her friends piled into Heianzan's limo after the Himekawas had departed, discussing the evening in less than coherent sentences. After half an hour of fervent debate, they all agreed that they'd probably never experience anything even half as confusing again, but that it'd been a rather enjoyable evening all-in-all.

"By the way, Maya," Rei said, "do you still think that Heianzan might be Purple Rose?"

Maya, who no longer needed to worry about maintaining her cosmetics, nibbled at her lip a little before answering:

"No, I don't think so. He's nice and all, but... I don't think Purple Rose would be so... so... open. Or, you know, so, uh, flamboyant. Besides, I'm sure I would've remembered him if he'd been in the audience at 'Little Women'."

There was a murmur of consensus; the retired director had a certain unique... air about him. Like Tsukikage, his aura of eccentricity automatically drew your eye to him. Well, that and his long, white beard, at least.

"But really," Sayaka whined, leaning onto Maya, "what did you say to Hayami? It's driving me mad with curiosity!"

"Settle down!" Maya laughed, pushing at Sayaka. "I didn't say anything in particular; I was just... horrible. I called him a self-centred tyrant, and he agreed with me."

"But he was so chipper when we came out," Taiko objected. "So, what, he's a masochist?"

"Certainly, he is," Maya confirmed, "but that's not why he was happy. I told him that he didn't need to act like an ass, he told me I was a bully and the tension just sort of lifted."

Though Maya was able to express sadness, loneliness and anguish simply by biting down on a handkerchief, she was very poor at explaining herself using actual words. Her friends were still completely in the dark as to what'd occurred between her and the vice-president, but decided to leave it for now.

"Masumi Hayami as an ally..." Sayaka shivered. "That's just... unnatural."

"But he really was helpful," Mina spoke up, "back in the bathroom. What he said to Maya was actually... well..." she blushed, hardly able to believe that she was actually about to praise Hayami, "sweet."

Her embarrassment intensified as her sentiment was received exactly as she'd thought it would be: with vacant stares and raised eyebrows.

"Oh," she hid her head in her hands, "forget it! It was just a stupid thought."

"No," Maya said, patting her friend's knee, "I had the same impression. He was... he was nice. Well, he was irritating as well, but mostly, he was nice."

The occupants of the limo took a minute to consider this. Masumi Hayami: sweet, nice, chipper tyrant?

"As nice as he might've been," Rei said, "it's only common sense to still be careful around him. Even if he's had a change of heart, he could still go back to being our enemy. We shouldn't rely on him too much."

"O-oh," Maya stuttered, "of course. Naturally."

Maya, however, didn't think it was at all natural not to wholeheartedly accept Masumi's change, but reasoned that she shouldn't rely solely on her own judgement when it came to matters like this. After all, if it hadn't been for the well-intended meddling of an eccentric old man and her cool rival, she would've still thought of Masumi as the avatar of evil.

Once it had been established that Masumi was to be treated with caution, Sayaka slouched onto Maya, wailing:

"Hey, hey, what happened in the bathroom, then?"

But though Masumi wasn't to be trusted completely, that didn't mean that he couldn't be avidly discussed and poked fun at.

OXOXO

"Oh? So Miss Kitajima managed to convince you that there's nothing wrong with caring for another person?" was Heianzan's greeting to Masumi, as the young man re-entered his library.

Masumi masked his frown with a sardonic smile, glad that he'd told Mizuki to wait for him out in the corridor. As adept as he was at handling confrontations, he suspected Heianzan had similar conversational skills, made sharper by decades of practise.

"She called me a tyrant and threatened to cut all ties with me if I didn't shape up," Masumi drawled, sitting down in an armchair that faced Heianzan. "I had no choice but to submit to her will."

Heianzan chuckled, shaking his head. "She's a very amusing young lady. It's amazing that such a naïve, empathic woman has managed to survive so long in our ruthless line of work, isn't it?"

Masumi was about to give a noncommittal response, when he saw that Heianzan was eyeing him with an amused little grin. He felt a sudden, nearly overpowering surge of anger, his voice and stare frosty as he told Heianzan:

"I didn't come back to talk about Kitajima. In fact, I'd like to keep her out of the conversation altogether."

"As you wish," Heianzan said, inclining his head. "What do you want to talk about, then? Politics, sports, religion?"

"I want to confirm a theory I have about the real reason you invited us all here."

Heianzan's amused grin deepened. "I thought you already unearthed that reason at the beginning of dinner."

"That was before I found out that you view other people's sufferings as a great diversion."

The elderly thespian started, his smile momentarily washed away.

"That is a very grave accusation indeed," he said. "What evidence do you have to support it?"

"Every word you've spoken and every gesture you've made this evening," Masumi said, taking pleasure in being able to throw the other man's words back at him.

"Well then," Heianzan inched forward in his seat, clearly interested in Masumi's deduction, "by all means: wow me, Mr Hayami."

While annoyed that Heianzan had turned the tables on him with that damnable quote, Masumi calmly proceeded to present his evidence:

"You say you wish to know all there is to be known about the revival of 'The Crimson Goddess', but if that was all there was, there'd be no need for this preposterous dinner party. Even though you've retired from theatre, your name is still famous. You could easily procure connections that could inform you about the status of the project."

"I admit my approach was unorthodox," Heianzan interrupted, "but there's a difference between reading a report and actually talking to the people involved."

"If you were at all interested in talking to any of us," Masumi said, "you wouldn't have put a group of people you know to be at odds with each other in the same room. That sort of atmosphere is hardly conducive to confidential chats, wouldn't you agree?"

Heianzan smile tilted into a smirk. "Perhaps I just wanted to see how tense the relationship between you all really was."

"Of course, that's possible. But then there's the fact that you cried out, 'But it was just getting good' the first time I tried to leave. That's a bit more damning, I should think."

Heianzan sucked in a breath through his teeth, grimacing. "That really gave me away, didn't it? I couldn't help it; your performance was so masterly, I was entranced by it."

A shiver ran down Masumi's spine, but he spoke without letting on just how disturbed he was by the older man's praise:

"So you admit you set up this charade to drum up some drama?"

"I can't do much else, can I? But what is that distinct note of disapproval I hear in your voice, Mr Hayami? Shouldn't you be delighted to find a man just as manipulative and deceitful as yourself?"

"I manipulate people out of necessity," Masumi protested. "I don't enjoy it. To purposefully set people against each other to get a good laugh, like you're directing a play... it's perverse."

Inappropriately enough, Heianzan chuckled. "I'd never thought I'd hear a Hayami say something so sentimental. For that matter, I'd never thought I'd see a timid girl like Miss Kitajima declare she'd rather die than quit acting, or that a beauty like Miss Himekawa would have such a sharp tongue. Theatre disappointed me, Mr Hayami; the year before I retired, the actors were squabbling about who should be in the spotlight, and my producers wanted me to use every hackneyed trick there was to draw in an audience. I became a director because I wanted to produce something pure and engaging, but my works invariably became more and more tainted by outside interference.

"But then it came to me: real life is the biggest stage of them all, and the plays it stages are of infinite variety. There'd be no stuck-up actors demanding more lines, not producers wanting me to include a sex scene; just conflict, plain and simple. The perfect show."

There was a blissful, dreamy expression on the director's face while he delivered this bone-chilling sentiment, forcing Masumi to once again shiver uncontrollably.

"So you invited a group you knew to be in conflict because you wanted some dinner entertainment?" Masumi said, his voice rife with sarcasm.

"I wouldn't put it quite so crudely," Heianzan sniffed. "I merely intended to gauge the tension between you, and see what I needed to say to make that tension explode. I was very pleased to discover that you, my dear sir, decided to do my job for me."

Masumi pursed his lips; he really didn't want to be praised for such a ridiculous achievement by an equally ridiculous man.

"You know," Heianzan said, swirling his wine thoughtfully, "I really hadn't expected you to be so... expressive. Everyone I asked about you, without exception, said that you were as cold as they come. But when it comes to 'The Crimson Goddess', you seem to be just as hot-blooded as I am."

While it was Maya, rather than the Crimson Goddess, that had won his devotion, Masumi refrained from correcting the thespian and replied:

"I was raised by her greatest fan, after all."

"True. That's bound to leave its marks. But it's a good thing, nonetheless. I feared that you had already decided to cast Miss Himekawa as the Goddess, no matter the outcome of their rivalry."

"Some of my colleagues might have their hearts set on Ayumi, but I want to give the best performance possible. Besides, I doubt she'd let us cast her if she felt that Maya was her superior."

"Women have such spirit nowadays, don't they? They're both very promising actresses, but I must say that my favourite actor is of a completely different sort."

"Oh? And who's managed to earn your hard-won favour?"

Heianzan's lips quirked themselves into a shape that was so indescribably aggravating, it actually made the hairs on the back on Masumi's neck rise. "Isn't it obvious? It's you, Mr Hayami."

Masumi supposed that he could get offended and tell Heianzan that he wasn't alive just for his amusement. Unfortunately, he was in no position to do so, as he was a 29-year-old man whose biggest fear was a teenage girl. He wasn't convinced that he hadn't been created for the sole purpose of generating some laughs, so he merely picked up a half full wine glass and said:

"And you're my favourite director. I look forward to working with you again."

After all, he thought, draining the glass in one go, if I'm nothing more than a cosmic joke, I might as well be the best told joke in existence.

A/N: … I can't believe I wrote blood play.