A/N: Edited by the smashing good prettyinpinkgal.

So... I feel that I should establish something here: this (as well as all my other works) is just speculations and interpretations. I don't mean to say that this is what Miuchi meant to convey with her characters. In fact, I'm fairly certain that if she ever were to read this, she would laugh and wonder what the hell I'm on. (And I would be strangely flattered by that).

Now that that's out of the way, enjoy!


Part One – Of Civic Duty and Petty Revenge

"So, sir, do you have any plans concerning Maya?"

Masumi deliberately annoyed his secretary by taking a long draught of coffee before giving her a curt answer:

"Remind me again how that is any of your business?"

"Sir," Mizuki put her hands on her hips, "that's like asking a witness to a train crash, 'Why should you care?'. It's my duty as a law-abiding citizen to make sure that as many people as possible are rescued from the wreck."

"Conscientious, aren't you?" Masumi muttered. "But need I remind you that we're currently working, by which I mean that we're doing something of actual worth to society, rather than playing matchmaker? Your philanthropy will have to wait until we're off hours."

"Oh, yes," Mizuki scoffed, "because you staring at a randomly selected spot on a piece of paper for fifteen minutes will somehow benefit Daito more than sorting out your various mental problems would."

Masumi pursed his lips, laying down the aforementioned piece of paper to glare at his secretary.

"Very well," he pressed out. "If it's that important to you, we will take a three minute break and speak about Kitajima. Starting," he glanced down at his wristwatch, "now."

"Thank you for your generosity," Mizuki said dryly. "So, getting back to my question: what will you do about Maya?"

"Not a lot," Masumi drawled. "I've planned to make a surprise visit at the outdoor theatre in Kichijo Temple Park, give her friends some financial advice, have a little chat about her state of affairs, and if there's still some time left, maybe we'll get some ice-cream."

"As you very well know, I meant 'what are your long term plans concerning Maya?', not 'what is your current scheme to take her on a date without her realizing it?'."

"Sorry to disappoint you, but beyond a non-date in the park, I've no other agendas."

"Well, this is certainly a surprise. Your schedule is planned out to the last minute, yet you feel that the object of your undying love isn't worthy of some extra consideration?"

Masumi shuddered, his features twisting with distaste. "First of all, I'd thank you to never use the phrase 'undying love' in connotation with my name again. My situation is bad enough without bringing sentimentalism into it. Secondly, I've finally decided to admit that I'm the worst possible authority on Maya. As a result of my lacking knowledge of her character, as well as the deficiencies of my own, all the long term plans I've made concerning her have all blown up in my face. So for both of our sakes, I will stop making them, and just concentrate on accomplishing one goal at a time. My current goal is to make sure that 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' is a success and to boost her confidence. That is all, and your three minutes are nearly at an end."

Mizuki took a minute to absorb her boss's speech, ignoring the time limit as she spoke:

"It's really astounding, sir; only you could make passionate, forbidden love sound like a business arrangement."

"Do I need to make a list of all the insipid romantic terms you're not to speak in my presence?" Masumi growled.

"If you don't want to be teased, sir, then might I suggest that you refrain from using the most melodramatic, self-destructive means available to express your love?"

"Thank you for your advice. I'll be sure to follow it in the future, but for now, let's focus on work, rather than annoying the hell out of me, alright?"

Mizuki rolled her eyes, but was forced to abandon her smart-alecky response when there was a knock on the door.

"Come in," Masumi called out, grateful for a distraction.

A curly haired office lady with a shy grin entered, holding a decorative box.

"This just came for you, Master Hayami," she said, walking up to him, "together with this letter." She put the box down on his desk and handed him the letter. "I, I know you don't like to be disturbed, but I was told you wanted this brought to you as soon as it arrived."

"Did I?" Masumi said, eyeing the box with obvious unease. While it wasn't uncommon for him to receive small tokens of appreciations from his clients, this was the first time anyone had seen fit to wrap up that token with a festive, frilly bow. He glanced down at back of the envelope that had accompanied the gift, and all was made clear to him:

To Masumi Hayami, from his favourite director.

"Dear lord," Masumi groaned, covering his eyes with his hand.

"I take it that you haven't been expecting this package, sir?" Mizuki said.

"I have, actually," Masumi sighed. "Or, more accurately, I've been dreading it. But as it's here," Masumi put down the letter, picking up a pair of scissors from one of the desk drawers, "I might as well get it over with."

He unceremoniously cut through the beautiful ribbon, popped the box open and let out another longsuffering sigh.

"It's wagashi," he muttered, glaring balefully at the confectionary. "Of course it is."

He closed the lid again, his lips curled with disgust. "Here," he said, forcing his mouth to assume the shape of a smile as he handed the box back to the office lady. "I've no taste for wagashi, so please, share them with the rest of the staff."

The office lady, being one of Masumi's fans, merely nodded and thanked him in a formal manner, waiting until she was out of the his office before she squealed like a schoolgirl.

"That was rather rude of you," Mizuki remarked. "Someone obviously spent a lot of effort on this gift, and you just gave it away the second you received it, despite the fact that you're quite fond of wagashi."

"If the single most disturbing man in the universe sent you a gift," Masumi said, "there's no way you'd ever accept it, no matter how appetizing it might be."

"Who is this man that has you quaking in your boots, sir?" Mizuki asked, an unflattering note of approval in her voice.

"Atsushi Heianzan." Masumi spat the name out, as if just pronouncing it left an unpleasant taste in his mouth. "I've dealt with sycophants and egocentrics, but he's on a whole different, damn near metaphysical level."

"Ah, yes," Mizuki said, smirking as she moved up beside her boss, "Mr Heianzan. Isn't he the man who managed to uncover your true intentions towards Maya just two hours into your acquaintance with him?"

"He only figured out a very small part of that agenda," Masumi countered, "and that's merely because I was being careless. It never occurred to me that there are still some people in the entertainment world who don't see me as a demon workhorse."

"Of course, sir. But why is he sending you food? I thought he only did that with actors."

"In his old age, his mind has become warped. He takes the saying 'all the world's a stage' quite seriously, and for some reason or other, I've become his favourite actor."

Mizuki scrutinized her boss intently before pronouncing:

"I can see why. You always emerge yourself completely into whatever role you're to play, and your performances are unparalleled in their convoluted depths. The fact that you've a naturally expressive face and a fluid yet calculated body language would easily put you in any critic's good opinion."

"Thank you for that highly inappropriate and unwanted review. I'm sure you and Heianzan would get along swimmingly. But while I'd like to burn this letter without ever reading it, I suppose I should brave through it. If I don't reject him directly, he'll never stop bothering me."

"You sound like you're scorning a suitor."

Masumi gave his secretary the scowl to end all other scowls before turning his attention to the letter:

My dear Mr Hayami,

I hope that I'm not being too impertinent in sending you this small symbol of my regard for you. I know we parted on strained terms, but as we are very similar men, both in our philosophies and our professions, I feel that renewing our acquaintance could only be beneficial.

I'm having a dinner party this weekend to see how close the famed producer Shunjo Ikada is towards getting a divorce, and if his wife's golf instructor has anything to do with their pending separation. I'd be honoured if you would attend it.

Masumi rolled his eyes and asked Mizuki:

"How do you convert the phrase, 'I'll never accept another invitation from you, as you terrify me to the degree that I check underneath my bed every night to make sure you aren't there' into a polite sentence?"

His secretary mulled it over before answering:

"'I'm sorry, but I've important business to attend to on the proposed evening. Please accept my sincerest apologies.'"

"Well done. Now, if only you'd develop a sense of boundary, you'd be the perfect secretary."

But of course, the letter continued, I'm wishing for too much in thinking that you'd ever willingly occupy the same room as me again. I know this all too well, and it saddens me. Perhaps one day, you'll be able to accept my friendship and my support. Until then, please believe me to be,

Sincerely yours, Atsushi Heianzan.

P.S. Before you give away the wagashi, you might want to transfer them onto a plate; I left you a rather... personal message in the bottom of the box.

Masumi absorbed the fact that he'd just given his employees a box containing a definitely disturbing, possibly lewd message addressed to him. He dealt with his frustration by slowly breathing in and out, massaging his temples as he told his secretary:

"Mizuki, I think that we're going to have to put an APB out on the wagashi."

OXOXO

The event which Mizuki'd maliciously entitled as "the Wagashi Fiasco" had left Masumi mentally drained and emotionally scarred. The message Heianzan had addressed to him in the bottom of the wagashi box had been even more compromising than he'd feared it to be, and a large percentage of his staff had laid their eyes on it (and taken pictures) before he'd been able to get it back into his possession. But his humiliation hadn't ended there; the message had laid the groundwork for a rumour which stated that his lack of interest in women indicated an interest in men.

Naturally, the rumour had caused him some annoyance, so it was with a great measure of relief that he found that he could pay Maya a visit even earlier than he'd planned to. Even the fact that he had to bring along two assistants to the meeting didn't mar his happiness, as the one thing that could soothe his vexation at being romantically linked with a dirty old man was to transfer that frustration onto Maya. It was horrible and immature, but Maya's enraged grimaces were like balm to his soul.

"Is this really alright, Master Masumi?" one of his assistants asked him as they walked down the dirt path leading to the outdoors theatre. "You have a meeting with Mr Onodera in an hour."

Don't remind me, Masumi thought, but out loud, he said:

"Don't worry. I won't be here long. Besides," he stepped onto the grass, politely letting a mother with a perambulator pass, "I've business to tend to in this park that's just as important as my meeting with Onodera."

The assistants exchanged a glance, both of them doubting the validity of this statement. Earlier in the day, Masumi had glanced through his schedule, realized that he had two hours to himself due to a last minute cancelation and said, "Might as well do something productive with all this free time".

But as always, they kept quiet about whatever reservations they had against their employer's behaviour and obediently followed him to the theatre. They came to regret their passive decision rather quickly, as they stumbled onto a decidedly uncomfortable scene:

A man with an incredibly straight-laced appearance, who was surrounded by equally groomed individuals, was screaming at a man with significantly rougher features:

"You're implying that succeeding here is more significant than succeeding in the Athens Theatre? More gratifying? Such insolence; you really are conceited!"

Masumi signalled his assistants to stay put, as he wanted remain undetected and eavesdrop on the argument. After a brief search in his memory, he identified the straight-laced man as the director of Athens Theatre (though his actual name currently escaped him) and the burly one as Taichi Hotta, the leader of the Ikkakuju Troupe.

So it's not just Maya who has a knack for getting into trouble, Masumi thought, watching the one-sided confrontation with interest. Apparently, it's a common trait among underdogs.

"Then prove it!" the director continued, making an unnecessarily violent jabbing motion with his finger. "Let's see how many people you're able to gather! I heard you're going to perform for three days; if you can gather a greater audience than us, I'll admit your ability."

"You'll admit our ability?"

Masumi straightened up as he heard Maya speak, and she had his full attention as she continued:

"Then... if we're able to do that, you'll let us perform at Athens?"

The director started; he obviously hadn't expected anyone to call him on his outrageous demand.

"Hmm, I'll think about it," he said with a completely insincere expression. "If you manage to gather a bigger audience than us, then it's settled."

Masumi grinned. Mistake.

"Really?" Maya cried. She unthinkingly approached the director, making him flinch back as she scrutinised his face. "Do you mean it?"

Rei pulled Maya back, as her intensity was making the director tongue-tied, and repeated her friend's query in a more measured voice:

"You're not lying, are you? Do you promise?"

"Y-yes," the director stuttered, too afraid of losing face to do anything else.

Naturally, his employees reacted badly at the irresponsible bet, but before they could form a proper protest, Masumi stepped forward and spoke:

"I'll be the witness for that promise."

His sudden arrival was received with appropriate exclamations of surprise, and served to make Athens director go pale with terror. Though it would be nice to be greeted with a warm "Hello", at least once, Masumi had to admit that he sometimes enjoyed making an attention grabbing entrance.

"Are you not satisfied with having me as a witness?" he asked the director pleasantly, his smile widening as the man practically jumped out of his skin.

"No, of course I am!" the director shrieked. While it was annoying that Masumi's approach made people quiver, on account of his highly exaggerated reputation as a "Theatre Destroyer", he had to admit that it sometimes procured amusing results.

"I suppose you're the director of Athens Theatre," Masumi said, looking the other man up and down, as if to measure his worth. "They can trust in your word, can't they?"

"Of course!" the director said, giving him a beguiling, untrustworthy grin.

Masumi lit a cigarette, letting the nervous director stew in his own juices before he spoke:

"If you fail to keep your promise, you'll be tarnishing my name as a witness." He smiled at the other man, showing him that he'd perfected the art of being menacing whilst wearing a polite demeanour. "You don't want to become my enemy, do you?"

"B-but what are you saying?" the director cried. "You have my word! I'll do it!"

He clenched his fist, and though it obviously pained him, he managed to grit out:

"If the number of the audience within the first three days of the performance overcrowds the seats here, I'll grant you permission to act at Athens... But," he added, as the Ikkakuju Troupe looked ready to jump with joy, "if you even fail for even one day, you won't get the permission, understood?"

Once he'd made his last abrasive statement, he stormed off, his employees following at his heels and eagerly questioning his sanity.

Hotta hesitantly approached Masumi. What he knew about the vice-president, he'd learnt through rumours and the stories his friends from the Tsukikage Theatre had told him, none of which had reflected positively on Masumi. He was, however, a very polite young man, so he felt duty bound to show his appreciation:

"T-thank you, Mr Hayami."

"I'm only the witness," Masumi said nonchalantly. "The rest depends on your efforts."

Hotta was so surprised and relieved by the vice-president's sparse reply, he smiled, bowing once before he turned to instruct his troupe members to count how many people the stone benches before the stage could house.

One of the actors declined to help with the preparations in order to stare at Masumi. As said actor was Maya, Masumi didn't mind being ogled at as though he was missing a limb, keeping his face courteously blank as she haltingly began to speak:

"Ehm... T-thanks. That... that was very kind of you."

She gave him an awkward grimace, and it was only after a minute of inspection that Masumi realized that she was trying to smile at him. He had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing, which she probably noticed, as her demented grin was replaced by a pout.

Oh, Masumi thought, but this will be a very fun conversation.

He was about to begin teasing Maya, when he was struck with a sudden thought: she had no idea how to act around him. There was a new dynamic at play now: she was actually trying to be kind to him, rather than simply half-heartedly hiding her dislike. He could do more or less whatever he wanted, and she'd be forced to respond to it, rather than ignore him, as was her usual way of dealing with him.

With this giddy thought in mind, he smiled blandly at her, his voice like that of a cheery salesclerk as he spoke:

"Good day, Miss Kitajima, and thank you for the compliment, though I fear it's undeserved. I didn't do anything special."

It wasn't just Maya's mouth that flopped open at that; his assistants mirrored her confusion, ruining the sombre effect of their black suits and dark shades.

"I... uh..." As Maya had no way to answer Masumi that didn't involve the sentence, "Are you suffering from brain damage?", she changed the subject. "Why are you here, Mr Hayami? Did you know about us?"

"Of course I knew about you. I came here to check up on you."

"Ch-check up... Why?"

"Because I worry about you." Masumi said this as though it was perfectly obvious, rather than completely impossible. "You're still blacklisted, Miss Kitajima, and this play will serve to reintroduce you to the general public. It's an important career move for you, so I wanted to make sure there were no complications."

Maya's expression of mixed emotions was pure pleasure to watch. She looked like she wanted to yell at him to stop trying to mess with her head, yet she was blushing, clearly intrigued by his smile and his praise.

Masumi almost felt grateful to Heianzan for making that expression possible. He hadn't realized how tired he'd been of walking on eggshells around Maya, how much he wanted her to be in his company because he intrigued her, and not because she wanted the last word.

"Oh," he said, "it seems that your friends have finished counting the seats. Let's go have a look, shall we?"

He spun Maya around and ushered her towards her friends, trying not to smile too much as she sputtered and stammered.

The troupe had come to the conclusion that with a little elbow grease, you could fit 400 people onto the benches, whereas the Athens Theatre could fit 500. Some people could watch the play while standing, but there was still the question of whether the audience would tolerate sitting through Shakespeare under such cramped and uncomfortable conditions.

Showing why he was the leader of the troupe, Hotta dispelled the others' doubts by roaring:

"Quit being so pessimistic! Our future is at stake! None of the audience members can get bored! We have to make people stay until the end!"

He rallied his troupe members into going around the neighbourhood to advertise the play with flyers, and their lacklustre war cry was:

"We'll do our best!"

Masumi fought the urge to roll his eyes, and asked Hotta:

"What will you do with the entrance fee?"

"This performance is meant to test our strength," Hotta answered, his sheepish expression telling Masumi that he hadn't given the economic side of the venture much thought. "In other words, it's kind of like an experiment. And how are we going to charge for a play in the open air? The audience's attention will be our reward. If we decided to charge, who would come watch a troupe that's not even fam—?"

At this point, Hotta was interrupted by a loud scoff. Said insulting noise originated from Masumi, who was shaking his head.

"M-Mr Hayami?" Hotta stuttered.

Masumi ignored the troupe leader's confusion, and addressed Maya instead:

"Miss Kitajima, am I right into presuming that you've told everyone here what happened at Heianzan's dinner party?"

Maya coloured and quibbled before finally admitting, "Um, well, s-somehow, it got around..."

"It's alright," Masumi said. "I thought it would. As embarrassing as it is, it does offer me the opportunity to be straightforward with you all: you're idiots."

While the troupe processed this (mostly by gaping and staring), Masumi cheerfully ploughed on:

"That's the only reason I can find for why you're still so humble. Well, it's either that, or you all suffer from short-term memory, and statistically speaking, that's unlikely."

"I'm... I'm really sorry, Mr Hayami," Hotta said, his normally booming voice small and weak, "but I don't understand what you mean."

"Only that you've been in this exact situation before," Masumi pointed out. "Small but spirited group of underdogs versus established, smug, pretentious theatre company. Sounds familiar?"

"You mean Odin Theatre? But, with all due respect, that was different."

"The only difference is that the director of Athens Theatre was fool enough to give you an opening. Everything else is pure déjà vu."

At seeing Hotta's apologetically uncomprehending expression, Masumi sighed. "I see I'm going to have to explain this step-by-step for you. Well, for starters, there's the seating issue. I can't imagine that your underground theatre was too accommodating in the way of comfortable seating, yet your performances nearly always drew a crowd so large, it was a fire hazard. Secondly, there's your worry about being able to attract an audience. Never mind that you already have a cult following, or that you have an award to prove that you instantly romance whatever audience you come in contact with: the fact is that you're a troupe of young, photogenic actors who specialise in character driven comedies. The world is your target audience."

Masumi smiled as the actors blushed and fidgeted at the completely unexpected, suspiciously backhanded praise.

What do you know, he thought, being honest and open is actually very liberating... if you get to do it on your own terms.

"But you do have a point about the entrance fee," he said. "Not that the audience's attention should be your reward—that's just naive—but that it would be hard to charge for a play staged here. If Daito was in charge of the arrangement, we could've easily cordon off the area, but I doubt you have those resources."

"Then..." Hotta cleared his throat, and started again, "then if we can't charge people, why can't we act for free?"

"Because Athens's director would throw it back in your face. Other than that, I think it'd be rather hard for the public to respect a theatre troupe that doesn't see any worth in its own performance. But fear not," he added, seeing Hotta sag with despair, "there's a way that will not only make you look good, but which will also make you some money: charity.

"Find a reasonably well-known charity organization and start up a partnership. Publicize yourself in an eye-catching manner—don't rely solely on flyers, everybody hates them—and stress that it's a charitable play. Leave it up to the audience to decide how much they think your performance is worth. It'll be a way to measure your strength, make some ripples in the entertainment world, get some capital and do some good while you're at it. Does it sound satisfactory?"

To Hotta, whose idea of economics was more or less "try to make enough money to cover the rent", Masumi had now become a financial wizard.

"It's... it's more than satisfactory," Hotta said breathlessly, a huge grin on his lips. "It's... perfect! Thank you for your advice, Mr Hayami. We'll do our best to repay you for it."

There's that 'We'll do our best' again, Masumi thought. But as Hotta's troupe members wanted to discuss their chief's sudden decision to follow the advice given by a sociopathic millionaire, he decided to let it be.

Maya had watched Masumi intently all throughout his charity seminar, and for some reason she couldn't quite pinpoint, she'd been unsettled by it. It was only when Masumi turned to her again, armed with his newly acquired salesclerk smile, that she realized why she was so bothered: Masumi was treating everyone else in the way that he usually only treated her.

Her initial response to this discovery wasn't to think "Oh, those poor people" or to get down on her knees and thank the heavens for her good fortune. Her kneejerk reaction had been to feel betrayed and wronged, the word "Bastard!" booming in her head as she glared at Masumi.

"You look surprised, Miss Kitajima," Masumi remarked. "And, if you'll forgive me for mentioning it, a little bit angry."

And that was the last smarmy straw that Maya's longsuffering back could possibly bear.

"Stop that!" Maya snapped at him. "Stop it right now, or I'll smack you!"

Masumi took a step back, raising his hands in surrender. "I'm terribly sorry, Miss Kitajima, but you'll have to specify what part of my behaviour is causing you offence."

"You know what's 'causing me offence'!" Maya cried. Seeing that Masumi wasn't going to lose his expression of polite puzzlement any time soon, she huffily elaborated, "I don't like you being... being... nice. It feels... unnatural, and condescending, so stop it."

"Oh dear," Masumi said, looking genuinely concerned (The bastard!). "How regrettable. Our last talk gave me the impression that you wanted me to be more accommodating."

"I just didn't want you to manipulate me," Maya protested. "I don't remember telling you to act like a creepy salesman."

Masumi let out a laugh as his assistants (or as he'd lovingly nicknamed them, "The Goon Squad") convulsed in the background. "I was experimenting, shorty, but it seems that I just don't have what it takes to be tolerable." His smile has a definite quality of "I told you so" to it. "Please advise me on how to act around you."

"Why should I have to?"

"You told me that if I displeased you, you would cut off all ties to me. As I wish to avoid making you realize your threat, and as you don't want to suffer at my hands, it'll be in everyone's best interest if you were to offer me guidance."

Under normal circumstances, Maya might've tried to hide her trepidation at Masumi's absurdness. Right now, however, she wanted to incite some sort of response from him that wasn't delicately phrased, so she sighed dramatically, rolled her eyes and said:

"Ugh, fine. I guess you can't help being socially incompetent."

Masumi smiled and nodded at the biting remark. "I'm innocent like that."

Maya snorted. "Yeah. Anyway, you're not to be condescending, manipulative, overly polite, mean for the sake of being mean, or to lie. Oh, and you're to tell me about things that you know I would like to know as soon as you know them."

"So basically," Masumi said, "in order for us to be able to communicate, I have to give up almost all of my personality? Let me give you some advice, shorty: learn to compromise."

"You're the one who told me to...!" Maya bit down mid exclamation, sucking in a breath before she said, "Take it or leave it."

"Of course, I'll be delighted to take it," Masumi said. "A complete loss of identity is a small price to pay for your company. I suggest that we give our new relationship a test drive, however, to make sure that it's satisfactory. How about it?"

"That depends on what the hell you're talking about."

"Let's have a nice chat."

"And what nice things do we have to 'chat' about?"

"Well," Masumi scouted the park for a place to sit and talk, "I'm relatively new to the whole 'polite conversation without a sinister agenda' thing, but I gather that it's most usual to talk about your feelings. Likes, dislikes, opinions about books, movies, world events and the current state of your personal affairs."

Maya was starting to wonder if Masumi wasn't just a really elaborate hidden camera prank; he seemed to make it his mission to elicit ridiculous reactions from her.

"Oh," Masumi said, looking like a cat being served a big bowl of cream as he looked out over the park lake, "but I know exactly where we can finish conducting this experiment. Let's go for a boat ride, shorty."

And that confirmed Maya's theory; somewhere, a live studio audience was laughing at her contorted gape. But as she couldn't spot any cameras, she was forced to reply to Masumi:

"Why would I want to ride around in a little boat with you and 'small talk'?"

"I'm good at rowing," Masumi supplied, as though this meant anything in particular. "Besides which, I have some information for you: Tsukikage will most likely not contact you for quite a while."

That piqued Maya's interest with a vengeance. She followed him as he started to walk towards the docks, clutching at his sleeve and crying:

"W-what happened to Teacher? Did she get worse? Please, Mr Hayami—"

Masumi stopped, turning his head to meet her eye. She jerked back, dropping her gaze as she released his sleeve. When she realized what she was doing, which was acting like a school girl who'd accidentally made eye contact with a boy she liked, she forced herself to look up again. Masumi'd apparently anticipated this, as he'd waited until she'd recovered from her embarrassment before he spoke:

"If anything truly bad had happened to Tsukikage, I would tell you straight away, as I have a habit of learning from my mistakes. I would, however, like to discuss your teacher in a private location. Besides," he added, seeing that Maya was about to object to his choice of "private location", "I haven't had the chance to go rowing for quite some time. Even capitalists need to indulge in a little sentimentality now and then, shorty."

There are some things that are generally acknowledged as bad ideas: hitchhiking, accepting candy from strangers, not looking before one leapt and humouring telemarketers. Getting into a boat with Masumi Hayami was probably somewhere between taking sweets from perverts and turning a blind eye to gravity.

Yet Maya couldn't, for the life of her, do anything but mutter, "Alright", and trail after him, like a duckling following its mother. As Masumi had managed to piss her off three times in the span of fifteen minutes, this was definitely the wrong course of action, but logic ceased to be anything but a vague concept when she was in the vice-president's presence.

Even though she'd resigned herself to keep Masumi company, she still thought, "What the hell am I doing?" when she sat down in boat with him. They were so close, she could easily play footsies with him, were she to become temporarily insane.

Masumi hadn't been lying when he said he was good at rowing. With a few simple, practised movements, he'd pushed their boat away from the dock and steered it out on the lake.

"So," he began, stripping out of his suit jacket, "what would you prefer to discuss?"

Maya stared at him incredulously before hissing:

"Teacher!"

"Oh, yes," Masumi chirped, rolling up his sleeves, "that dear old lady. She was trying to accomplish too much at once, and her heart protested. She'll be fine if she gets to rest up in the hospital. No need to worry."

Maya continued to stare at him as though she couldn't quite believe that something so ridiculous could possibly exist, before she said, her patience clearly strained:

"And you couldn't tell me this on dry land, why?"

"A miscalculation on my part," Masumi said, smiling apologetically. "Terribly sorry."

Maya wanted to call Masumi on how he was blatantly breaking the rules he'd agreed to follow just five minutes ago, but knew that he'd protest his innocence too eloquently. So she just pouted and said:

"So it's not that you're going to stop being manipulative, it's just that you'll stop once I can prove that you're messing with me?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Masumi said, but contradicted himself by smirking.

As tempting it was to argue with Masumi over how stupid he was, it was rather like trying to defuse an atom bomb with nothing but a sharpened stick. So she chose to gaze at the shore with longing instead. She could see Masumi's assistants (though they looked more like bodyguards), and what little she could perceive of their expressions were flabbergasted.

"Do you get a kick out of weirding people out?" she asked him, because if she was going to be forced to chat with him, she should get to pick the topic.

"Sometimes," Masumi said. "When it's intentional, at least."

"And how often is it intentional?"

"I don't keep count of all the times I leave people speechless, shorty. It would be far too big a number to be contained in memory alone. By the way: congratulations on graduating. I know it's a bit late, but better that than never, right?"

"I suppose. Thank you."

"You're welcome. The word on the grapevine is that you're not going to college. Is that true?"

"I can't afford it. Besides," she gave him a sharp smile, "I'm stupid. College would be a waste of time."

Masumi lips parted; he'd never seen Maya smile or sound like that, yet it was somehow familiar. Then, it dawned on him: that's the same way Ayumi had smiled at him during Heianzan's dinner party in order to signify that he was being a jackass who'd earned her everlasting scorn. Maya hadn't perform it with quite the same panache, but considering that this was probably the first time she'd used the expression, it was an impressive interpretation nonetheless.

Masumi felt even more mixed up than what was standard for him: he was strangely jealous and amused over the fact that Maya'd chosen to mimic Ayumi, but most of all, he was touched, as he understood what she was trying to accomplish with the poisonous lip quirk.

"Shorty," he said, unable to keep his voice from shaking with barely repressed laughter, "are you trying to throw me off in order to initiate a heart-to-heart talk?"

Judging by the way Maya started at his insinuation with genuine surprise, she'd been acting on instinct, rather than design.

"W-what?" Judging by the way she blushed, however, she saw the truth of Masumi's accusation. "Why would you say that?"

"Your smile when you made that delightfully acidic remark. That's the same way Ayumi smiled at me when she told me that I was a fool. But really, shorty, as comforting as it is that we're trying to meet each other halfway, you don't need to emulate your hero to get through to me."

That sentence was wrong in oh, so many ways, but Maya chose to start with pointing out that:

"Ayumi's not my hero!"

While Masumi'd rather she'd brought up the whole "meet each other halfway" thing, he supposed this would be amusing as well.

"If she's not," he said, "then you'd do well not to stare at her with obvious worship. And, you know, not to emulate her."

Maya hid her head in her hands, wilting. "I can't help it; she's so, so cool. And," she parted her hands, glaring at Masumi, "she managed to make you actually say something about yourself. It's more than I've ever been able to do. But, ugh," she grimaced, making a wild dismissive gesture, "just forget about it."

"No, it's fine," Masumi hurried to assure her. "It's just that Ayumi is used to having to cut people down to size, whereas you've only just started to discover the joy of calling people on their bullshit. You'll need to get in quite a lot of practise before you can live up to your idol's expectations. I'll be happy to assist you in that, by the way."

"Ayumi's not my idol!" Maya gnashed out. "Stop saying that."

Again, Masumi would've liked it better if Maya had commented on him offering himself to her on a silver platter, but he'd come to understand that the two actresses shared an almost obsessive bond. He knew enough about fixation to not be envious of it.

"I beg your pardon," he said, humbly inclining his head. "I misunderstood your relationship. Of course, you're fierce rivals, passionate equals, what have you. Now, to steer to a more peaceful shore, I don't think you should give up on college. The entertainment world is a mire of politics, favouritism and corruption. Even if you've got talent, there's no guarantee you'll have a career substantial enough to support yourself. It's common sense to have something to fall back on."

Maya shifted in her seat; that hit a little too close to home. "I can't afford it."

"But you do have a rich secret admirer," Masumi pointed out. "Or did he become a cheapskate in his old age?"

Maya scowled at him. "He's still a wonderful, generous man, thank you for asking. He did offer to pay for my college tuition, but... it doesn't feel right, burdening him so much when I can't give him anything in return."

"So you don't believe in the joy of altruism? Or is it that you don't want to rely on him more than what's absolutely necessary because you want to be independent?"

Masumi thought that perhaps he had to revise his opinion on how little he knew about Maya, as this was the second time in the span of five minutes that he'd managed to unearth information about her that even she hadn't been privy to.

"I... I didn't think about it like that," she said slowly, surprised and a little bit displeased. "I guess so."

"Good. As history has shown, unquestioning loyalty to a faceless entity usually ends badly."

"He's not a faceless entity; he's Purple Rose. He's the best person I've ever known."

Masumi couldn't help but to flinch at that. He didn't like being complimented under normal circumstances, never mind under painfully morbid ones. "The subject of blind adoration has also been touched upon by several plays, and they always seem to end with either murder, suicide, or a murder-suicide. I'm sure it wouldn't physically injure your admirer if you were a bit more sceptical about him. I mean, it's not normal for wealthy, presumably adult people to take such a strong interest in a teenage girl, unless, well, the concept 'Stranger Danger' is involved."

Maya cocked her head, about to ask him to clarify himself when she realized what he was implying. Her mildly befuddled expression morphed into one of righteous fury. Before she could unleash it onto Masumi, he amended his statement:

"Obviously, your admirer doesn't fall under that category. It was just an example. But still, you don't know why he does what he does or what he expects from you, so maybe you should turn down the 'unwavering trust' dial a little?"

"So I shouldn't trust the man who's supported me throughout my entire career?"

"Not on that basis alone. One action can have a dozen possible motives. Some people donate to charity to get tax benefits, while others pave down forests to build orphanages."

Maya wanted to argue that Purple Rose would never be anything but good and just and true, but Masumi did have a point. Just a few weeks ago, she would've sworn that he was the Devil encapsulated in human form, and now, she was sharing a boat with him while he gave her life advice.

"Why can't people just say what they really mean?" she exclaimed, irked by the fact that the world wasn't consistent enough to keep good and evil apart. "All this lying, doing one thing but meaning another... It's stupid!"

"It's not stupid," Masumi protested. "It's... complicated."

Maya gave him a perfectly level glare. "It's stupid."

Upon further consideration, Masumi had to accede that, yes, it was nothing short of idiotic. "So, it's complicatedly stupid. It's the human condition. You'll just have to learn to live with it, or learn to be able to tell when someone's trying to pull the wool over your eyes. It's your choice."

Maya crossed her arms, feeling a childish sort of petulance. She shouldn't have to become an expert in uncovering lies just to be able to communicate with others. People should just become more honest.

"Yes, I know," Masumi cooed, his voice thick with sympathy. "Why does the world have to be so difficult? Why can't we all just get along and compose catchy songs about our feelings around a cosy camp fire?"

Maya let it be known that she would tolerate no more lip by splashing Masumi. He glanced down at his sodden shirt, nodded and said:

"Point taken." The mellow reaction vexed Maya, as it meant that Masumi'd known that she would've resorted to water based violence against his person before she had. "I guess there's nothing wrong with being idealistic. It's just what I'd expect out of a naive, escapist high school graduate, anyway."

"I loathe your very skin," Maya informed him. "Please return to the level of Hell from which you ascended."

Masumi basked in the insult, as he was incapable of distinguishing between good and bad attention when it came to Maya. "It must be amusing to be so cruel and straightforward. Well, keep at it; set a good example for the rest of us. Maybe someday, people will prefer brutal honesty to soothing lies."

Maya let out a wailing moan, "Mooouuuraaaooow!", sounding rather like a tiny, chagrined dinosaur. She collapsed in her seat, her arm dangling over the side of the boat, fingertips lazily skimming the surface of the water. While Masumi wanted to comment on how adorable the scene was, he refrained from doing so. Maya was at the end of her rope, and would probably only respond to him in water splashes.

I wonder, he thought, watching the water lap and curl around Maya's fingers, why I'm still being such an ass? Is this a case of behavioural conditioning gone horribly wrong?

But while most of the things in Masumi's life could be blamed on morally dubious psychological experiments, this wasn't one of them. He liked to push things that pushed back without abandon, but as he was in a position that enabled him to end people's careers with a few choice words, this was a rare occurrence. Maya, however, had never been afraid to speak her mind, or at the very least display her displeasure at the inherent wrongness of his being. It was comforting to know that for every brownnoser who took his word to be law because he signed their pay checks, there'd be a bohemian who'd tell him to piss off.

He glanced down at his watch, grimacing as he confirmed that no matter what he did, he'd still be at least ten minutes late to his meeting. Maya shifted in her seat, getting more comfortable, her eyes dreamy as she gazed at the glittering water.

There were a lot of things that were more important than Onodera, and this moment, where Maya was curled up like a cat and accepting of his presence, was one of them.

Then again, he'd had powernaps that were more important than Onodera.

OXOXO

Masumi'd never given it any real thought, but upon reflection, he really was a suave son of a bitch. He'd been shamelessly late for his meeting with Onodera, yet it'd only taken him five minutes to convince the director that his tardiness, while regrettable, had been utterly unavoidable. Onodera, for all his faults, was a hard man to fool, but he'd swallowed Masumi's lies hook, line and sinker. Being a master at deception was a strange thing to feel proud over, Masumi supposed, but one should never feel shame over being competent, no matter what one's sketchy area of expertise was.

Another one of Masumi's many varied talents was idle chitchat. He could transform some standard small talk about the weather into a genuinely entertaining discussion. He owed his conversational prowess to equal parts deductive ability and good old-fashioned charm, as well as, he had to admit, a knack for saying what people wanted to hear.

He was demonstrating said skill at a party celebrating the opening of some play or other, when he caught sight of a familiar face, which belonged to one Ayumi Himekawa. He was nearly unable to believe his luck: he got to tease Maya, slight Onodera and bother Ayumi, all in the same day.

He excused himself and made a beeline for the photogenic actress, exuding charisma as he sat down next to her on a velvet loveseat.

"Good evening, Ayumi," he said, his pitch low and intimate. "I hope you're well."

She gave him a distinctly unimpressed, disproving glare, but returned his smile.

"If we weren't in public," she told him, "I would've left the very instant you sat down. As it is, I will give you a minute to make a pitiful attempt at small talk before I laugh politely and walk away."

"Thank you for your generosity," Masumi said, inclining his head. "I'll try to make said minute as durable as possible."

"Luckily, my pain threshold is very high. Well, go on: why do you insist on seeking me out when you know I feel nothing but contempt for you?"

"You're the daughter of two of my closest friends. It would be strange if I ignored you just because you have a newfound tendency of looking at me like you want my head to explode."

"There's some logic in that, I suppose. It's regrettable, but I can understand why my parents hold you in respect. You've brought a lot of work their way, and for that, I'm grateful, but that's all. I'd rather that you'd keep your distance after tonight, or I won't snub you quite as delicately as I will in thirty seconds."

Masumi felt torn between the compulsions to either laugh or wince. While he enjoyed banter (as long as Mizuki wasn't part of it), and was delighted that Ayumi shared his habit of putting a time limit on uncomfortable conversations, her utter disgust at his presence was a bit jarring. He settled on doing neither, his face affably blank as he said:

"I won't claim that your ire is undeserved, but perhaps it's exaggerated. I've apologized to Maya for my behaviour to her, and she's accepted my apology."

"Words are cheap and Maya's too naive. You endangered her career, and so far, you've only made some half-hearted attempts to make up for the damage you've caused. I can't respect a man like that, and I can't forgive anyone who'd use such underhanded methods against someone who's completely defenceless. Your minute is up, Masumi. Goodbye."

Ayumi smiled, laughed and then rose from the loveseat with a truly glorious, dismissive hair flip. That smile morphed into a hard frown when Masumi grabbed hold of her wrist, and her eyes flashed when she scowled at him.

"If you do not let go of me right now," she growled, "I will slap you so hard, the skin on your cheek will break."

"I agree that I've been remiss in making it up to Maya," Masumi said, accustomed and impervious to threats of violence. "It might have something to do with being preoccupied with managing a multimillion business, as well as her not wanting my help."

Ayumi faltered in her murderous rage; she'd been too upset at the notion of Maya being hurt to consider Masumi's situation. The rage returned, however, when the vice-president rubbed his thumb up and down her wrist, but before she had time to smack him for his impertinence, he spoke:

"But I'm just making excuses. If I can't offer my services directly, then I should enlist a middleman."

"I'm readying a backhand slap," Ayumi informed him, raising her perfectly manicured hand. "It'd be best if you made your point quickly."

In stark contrast to his usual behaviour, Masumi obeyed Ayumi without any fuss:

"Help me make Maya happy."

While Ayumi's hand was still at the ready, the vengeful intent went out of her expression. "... That's uncharacteristically straightforward of you."

"I'm giving honesty a whirl," Masumi drawled, releasing Ayumi's wrist. "Please, sit down and chat with me a bit more." Seeing that she was hesitant to obey, he added, "We both know that you can't walk away when Maya's involved, so show my neck some mercy and..." He patted the seat next to him.

Ayumi gave him a scathing glare, but confirmed the truth of his statement by plopping back down onto the loveseat.

"In what capacity do you require my services?" she asked, her voice gin dry.

"Nothing too taxing. I just want you to throw her a party."

"... I'm sorry, what?"

"Maya hasn't exactly been showered with good will lately. The theatre community is still shutting her out, your eccentric teacher has her on parole and her already malnourished ego has become little but skin and bones. She needs a boost of confidence, and having her idol throw her a surprise party would definitely cheer her up, don't you think?"

Ayumi absolutely did not blush. "I'm not her idol."

Masumi (the bastard, Ayumi pettily added as a suffix) rolled his eyes. "And fanatics are only mild tempered enthusiasts. Now, as much as I would usually love to discuss your just slightly obsessive bond with Maya, I would rather you answer my request. I'm on a schedule; I can't sit and small talk all night."

"... As much as it pains me to do you any favours you clearly don't deserve, I'm willing to put my distaste aside for Maya's sake. You're right: she needs to be recognised for what she has accomplished. No matter what she did, she's still a great actress, and that's all that should matter."

Ayumi'd expected Masumi to make a smart remark, and didn't know whether to be pleasantly surprised or not when he smiled instead.

She decided not to be as he said, in an insidious tone:

"Is that all she is to you? A fellow actress?"

"No; I also happen to think of her as a human being. You should try it sometime."

Ayumi marvelled at the fact that Masumi actually let out a genuine laugh at her insult.

"It's interesting," he said. "I spoke to Maya today, and the moment you came up, you could see her straighten right up."

"We mean a lot to each other," was Ayumi's short reply.

"That, I can believe. But to what extent?"

"I know you're trying to hint at something insulting, but I can't be bothered to think too deeply about what it might be."

"It's not insulting so much as it's thought provoking. I can understand where your obsession with Maya comes from, as you're incredibly competitive. Your protectiveness of her can be explained by how highly you value fair play. But let me ask you: have you ever felt as strongly about anyone as you feel about Maya?"

"I... I don't feel any obligation to share that information with you."

"That's a 'no', then. I find it hard to believe that you've never encountered a rival before, one who might even be a bigger threat than Maya, yet you've only given her special attention. There must be some other quality, besides her talent, that factors into your attachment to her. Maybe her kindness, enthusiasm, innocence, or the fact that despite everything that's happened, she seems genuinely, ardently happy about just being alive?"

The truthful answer would've been, "All of those, plus the fact that she's not one of the pretentious sycophants that make up half of my contact list." But she'd come up with a new thumb rule: "Never give Masumi what he seems to want", so she said:

"I thought you didn't have time to discuss my 'obsessive bond' with Maya."

"As it turns out, I still have some time to kill. Of course, you needn't indulge my curiosity; you can just leave me to make my own conclusions."

Ayumi was about to beg Masumi to either speak clearly or bugger off, when she realized what he was trying to get at. Once again, she did not blush, but she had to concede that her eyes widened at the implication.

"As your opinion doesn't mean a thing to me," she said frostily, "you're welcome to come to whatever base conclusion your substandard cognitive faculties can muster."

Usually, people flinched back when she spoke to them like that, and either slunk away sheepishly or hurried to get back in her good graces. Masumi, however, actually threw his head back and chortled.

"Oh," he sighed, "young love is so uplifting to behold. But," he spoke, swinging himself up to his feet, ignoring the way Ayumi started at his insinuation, "it turns out I was right the first time around: I don't have time to waste discussing you and Maya's soul connection. Just give me a call when you've decided when to hold the party, and maybe, I'll swing by with a gift for shorty."

"Exactly what is wrong with you?" Ayumi questioned, the look on her face very similar to the one Maya usually got when she was fed up with Masumi's weirdness. "You force me into a conversation about god knows what, you make completely absurd allegations, and then you just leave? Were you dropped as a child? Because that's the only thing that would excuse your extremely poor behaviour."

"No, I wasn't dropped," Masumi quipped. "I was just a very special boy, who grew to become a very special man. And really, Ayumi, it's in very poor taste to link behavioural deficiencies to physical handicaps. Were you raised in a barn? Because that's the only thing that would excuse your tactlessness."

Knowing that he'd pushed just a little too hard with that last remark, Masumi ducked into the crowd before Ayumi had time to react to it. While he couldn't see her expression, he could imagine the snarl twisting her pretty lips, her big eyes narrowed in fury. It gave him a twisted sense of accomplishment to turn someone so immaculately gorgeous and composed into anything but. It was the same satisfaction one felt when smashing an expensive wine bottle into a recycling bin, he supposed.

But once the victory high wore off, he came to a disturbing realization: while it'd been in jest, he'd more or less told Ayumi that she was in love with Maya, and that the feeling was mutual. A normal, heteronormative man wouldn't have cared, but on account of his unorthodox childhood and preoccupied adolescence, Masumi had developed a strange view on romance and sexuality in general. He thought of gender as nothing but a biological practicality, and didn't see why it should have any other meaning. After all, sexual attraction and emotional connection had proven not to be limited to an opposite set of genders.

Because of this simultaneously innocent and informed perspective, he suddenly felt that rather than teasing a girl over something silly, he'd given a rival a strong push in the right direction.

He thought about people purely as personalities, and when he compared his to Ayumi's, he couldn't help but to feel substantially inferior. He was a capitalist nearing middle age who liked to torture the people he loved; she was a beautiful, young, fierce woman, who shared Maya's ambition, respected her feelings and would walk through fire for her.

If Maya was forced to choose between them, it would probably have taken her all of two seconds to decide on going with the well-adjusted actress, if only because she wasn't a complete bastard like the alternative.

Oh, he thought, grimacing at his inability to think first and tease later. This might be a problem.