Fandom: Viewfinder (Finder no Hyouteki/Finder series) by Yamane Ayano
Warnings: N/A for this chapter.
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?
A/N: The eagle-eyed among you will notice that I’ve tweaked the summary for this fic a little bit. Though the original prompt was so fantastic that doing so was surprisingly difficult! Anyway, sorry as usual for the wait between updates, and please enjoy ^__^
Takaba knew something was wrong the minute they arrived at the school for the talent show. No underfunded public school he’d ever seen before looked like its buildings had been lifted straight out of 19th Century Vienna.
“Is that a fountain? Full of…marble satyrs?” Takaba squinted in the direction of the school’s forecourt, struggling to make out shapes in the descending gloom.
The crew had decided to film the talent show at night, to give Takaba and the others more time to prepare their acts, but also to lend a formal ambience to the occasion. Emphasis on the formal, apparently; Takaba hadn’t realised they were supposed to be wearing suits until he’d clambered into the limo and noticed he was the only one wearing jeans.
But now there seemed to be a third reason for shooting the talent show at night: darkness could hide the fact that this was a school that needed fundraising money about as much as Sakazaki needed another bejewelled ascot.
“There are gargoyles,” Takaba gaped, craning his neck up as the contestants were ushered towards a long stone building near the edge of the campus. Which was, of course, lined with flowering hedges in the shape of what appeared to be the twelve Chinese Zodiac animals.
“Shut it,” Mitarai said, whacking the back of Takaba’s head with the flat of his palm. “Keep your gob closed for the next six hours and we might actually get out of here before dawn.”
Takaba sighed, but submitted to the arms that pushed and prodded him through hall’s double-wide doors. Inside was a small carpeted foyer and a group of dowdy, excited-looking middle aged people that Takaba immediately pegged as teachers. Shinotake-sensei stomped over to greet them, dusting off the charm now that there were people who needed schmoozing.
Takaba lost interest as their interpreter struggled to keep up with the rapid-fire exclamations made by a wizened but professorial man with greying hair — the school’s principal? — wearing a three piece suit.
“Hey, Asami,” Takaba grinned, sidling over to where the lawyer was apparently absorbed in reading an engraved panel hanging on the foyer’s back wall. “Wanna see what you’ll look like in thirty years?”
Asami turned and followed the direction of Takaba’s hiked thumb. The corner of his mouth quirked up when he caught sight of the old headmaster guy in his stuffy suit.
Which was decidedly not the reaction Takaba had been trying to provoke. “Then again, when I told my mother that you’re a chain-smoker, she predicted you wouldn’t make it to old age. At least, not without certain vital appendages falling off.”
Asami shifted that creepy smile onto Takaba. “You told your mother about me?”
“No,” Takaba snapped. And he hadn’t, either, at least not intentionally. Mental note: Remember to kill Yoshida when you get back to Tokyo. Twice. “She found out about you on the internet. You’re not exactly a recluse.”
“Hmm,” was all Asami said, distracted by the minor commotion in front of the doors that presumably led into the building’s main hall. The teachers had shuffled away to allow a cameraman inside, but as soon as he was through, they were closed fast again.
“Is setting up such a big secret?”
“They’re preserving the surprise,” Asami said, though his tone suggested that the ‘surprise’ was anything but. Well, he was the one supposedly responsible for this evening’s impending torture, wasn’t he?
Takaba scowled and opened his mouth, ready to let loose with exactly how much he appreciated the idea of having to perform for anyone, let alone a bunch of kids who could just sell one of the dozen BMWs parked outside if they needed money so damn badly.
The words died in his throat when he caught sight of Sudou. Even across the room, the singer’s face was reflected in the shiny brass frame of a landscape painting. His eyes seemed to be darting between Takaba and Asami as they stood together, lips pursed in a sour crescent.
“All right!” Shinotake-sensei shouted, snapping his fingers in the air and pointing at the doors. “Brace yourselves, we’re going in. You first, Sudou-san.”
When Takaba turned away from the frame’s reflection and to watch Sudou in the flesh — shooting the cuffs of his slim-cut suit and striding towards the doors as the teachers parted like the sea for him — not a hint of spite marred his face. His expression had melted into that crowd-pleasing mask he tailored for the cameras, the one he could call up to cover himself in an instant.
“Allow me,” Sakazaki said, slipping in front of Sudou at the last moment and flinging the double doors wide (though not without an ugly grunt of exertion). Bright light instantly flooded the foyer and Takaba swallowed, fighting down the sudden surge of anxiety that bubbled up in his chest. He slipped behind Asami’s broad back as they made their way into the hall together, the sounds of shoes ringing on the polished floorboards and ricocheting off the room’s walls and frescoed ceiling.
And then there were the screams.
High pitched, barrelling towards them in a wave a second behind their owners. Takaba froze, instantly grateful that he could use Asami as a human shield against the dozens of teenage girls stampeding towards them.
“Shuu-chan!” they shrieked, running and leaping until they had Sudou surrounded, pressing him into a tighter and tighter circle, fighting each other for access while the inner circle demanded pictures and autographs in broken Japanese.
“I hadn’t realised this was a signing session for DrakeEnema’s Taiwanese fanclub,” Fei Long said icily. He looked at their director, whose attention seemed to be fixed on the outer ring of schoolgirls, jostling each other in their woollen blazers and short tartan skirts. “If I had known this would be tonight’s audience, I would have declined to participate.”
“Participation is compulsory.” Sakazaki crept closer to the huddle of squealing fangirls. “Very, very compulsory.”
An hour and a half later found Takaba nose-deep in his second glass of punch. It was the only alcoholic drink in the reception hall besides wine, which was no doubt why Mitarai had finally shuffled his way over after clearing most of the buffet single-handedly.
“I thought we were supposed to be doing this talent show to raise money for the school?” Takaba grumbled.
The producer shrugged. “And?”
“Are the students all on scholarship or something? This place has better facilities than my old high school in Yokohama, and that was one of the better public schools.” Well, it had been, before the gym and half the fine arts building burnt down in a completely accidental fire that the police were never able to conclusively link to Takaba and his friends. (And just as well, or he’d never have graduated.)
“Takaba,” Mitarai sighed, resting a hairy hand on his shoulder, “you have to stop taking the script so seriously. This is reality TV. So when we say ‘underfunded school’, what we actually mean is ‘the first school that agreed to let us film on their property’. And when we say ‘fundraising talent show’, what we actually mean is…?”
“Ha! Not just an ugly face after all.”
Takaba glared, but nobly chose to ignore the insult in favour of looking out across the hall at the students clustered around Sudou in star-struck silence. Though even that reverence was punctuated every few minutes by an eruption of excited squeals whenever the singer did something remarkable, like breathing.
“You got fleas or something?” Mitarai said, glancing at Takaba suspiciously.
Takaba dropped his hand from where he’d been scratching at his neck unconsciously. “No! It’s just itchy.”
“Itchy, eh?” Mitarai smirked, doing his best impersonation of a retail assistant in a sex toy shop. “You ears, too, I bet.”
Takaba swallowed. Now that Mitarai mentioned it, his ears did feel clogged up. Hot too, just like the flush spreading over his face that he’d initially put down to the hall’s overabundance of strong lights. Oh, and the knowledge that he was about to get on stage and make a fool of himself in front of sixty pubescent high school girls. Which, humiliating as that would be now, still probably wouldn’t be half as bad as having his performance broadcast to millions of people at home in just a few months.
“Don’t worry, it’s probably swimmer’s ear from your little paddle in the pool yesterday,” Mitarai was still babbling. “I got that once. Green pus oozed out of my ear canal for days, smelled like Tsukiji in midsummer, you know?”
Takaba turned back to the punch bowl and made a study of refilling his glass. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was at the hotel all day yesterday practising my routine.”
“Practising!” Mitarai snorted. “Like anyone but little kids need to practise pouring one thing into another thing! You really had a screw loose when you nominated that as your talent, Takaba-kun.”
“It’s harder than it looks,” Takaba huffed. “And I’ll be standing on a shaking ladder to mimic the effects of in-flight turbulence! You just watch, I won’t spill a drop.”
Mitarai did a slow clap. “Amazing. Anyway, enough chit-chat, I need to go make sure the cameras aren’t just getting footage of the girls spontaneously orgasming in their panties every time Sudou smiles at them. Not that I won’t enjoy watching the dailies of that, let me tell you.” Takaba winced into his glass. “Though that only narrowly beats out watching the girls’ expressions when Sudou had to go backstage and find a bathroom. I thought they’d slit their wrists after ten minutes of waiting for him to come back! Ha-ha.”
Takaba breathed a silent sigh of relief as Mitarai teetered back into the milling crowd. If his sly comment about Takaba going swimming yesterday was any indication, his tagging along on Fei Long’s date hadn’t gone unnoticed after all. He really thought he’d gotten away with it too. Especially when none of the crew or — worse — Fei Long came back to the hotel and dragged him aside, asking questions that he had no excuses for, like why he’d decided to suddenly go golfing, or why there were bits of soggy noodle stuck in his hair.
Thankfully, Takaba hadn’t needed to utilise the expression of perfect innocence he’d been practising all afternoon in the en suite mirror. Fei Long hadn’t come back to their room at all yesterday. When he didn’t turn up for breakfast either, Takaba had even started to feel something approaching concern for the other man. Sure, he’d looked as though he was a good match for the guy with the beauty spot. But what if while Takaba was busy being drowned by the man in the ski mask, Fei Long had taken a punch in the nose that shoved cartilage backwards into his brain? Or what if he’d slipped on the faux turf — slippery after too many failed attempts at hitting the golf ball — only to fall and give Beauty Spot the perfect opening to step on his crotch? Not even the great and mighty Fei Long could survive that.
But Takaba’s growing concern had been in vain. As soon as he’d climbed into the limo that ferried them here, it was to find Fei Long already waiting inside, looking no worse for wear than a scratch across one high cheekbone. Rather than an imperfection as obvious and distracting as a beacon, instead the mark made him look…dangerous.
“And it hasn’t hurt his popularity,” Takaba muttered into his drink, watching over the brim of the glass as Fei Long fielded questions from a gaggle of schoolgirls he’d overheard introducing themselves as the academy’s judo club. Hell, even Asami, who was an ancient fogey, apparently had an adoring fanbase: the school’s middle-aged teachers. As soon as the reception had been opened by the headmaster and most people flocked to the buffet tables, Takaba had been stunned to notice all but a few of the teachers converge on Asami. Worse, as the night wore on and the punch was passed around, some of them had started to brush a hand over the lawyer’s arm or shoulder, smiling and laughing and — and flirting! Teachers, flirting.
And of course the bastard can speak Chinese, Takaba fumed. A skill he never bothered to put into practice when it would have actually been useful!
“What a little ghoul you are, Takaba-kun, lurking in the corner like this.”
Takaba jumped, some of his drink sloshing over the side of his glass. “Sakazaki-san.”
“Please don’t tell me you’re hiding all the way over here because you’re so underdressed?” He gave Takaba’s jeans and baseball jacket the once-over. “I’m sure it was a simple misunderstanding, your not getting the memo about tonight’s dress code. You don’t need to feel embarrassed.”
Takaba felt another wave of heat crawling up his neck, but managed to pin the man’s glittery frock coat with a look that showed exactly how much he didn’t regret dressing up in foppish Victorian cosplay. “I’m not hiding — this just happens to be the best place to observe things.”
“‘Things’, hmm?” Sakazaki said, stepping closer until Takaba got a nose full of the man’s pungent cologne. They hadn’t been this close to each other since that night in the compound’s upper hallway, and it was all Takaba could do not to flinch away at his proximity now. Damn his height advantage. “I’m sure, with your understandable performance anxiety, a little alcohol is most welcome.” He gestured at Takaba’s glass. “Just to slick the way.”
Takaba couldn’t help it. Without conscious thought his eyes were shooting to the side, seeking out Asami in the crowded hall. As before, the lawyer was circled by a throng of adults and looked perfectly relaxed holding court. He didn’t so much as glance Takaba’s way. Didn’t look like he would in a million years.
You don’t need him to defend you, Takaba firmly reminded himself, standing his ground even as he felt himself crowded against the table of drinks.
“Speaking of performances,” he said, staring Sakazaki in the eye, “when are we finally getting this show on the road?”
Sakazaki broke eye contact first, even if it was only to tip his head up and swallow the last of his wine. “Soon. Though I’ll be making a little announcement first.”
Takaba knew that their hosts’s ‘little announcement’ was going to be bad — with Confirmed Bachelor involved, how could it not be? — as soon as he, Fei Long, Sudou and Asami were lined up on stage, a line of cameras poised to capture their reactions. Chairs had been carried in for the audience until the adults were all but lost in the sea of well-pressed uniforms and pinned hair that made Takaba feel like a delinquent, forced on stage during assembly to suffer the student body’s ridicule for some minor misdemeanour that contravened the school’s centuries-old charter. Not that he had anything experience with that sort of thing.
Still, he couldn’t push down his nervousness as they waited for filming to begin. Under the lights craned over them like burning yellow eyes, his skin had begun to itch, and it was all he could not to try clawing away the prickling sensation. Even reminding himself that he had to stand up in front of dozens, sometimes hundreds of passengers as part of his job every single day didn’t help the crowding sense of panic. Robotically miming how to inflate a lifejacket and how to strap on an oxygen mask couldn’t be more embarrassing than climbing up a ladder and mixing drinks for the entertainment of a bunch of schoolgirls. Could it?
I could use an oxygen mask right about now, actually. He coughed once, hard, trying to dislodge the glob of fear or phlegm — fear-phlegm? — sticking in his throat. It didn’t help, but he didn’t get a chance to ask for a glass of water, because a moment later Shinotake-sensei called for quiet and Sakazaki launched into his introduction.
It was the usual blather, and he didn’t pay attention. None of it was the truth, anyway. The sheer number of glowsticks and handmade signs held up by the students featuring photos of Sudou and his boyband made it abundantly clear that Takaba was only here as a sideshow to the main act: Sudou gyrating on stage and lip syncing into a microphone. Ugh.
A round of sudden gasps from the audience broke Takaba out of his daze. He looked around, trying not to make it obvious that he hadn’t been listening, but he didn’t see anything shocking. Most of the students were looking between Sakazaki and Sudou, eyes wide and mouths open in unhappy surprise.
“That’s right,” Sakazaki carolled, “our Bachelor and contestants will not be showcasing the talents they originally elected to perform. Instead, they will be swapping their routines! To maintain fairness, each talent will be randomly drawn out of my hat — ” he paused to whip off his top hat, sending scraps of paper flying out around him like giant flakes of dandruff. “Oh, fuck. Ah, rather…”
Only a few of the students tittered at Sakazaki’s words — apparently the Japanese-Chinese interpreter off to the side of the stage had elected not to translate any swearing.
“Do it again,” Shinotake-sensei barked. “And don’t foul up the take with your fucking cursing this time!”
Takaba watched without seeing as Sakazaki bent to retrieve the slips of paper. There was a buzzing in his ears, his stomach churning sickly with the growing realisation that he couldn’t perform his own routine. Oh god, what if he got stuck with Fei Long’s instead — whatever that was? Or, or Asami’s? What if he had to recite the Japanese Constitution from memory, or tie fifty windsor knots in one minute?
“All right, first up is Sudou-san,” Sakazaki said, taking off his hat, gingerly this time. He waited until the interpreter finished speaking and the chorus of cheers and declarations of undying love from the audience died down before holding it out. “Please pick out a piece of paper and read it aloud for us.”
Bowing elegantly, Sudou stepped out of the line and sashayed over to Sakazaki, dipping his hand into the hat and rooting around in there with his other hand folded over his eyes dramatically, until most of the students were giggling or cooing at his antics.
Takaba would have rolled his eyes — but they were too itchy. At least most of the cameras were fixed on Sudou and the hat now, so he could get away with surreptitiously rubbing at them. But that only made them burn all the more. It was like he’d just woken up from a restless nap to find himself standing here, his eyes still filled with the grit of sleep and his limbs gone stiff and aching.
What the hell is going on?
“I have selected,” Sudou enunciated clearly, lifting one pale hand from the hat and unfurling the scrap of paper. “Takaba Akihito’s talent: Mixing Drinks…from a height?” The look he shot a look at Takaba over his shoulder was one of mingled incredulity and disgust. “How very, ah. Unusual.”
Flushed from embarrassment as every camera in the hall seemed to turn on him at once, Takaba could only shrug. In truth, he couldn’t have cared less what Sudou thought of this performance idea, because the horrible ramifications of having to swap routines with Sudou were already dawning on him.
Trust Sakazaki to sweep in and drive the stake home.
“So Sudou-san has picked Takaba-san’s talent out of my hat, kindly loaned to me this evening by our friends at Gui’s Western Suits. This means that both contestants will be switching talents! Sudou-san, would you care to announce what you originally intended to perform, for the benefit of Takaba-san and our esteemed audience?”
“With pleasure,” Sudou said, turning around and fixing Takaba with a tight little smile. “My original performance was to be singing and dancing to DrakeEnema’s hit song, Whip My Cream. And now, Takaba-kun, that honour is all yours.”
A split second ago Takaba’s whole body had been suffused by so much itching heat that he wouldn’t have been surprised if hives had spontaneously broken out all across his skin. Now all he felt was the blood draining from his face.
“Please sing for us, Shuu-chan!” cried someone in the audience. It sounded as distraught as if their pet had just been run over.
Sudou’s smile broadened in acknowledgement at the call, but with a dip of his head he strode back to his place in the line. “I’m sure you’ll do a marvellous job, Akihito-chan,” he added, loud enough for the cameras but quiet enough to be passed off as whispered encouragement — like Sudou was the kind of person to do anything kind-hearted without any recording equipment nearby.
“Now that that’s settled,” Sakazaki said, “it would seem that Liu-san and Asami-san swapping talents is a foregone conclusion! But what exciting display will each be performing now?”
Takaba tuned out the rest. If he focused every last scrap of his attention on staring down at his scuffed sneakers, then he could pretend that sixty-odd pairs of furious, betrayed eyes were not currently fixed on him and praying for his swift demise. If he keeled over right there and then, after all, Sudou would be freed up to sing for them.
If only, Takaba thought mutinously, watching Fei Long’s feet as the man made his way back to the spot by Takaba’s right, away from Sakazaki and his damned hat. His stride was jerky with barely suppressed anger, and for a second Takaba felt a pang of relief that he wouldn’t be the only one out of his depth tonight. Though could anything be worse than floundering around on stage, mumbling the lyrics to a song he didn’t know? Especially when the most of the audience probably had those same lyrics tattooed over their freaking hearts.
“Now that you know which talents you will soon be judging,” Sakazaki continued, “we would be honoured if you would patiently wait while score sheets are handed out to everyone. Meanwhile, our contestants and bachelor will be going backstage for their costume change.”
Costume change? Takaba’s head snapped up. But their host didn’t look back at the contestants. He was too busy addressing the camera, practically draping himself over his microphone stand. A quick glance to either side showed that Fei Long and Sudou were as nonplussed as he was. Takaba couldn’t see Asami’s face, but he could easily imagine that the lawyer was wearing that special kind of impassive expression — the one that seemed to imply terrible things were about to happen to the speaker.
“Oh, did I somehow forget to mention this already?” Sakazaki laughed. “This will be no ordinary talent show. That’s because each of our contestants will be wearing a mystery piece of swimwear during their performance! That’s right, it’s a swimwear modelling contest! Who’s looking forward to seeing Liu-san beautiful pectorals? Or how about Sudou-san chiselled abs — anyone?”
As soon as the interpreter finished his rapid-fire translation, the audience exploded into cheers and applause. Some of the girls actually leapt out of their chairs, whooping and waving glowsticks. The sound hit Takaba in a wave. He blinked once, stumbling in place when the stage suddenly dipped under him.
Looked like the students would be getting their wish for him to faint dead away after all.