Fandom: Viewfinder (Finder no Hyouteki/Finder series) by Yamane Ayano
Warnings: Really shitty cliffhanger, so sorry in advance ><
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: A very special thank you to one of my betas, dawn, for patiently listening to me while I stuffed my face with fries and moaned about how to resolve this part of the plot last October (in fact, it’s now been over a year since I started writing this story — to think that I was once naïve enough to estimate that it would take me just two weeks to finish. HAHAHAHA). Well, here we are, so please enjoy!
In the end, Takaba almost wished Fei Long hadn’t caught him by the elbow a split second before he fainted. At least if he spent the rest of the night unconscious after slamming face-first into the stage and giving himself a semi-traumatic head injury, he’d wouldn’t have to be awake for this.
“Hey,” Takaba croaked, grabbing the hem of his shirt as a junior producer tried to rip it straight off him. “I’m not going to change out here.”
The contestants had been led backstage as soon as Takaba could finish a take without looking like he was about to keel over like “a stunned antelope”, as Shinotake-sensei put it. At the rear of the hall, partially obscured by the stage, was a door that opened into a corridor that smelled strongly of mildew. Fluorescent lights cast ugly patches of yellow on stacks of props and furniture crusted in layers of grime. The school’s dirty underbelly, Takaba supposed, peering dazedly at a carved, claw-footed statue beneath a drop cloth as he was ushered down the hall.
A room off the corridor had been sequestered by the show for the contestants’ changing room. Takaba had hardly collapsed into a chair before a swarm of assistants descended on him. A glass of water was shoved into his hand and a towel draped over his forehead to sop up the sweat that was beading there. But it was clear from the swarm of activity inside the room that he wouldn’t be exempted from the rest of the evening. As soon as one of the cameras had taken enough footage of him listing in his chair and mumbling replies to Sakazaki’s faux-concerned questions about his health, his little break was over.
“Get changed,” Mitarai said, snapping his arm like people sometimes did with towels in changing rooms. Except the cloth the producer was whipping him with was just a scrap of bright purple in the producer’s meaty paw. It was, in fact, a scrap of bright purple in the shape of a Speedo.
“I’m not wearing that,” Takaba blurted, before an assistant stepped in front of Mitarai and dropped a thin bundle of pages into his lap. She was gone before he could so much as yell What the hell? after her. He gritted his teeth and lifted the papers up, squinting when his eyes refused to focus on the blur of text. The words he could make out were about cupcakes, bowls of fresh cherries and a street fight with…fire hydrants that spewed out cream? It didn’t make any sense!
“What is this stuff?”
“Lyrics,” Mitarai said, exploiting Takaba’s distraction and dragging him out of the chair by his forearms. It took Takaba a second to find his feet and combat the wave of dizziness that seemed to crest whenever he moved too quickly. By the time he’d regained his balance, Mitarai had unzipped his fly and tugged down hard on the waistband of his jeans until they fell to pool around his ankles. “For Sudou-san’s song. Don’t worry, it’s the famous one, you know how it goes. Na-na-na da-ra-ra whip whip cream puff. Some shit like that.”
Takaba didn’t have time to worry about memorising a bunch of nonsense — not when he was suddenly half-naked in a room full of people and cameras. Even if none of them were currently paying attention to him. Even if he was going to be getting even more naked in front of a legion of score card-wielding schoolgirls in less than an hour.
“I don’t feel well.”
“Oh, come on,” Mitarai rolled his eyes, tugging insistently on the hem of Takaba’s stripy shirt. “You’re the third person on stage, you’ve got plenty of time to prepare.”
“I’m serious.” And Mitarai really wasn’t letting go of his shirt, was he? Never mind: if Takaba grabbed his wrists then he couldn’t lift it up over his head either. Though it was hot and stuffy enough in the room that getting rid of his itchy clothes and exposing his gangly, undefined body was starting to seem like a better alternative. “It’s not an excuse. If you make me go up there again, I think I’m going to collapse.”
Mitarai sighed. “Fine. Fine, you poor ailing toddler, let’s go through your symptoms.” He reached into his jacket’s front pocket and pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper, ragged along one edge as though it had been torn out of something, read once, then crammed away. “Do you have chest pains, shortness of breath, or tingling in your extremities? Are you perspiring enough to fill up a bucket with gross Takaba-slime? Dizzy enough to topple over and die?” Takaba opened his mouth, but Mitarai cut across him. “Yeah, thought so. After one too many of your little freak outs, Shinotake’s thinks we’re gonna get sued. So now he’s making the crew carry around a copy of this bullshit, just in case our resident fragile teacup decides to have another panic attack.”
“This isn’t an anxiety attack,” Takaba gritted out. Though he didn’t think anyone could blame him if it was at this point. “I’ve had those for years — this isn’t it. I think, I think I’m getting sick.”
“I’m telling you kid, it’s all in your head. Now if you’re too much of a prude to change out here, go behind that curtain and strip.” He pointed to the room’s far corner, where what looked like a green plastic shower curtain had been draped over two stacks of chairs to form a quasi-change room.
Too bad. Takaba wasn’t going to take his clothes off, and he certainly wasn’t going to exchange them for a pair of tiny purple swim briefs. But determination to stand his ground crumpled as soon as Sakazaki stepped back into the room, tucking a packet of cigarettes into the pocket of his frock coat. The host’s spectacles flashed as he scanned the room, mouth curling up when his gaze landed on Takaba, then shifted down to Takaba’s goose-pimpled legs.
“Uh, yeah, okay,” Takaba coughed, letting himself be pushed over to the faux dressing room. On the way he passed by Fei Long, who seemed to quickly be running Asami through a martial arts routine that involved several improbably high kicks. The lawyer looked unfazed. To Takaba’s envy, he was also doing a stellar job of ignoring the assistant nervously hovering at his side and trying to make him accept a pair of jet black swim briefs.
“In you go,” Mitarai said, forcing Takaba to look away as he was shoved behind the curtain. There was a chair, and a plastic zip-lock bag — presumably for his underwear. “Incoming!” the producer called, and Takaba flinched as the purple Speedo was tossed over the top of the curtain. It landed on his head, slipping down until it hung off the shell of his ear.
“Damn it.” He tore it away and flung the horrid thing onto his chair before reluctantly toeing off his shoes and stepping out of his jeans.
“Don’t forget to take off all your jewellery,” Mitarai said, his shadow looming behind the curtain with hands on hips. “It’s a swimsuit competition, yeah? No one wants the view of your chest, no matter how unimpressive, to get blocked by a bunch of crap you bought at Daiso.”
Takaba grumbled but acquiesced, pulling off his shirt and folding it onto the chair. He placed his EpiPen and the shark’s tooth necklace Takato had once given him as a gag souvenir — they were both on layover at the same hotel where he bought it — neatly on top. Some paranoid part of him had thought keeping something sharp on hand might come in handy if the guy in the ski mask suddenly showed up and got it into his head to main, drown or choke him again.
Though right now he was doing a pretty good job of being short of breath all on his own. It’s getting worse, he thought, glancing down at his chest when a flash of red caught his eye. The skin below his collarbone was covered in uneven splotches of raised red, like someone had pressed burning cigar butts on his chest until it looked like a bed of flowering welts.
Not just in my head.
“Hurry it up, Takaba, we’re running to a schedule here!”
Knowing that if he delayed it was just a matter of time before Mitarai came around the curtain and tore Takaba’s briefs off himself, Takaba quickly finished undressing. He tried not to wince at the cling of synthetic fabric as he pulled the Speedo up his sweaty thighs.
“Ew, what is that?” Mitarai said when Takaba shuffled out from behind the curtain and blinked against a sudden swell of light-headedness. People were still rushing around the room, though Fei Long had disappeared. Dimly, Takaba remembered that he was due to perform first. He’d left his suit jacket and shirt draped over a chair near the door — had he really gotten changed in the middle of a room full of people? Of cameras? Though if Takaba looked like Fei Long, maybe he wouldn’t mind making a public show of stripping off either…
“Seriously,” Mitarai said, poking Takaba’s chest and snapping him out of his dazed contemplation of Fei Long’s discarded clothes. “It looks like someone tried to suction your skin off with a vacuum cleaner nozzle. Or you opened the window last night and offered up your chest in sacrifice to the local mosquito population.”
“I think I need to sit down,” Takaba mumbled, wincing when his throat felt like it clenched shut over the words. He swallowed, trying to clear it.
“Nonsense, it’s just stage fright. All you have to do is let adrenaline do its work and you’ll be fine. Think of it this way: no one’s expecting anything from you, so the stakes are practically non-existent.”
“Takaba,” said a gentle voice. Takaba focused on the bare feet that came in to view behind Mitarai’s scuffed loafers, toenails shiny and rounded. He forced himself to look all the way up, past yards and yards of flawless skin stretched over toned muscles, a face framed by a soft fall of blond waves. “Let’s get you some water in the other room, all right? I need some help sorting out your…props, in any case.”
“Good idea, Sudou,” Mitarai said, slapping Takaba on the back until he stumbled forward. “You two aren’t on until His Royal Prickliness and Asami-san are done, so use this time to practice!”
Takaba could barely begin to wonder why the hell Sudou was helping him before the singer had locked his fingers around Takaba’s wrist and was pulling him from the room. He caught Asami’s eye as he passed, the lawyer turning to watch their departure as one of the assistants wrestled him out of his slate grey waistcoat. He was already in sock feet, but otherwise looked as overdressed and impenetrable as ever.
Do something, you bastard! Takaba wanted to yell. But what could the man even do? If Sudou was going to let Takaba sit down and drink some water, who cared why he was suddenly being so helpful? He still had to learn the song about fire hydrants full of cream, and much as he hated to admit it, Sudou was the only one in the room who had a chance in hell of teaching him before he had to take the stage.
It was cool outside in the hall, and it was all Takaba could do not to let himself vertically faceplant against the walls to relieve the heat crawling up and down his chest and arms. As it was, he could barely concentrate on manoeuvring around props and storage crates without tripping over his own feet.
“This way,” Sudou said, cupping his shoulder and directing him to another room further down on the left. From his pocket, Sudou extracted a key and fit it into the lock. The door opened onto a pitch black room.
Sudou flicked on the light. “Hmm, here we go.” Exposed under the feeble yellow glow of an old fashioned ceiling lamp, the room was stuffy and cluttered with furniture; spare tables half-covered by drop cloth and other scraps of fabric, the remnants of school plays past. Three tall towers of disposable paper cups had been stacked beside a step ladder.
“Sit there,” Sudou said, ushering Takaba inside and closing the door behind them. “There’s a chair over there.”
Takaba stumbled over to the folding chair beside the closest trestle table and sank down onto the canvas. Looking around blearily, it took him a moment to realise the stacks of cups weren’t just leftovers from another event, but were the props for his performance. Or they had been, before Sudou hijacked it. Speaking of —
The singer was bustling around the room, gathering things together with a confident ease, as though he went around backstage at a high school in nothing but a pair of tight swim briefs all the bloody time.
“Hey,” Takaba croaked, his voice little more than a weak gust of air. “Hey, Sudou. Can we practice the song you were going to sing?” Shit, he’d forgotten the sheets of lyrics in the changing room. He should probably go back and get them. But just going down the hall right now seemed like an insurmountable task.
“No need,” Sudou said, chipper. He’d bent over to scoop up a blue icebox beside the ladder as if it weighed nothing, though there was a faint clink of ice as he dumped it beside Takaba’s bare feet. “We’ll have a look at all the drinks here, and then you’re going to tell me which ones to mix together.” He lifted off the top of the cooler, and Takaba shivered as a puff of frigid air rose up from inside.
Nestled inside the ice were a dozen cans and glass bottles, all the brands and flavours he had to dole out in-flight on his rounds up and down the aisles. To his surprise, it looked as though the show’s crew had procured everything he’d requested.
“Judging by the paper cups, I’m assuming you were going to pour out drinks for everyone on top of the ladder?” Sudou laughed. “If you were hoping to bribe the girls to vote for you with drinks, maybe you should have asked to perform before the reception.”
Takaba shook his head, both as negation and to counteract the haze that was descending over his head again like a warm, buzzing blanket. “Need some water,” he whispered.
“All right,” Sudou said agreeably, and bent down to lift a bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling mineral water out of the icebox. “Oh dear, look at that lid. If they haven’t left a can opener around here, it looks like you’re fresh out of luck.”
Takaba barely heard him. He hadn’t noticed it until Sudou removed the bottle of water and it left an indent behind in the ice, but there was another drink missing from the box. A gap between the orange juice and iced green tea. He quickly scanned the rows of drinks, going through the mental inventory he knew by heart. Confirmed Bachelor’s crew had bought everything he asked for, everything except…
“Where’s the tomato juice?”
Sudou raised an eyebrow, straightening from his crouch and stepping away from the cooler. “Oh? What tomato juice? I don’t see any.”
“It was there,” Takaba insisted hoarsely, pointing at the furrow in the ice where someone had removed a drink. “It’s the only thing missing.”
“Someone must have been thirsty,” Sudou said, smiling and holding out the bottle of mineral water until it seemed to fill the expanse of Takaba’s vision. He stared at the dripping glass, watching as a droplet of condensation slid down the stem and pooled between Sudou’s bloodless fingers. “Maybe they took it from here, had a sip, then decided the rest of the can had better use elsewhere. In the punch bowl, for example.”
Takaba raised his eyes to Sudou’s face. “You…you spiked the punch bowl?” With tomato juice, fuck. How had he known?
Sudou’s smile didn’t waver. “That’s quite an accusation, Takaba-san.”
Takaba opened his mouth to speak, to protest that the singer had all but just admitted to poisoning him. But knowing what was happening to him, that his body was shutting down — this was somehow worse. It was just panic making it harder to breathe, he reasoned; but every new mouthful of air he dragged in and forced out through the narrowing tunnel of his throat was a fresh reminder that there was a timer over his head, rapidly ticking down.
He’d missed the signs, all the fucking signs, and now he was in shock.
“My EpiPen,” he hissed, craning his neck around when Sudou placed the bottle of water down beside Takaba’s foot and quickly moved around to the door. “In the other room. I need to inject it.” Please.
Sudou snorted as he jiggled the lock. “Now that would hardly be logical of me, would it? Not when we are now mere minutes away from the timely demise of your monopoly over Asami-sama.”
Takaba staggered up, knocking the flimsy chair over with the back of his leg when he lurched towards the door. Sudou held out a hand, palm out, as if one strong push would send Takaba down for good. “Stay right there, unless you want a broken jaw. In addition to the fatal anaphylaxis, of course.”
“Let me out,” Takaba wheezed, blinking quickly when his vision began to blur and narrow. It felt like someone was sewing his eyes shut before taking up the needle again, pricking it up and down his skin too quickly for him to bat it away. “Let me out of here now.”
Sudou didn’t reply. He waited until Takaba came close enough, straining for the door handle, then shoved back. Takaba didn’t even feel himself falling, just the reverberating punch of the ground where he landed on his side. The breath fled his lungs. Even the throb of impact was quickly overtaken by the sensation of burning. Why the fuck, why the fuck hadn’t he realised what was happening to him?
“You know,” Sudou said, stepping away from the door and hovering upside down in the dark band of Takaba’s vision. “I never thought I’d say this, but I’m glad you didn’t have a heart attack in that shabby old cell. Even drowning yesterday would have been too good for you. Because now, dying like this, in this way…there’s a certain justice to it all, isn’t there?”
Takaba groaned and wrapped his arms around his cramping stomach. He needed to stand up and get to the door while Sudou was busy gloating, he knew that. But he couldn’t bear to uncurl himself, not with his lungs squeezing for air he couldn’t pull in fast enough.
“Blame yourself,” muttered a voice in his ear. “Talking about your allergy in public, mentioning it on your contestant application.”
The voice sighed. “Goodnight, Takaba-kun.”
After a while, he didn’t hear anymore noise. He was probably alone. His limbs were locking up, tense from the cramps tearing through him in waves. But through the wall of pain was a screech, a keening voice telling him that he knew where the door was, and to fucking use it!
He reached out a hand, tried to get a grip on the floor to drag himself forward. Moisture pooled below his eyes, but it was quickly dammed by his eyelids, fused shut by the same reaction that was choking him from the inside. A banging noise exploded in his ears, a staccato pounding that sounded like someone was jackhammering the floor beside his ear.
So this is how it would be. How long before they discovered his body, curled into the foetal position in nothing but an ill-fitting pair of magenta Speedos? If it was Mitarai who found him first, he’d probably take a selfie with Takaba’s corpse before he sounded the alarm. Maybe sell the photos to a tabloid, fund a holiday to a tropical island and meet the love of his life, only to be swallowed by quicksand on his wedding day…
Someone prised his eyelid open. Oh. His mother, her face swimming in his dimming vision, dark hair pinned away from her face like she was readying to leave him for the week.
If hers was the last face he saw, then that would be all right.
So it was strange then, when her face morphed at the last moment. Its shape tightened and folded over cheekbones and a hard jawline. Asami. Staring down at him, brow collapsed into a mesh of tight lines, teeth grit.
Trust my stupid brain to torture me with his image right before I die, Takaba thought, a moment before he let himself drift away.
To be continued…