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?
Takaba quickly decided that — beautiful scenery and adorable old people with hiking poles aside — he hated Mount Takao.
Predictably, the most muscle-bound (and crazy-eyed) contestants in the competition had surged ahead as soon as Sakazaki had fired the starter’s pistol, with the man-mountain Suoh in the lead. He was closely followed by Fei Long, who despite having chosen yet another silk robe as his “exercise” gear, was astonishingly fleet of foot.
Yuri, Kuroda and the strait-laced guy Takaba always thought of as ‘Glasses’, also seemed to have formed a kind of aggressive pack mentality, jostling each other but remaining close together as they rapidly hiked up Takao’s gradually inclining slope.
The thing was, Takaba wasn’t trying very hard. In fact, he was doing pretty much everything in his power to climb as slowly as possible without looking like he was failing on purpose. When this morning he’d decided he couldn’t just quit the competition with no reasonable explanation (or at least one not involving Captain Yama), he’d realised doing poorly during the Love Challenges would be the fastest way to get eliminated from the show.
It wasn’t honourable, sure, but it was the quickest way to get back to his normal life, back to the job he loved and, most especially, the to Captain of his heart. Even if that meant watching Momohara Ai and another female contestant, the stunning actress Azumi Ryouko, overtake him up the mountainside. In high heels. God.
Two hours into the hike, sweat beginning to pool in his lower back and even the cameramen losing interest in his hiking party of one, Takaba stopped by a rock and sat down to catch his breath and stretch out his legs. He’d realised too late that walking more slowly would actually extend the amount of pain in his muscles.
When he heaved himself up to begin the next leg of the hike, something hard landed on his left shoulder blade and sent him sprawling off the path. Grabbing hold of a scraggly bush, he just managed to keep from tumbling right over the lip of the trail and down into the dense tangle of forest below.
“Argh.” He winced at the sting of his grazed shins as he inched backwards on all fours, away from the edge. “What-?”
“Oh dear,” drawled a familiar voice behind him.
Takaba twisted around, too shocked to even voice his surprise at seeing Sudou Shuu standing there, smiling down at him with hands resting casually in the pockets of his tight shorts. “I’m so sorry, Takaba-kun, my clumsy hand must have slipped. Here, let me help you up.”
Takaba thrashed out of his way when Sudou bent towards him, gaining his own feet quickly. “What the hell was that?” he shouted.
“What?” Sudou inquired serenely, looking around them to punctuate the fact that they were in a deserted part of the trail, not a camera or crewmember in sight. “You fell.”
“You pushed me, you, you lying jerk!”
Sudou’s face neatly re-arranged itself into an expression of chagrin. “Oh no, no no no. I came back to help you, struggling to keep up as you were. Unfortunately, you fell before I could help you.”
Takaba was struck mute by this overplucked arsehole’s sheer, semi-homicidal nerve. He could have all too easily not caught himself before tumbling right off the edge of the path, crashing through shrubs and branches who knew how far down —
“Anyway,” Sudou went on breezily. “We’d best get a move on, the others will have reached the summit by now, and the sunlight’s failing. Try to keep up, Takaba-kun.”
Takaba watched his retreating back for several long moments before he came back to himself, limping back onto the trail. “Call me ‘kun’ again,” he growled, “and you’ll be the one taking a fall.”
Everyone was indeed already at the summit by the time Takaba arrived, several minutes after Sudou — who had apparently seen no reason to stick around after trying to maim him.
Most of the other contestants were sitting or milling around impatiently for the day’s filming to conclude, drinking coffee and eating ice cream from the vending machines placed near the seating area (which had apparently been cleared of other hikers). It seemed Fei Long had been declared the winner of the race, just ahead of a now wrathful-looking Kuroda.
As soon as the director caught sight of Takaba’s grazed shins, he sent a swarm of cameramen over to film the first aid lady disinfect the cuts and wrap them in bandages, which was definitely overkill. Anyway, Takaba was definitely blaming the haze of exhaustion and embarrassment produced by all the unwonted attention on the fact that he failed to notice Asami’s presence until the lawyer touched his arm.
“You’re injured,” he said, ignoring Takaba’s start of surprise.
“How on earth did you figure that out,” Takaba muttered, refusing to meet the man’s eye. But apparently continuing to ask probing questions was an unbreakable habit with prosecutors.
“How did it happen?”
Takaba found himself glancing towards the group of other contestants unconsciously, but jerked his head away before his gaze could alight on Sudou. He refused to blame him, not when he had no evidence. With his luck he’d just come off as whiny and attention-seeking, and desperate besides. Anyway, he’d been independent from a younger age than most; he didn’t need anyone fighting his battles for him, least of all the “star” of this little production.
“I’m fine, thanks for your concern,” Takaba said blandly, moving out of the range of Asami’s ever-roving hands as soon as the first aid lady was done with him.
Mitarai finally corralled them all into a group to listen to Sakazaki announce the race’s winner.
“But just because you failed miserably at this test of endurance doesn’t mean you’re out of luck,” he went on, smirking and flashing a hairy pectoral at the camera. “Tomorrow morning we’ll be announcing the winner of the “popular vote”, and Asami-san will join you over breakfast to console you — and, of course, to announce his own choice for the group date.”
This seemed to cheer the other sweaty and fatigued contestants somewhat, and Takaba followed them as a group towards the chair lifts to descend the mountain.
“It’s not like I tried that hard,” Mikhail was explaining loudly to Yoh, who was looking even more dour than usual. “I was taking it easy, actually, the better to enjoy Nihon’s unparalleled mountain scenery.”
Takaba climbed in the second to last cable car behind Shibata and a cameraman. And seriously, they thought they’d be able to film interaction between the contestants that didn’t consist of exhausted and pained grunting this late in the day?
And then Asami Ryuuichi himself climbed into the cable car beside Takaba, shutting its door with a ominously decisive click. Takaba froze, staring fixedly out the window even though the sun was setting directly into his eyes.
He absolutely did not jump when a warm hand insinuated itself onto his thigh. The camera swivelled immediately to capture it.
“Any reason why you intentionally lost the race today?” Asami asked in a deceptively quiet voice, right by his ear. Against his permission, every last hair on the back of Takaba’s neck stood to attention, and he felt his cheeks flush too. Damn it.
“I didn’t,” he denied, still squinting out the window. A quick glance at Shibata provided no help; the woman was smiling indulgently at him, instead of turning into a jealous rage monster like she was supposed to. Supposedly, everyone else on this stupid show would’ve gladly given their right eye to be fondled by Asami.
“Hmmm,” murmured the man. Then — oh god — he was leaning in again, closer, all but nuzzling Takaba’s neck as the grip on his thigh tightened and moved up —
“I want to swap seats,” Takaba declared.
Later that night Takaba was tucked up in bed with every muscle below his pelvis screaming bloody murder at him (yes, even that one, what with the apparently too-angry wank he’d had in the shower as soon as they’d arrived back at the compound).
Tao eventually wandered into their room, attention fixed on the late-model phone in his hand. And it was a testament to just how tired he was that it took Takaba several minutes to notice what was incongruous about the scene before him.
“How did you get a phone?” he croaked, watching as Tao flopped backwards on to his bed and dangled his bare feet over the edge.
“Brought it,” the boy replied, in tones that said he thought Takaba was a complete idiot.
“But we’re not allowed to bring internet-capable technology into the compound with us. We’re not supposed to be in contact with anyone outside while the show is being filmed.”
Tao was silent for so long that Takaba thought he was back to being cold-shouldered again. But eventually Tao shuffled up the bed on his rump, rucking up the duvet, and reached to turn his lamp off. “Next time don’t hand over your phone when they ask for it then,” he advised, bathed in the mocking illumination of his phone’s screen.
“Hate this show,” Takaba muttered into his pillow.
Mitarai came in to wake them the next morning, playing K-pop at full blast from the speakers of a portable radio over their beds until Takaba was obliged to get up and try to strangle him.
In the dining room, breakfast was again laid out on a long buffet table full of bamboo steamers of nikuman and rice, pots of miso and an assortment of toast and other western foods (Takaba made a beeline for the hash browns). Unlike yesterday, though, a large screen had been set up in front of the patio doors. As the rest of the contestants trailed in, Takaba noticed more than one wary eye cast in its direction.
And then Asami strolled in, followed by Sakazaki. Takaba definitely did not hide behind his glass of orange juice, which was why he — and every other interested gaze in the room — saw that, for once, the man was dressed casually. Of course, “casual” in the land of corporate law meant his polo shirt and slacks probably cost more than Crown Prince Naruhito’s ransom, but it did make Takaba wonder what event had been planned for Confirmed Bachelor’s first group date. Not that he’d be there to find out.
“I trust you’ve all rested well after yesterday’s little hike,” Sakazaki began when the cameras were rolling. This was answered with a hum of slightly mutinous agreement, and their host smirked at them. “Well, the excitement isn’t over. Or at least it isn’t for two of you in this room right now. As you know, last night your devoted fans watched clips of you all during your visit to Mount Takao, and voted for their favourite contestant. That winner of that vote will be joining Asami on his date with Liu-san today. Let’s see who it is, shall we?”
After a momentary pause, the big screen lit up and began playing a video montage of yesterday’s hike: Glasses marching up the slope with grim determination, Tao running in spurts then hunching over to catch his breath, Momohara dawdling to appreciate a Shinto shrine beside the trail…the only glimpse Takaba got of himself was as he finally gained the mountain’s summit, sweaty and bleeding.
The footage abruptly cut away to a new screen displaying a thumbnail of each contestant’s face that made Takaba feel like a playable character in an arcade game. “And now, the results of our viewers’ votes!” said Sakazaki in a pre-recorded voice over, and a miniature bar graph appeared beneath their faces. One of the bars jutted high above the others, beneath the face of…
“Sudou Shuu-san, congratulations!” said the voice-over, a second after Sudou had already risen from his chair, smiling with lowered eyelashes at Asami, who’d remained expressionless throughout the video. It was, Takaba noted sourly, impossible to tell if their beloved “bachelor” cared one whit about anything that happened during this damned farce.
“Not only are you the winner of the popular vote for this week’s Love Challenge, we also have an extra surprise in store for you. Are you ready to hear it?”
“I can’t wait,” Sudou said demurely, eyes still fixed on Asami.
“As of this season, we have a new rule — the winner of the popular vote for every Love Challenge is safe from elimination for that week!”
Some of the others were unable to contain a cry of dismay at this news, and Takaba couldn’t blame them — if someone was safe now, that meant one less tulip to be handed out at the Tulip Ceremony at the end of the week.
Still smiling beatifically, Sudou sank back into his chair and winked at one of the cameras. “Thank you all for your support at home, and especially to DrakeEnema’s loyal fans. I’m fighting for all of you!”
“Now there’s some faulty logic,” Kuroda muttered into his napkin.
Mikhail growled something in Russian at Yuri, though the dangerous vibe emanating from both of them was somewhat undercut by the fact that both men had apparently neglected to wear sunscreen yesterday — and were now the colour of well-cooked lobsters.
“But as you all know,” Sakazaki interrupted the table’s growing chatter, “we still have one more place to fill on the group date. Asami-san,” stepping aside and nodding politely, “if you would like to announce your selection.”
All heads swivelled in Asami’s direction, and it was almost a wonder the lawyer didn’t twitch at the mixture of silent entreaty and threats being levelled at him in the group’s collective gaze. But just before he spoke, Asami’s eyes flickered and a smirk lifted one corner of his mouth, and Takaba suddenly knew —
“Takaba Akihito, I choose you.”
Not telling them where they were going for the group date was probably supposed to make everything more mysterious. In reality, Takaba thought as he mashed his cheek against the bus window in the second hour of their trip, it made his low-level dread that much more intolerable.
When they finally arrived though, Takaba couldn’t help but contain a grin of happy surprise: nestled at the base of Mt Fuji was a very familiar-looking amusement park.
“Welcome to FujiQ Highland, Japan’s favourite destination for themed recreation,” Sakazaki enthused over the nearby rattle of a roller coaster zooming past, and the more distant screams of dismay as people were plunged from the peak of a red tower.
“What about DisneySea?” inquired Fei Long, fiddling with a strand of hair that had come loose from the plait looped at the back of his head. Like Asami, he had forgone more formal clothes for a long-sleeved shirt and loose pants — both silk, as far as Takaba could tell.
Sakazaki spared a moment to glare at him, before continuing his introduction. Eventually they were led to the admissions area, and each of them received a card that promised priority treatment for every ride.
“Grope at will!” was Sakazaki’s parting remark, before leaving them for a nearby ice cream stand shaded by beach umbrellas.
Sudou and Fei Long seemed to take this advice to heart. While the four of them were left to wander the park at will (though followed every step of the way by two cameramen), both of the other contestants seemed intent on monopolising every shred of their bachelor’s attention. Takaba happily left them to it. He loved roller coasters, the faster and more dangerous the better, and his unpredictable work hours meant he rarely had the time to indulge his adrenaline junkie side.
Asami, unfortunately, had other ideas. While Fei Long kept up a very one-sided conversation and kept pointing to things he seemed to think Asami might find interesting, Sudou indulged in a more physical seduction: bumping into Asami’s side, brief touches against his elbow, and when hand-holding didn’t work, he looped his arm through Asami’s determinedly limp one.
But every time Takaba tried to lose them by tearing off towards a new ride, Asami was fast on his heels, and before he knew it, all four of them would be packed in together and racing along a looping track upside down (Takaba was used to keeping silent on these things in deference to the park’s other patrons, but decided this time he didn’t care; he happily howled and screamed himself hoarse).
As the afternoon faded into dusk and all four of them had started to hold themselves stiffly after a full day of being jolted and upended in the air, Sakazaki came back to collect them and declaim inanities about dates and bonding. Takaba ignored him right until the end, when Sakazaki’s voice dropped into mock seriousness.
“But now, of course, comes the most difficult decision. Asami-san, have you decided which one of these lovely and eminently beddable young gentlemen you’d like to take to dinner tonight?”
What, Takaba’s brain shouted. He’d actually enjoyed himself so much today that he’d forgotten there was a “solo date” up for grabs at the end of it. Sudou immediately turned to Asami and touched his hand, all but reeking of hopeful expectation. Fei Long, more prideful by half, drew himself up and turned his sharply beautiful face to the side, as though to weather either outcome. Takaba just tried not to look as rattled in front of the cameras as he felt.
“It has indeed been a difficult decision,” Asami said, though his expression was as stoic as usual. “Although I rarely take time away from my work for leisure, I found today to be surprisingly enjoyable. And in light of that, I would like to reward the one man who I believe embraced this experience wholeheartedly.”
Takaba’s stomach dopped.
Clearly reading the dawning horror on his face, Asami smirked at him. “Takaba Akihito, would you like to join me for dinner?”
“No,” Takaba blurted, voice still shredded from shouting. “No way.”
“You’re much too humble,” Asami grinned like a shark, “denying my praise like this. You’re usually so quiet and shy, I was most pleased to see this other side of you.”
Takaba’s mouth dropped open to clarify to everyone assembled exactly what he’d been saying no to, but as if sensing the tenor of his thoughts, Sakazaki swept forward to intercede. “Congratulations, Takaba-kun! Asami-san clearly sees a lot of potential in you, to honour you with a dinner invitation after inviting you personally on this date — despite performing so shamefully during the hike.”
As Asami gripped his elbow and led him away, Takaba felt the fight leaving him. He was hungry, after all.
“People need to stop calling me kun,” he muttered, but mostly to distract himself from the feeling of twin, poisonous glares pinned to his back.
“I guess the view almost makes up for being trapped in another small space with you,” Takaba said, finding it easier to ignore a camera capturing their every exhalation when it was attached to the ceiling of a ferris wheel car. A selection of finger foods (and who seriously stacked a tower of chilli, cheese and shrimp on top of cucumber slices?) and a bottle of champagne had been laid out over the top of the seats opposite, leaving no choice but to share with Asami the bench opposite.
With the pervert being who he was, Takaba hadn’t had his left thigh to himself since they’d first clambered into the self-contained car.
It was all Asami’s fault they were up here, anyway, and if the other man wasn’t inclined to make conversation, Takaba wasn’t going to help him along. No matter that Mitarai was probably having heart palpitations down there, yelling at them to do something more than sit it uncompanionable silence.
Still, the view was beautiful. Fuji was more a volcano-shaped patch of darker darkness through the window than the icon he’d grown up seeing everywhere, but with the amusement park spread out below them like a carpet of blinking lights, Takaba was content to spend the next hour taking in the scenery as they very, very slowly rotated around the wheel.
But the almost calm feeling disappeared the moment Asami decided to up the ante and start nuzzling his neck. At first Takaba froze, and then he felt his skin prickling like it did when he stepped out into the cold without a jacket, and then he felt a very different sensation pooling below his navel, and that, that was just not on.
“Get off!” he growled, shoving at Asami’s chest, but the man was as stubborn and solid as a…as a something. A fat mule, maybe. How on earth had that bastard figured out his most sensitive erogenous zone and executed a tactical strike on it before they’d even cracked open the champagne?
Seeming to take Takaba’s sudden stillness as permission, Asami pressed closer until their foreheads slid together, and a warm (and damp, ugh) breath puffed into his ear.
“Seriously,” Takaba said in an undertone, gripping Asami’s wrists for emphasis, “back off. Or I’ll really put up a struggle for the camera, and everyone’ll see what a sexual harasser you really are.”
Another exhalation by his ear, this time amused. “Really, Takaba, I thought sulking in silence was your way of inviting me to start something a little more entertaining. You’re not a very fun date.”
Trust a lawyer to come up with such a screwed up justification for his lechery. “I’m hungry,” he said loudly, knowing their microphones would pick it up. “Let’s eat now, before the food goes bad.”
And, not trusting Asami to move of his own volition, Takaba shouldered him aside and leaned forward to snatch up one of the weird food towers. Beef and corn on a thick slice of raw carrot. Was giving them food poisoning part of the writers’ strategy for making entertaining television?
Takaba treated it as no small victory when Asami subsided to his quadrant of the capsule, pouring them both champagne and showing zero interest in the food.
“So,” Takaba said, his mouth still full of mushy carrot. He was rewarded for his disgusting efforts by a muscle near one of Asami’s eyes twitching. “I guess we’re supposed to get to know each other better by asking questions. But you’re a corporate lawyer, right? And I think I’d rather jump off the ferris wheel than hear about rich people suing each other. Your turn!”
Rather than show offence at having his vocation disparaged, Asami actually smiled. Like, genuinely. Sure, it was a small smile, but no less surprising (and aggravating) for it. “Why did you become a flight attendant?”
It was such an obvious question, and said in the tone of one baiting the other, that Takaba shouldn’t have been thrown. He scrambled for an answer that wouldn’t leave him exposed, and finally remembered the one he’d given the producers during the casting process.
“What’s not to like?” he was pleased at how casual he sounded. “I get to travel around the world, I have great co-workers, I meet interesting passengers all the time. And during my downtime I can indulge my hobbies as well.”
“What about difficult passengers?” Asami replied, blatantly ignoring Takaba’s attempt at shifting the topic into safer territory. “Surely a cute boy like you gets harassed all the time by men and women eager for your…special attention.”
It must be an art, Takaba thought — the ability to make ordinary words sound so dirty. “Maybe if I were a ‘cute boy’ and not a trained professional man, that would be an issue,” Takaba grinned back. “But it isn’t, and I love my job. Maybe when this is all over I can comp you and your new spouse a ticket somewhere. It can be my honeymoon present, even.”
Asami only remained silent as long as it took to take a sip of his champagne. Takaba did not at all watch the movement of the muscles moving in his neck as he swallowed. “So you truly don’t remember me then,” he said at last.
“Remember what?” Takaba blurted, then could have kicked himself. He was supposed to be redirecting their conversation, not letting the bastard lead him into verbal traps!
“Two years ago, on a flight to New York. I was in business class and you’d just been promoted.”
Takaba quickly racked his memory. To be honest, he’d worked on so many different flights over the years, on so many different routes as his career developed, that it was hard to remember exactly what he’d been doing two years ago. It was possible the lawyer was telling the truth, he had been promoted to serving first class passengers around then. But again, this was Asami, a shark of a lawyer; no doubt the man could pull all kinds of information together in order to get a reaction, to lead him on.
“I don’t remember,” he finally muttered, turning away to stare out the window again. And then he had to look away from the windowpane as well, because the soft light filtering through their reflections, Asami’s reflection, made him appear as graven, as solemnly beautiful as stained glass.
When he got back to his room just past midnight, Tao was already in bed — a small mound under the duvet, pillow pushed to the far side of the mattress. Takaba stripped off to his boxers and brushed his teeth, using a dampened towel to scrub off the make-up he’d had slathered on his face for the cameras. (Hopefully for the next-to-last time).
Though after tonight, with the discovery that Asami was nursing some kind of creepy crush on him after a flight two years ago that he didn’t even remember, Takaba was filled with fresh doubt. If the bachelor refused to eliminate him, he might be forced to take things into his own hands.
He was crawling into bed when he caught sight of a blinking light in his peripheral vision. It was Tao’s phone recharging, its cord snaking down from the powerpoint set into the wall beside the kid’s bedside table.
“Tao?” he whispered.
The lump under the bedclothes remained motionless except for the barely perceptible rise-fall of breathing.
His heart starting to race, Takaba crouched low and did in no way scamper to Tao’s side of the room, within reaching distance of the phone. Even if it had a lockscreen, he could at least check what the reception was like. And the next time they all went out for a Love Challenge near a Docomo or a SoftBank branch, and the producers weren’t watching them closely enough —
He gripped the phone in one hand and thumbed it open. He had one second to notice that the phone was indeed locked before something warm wrapped around his neck and tackled him to the carpet.
Takaba’s vision went black before he felt himself being rolled onto his back, something pressing uncomfortably against his adam’s apple. Something warm and hand-shaped.
“So you’re back,” Tao remarked darkly, from where he was currently straddling Takaba’s stomach and using his whole weight to pin him down. “Have a nice date?”
“Get off,” Takaba coughed, trying to bat Tao off him. God, if one of the others had heard them scuffling and came in now, or worse, called one of the cameramen, he didn’t want think what this would look like.
“Fei-sama was very angry when he returned to the house,” Tao said conversationally, wriggling like an eel to avoid Takaba’s flailing arms. “But he wouldn’t say what had happened. I guess I will watch it on my keitai later.” And, grinning, he held up his phone. Takaba had to squint against the screen’s glare.
“I just wanted to check the weather.”
Tao snorted and rolled off him, springing back onto his bed before Takaba could think about grabbing his ankle. Little monkey brat.
He returned to his own bed and rubbed his throat resentfully, glancing over his shoulder as Tao dived back under the covers.
“Why does Fei Long want to win this competition so much?” Takaba wondered aloud, not really expecting a reply. “I mean, he’s a successful businessman, right? And he looks…well, he looks like that. He could probably have anyone he wanted. Even though I get the impression he knew Asami before all this started.”
“Shut up,” said Tao sleepily. And then, very quietly, muttered, “Love.”
“What?” Takaba blurted.
“Love,” Tao announced grumpily, through a little blowhole-like gap he’d made in the duvet. “Fei-sama is in love with that stupid lawyer. Ever since he came to White Snake seven years ago. I have to watch them every month when Asami comes in to cut his hair and get a manicure. He’s so boring and annoying, I don’t understand why Fei-sama likes him so much!”
Takaba could only agree with that sentiment.
“Then, I don’t get it, Tao. Why are you in this competition if you don’t want to, uh, marry Asami?” Assuming their “bachelor” decided any of them were worthy enough for his manicured hand in marriage.
Tao hissed like he’d been burned. “I told you already, stupid Japanese! I’m here to protect Fei-sama. Everyone in this house is full of greed and lust, and if I don’t watch out, they’ll all try to do terrible things to him…”
The kid’s voice had become so small and miserable-sounding that Takaba felt unexpectedly sorry for him. Still, so much of this didn’t make sense. “Did you lie to get on the show then?” Tao seemed like a pretty terrible actor, so surely it would have been obvious that he wasn’t actually there to try and woo Asami?
“How all of us got on,” Tao huffed. “Bribes. Now go to sleep, no more talking.”
Takaba didn’t need to be told to shut up — he was reeling too much to form words. Had all of the contestants really bribed their way onto Confirmed Bachelor? It would definitely explain why so many of the remaining contestants seemed to already know Asami, or at least why they hadn’t been surprised when his identity as this season’s bachelor was revealed. But Takaba hadn’t paid a single yen himself. He hadn’t known anything. Surely he wasn’t the only one in the same position?
Takaba was so lost in his thoughts that he almost missed it when Tao mumbled something.
“I don’t hate you anymore,” Tao repeated drowsily. “You’re going to win. You’re going to take Asami away from Fei-sama, so we can go home.”
And Takaba found that he didn’t have the heart to crush the kid’s hopes by refuting that. At least not aloud.
Later that week, though, something happened to sorely shake Takaba’s determination to escape the compound as quickly as possible.
The previous few days had mostly passed in a blur of boredom and aimlessness, as the contestants who weren’t going outside on large group dates with Asami were confined to the house. They were allowed to watch TV and the ‘library’ had a decent selection of novels, current magazines and, uh, porn. But Takaba was used to being on his feet all the time; all this pointless sitting around was starting to make him feel physically itchy, like he was a caged zoo animal (the ever-present cameraman wandering around hoping to capture any spontaneous fights between the contestants did little to abate this impression).
So it happened that one day Takaba was making another restless round of the house, along the second floor corridor where the women-only bedrooms were (largely unoccupied since the first Tulip Ceremony) — and heard a scream. Heart pounding, he ran towards the sound and slammed into one of the bedrooms. The large assortment of stuffed animals, including a lifesized rilakkuma and mamegoma, told him immediately that the room belonged to Momohara Ai.
Steam was pouring out of the door leading into the en suite bathroom, and the faint hiss of a running shower was drowned out by another bloodcurdling scream, this time followed by a loud thump. His crisis training kicking in, Takaba dashed into the bathroom. Through the warm wreath of fog he could make out a hulking figure in a black shirt, pressed up against the frosted glass of the shower cubicle. Ai was a flesh-coloured, cowering blur on the other side.
What happened next, he could only remember later in snatches: grabbing the back of the man’s shirt, hot pain lancing through the bones in his hand as it connected with the man’s face, more screaming, and the belated realisation that one of the producers — and a cameraman — had muscled their way into the bathroom. Then, finally, the relief as he watched security drag the man, semi-conscious, out of Ai’s bedroom.
Later in the compound’s main living room, with Ai huddling into his side and looking up at him with so much wide-eyed worship that Takaba was, frankly, starting to feel queasy, the truth came out. Well, some of it. The man who’d broken into her room, Onoda Mitsugu, was not an intruder from outside as Takaba had assumed, but one of the male contestants that Takaba had simply failed to notice properly before. Oh, and he was also Ai-chan’s number one fan/stalker.
“I didn’t recognise him,” Ai-chan mumbled, her still-trembling arm locked around Takaba. “He usually just sends me letters made out of newspaper clippings and clumps of his hair, so I didn’t know it was him! I just thought he was another creepy ojisan when I met him here.” A dramatic shiver. “Thank god you saved me, Takaba-san! I’ll never forget your kindness.”
Takaba could only reply by awkwardly laughing off her thanks, all too aware of the camera trained on them for this “heartfelt moment”. But Ai-chan’s eyes were filled with a determined gleam, a gleam that Takaba could tell immediately did not bode well for his self-preservation. “You won’t leave me, will you?” Ai-chan wheedled. “We’re in this together until the end, aren’t we?”
So sue him, he was an upstanding guy, and had been practically trained since birth to acquiesce to the pleas of vulnerable women besides.
“Of course I won’t leave you,” he promised. And immediately felt his hopes of an early escape from Confirmed Bachelor plummet to the worn-down soles of his slippers.
The next night, with everyone once again gathered in the back garden for the filming of the second Tulip Ceremony, Takaba was no clearer about what he should do than he’d been a week ago. In fact, he felt more conflicted than ever. Asami hadn’t once glanced in his direction since he’d turned up at the compound in the late afternoon, which was a nice change, but the way the other contestants tensed up when he joined their ranks told him that he was still an odds-on favourite to receive one of the lawyer’s damned flowers.
In the end, Momohara Ai was given the first tulip. Takaba immediately assumed it was out of sympathy for her recent fright. That was until Asami called his name second, and it was only Ai-chan’s pleading eyes clearly visible off to his side, all but swimming with hope, that compelled Takaba to make the short walk up to the bastard and swipe the flower out of his hand, grumbling his acceptance.
So Asami must have seen footage of the promise Ai-chan had extracted from him, vowing to stay in the competition. Well, if the man was going to play dirty, then the only option left was for Takaba to manipulate him right back. Just because he wasn’t going to leave the show voluntarily anymore didn’t mean he couldn’t make the experience so frustrating, so awful for Asami that the lawyer had to finally reject Takaba simply to preserve his own sanity.
And so it was that Takaba stood, tulip in hand, lost in his increasingly devious plans and barely seeing as Yuri, Mikhail and the actress Azumi Ryoukou were left at the end of the ceremony in various states of anger and dejection, tulip-less.
And so it also was, a few days later, that Takaba got his hands on his very first blowtorch.