Back in May this year I impulsively signed up to write fanfiction for the Yamane Ayano Careers Fest being held over on the Yamane Ayano Livejournal Community. Turns out the prompt for a Viewfinder/Bachelor TV show crossover story was too great a temptation to resist ;) I didn’t manage to finish the whole story in time for the fest, but I do plan to finish it, one chapter at a time. The first two chapters are finished and the third is undergoing editing, so expect the rest of the story to appear first on this blog, with crossposting to Archive of Our Own ^___^
Law & Hors d’Oeuvres
Fandom: Viewfinder (Finder no Hyouteki/Finder series) by Yamane Ayano
Warnings: crack. so much crack.
N.B. Please see the Chapter Index for additional information about this story, including disclaimers, cover art, and the original prompt.
Summary: Corporate lawyer Asami Ryuichi is the latest “star” of reality TV show, Japan’s No.1 Handsome Confirmed Bachelor. Flight attendant Takaba Akihito is tricked into signing on as one of the twenty-five contestants. But can he survive five gruelling weeks of competitive dating in order to win Asami’s heart?
No matter what anyone said, Takaba Akihito was not just a pretty face in a tight-fitting flight attendant’s uniform. He was smart (and okay, yes, moderately attractive — but so was everyone whose dress code required a personal arsenal of grooming products and enough hairspray to immobilise drunken first class passengers).
Anyway, the point was: Takaba was not an idiot. And that meant he was perfectly aware that when he signed up for five weeks as a contestant on a reality television show, the most “reality” he’d be experiencing was sleeping and infrequent toilet breaks. Assuming he was allowed those without a camera following him into the bathroom.
But still, it was worth it. Every second. Even when the first second involved being unceremoniously shoved into the back of a limo that drove, it turned out, for only about 50 metres before stopping behind all the other limos waiting to enter the TV show’s compound.
“Remember,” growled Mitarai, one of the producers, worrying his lip ring and shoving the microphone down Takaba’s jeans waistband. “As soon as we get close, let out your best squeal. I don’t care if your first look at him leaves you feeling as excited as a dead fish, we still need sound bytes, and we need them hysterical.”
Takaba glanced at the woman sharing the limo with him as she murmured her assent, keeping his gaze fixed resolutely above her neckline. It didn’t matter that her little black dress outlined every curve of her body, or that said curves didn’t do anything for him— if she or any of the cameras caught him staring, he knew they’d somehow edit the footage to make him look like a pervert. Never mind that he was only 23 and still prime chikan-bait, thank you very much.
As if she somehow guessed the trajectory of his thoughts, the woman quirked her lips at him. Takaba looked down at his lap, jolted slightly as the limo began moving again.
“Here we go,” Mitarai muttered, craning his neck to look out the tinted windows as they turned smoothly into a well-lit driveway. “Get ready to shriek your excitement in three, two…”
“I can’t see anything,” said Takaba, as they drove past a blinding floodlight.
The woman erupted into a girlish kyaaa at the same time the limo pulled to a stop. There was a beat of silence, then Mitarai kicked him in the shin.
“Come on,” the producer growled, “don’t make me do an impression of you.”
“But I can’t see him,” Takaba protested, his last few words cut off when Mitarai suddenly let out a disturbing groan. Takaba lurched backwards.
“Oh my god, I can’t believe it,” Mitarai gushed in a strange, high voice, leaning forward until his mouth was in the vicinity of Takaba’s ass — or rather, his microphone. “So handsome! I can’t wait, oh my god, I must be dreaming! Okay,” he concluded abruptly in his normal voice, turning to crack open the door beside him and nodding at the woman. “You first, Shibata-san.”
Takaba waited until she’d slipped out of the limo in a swish of fabric before rounding on Mitarai. “I do not sound like that!”
“Who cares,” the producer drawled, carefully closing the door again. “This is all taped. Between here and your mama’s television screen, we can do anything. So a word to the wise, Takaba-kun,” and he tugged at his goatee for emphasis, “if you’re not willing to play along, go crawl back to whichever park bench you came from.”
The wait in the limo felt interminable. Takaba tried to distract himself by leaning far enough back in his seat that he couldn’t smell Mitarai’s fruity cologne anymore, but that just left him with a face full of cigarette smoke instead. (It had taken him a while to figure out there was another contestant in the limo with them, though only their foot — encased in a silk slipper of all things — was clearly visible behind the heavy cloud of smoke. It was tapping against the floor impatiently).
Soon enough, Takaba found himself flashing forward to the moment when he’d step out of the limo and Captain Yama would catch sight of him, eyes widening first in surprise, perhaps a slow smile of pleasure and recognition stretching across his face. His hands would reach out, those strong arms opening in welcome, shoulders pitching forward in joy, desire —
“Hurry up, Takaba,” Mitarai growled, shoving him out through the limo door. Takaba stumbled out, yanking up his jeans when they slipped down to catch on his hipbones.
When he managed to walk forward in an approximately straight line, Takaba finally caught his first glimpse of the bachelor. He was a tall man, dressed sharply in a three-piece suit, looking casual as he awaited Takaba’s approach beside the house’s glazed double doors. But it wasn’t Captain Yama.
Takaba only just managed to keep from stopping dead in his tracks, and he was sure the cameras were picking up every second of the confusion and shock playing across his face. How? He’d been so sure, he would never have signed up for this farce of a TV show if he hadn’t been completely certain—
It was only years of practice at maintaining his composure under pressure that kept him walking, forcing his expression into brittle neutrality until he’d reached the waiting stranger. The waiting stranger who was smirking at him, he saw now, with eyes so molten Takaba felt a shiver of apprehension even as he blurted, “Who are you?”
The man lifted an eyebrow. “Who were you expecting?”
For all that it was cool and deep, Takaba felt that voice like a punch to the heart. “Not you,” he muttered.
If the man was surprised that one of his supposed romantic pursuers was displeased to see him, he did a good job of hiding it. Actually, he looked downright entertained. Takaba clenched his teeth, but before he got a chance to turn that smug nose into a satisfying mess of bloodied cartilage, someone hissed “Hug him!” from behind the bank of cameras and equipment. Ugh.
“Well?” said the man, regarding Takaba from his unfairly elevated height. Shoe inserts. Takaba would bet his favourite pair of jeans on it.
He should leave. Right now, he could turn right around and march away without a backward glance, and probably refrain from kicking over any lighting equipment too. He should do it, get out of here before he got pulled into this too deeply.
The man swooped. Grabbing Takaba by the forearms, hauling him against his chest, which was hard underneath the sheath of expensive fabric. Takaba struggled until he felt a puff of breath against his cheek, freezing in anticipation of a phrase or two of whispered mockery that the cameras wouldn’t pick up. Instead something wet slithered into his ear.
Nobody came to rescue him, and Takaba tried to wrench himself free. But the man’s grip was like iron, holding him immobile. Oh, that was it. Takaba was officially, one hundred percent done with this crap. He was leaving immediately. Right now, he was going. So sayounara, mata never!
(Just as soon as the man stopped tonguing his ear).
This is the story of how Takaba Akihito, underpaid but reasonably happy flight attendant, found himself on the doorstep of a house getting his ear tongue-fucked by a well-dressed stranger.
In a convoluted kind of way, it all started three years ago, when some bright spark of a TV executive had decided that what Japan desperately needed was another reality dating show. And thus, Japan’s No.1 Handsome Confirmed Bachelor was born. Half-competition, half-soap opera, and with a liberal sprinkling of extreme dating locations aimed at stimulating domestic tourism, it was an instant social phenomenon that had since spawned a merchandise range and a themed café in Akihabara.
Then, not long after the second season wrapped, the media reported that a man was suing the show’s production company after he’d been rejected as a contestant because, well, he was a man. And so was the bachelor. And what kind of red-blooded Japanese bachelor would choose a guy over a house full of cute, well-endowed girls with a propensity for maid cosplay?
The court case never amounted to anything, and media interest in the plaintiff’s suit fizzled out long before he lost. But whether it was because the channel execs had finally consulted their consciences, or because they were desperate to attract the female 18-34 demographic, the third season of Confirmed Bachelor would have a twist.
It was still, at its heart, a harem show. But this time it was an equal opportunity harem, with the 26 contestants split evenly between men and women. And, supposedly, this season’s highly desirable bachelor was equally receptive to the attentions of both genders. Sure, if he wound up picking one of the guys to be his One True Love, they couldn’t get married — but this was television. And with television, staged homosexual weddings at Meiji Shrine were not out of the question.
Anyway, it was during the contestant recruitment process for this year’s Confirmed Bachelor that Takaba had several very good reasons to believe that the object of his longtime crush had signed on to be this year’s bachelor. Captain Yama was a career pilot for Headline Airlines, a grizzled-but-handsome chain smoker with shoulders that Takaba had not infrequently imagined clutching onto during a tryst in an aeroplane toilet cubicle.
But now, having stepped out of that limo and seen the new bachelor for himself, Takaba’s every dream of forcing Yama-sama to see him as something more than a nobody subordinate had been dashed. The Captain wasn’t on the show, and that left Takaba wedged into the far end of a couch in the Confirmed Bachelor compound, surrounded by 25 other contestants making stilted small talk.
A dark-haired, sober-faced man in a suit was sitting beside him, staring contemplatively into the middle distance. On the sofa’s other end was a blond foreigner, who despite the ever-present cameras was regaling the room at length about the onsen he’d just opened in Hakone, and how he was only on the show to promote it on national TV.
Takaba wanted to leave. Or at least find another room that wasn’t filled with well-dressed, well-spoken and terrifyingly good looking people. But when he’d tried to wander away the last time, a producer had appeared out of nowhere to corral him back into the meeting room. Takaba could only console himself with the thought that there was a good chance he’d be rejected during the first Tulip Ceremony later that night, and then he could go home with his sanity, if not his pride, left intact.
(He refused to believe the amber-eyed bastard of a bachelor’s prolonged, non-consensual ear fucking had meant anything).
And speak of the devil. The room’s chatter abruptly died away as the bachelor appeared in the doorway, preceded into the room by another man who paused long enough for the cameras to scramble forward and film their overdramatic entrance. The newcomer was bearded and wearing a truly ghastly purple leatherette suit, black hair slicked forward into a slimy fringe. Strangely enough, it was the thatch of chest hair spearing out from the gap in his crimson shirt that jogged Takaba’s memory: this was the host from the show’s previous two seasons, Sakazaki. He looked both shorter and smarmier in the flesh.
When the director called action, Sakazaki lifted his flute of champagne and tapped it with a spoon, calling for quiet. The last of the talking contestants fell silent, and the room was filled by a strange charge that had Takaba sinking back into the couch as deeply as the cushions allowed him.
“Welcome to Season Three of Japan’s No.1 Handsome Confirmed Bachelor,” drawled Sakazaki. “I’m your host for tonight’s proceedings, Sakazaki Masaki, and I’ll be here to guide you through the next five weeks as we find out which one of you has the qualities to meet our bachelor’s exacting standards. But first, the introduction you’re all so eager for — who is this year’s confirmed bachelor?”
Unwillingly, Takaba let his eyes drift to the dark-haired bastard from outside, who was now standing beside Sakazaki with every appearance of amused serenity. If only Takaba hadn’t finished his drink, and was standing within striking distance…
“If he looks familiar to you,” Sakazaki continued, some of the enthusiasm leeching from his voice, “that’s because he makes frequent television appearances on this channel and others as a legal expert, in addition to his work on high profile cases. He is Asami Ryūichi-san, a corporate lawyer for Scion & Partners, the firm he founded himself at the tender age of 28.”
Now that his face wasn’t being assaulted in front of the cameras and he could take a good look, Takaba supposed this Asami man did look kind of familiar. He must have to every other contestant too, because he couldn’t find a shred of surprise or doubt on any of the others’ faces. Yes, there was delight and infatuation (the women), frightening concentration (a serious man with glasses standing by the fireplace) and the glazed eyes of outright worship (too many to count, though that look on the face of the huge guy with the bleached hair was a surprise) — but no one seemed at all curious about the bachelor’s identity. Had they all received some tip-off Takaba hadn’t been privy to, somehow?
“Good evening,” Asami said coolly to the room, and Takaba was sure he wasn’t imagining the collective shiver his voice produced within the contestants. “I look forward to meeting you all and getting to know you…personally.”
Takaba rolled his eyes at the ceiling. When he dropped his gaze again he saw that Asami was looking right at him.
The formal on-camera introductions were followed by an “impromptu” nabe party in the compound’s dining room, which contained three long tables of provisions and cooking pots over candles, and more alcohol than Takaba had seen since his nights as an abandoned warehouse-squatting delinquent. Apparently the producers were very keen for people to make tipsy and/or drunken fools of themselves for the cameras, which were still circling the room like plastic vultures.
At the head of every table was a chair reserved for Asami himself, and for the next hour the man switched seats to be schmoozed by whoever had elbowed and harassed their way into the spots closest to him. Takaba spent his time with his head down and his chopsticks always rooting around in his bowl or stuck in his mouth, trying to ignore the scary foreigner with the shaven head. Ever since they’d sat down, he’d been staring at Takaba with undisguised suspicion.
“My uncle, Yuri,” the blond onsen owner explained, after introducing himself as Mikhail, a former swimwear model and entrepreneur from Russia. “I’m really here for him, you know,” he went on, indicating Yuri. “I got tired of him assaulting our male customers. So I thought, hey, bring him to this place, full of good-looking boys clearly gagging for a fuck, why else come here, right? This way no more unhealthy suppressed desire, no more lawsuits for the onsen.”
And now Yuri’s hollow grey eyes and their unerring fixation made Takaba want to throw up. He hunched over his bowl, hoping the cameras had somehow miraculously missed that exchange.
“That is ridiculous,” called a crisp, accented voice a couple seats away. Takaba dared to glance up — a woman? No, a man with long dark hair like a fall of ribbons over one shoulder, features as refined as a knife. He was dressed in Chinese scholar’s robes, patterned subtly with bamboo and flowers. Silk, like the stranger’s slippers in the limo. Was it the same person?
“What’s that, Fei Long?” grinned Mikhail, leaning back in his chair and letting his t-shirt ride up, exposing his waxed and muscled midriff.
“Your plan,” replied the man, Fei Long, with icy enunciation. “It is ridiculous. If you are here to play games and not take this competition seriously, then you should leave immediately. Don’t make us suffer your presence unnecessarily.”
Mikhail laughed. “You say that like you forget this is just a trashy television show. We all have our own reasons for being here, and I’ll bet you most of them aren’t because we want that terrifying lawyer’s attention. Me, for example? Aside from Yuri, I want to promote my business, and maybe make a few deals of my own.” Mikhail lowered his gaze, and Takaba was startled by how blonde his eyelashes were, briefly shrouding the azure of his eyes. “A partnership between my onsen and the famous White Serpent Salon’s luxurious bath range could be profitable for both of us.”
Fei Long snorted derisively, and rose from his seat. “You’ll excuse me.” And having smoothed down the front of his robe, he left their table to approach Asami on the other side of the room. Takaba watched as one of the cameramen scrambled to capture the moment he rested one fine-fingered hand on Asami’s shoulder, bending to whisper in his ear.
A long sigh brought Takaba’s attention back to Mikhail, whose mouth was curved into a bitter smile. “Oh well, he never gives me the time of day anyway, usually.” His eyes narrowed as he tracked Fei Long and Asami, who were crossing the room to slip outside onto the patio, trailed by one intrepid camerawoman.
“You never stood a chance, approaching him like that,” said the man sitting beside Takaba, who’d introduced himself before simply as Yoh, a security guard for ALSOK.
Mikhail shot him a dark look. “I appreciate the advice,” he said sarcastically.
Eventually the party wound down; or, rather, the producers decided they had wrung as much petty interaction as they required. Sakazaki reappeared, having stripped off his jacket at some point and unhooked a few more buttons on his shirt, revealing large pectorals and yet more chest hair.
As soon as Asami and Fei Long returned from outside — the former looking as composed as ever and the latter apparently suppressing a tantrum — the group moved through the compound and into the back garden. A large pond filled with koi and renewed by a miniature waterfall was set against the property’s high stone walls. There was also a large paved area, empty until Takaba and the others were manhandled into three rows facing the back of the building and most of the cameras.
Asami stood facing them, his gaze wandering over the contestants’ faces while Sakazaki and the crew finished setting up for the Tulip Ceremony. Takaba was in the middle row with the other men of average height, most of the women in front and the tallest of both genders standing sentry at the back. Takaba prayed that it was just the night breeze and not actually Mikhail’s depraved uncle Yuri breathing down his neck.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Sakazaki as soon as the cameras began recording, pushing his glasses up his nose dramatically. “Welcome to this, the first Tulip Ceremony of Japan’s No.1 Handsome Confirmed Bachelor, Season 3. Now that you’ve all had a chance to meet Asami-san in person and share conversation over a delicious dinner, kindly provided by our friends at Noguchi Nabemono, it’s time to see who will remain to participate in Week 1’s Love Challenge, and,” pausing with apparent relish, “who will be going home in disgrace.
“Asami-san has already considered the merits of each of you, and if you receive a tulip from him tonight, you may treat it as a token of his anticipation to learn all there is about you. But there are only twenty tulips here,” gesturing to the vase of pink flowers resting on a plaster column by Asami’s elbow, “which means that six of you will not survive this competition before the night is over.”
Takaba swallowed, feeling the tension in the bodies around him. He was struggling to tamp down his own nervousness, annoyed with himself. There was nothing for him here now that he knew Captain Yama was not the bachelor, and he wanted to go home, so why should he care about tonight’s outcome? If for some perverted reason Asami wound up giving him a tulip, then he’d just — he’d just smash it in the lawyer’s smug face and walk right out of the compound, no regrets. Nothing in the contract he’d signed had said anything about not using the props as weapons.
“Let us begin,” declared Sakazaki.
Asami, spare grace in every motion, turned to pluck the first tulip from the vase. Takaba wasn’t sure when the man had had time to do this “deliberation” over who he wanted to stay on the show — maybe they’d be filming that later.
A long silence dragged out as Asami stared at them all steadily, waiting until the director finally signalled for him to speak.
“Shibata Etsuko,” he said, and Takaba watched at the woman he’d shared a limo with stepped forward, heels clacking over the pavement to reach Asami. The man had used her given name, Takaba noticed, and certainly nothing in the way she accepted her tulip signalled shyness. Did they already know each other?
The process repeated: a long silence as Asami selected the next tulip and turned back to the assembly.
“Kuroda-san,” he called next, and a bespectacled man from the back row, overdressed in a suit and trench coat, stepped forward eagerly.
“Kuroda-san, will you accept this tulip?” Asami intoned gravely, the corner of his eye twitching as the other man instantly blurted, “Of course, Ryūichi.”
Tulip clutched firmly in one hand, Kuroda stepped to the side where Etsuko was already waiting, the two of them safe from elimination.
And so it went. Takaba tuned out after the third flower was bestowed, only paying attention when Mikhail, then Yuri, were called and received tulips, swaggering over to Asami like it was their god-given right to be selected. Yoh, the serious-faced security guard was next, then a slip of blonde starlet wearing an animal print cardigan. Gradually, the contestants thinned out around him, but Takaba stared straight ahead, making sure to keep his expression as uninterested in the proceedings as possible. (Though he couldn’t quite keep from widening his eyes as Asami called out “Kazumi-san”, and the mountainous blond contestant lumbered forward and bowed his head, all but reeking of humble gratitude).
With about half of the contestants already in possession of tulips, Takaba felt his spirits rising. At this rate he’d be in the bottom six, and could leave before he missed the last train home.
Asami paused overly long before calling out the next name, idly fingering the stem of the tulip as if re-considering his decision. “Fei Long,” he finally said, and with a flap of silk Fei Long left the back row and strode stiffly to Asami, snatching the tulip from his hand before Asami could ask the ritual question.
Still smirking to himself, Asami turned his attention back to the vase as Fei Long made his way to the other safe contestants. But rather than pluck out a single flower, Asami brought both hands to bear — lifting the remaining tulips, all 13 of them, out of the vase in a loose bouquet.
Sakazaki made a strangled noise and the director called cut, stepping forward and demanding to know what Asami was doing. But the lawyer barely spared him a cool glance, turning back to the remaining contestants and saying with deceptive mildness, “I thought I had ‘discretion’ to give out my tulips?”
After a moment of collective sputtering, it was agreed that Asami did indeed have that power. Sakazaki muttered something dark-sounding into his wrist, and not far from Takaba, he heard Mitarai squawk indignantly, “he’s supposed to consult us first before going off-script!”
But only a few minutes later and the cameras were rolling again, all trained on Asami as he stood alone, somehow looking both stoic and full of gravitas — instead of ridiculous like he should have, damn him.
Someone nudged his back, and Takaba glanced behind him, wondering who was trying to get his attention. He met the gaze of a young woman, eyes wide and full of something — fear? Urgency?
Oh. Oh shit. Takaba swung around, jarring his shoulder against the contestant beside him. But he didn’t pause to apologise, not when he’d only just realised exactly who had been calling his name, repeatedly. When he dared lock eyes with Asami, everything around him fell away. All that was left was that tall figure in a well-cut suit, waiting for him with a bunch of dripping stamens held out like an offering.
Though if Takaba was telling the truth, as he stumbled forward on suddenly shaky legs, it was him who felt like the ritual sacrifice — pulled towards the altar of Asami.
Even if he’d been asked, Takaba couldn’t have said what he’d told the camera during his compulsory post-Tulip Ceremony interview. He vaguely remembered muttering things about how surprised he’d been — which was true enough — but he suspected he’d been too overwhelmed by the whole night to be anything close to coherent. No matter how they edited the footage later, he’d probably come off as ditzy and airheaded as most people assumed he was because of his job.
When they finally let him go and he found the bedroom assigned to him on the compound’s second floor, he saw his luggage waiting for him at the foot of a single, Western-style bed. He also saw that he wasn’t alone — Fei Long was standing over the room’s other bed, his pink tulip gripped in one of the hands perched primly on his hips. He was speaking in a foreign language — Chinese? — to a young man, who was leaning back on the mattress and pouting pretty impressively.
As soon as Takaba shuffled into the room Fei Long shot him a suspicious glance, which turned into an all out glare when he caught sight of the bouquet of tulips. (Takaba had yet to see a trash can anywhere in the compound, and Mitarai had just laughed at him when he’d tried to give them back to the crew).
With a final angry-sounding stream of gibberish, Fei Long turned on his heel and swept out of the room in a cloud of fresh cigarette smoke. Feeling slightly dazed, Takaba turned back to the boy — who, no longer blocked from sight, seemed even younger than Takaba had first thought. The show’s minimum age requirement was twenty, but this kid only looked around seventeen. Or three, given how he seemed to be on the verge of a hissy fit.
“Er,” Takaba began, creeping further into the room to dump the flowers on his bed. The duvet could absorb the excess water. “Hi. I’m Takaba Akihito.”
“I know,” huffed the boy in accented Japanese, dropping back onto the mattress and glowering at the ceiling. Takaba waited about thirty seconds for a reciprocal introduction that never came, then decided to check out the en suite bathroom. It was small, but there was a bath at least. Maybe he could soak the humiliation of the day’s events out of his brain by sticking his head under the tap.
An hour later, finally crawling into bed and clicking off the bedside lamp, he noticed that the foreign kid was still sprawled on top of his duvet, silent.
“What’s your name?” Takaba asked, whispering in case the boy had actually dozed off.
“Pleased to meet you, Tao,” Takaba murmured reflexively. “Uh, aren’t you going to turn your light off?”
“No,” Tao declared, suddenly sounding more indignant than sulky. “I’m going to use all their electricity and eat all their food. That’ll punish them for choosing such a homo.”
Takaba winced. “What do you mean?”
“That man,” Tao hissed, rolling onto his stomach and peering at Takaba through to gloom. “He’s a homo. He sent all of the women away tonight. It’s his fault that Fei-sama is here, so I’m going to make him suffer!”
Takaba opened his mouth to argue that Asami had in fact kept at least two or three of the female contestants around, and besides, there was nothing wrong with being gay, thank you very much. But before he could choose his words, Tao crawled up his bed and burrowed under the covers, looking rather like a caterpillar in a woollen cocoon.
“Don’t talk to me,” came the muffled demand.
Takaba rolled over himself and tried to comply with the prickly little brat’s wishes, but some habits were hard to break.
“Oyasumi,” he whispered into the dark.
The next day the show chartered three mini-buses to take the contestants and crew to the location of the first week’s Love Challenge. As they merged onto a highway and left Tokyo’s well-developed streets behind, Takaba grew suspicious. The producers had told them all to dress for exercise, and as the view outside the window grew progressively more agrarian, Takaba began to worry about what he’d be expected to do. Some kind of rice planting contest? Horse riding? Or, god forbid, would they have to race back to the city on foot?
Eventually the buses pulled up into a large parking lot filled with cars and much larger tourist buses, most of the area ringed by forested hills. The faint beep of the neighbouring train station’s ticket barriers filled the air as Takaba and the others piled outside, looking around. Some of the tourists waiting in line for the public toilets took our their phones and started snapping pictures of them.
“Mount Takao,” breathed one of the remaining girls, Momohara Ai, looking up at the sloping mountainside in apparent delight. Takaba couldn’t help but notice the way she also subtly angled her body for the benefit of their audience’s camera phones. Though it made sense: she was a model and spokesperson for a cosmetics company Takaba couldn’t remember the name of, and he had to wonder if her current outfit (see-through top, spaghetti string camisole and bike shorts that exposed everything but her underwear) had been picked by her agency, or if this was just the standard exercise uniform of idols.
“All right, move it along,” barked Mitarai, poking and jabbing them in the back until they started walking the sloping “trail”, which was properly paved and demarcated by a line of well-tended trees, their leaves rusted by the onset of autumn. Takaba suddenly saw a lot of hiking in his immediate future.
“I’ve heard that you can see real tengu in the forest here sometimes,” Momohara whispered to Takaba, apparently undaunted by their producer’s increasingly laboured breathing. “Do you think it’s true?”
“Only children would believe something like that,” said a new voice, and Takaba frowned as a lithe man, dressed in expensive and form-fitting sportswear, overtook them.
“Shuu-san!” Momohara greeted him. “Don’t walk so fast!”
The man obligingly slowed, his smile a little condescending to Takaba’s eye. “Ai-chan, you’ll have no hope of winning the Challenge today if you treat this like a stroll.”
“We don’t know what the Challenge is yet,” Takaba pointed out. The man ignored him, and with a toss of his honey-blond hair he surged up the hill to a small plateau where Sakazaki and the crew were setting up to film.
“Shuu-san is always so mean to me,” Momohara sighed, slipping her hand into the crook of Takaba’s arm. “Just because DrakeEnema is so popular now, and my last single didn’t sell very well.”
“Drake what?” Takaba couldn’t keep from asking. Though with hair and an attitude like that, it made sense that the man was in the entertainment industry as well.
“Oh, you don’t know them? Sudou Shuu is DE’s lead singer. Their new song Mayu Doko?!? is always on TV lately,” she concluded glumly.
Takaba supposed it was possible he’d seen this Sudou on one of those music billboards that were always driving around Shibuya, but with the amount of time he spent in the air and overseas for work, it was hard to keep up with all the new bands. Especially when they seemed to have all been cloned from the same blond alien.
“Enough…chit-chat,” Mitarai groaned, doubling over and sucking in deep lungfuls of air as soon as they crested the hill. Takaba and the others milled around while the crew finished setting up, many eyeing the cable cars gently scaling the side of Mt Takao with longing. Asami himself had yet to appear, Takaba realised, and he hadn’t joined them for breakfast in the compound either. Not that Takaba was sad about that, oh no — if anything, it was a reprieve. He honestly wasn’t sure how he was going to face the bastard after last night’s stunt with the tulips.
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen,” began Sakazaki as soon as the cameras were rolling, “to this season’s first Love Challenge. We’re here today at famous Takao-san, ready to pit you against each other like starving pit bulls over a scrap of chicken. Now, I’m sure you already know the rules of the competition, but let me repeat them for the sake of our new viewers and the less cognitively blessed among you.”
Takaba glanced around at his fellow contestants, but all of them looked too focused to be bothered reacting to their host’s monologue.
“As you might have guessed, today’s goal is to climb Mount Takao as quickly as possible, with the first to reach the summit today’s Love Challenge winner. Why are we making you demonstrate your level of fitness or probable lack thereof on national television? Well, let us not forget that this is a love challenge. And what better way to show your future spouse, Asami Ryūichi-san, how much you care than by keeping that body of yours fit and trim for him?” Sakazaki paused, distaste twisting his face before he spat out the last line of his script, “With a man like him, you’re going to need stamina.”
A few of the other contestants tittered at this, while Takaba just focused on not looking as bewildered by the proceedings as he felt. Why did they need so much pomp for what was basically a race up a small mountain crawling with tourists and day-trippers?
“But that’s not the end,” Sakazaki said, drama creeping into his voice. “The winner of today’s Love Challenge will receive a reward — and that reward is a group date with Asami-san. And who will be joining him on this date? It’s not the race’s runners up, necessarily. Instead, Asami-san himself will choose one person from among the remaining contestants, and the other choice will be left up to our viewers, your fans.”
When this announcement was met with nothing but a protracted, dubious silence, Sakazaki barrelled on with false cheer. “That’s right, a brief clip of each of you during today’s race will be uploaded to our Confirmed Bachelor website, and our viewers will vote on their favourite. The winner will be joining the contestant who placed first in today’s race, and Asami-san’s personal pick, in a group date tomorrow! And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what a valuable opportunity the group date will be to show our bachelor your best qualities as a future spouse.”
Glancing at their director, who was making an impatient gesture with his hand, Sakazaki turned back to their assembly and boomed, “Let the race begin!”