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?
“You’re burning it!” shrieked the sous chef, lunging for the blowtorch. But Takaba wasn’t finished singeing his half-imploded pudding yet, thank you very much. He leapt back from the counter, all but jamming the exposed flame into the ramekin until the air around them reeked of burning custard.
“And now we visit Takaba-kun,” drawled Sakazaki, leading the cameraman around the enormous kitchen’s centre island to the corner where Takaba was fending off his sous chef. “Tell us, Takaba,” Sakazaki said, holding out a chef’s knife in the manner of a microphone, “why do you appear to be sabotaging your own dinner preparations?”
“I’m not,” Takaba grinned at the camera. “Asami-san is a very unconventional man. You said that this Love Challenge required us to prove that we could cook him delicious meals at home. And I just know in my heart that nothing short of an extraordinary, standout dessert like this will please him.”
Of course, what Takaba knew had nothing to do with his “heart” and everything to do with what he’d researched on Tao’s phone the previous night (and really, the finger-bruises wreathing his neck like purple confetti had been worth every second he’d been able to use Google). You see, on page two of the search results for Asami Ryuuichi + lawyer was a most interesting article from several years ago. It described Asami’s attempt to sue a restaurant in Kyoto for the “pain and suffering” inflicted on him after they mixed up his order and he’d been forced to take a bite of — wait for it — an azuki bean bun. That he’d apparently thought was a gourmet pork bun.
Japan was, on the whole, not a litigious society. So Takaba knew that nothing short of an irrational hatred of sweet food and his American law degree could have motivated Asami to sue a restaurant for an honest mistake like that.
“There,” he announced, dumping his crispy black pudding on the kitchen workbench with a satisfying clatter. The sous chef he’d been assigned was looking suspiciously misty-eyed, but Takaba had to ignore that. “Tell me you guys have an ice cream machine in here.”
Before his assistant could reply, though, the floor suddenly dipped beneath them. Takaba kept his feet, repressing a grin as a chorus of curses rang out through the cruise ship’s kitchen. Only Glasses (whose name Takaba still couldn’t remember), hunched over the centre island and chopping away at a row of spring onions like a possessed culinary maniac, seemed undeterred.
“First aid!” Sakazaki shrieked, holding up his hand — which was bleeding liberally from a gash along one finger.
Looked like one definite advantage to having worked on countless turbulence-shaken flights over the years was being able to keep his balance and fine motor skills on a moving ship.
“Why do you need the ice cream machine?” asked Takaba’s sous chef warily. And then, in a tremulous hush, “What are you going to put in it?”
“Banana, strawberries, mango, pineapple,” Takaba ticked off on his fingers. “Oh, and where do you keep the condiments?”
The second part of the Love Challenge involved Asami tasting all the food they’d cooked — blind. Not that such a “well-regarded” (Wikipedia) and “dashing” (hordes of middle aged female Twitter users) personage as their bachelor would deign to be blindfolded; instead, each the contestants’ offerings (three dishes apiece) were grouped together on a long, linen-covered table laid out for the purpose.
Takaba and the other sauce splattered contestants stood to the side as Asami took his seat gracefully, waiting for Sakazaki to finish his spiel with his head cocked to the side.
“Asami-san has no idea who created each of these dishes, so the only way he can choose a winner is by taste. There’ll be no favouritism here,” their host promised, sneering into the camera, “except that, just as with the previous Love Challenge, in addition to the winner there will be a fan favourite and Asami-san’s personal pick. Those lucky contestants will all be accompanying him tomorrow on a 3-way — a 3-way date, that is.” Nobody laughed. Sakazaki scowled. “Let the taste battle commence!”
Asami nodded once and pulled the nearest dish towards him. Takaba had seen most of what everyone had made when they’d all had to move their food into the dining room, so he was pretty sure the colourful salad and panda-shaped croquettes Asami was picking through had been thrown together by Momohara Ai.
Asami moved rapidly from the salad on to the next dish — creamy mashed potato — which he took one bite of before wincing and swallowing with obvious effort. He refused to touch the dessert (tofu ice cream) before recording his score for the three dishes in the ledger by his elbow.
The next 45 minutes passed by largely in silence but for the clink of Asami’s cutlery, though Takaba guessed some kind of dramatic soundtrack would be added during editing. Even though he barely took a bite of each dish, Asami seemed to consider them all carefully as he chewed, from the fettuccine alfredo (Kuroda) to the dim sum (Yoh), the curry rice (Tao) to the bowl of unpronounceable French soup-ish thing Fei Long had magically produced from only basic ingredients.
And then Asami reached for a familiar maroon ramekin, freezing as he caught sight of the contents within. It took tremendous effort on Takaba’s part not to break out into a fit of laughter as Asami’s eyes shifted from the blackened pudding, to the bowl containing the puddled remains of Takaba’s fruit ice cream. Though that was nothing compared to the way his lips pressed into a tight line of disbelief and agony (or so Takaba liked to think) when he caught sight of the third “dish” — a teacup full of unopened sugar packets.
Asami stared at this array, sitting completely still for a long moment. When the silence finally grew so awkward that Mitarai started to wring his script and Sakazaki seemed to be looking around again for the kitchen knife he’d cut himself with, Asami lifted one arm and pushed aside Takaba’s offerings, entirely untouched. Then he turned to the ledger — presumably to record three fat zeroes for ‘Contestant #7’.
Got you, Takaba thought smugly, trying not to bounce on his heels. There was absolutely no way now that he could even come close to winning this Love Challenge, and with Sudou all but guaranteed the fan favourite vote tomorrow, all Takaba had to do now was somehow imply to Asami that he, Takaba, had been the one intentionally trying to poison him with sugar. If that knowledge didn’t put paid to the lawyer’s inexplicable obsession with him, nothing would.
Though maybe he wouldn’t have to tell Asami anything, judging by the hard look Asami levelled at him before he moved on to Shibata’s plate of inari.
Considering the braised daikon had been the only thing Asami had eaten more than one bite of, no one was surprised when Glasses was announced the winner of the Love Challenge with a perfect score of 30. (He accepted Sakazaki’s congratulations with poorly hidden glee).
After the contestants started drifting away from the room in various states of annoyance and dejection, they were all herded onto the deck of the ship to join a “party” with the other “passengers”, who were so photogenic and so few in number that Takaba suspected they’d all been hired for the occasion…especially that tall blonde foreigner in the captain’s uniform, who greeted Asami loudly and enthusiastically when he caught sight of him near the open bar. (And of course they knew each other, Takaba thought darkly, more than ever convinced there was some kind of Illuminati-esque conspiracy of Hot People going on).
“Bloody Mary, Takaba-kun?” Momohara Ai offered, perching on the edge of his deck chair and holding out a cocktail.
Takaba took one look at the glass and had to repress his gag reflex. “Er, no thanks. I’m allergic to tomato.”
“Oh,” she replied, clearly mystified. “How awful for you.”
“Not really.” Takaba glanced to the side as something moved in his peripheral vision. Sudou had sauntered to the cruise ship’s railing not far from where they sat, apparently gazing out at the sprawling lights of Yokohama as it receded into the distance.
“What are you doing over here, anyway?” Ai-chan poked his shoulder. “Are you feeling down because your food was so terrible?”
Takaba had to drag his eyes away from the dwindling view of his hometown in order to meet her eye. He could be honest, he realised. He thought Ai-chan would keep his confidence, no matter that he’d only be able to speak about his past in general terms. But now he was too aware of Sudou standing over there within eavesdropping distance, and the show’s cameras circling around the deck in search of anything they could sensationalise.
“I’m just so ashamed,” he told her instead. Ai-chan nodded sympathetically. “I should have known I needed to open those sugar packets before giving them to Asami.”
The shouts woke him. Tao flicked on the lamp and scrambled out of bed, and even though he was only a few years older, Takaba felt like an arthritic ojiisan as he creaked and groaned across the room in the brat’s wake.
There was a ruckus coming from one of the rooms down the corridor, punctuated by shouts and violent-sounding thumps against the inside of the door.
“Fight?” whispered Tao, as Takaba tried to remember whose room the noise was coming from.
“Takaba-kun!” cried Ai-chan, flailing down the stairs from the girls’ floor in a canary yellow frilled nightgown. But before she could reach him there was a crack of splitting wood as a body went crashing through the door. It smacked into the opposite wall and crumpled onto the floor. Ai-chan started screaming.
Yoh emerged from the room, kicking the mangled door out of his way and advancing on the unconscious man with a grim-faced ferocity Takaba had never seen on him before.
“Get up,” he growled in English, and that was when Takaba noticed that the body had blonde hair. And that it was wearing a familiar white polo shirt and linen pants. Which would have been enough for instant identification, even if he hadn’t then noticed the ray-bans tucked into the man’s collar.
“Mikhail,” Tao said through gritted teeth.
Fei Long glided out of the room and into the corridor in a loosely corded silk robe that exposed his formidably muscled chest. (And seriously, did all the of the other male contestants apart from Takaba spend their free time in the compound’s gym?) “That’s enough.”
“Is he alive?” Ai-chan quavered.
“I said that’s enough, Yoh,” Fei Long repeated, stepping forward to place a hand on the security guard’s arm when it looked like he was going to start stomping Mikhail’s face in. Who wasn’t nearly as unconscious as Takaba had assumed, if the Russian’s muffled laughter was anything to go by.
“What’s he doing here?” Kuroda said, following Sudou out of the room next door and wearing nothing but extremely tight black briefs and carrying a — oh for fuck’s sake, had everyone smuggled in a phone except Takaba? Sudou “Arbatov was eliminated! Is this a plot twist? Answer me or I’m calling security right now.”
Tao, who had rushed to Fei Long’s side as soon as he’d appeared in the doorway, was now tugging on his sleeve and speaking in rapid-fire Chinese. Takaba was just starting to think he should probably escort Ai-chan back upstairs in case another fight broke out, when suddenly Mikhail leapt to his feet and brushed himself off, grinning in spite of the split lip steadily dribbling blood down his chin.
Yoh made to lunge at him, then choked as Fei Long’s arm snapped out to restrain him by the back of his stripey pyjama top.
Mikhail laughed. “You think you’re his guard dog now? How sweet.”
“Stay away from him, trespasser!” Yoh hissed.
“As you were eliminated last week, you are indeed trespassing right now,” interjected Kuroda, tapping his phone against his chin thoughtfully. He turned to Yoh. “If you’re thinking about suing him for assault, I’m a lawyer, you know.”
“Fei Long!” Mikhail suddenly cried out, trying to shoulder his way past Yoh to where Fei Long was now leaning against the wall, the picture of displeased boredom. “You wouldn’t return my calls, you ignored my texts, and you didn’t respond when I threw roses at your window three nights in a row! You left me no choice but to steal into your room, to make my confession…”
“Uh…” Takaba said, feeling himself flush. He suddenly wanted to be anywhere but on the scene when things inevitably went south. “How about I take you back to your room, Ai-chan?”
“No, I want to see!” And when she caught sight of Shibata calmly making her way down the stairs in a lacy négligée, she called and beckoned her to join them.
Back in bed again two hours later, with Mikhail duly evicted by the compound’s security detail (but only after the cameras had arrived to capture him on bended knee, pleading with Fei Long in incomprehensible but desperate-sounding Russian), Takaba lay awake on his back, staring at the ceiling.
Part of his insomnia was undoubtedly because Tao was still muttering a constant stream of semi-audible epithets into his pillow like a cranky air filtration system. But if Takaba were being honest, most of his current inability to sleep was because he was afraid Sudou Shuu was on the verge of sneaking into the bedroom to shank him.
“Did you see Sudou in the hallway?” he called to Tao, only half-expecting a reply.
“When do I have time to look for him when there is that Russian trying to kidnap Fei-sama!” Tao seethed. “And now that suspicious security guard sleeping in his room, always so quiet, but I know he’s up to something…”
“Whatever Yoh and Fei Long have going on is nothing compared to how Sudou looked at me just before.” Tao hissed at this, but Takaba ploughed on quickly, “No, seriously, you should have seen his face when we were waiting for security to arrive. I think he’s insane. I think he wants to get rid of me before tomorrow morning, even though Asami isn’t going to pick me for the date after I tried to kill him with sugar.”
Tao snorted at this dubiously. “He can try to kill you. But he won’t get in here without me knowing.”
“Okay,” Takaba whispered, managing to stop himself from asking whether this ninja hearing of Tao’s extended to the kid actually protecting him if Sudou decided to castrate him in the dead of night.
As it turned out, no one got castrated, and Asami was more tolerant of a potential lover trying to force-feed him sugar packets than anyone could have imagined.
Which was how Takaba found himself shivering next to Glasses and Sudou on the edge of Aoyama Cemetery at midnight.
“The rules are simple,” Sakazaki lied, snug in his camel coat and leering at them all with a sadism that indicated none of them would be leaving this “date” without succumbing to exposure and/or ghostly activity. “Waiting somewhere within this cemetery is Asami-san and a delicious three course meal. However, that meal is being kept warm for you under lock. That’s right, even if you happen to stumble upon your dinner and your bachelor before completing your task, you won’t be able to enjoy either of them without using one of three hidden keys. And those keys? Why, you’ll have to find them yourselves.”
Takaba scuffed his foot in the dirt in lieu of groaning aloud. But Glasses and that snake Sudou — who had to no one’s surprise won the “fan vote” for the second week in a row — seemed to be taking this news rather well, if the determination and perverse anticipation on both their faces was anything to go by. Weirdoes.
Sakazaki handed them each a small sack containing a flashlight, a walkie-talkie, an omamori to ward off malevolent spirits, and a page containing the clue that would lead them to one of three graves hiding keys within the cemetery. As Sakazaki finished his explanation and Glasses immediately set off down one of the paths, Takaba flicked on his flashlight and examined his paper. It read:
So that meant he was looking for the grave of someone from Akita Prefecture, who’d died at age 12. Or age 8? And how was he supposed to find them without knowing their family name? Unless it was directing him to the headstone of a foreigner?
“Damn it,” he muttered, his breath puffing out in front of his face as he started down one of the trails leading deeper into the cemetery. Sudou had already disappeared.
According to Sakazaki’s explanation (which had been long and filled with unsubtle references to ghostly possession), only the first person to find their key and the location of the dinner would be allowed to eat with Asami. Which meant, really, that this whole ridiculous treasure hunt thing was more like one of the Love Challenges than a “date”…
Takaba stopped in his tracks. He already had a modus operandi when it came to the challenges, and that was: fail. Fail as hard as possible. (Even if that bastard Asami still went and picked him to come on this stupid 3-way date, thereby ruining his day in general and his dinner in particular). (At least Ai-chan had been happy for him).
But this time there were no theme parks, and no one could trap him inside a Ferris wheel compartment with disgusting food and worse company. In other words, all Takaba had to do to avoid “quality time” with Asami Smugface Ryūichi tonight was to stop searching for the right grave. As soon as the cameraman stopped trailing him, that was.
But it seemed Confirmed Bachelor had pulled out all the stops for this particular date: the cameraman was sticking to him like superglue, casting a harsh illumination along his path and all but bleaching the rows and rows of family plots and individual monuments of their would-be sinister shadows. The microphone probably wouldn’t pick up the creepy susurration of the wind through the trees either, which meant the footage would just end up showing him stumbling along with his flashlight in a well-lit graveyard, looking moronic and lost.
Speaking of getting lost: “Are you going to follow me all night?” Takaba snapped over his shoulder. The cameraman didn’t reply — he probably wasn’t allowed to, come to think. Though his glum silence was answer enough.
At the end of the next row of family plots, Takaba ran for it. Hearing a half-strangled shout behind him, he ducked below a line of low-hanging branches and veered past a new row of graves. He flicked his flashlight off, panting as he wended his way down the bracken-strewn path into near darkness.
When he was certain no one was in pursuit, he stopped and got out his walkie-talkie to remove its batteries. He would put them back in in a few hours, when either Sudou or Glasses had probably found their key and were chowing down with Asami. And he really didn’t care if no one believed his excuse about getting “lost” and “losing” his walkie-talkie for a while. All he had to do now was find somewhere to sit in the dark — yes, that rock over there would do — and not freeze to death until this was over.
Takaba’s ingenious plan was unfolding perfectly (encroaching frostbite aside). Or it was, until a branch suddenly snapped overhead and fell, glancing off his shoulder.
Takaba jumped to his feet, wincing at the tingle of blood rushing down to his toes. Even with his eyes already adjusted to the lack of light, he couldn’t make out anything but the slightly darker-than-dark shapes of trees and headstones around him. Then one of the patches of darkness moved.
He lurched backwards. “Who’s there?”
The black, elongated blob stopped moving. Like it was waiting to see what he did. Or was simply watching him. Takaba wanted to dig into his sack and get out the amulet, because if this was a ghost, angry that he was trespassing on its territory without paying his respects —
“Ow!” he cried, almost tripping backwards as something struck his arm. The dark thing had dropped to a crouch and lobbed a freaking rock at him! Takaba lifted his arm, alarmed to see the stinging line of a graze there, oozing droplets of blood. “What the — what was that for! I wasn’t doing anything but sitting here, and not even on your grave…unless you were buried under that stone?”
The spirit didn’t move, still hunched down. “I bet you were,” Takaba muttered. “You were too rude during your lifetime so nobody cared about burying you properly.”
The ghost hissed, a chilling, drawn-out sound that pricked up the fine hairs on his neck. And when it moved again, a fast blur — Takaba ran on instinct. He crashed through branches, banged his knee against a grave’s stone enclosure, and when he turned left at a cross-section, ran smack into something solid — but warm.
“Arggh!” He’d landed on his arse, and gravel bit into his palms as he made to scramble up. He refused to fight on the ground, whether the attacker was human or spirit.
But in this case — human. Still sprawled on the ground, Takaba forced his eyes to follow the long line of charcoal trouser leg, past the slender hips and buttoned waistcoat, up, up to that half-despised face that didn’t look in the least bit surprised to see him.
“What?” Takaba growled, getting to his feet and brushing his jeans off. His sack, and the flashlight, walkie-talkie and everything else, he’d left back there. He swallowed fearfully at the thought of returning to retrieve them, which was why he only squawked when Asami grabbed him by the elbow and led him away down another path, instead of socking the bastard in the jaw like he deserved.
“What were you running from?” the lawyer asked quietly, coming to a stop beneath a large tree with drooping branches. Shadows striped his face, though the whites of his eyes gleamed spookily. Takaba shivered.
“The thought of having to eat with you again, of course.”
Asami smirked, glancing down to where Takaba was gripping his shirtfront, white-fisted. Ugh. He forced his hands to unclench and stepped back, though there wasn’t much room to when the trail was so narrow, and the Western-style graves were listing sideways, like a makeshift corral. Trust Asami to trap him here.
“I should be asking what you’re doing here,” Takaba said, summoning his nerve. “Aren’t you supposed to be hanging out with your dinner, waiting for some poor soul to show up and eat with you?”
“Probably,” Asami admitted, though he didn’t have the grace to sound sheepish about it. “But I’ve never been a patient man, nor one to suffer the incompetence of others.”
“But that’s what this whole show is about,” Takaba muttered darkly. “Waiting around, for no good reason. Which makes me wonder what you’re even doing here. I looked you up, you know, and you’re supposed to be some hotshot corporate lawyer with his own company — ”
“Firm,” Asami said mildly.
“Whatever,” Takaba groused, glaring up at that stupid self-satisfied face. “This whole show, it’s a total waste of everyone’s resources. You should just quit now and put everyone out of their misery.” Please, he didn’t add.
Asami glanced up to the (completely obscured) sky, as though ruminating on Takaba’s words. “Which, I suppose, begs the question: why did you apply for it?”
Try as he might, Takaba couldn’t think of a good reason to lie. “…Because I like someone,” he muttered, feeling his face heat. Thank god there were no cameras around. “And I thought he’d be here.”
“And what makes you think,” Asami replied, reaching out to brush Takaba’s neck with his fingertips, tugging curiously on the fabric cord he found there, “that I’m not here for the self-same reason?”
Takaba huffed, smacking away that insinuating hand. “Please! Looking at someone while they’re in the middle of working, without even talking to them, does not count as interaction! Only a brainless moron would develop a crush after that. Unless you’re talking about Fei Long? You two certainly act cosy enough.”
Asami stepped forward, close enough that Takaba could feel his body heat. And he wasn’t shivering because of that, okay, he was only trembling because he was angry at himself for forgetting his jacket —
“What’s that hanging around you neck?”
“Nothing,” Takaba snapped, cupping a hand over his chest where his EpiPen rested beneath his shirt. “What do you want?”
“You’re afraid,” the bastard said, bringing his warm hands up to cup Takaba’s frozen cheeks. Ohh, that felt good. Except he really shouldn’t allow it, because Asami was clearly someone who, when given an inch, would take the whole freaking equator. If that made any geographical sense, it had never been Takaba’s best subject —
“It’s not like you.”
“You don’t know me,” Takaba managed against the heated pressure framing his face.
“No?” Asami murmured, and slid one hand down his cheek, around the back of his neck, pressing him forward until — oh. They were, that was. A tongue. In his mouth. Exploring with gentle, yet inexorable force, stroking over his own until Takaba felt himself shuddering, falling forward a little. Allowing the intrusion.
It must have gone on for a while. Takaba wasn’t sure, he’d been so lost in it, in the heat and sensation. But a burst of static, followed by a barking, harassed-sounding voice — Mitarai — broke them apart. The cold stung Takaba’s wet lips as he watched Asami fish around in his pocket for the walkie-talkie, bringing it to his mouth.
He must have been more dazed than he realised, because he didn’t take in the ensuing conversation, and only registered Asami’s hand on the small of his back, pushing him back down the path the way they’d come.
“Kirishima just arrived at the clearing they’ve set up in. They want me there to re-shoot his arrival.”
“Oh,” Takaba mumbled, squinting when they rejoined one of the cemetery’s better-lit paths. “Oh, I lost my bag, it had everything in it…”
“Don’t worry about it,” Asami said, nudging him along.
It was only as they approached the sound of voices and an almost dazzling array of lights and cameras that Takaba thought to wonder aloud, “You don’t think the gaikokujin spirits back there cursed us, do you? For, uh, you know, right next to their graves?”
Asami arched an eyebrow at him.
Glasses had been the first to find his key and arrive at the dinner table they’d moved into the cemetery, and he seemed to think that gave him a mandate to hover over the covered trays of food like a proprietary yet short-sighted hawk. Luckily for Takaba and Sudou and their appetites (the latter having slunk into the clearing just as the trays were uncovered and the candles lit), Asami smoothly suggested they all share the meal together.
Who needed a space heater on a night like this when instead you could bask in Glasses’ flushed, sour face at this turn of events? (Though Takaba could have done without the increasingly suspicious glares the man cast between him and Asami).
Despite the crew’s best efforts, the food — gnocchi, duck terrine and chocolate parfait — was either cold or the worse for wear, having lain for hours untouched in the crisp weather. Takaba was hungry enough not to care, and only turned half an ear to Glasses’ stilted attempts at igniting conversation. It seemed he was currently a professor at Tokyo University, but had previously worked under Asami when the bastard was just starting up his law firm.
In between sips of wine, Glasses also kept referring to a “painful decision” he’d had to make in the past, and while Takaba was usually the kind of person who would sooner die than be left curious, he was both too exhausted after the long day and too wired after fleeing the evil rock-throwing ghost to care that much. No doubt it would all come out sooner or later for the benefit of the cameras.
“What happened to your mouth, Takaba-san?” Sudou asked suddenly, taking advantage of a lull in the table’s already subdued conversation.
“Huh?” He shrank away from the three sets of eyes (and lenses) suddenly zeroing in on his lips, too startled out of his food coma to do more than gawp. And then slap a hand over his mouth. What was their problem? Was his lip bleeding?
And then he remembered: The Kiss. Oh god, the bastard had mauled his lips. They were probably swollen to five times their size, redder than bleeding plums —
“Your arm, too,” said Glasses, frowning at the graze. And then, pompously, “So many injuries for so little result, eh, Takaba?”
“What were you doing when you were lost, anyway?” Sudou pressed. His face was the picture of solicitous concern, but Takaba could read the glint in his eyes.
“Uh…” he glanced automatically at Asami, then quickly away when he realised how obvious he was being. But he couldn’t tell the truth! And if he said anything along the lines of “a ghost attacked me” or “I tripped over an incense urn”, he’d just feed into the clumsy, inarticulate persona he’d somehow managed to cultivate around every single running camera. Ever. “Uh…”
“A tryst with the gravekeeper, perhaps?” suggested Asami. The others laughed awkwardly at the idea, and from that moment on Takaba concentrated on murdering his parfait while imagining it was the soupy remains of that conniving, mouth-plundering bastard’s conceited face.
The next few days dragged on in a way that Takaba was all-too-familiar with after years of waiting on standby for work. Not that that made being cooped up in the house any more tolerable. Especially when his only available conversational partners either bore a homicidal grudge against him, or were so smitten with Asami and his three piece suits that they refused to talk about anything else.
(And no, that completely uncharacteristic and horribly teenage-like wet dream last night involving Asami, a hot spring, and copious amounts of all purpose body oil did not make Takaba like the others. It really, really didn’t).
At some point today, Asami was supposed to arrive and whisk away the remaining contestants for a big group date somewhere, but the longer it took him to arrive, the more the others seemed to be losing the plot. Sudou and Fei Long had staked out the gym and were no doubt racing each other on separate treadmills. Kuroda, his shirtsleeves rolled up and glasses perched on his nose, had overtaken every flat surface in the recreation room with legal documents he’d smuggled into the compound.
Meanwhile, the blonde giant, Suoh, had trudged to the front of the house to stare fixedly through the glass front doors, and was doing such a creepily good impression of a stone colossus that Takaba decided to move as far away from him as possible, to the back garden. Which was where he found Ai-chan, sitting by the pond and filing her nails glumly.
“Ai-chan,” he greeted, plonking himself down beside her on the pond’s stone wall.
“Oh,” she said, seeming to come out of a daze. “Hello, Takaba-kun. How are you today?”
“Fine,” he said, thrown by her dull voice. Even the sparkly clips pinning her hair up somehow glittered dejectedly. “Is something wrong?”
“Everything’s fine,” she said in a monotone. The emory board slipped from her fingers, and she stared at it lying in the grass for a long moment before bending over to pick it up. When she straightened again, tears where glistening on her cheeks.
“Ai-chan!” Takaba grabbed her shoulder, but before he had a chance to ask her what was wrong again, she collapsed against him, sobbing into his neck.
“Oh, Takaba-kun, I miss him!”
“Who?” he asked, patting her back awkwardly. “Asami?”
“No,” she moaned, breath hitching. “I hate that jerk.”
Takaba swallowed his surprise, trying to keep his voice level and calm. “Well, that makes both of us. But who do you miss then?” She snuffled something into his neck. “Eh?”
“Kou,” she mumbled, detaching from the juncture between his shoulder and neck just long enough to say the name before she crumpled against him again, a fresh round of sobs racking her body.
After seemingly endless minutes of back-rubbing and head-patting, Takaba finally managed to extract the truth from her: Kou, it turned out, was her real life boyfriend, and someone her talent agency didn’t approve of because he was just a poor city surveyor from Komoro. He also happened to be the inspiration for the fifth single from Ai’s second album, Komoro no Kou Kou Kou.
“He always supports me, even when I told him they wanted me to come on Confirmed Bachelor to help promote my new album. I could tell his heart was in pain, but he always shows me his bravest face.” Takaba glanced away as a trickle of snot joined the steady stream of tears running down her face. Poor Ai-chan. “I love him so much!”
“So you really don’t want to be here, huh?” Takaba could only empathise with that feeling. “It’s hard to quit, though, I know. I bet you feel like everyone’s relying on you.”
“Exactly,” Ai-chan sighed, shuffling away slightly and hugging herself. “You know exactly what I mean, because you don’t want to be here either, do you?”
Takaba ducked his head. “Is it that obvious?”
She laughed weakly. “Yes. Everyone can see all the times you look unhappy when Asami-san favours you. That’s why the others despise you.”
Well. “I’ve never quit anything in my life,” he said instead, though the justification sounded even weaker spoken aloud than it had in his head. “I can’t just walk away, not when I’ll look like a coward. I’m trying to do things on my terms, that’s all.”
“Me too,” she said, giving him a watery smile.
Though, really, how Takaba was the one person everyone else apparently hated when it was Sudou standing to the side, safe with his tulip, before the ceremony even began — not that Takaba was jealous. Hardly. After all, he’d done all he could this week to make Asami want to spurn him tonight, even if his attempts at manipulation had almost gotten him bent backwards over a gravestone.
Filming started as soon as the remaining contestants were lined up to the producers’ satisfaction and Asami had sauntered into the back garden, looking completely unbothered despite his proximity to Sakazaki’s rose pink velour dinner jacket.
Takaba eyed the people beside him as their host began his opening speech about all the “fun” and “genuine human connections” they’d made during the week. Glasses and Yoh were both standing straight-backed, paying keen attention to the proceedings, while behind him Takaba could swear he heard the swish of silk-on-silk as Fei Long shifted his stance, frustrated or bored at being made to wait.
Thankfully, Asami seemed just as keen to get the ceremony over with. No sooner had Sakazaki closed his mouth than the lawyer was reaching into the vase (shaped like a baguette this week) to extract the first tulip.
“Tao,” he announced, to everyone’s surprise. Though given Takaba’s roommate’s scowling reluctance to approach Asami, maybe calling him first had just been for kicks. Actually, he wouldn’t put it past the bastard for this entire farce of a show to be his idea of a vacation, full of entertainment at the contestants’ (televised) expense.
“Tao-kun, will you accept this rose?” Tao muttered something indiscernible and snatched the proffered tulip.
As Tao joined Sudou off to the side, Asami selected the second tulip and called Shibata’s name, though Mitarai got her to repeat her walk three times before he and the cameras were satisfied with the slow, hip-swinging stride she managed on the fourth run through.
Yoh, then Kuroda, were called up next, and then — to everyone’s immense relief — Fei Long, who strutted forward to accept his tulip like some sort of infuriated catwalk model. He managed to restrain himself long enough to peck Asami on the cheek as he accepted the tulip, murmuring something in the lawyer’s ear as he did so.
Takaba was just beginning to wonder if his tactics during the week had been effective after all when Ai-chan was called up. She walked towards Asami, looking uncharacteristically sober in jeans and a simple, peach-coloured top.
“Momohara-san, will you accept this tulip?”
“No,” she said.
Barely-contained pandemonium followed this pronouncement. After the director shouted at Ai-chan for ten minutes about not clearing this with him beforehand, the cameras were eventually sent to capture the other contestants’ shocked faces (not hard to fake), and then rounded on her again to record her explanation.
“I’m sorry for disappointing you, Asami-san, and everyone else too,” she quickly added. Asami remained poker-faced, tulip idly listing in his right hand. “But I’ve thought long and hard about this decision. And the truth is,” her breath hitched, “the truth is, I’m in love with someone else. I have been for years, and it feels wrong to rob you of the opportunity to spend time with your future spouse.”
Asami inclined his head with more grace than Takaba would have credited him with. (Then again, trial lawyers weren’t so unalike actors, were they?) “I understand.”
“I’m sorry,” Ai-chan said miserably. “I hope you’ll forgive me. And Kou, too,” she said, suddenly swinging around to stare straight into the lens of the nearest camera. “Please forgive me! We’ll be together again soon. Oh, and to everyone else, please support my new album, Ichigo! Kuriimu! Furappuchiino!, released next month! Thank you!”
Given the circumstances, Takaba thought he could be forgiven for not really noticing that the Tulip Ceremony had re-commenced as soon as Ai-chan had been ushered away to collect her belongings. In the end it took an abrupt shove from Suoh to get him moving again, up to where Asami was apparently waiting for him to collect his tulip.
“Thought you’d never ask,” Takaba muttered sarcastically, managing to dodge Asami when he leaned in to violate Takaba’s much-abused mouth. Asami, the smooth bastard, managed to make his aborted harassment look like an innocent attempt to tame an errant strand of Takaba’s (perfectly tousled, thank you) hair.
“Akihito,” Asami said, visibly enjoying Takaba’s bristling reaction to the use of his given name, “will you accept these tulips?”
“Like I have a — wait, what?”
Because those were definitely two tulips — not just the one Ai-chan had rejected — being held out to him. When Takaba gawped in lieu of a reply, the bastard nudged his cheek with the flower’s soft petals. “Well?”
“But — two?” Oh god, this was just like the first ceremony, when Asami had decided to dump a florist’s worth of bulbs on him. And again, these were the last tulips in the vase, which meant…
Takaba glanced behind him. Only Glasses and Suoh were left waiting, the former standing there with a complexion like curdled milk. Takaba felt like a coward, but he grabbed the tulips and retreated to join the other safe contestants. And just in the nick of time, because Glasses chose that moment to fall to his knees, sweeping off his spectacles and staring up at the night sky with every appearance of devastation.
Asami walked calmly over to him, the cameramen scrambling to catch up as he bent slightly to rest a hand on Glasses’ shoulder.
“Kei,” he said quietly, “I’m sorry you feel like this. I’ve always considered you a colleague. A friend, as well.”
“And now?” Glasses demanded with glistening eyes.
“As ever. But this competition is to help me find my spouse. And you can never be that for me, no matter how delicious your braised daikon is.”
Takaba and the others filed back into the compound and into their separate rooms as soon as the ceremony and interviews were completed, a subdued mood hanging over all of them. (Except, perhaps, for Kuroda, who was wondering aloud at Asami’s precipitous decision to eliminate Suoh, whom he referred to as Asami’s “bodyguard” for some reason).
Takaba let Tao have the bathroom first, because the kid displayed the same amount of enthusiasm for his nightly ablutions as the average 13-year-old, which meant he’d be out again in five minutes, tops. In the meantime Takaba sank onto his bed, wriggling forward until he could rest his head on the pillow. His pillow, which was currently about as soft as the casing of a ten-year-old laptop.
“Huh?” He lifted his head, snaking his hand under the pillow. His fingers closed around something plastic, and when he pulled it out it took ten seconds for his tired, disbelieving brain to register what it was.
It was a pink iPhone, studded with rhinestones and weighed down by a ganglion of cartoon character phone straps.
Momohara Ai had left Takaba her phone.