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: Much gratitude goes to lesbia this time around: girl managed to appropriate a random relative’s desktop computer during her holiday in Hong Kong so she could beta this chapter for me…in the middle of a toddler’s birthday party. Basically, she is a worker of miracles. Anyhow, I’m moving back home to Australia tomorrow, but who needs to pack and clean when they can post fanfiction instead? Not me! :D
Takaba woke up to the stench of smoke in his nostrils. He coughed hard, grimacing when pain immediately radiated through his chest and sides. But most of the ache was focused in his throat: it felt scraped raw, as if someone had shoved an awl down there and shredded his oesophagus. Even swallowing hurt — which was to say nothing of breathing.
Takaba was pretty sure he was supposed to be dead. And as everybody knew, dead people didn’t breathe. He was pretty sure they didn’t feel like they’d just been run down by an SUV, either. An SUV full of sumo wrestlers, their manager, and the team’s mascot labradoodle — only to have the driver panic and reverse over his half-squished corpse. Unless of course that’s how someone had actually died somewhere in the world, in which case: that was probably exactly how they felt. Except dead people didn’t feel, did they? Surely the major perk of dying instantaneously from massive bodily trauma was that you didn’t have to feel it?
You’re babbling, a voice groaned in his mind. Takaba frowned and rolled over until he could mash his face into the pillow, which hurt too, of fucking course. Never mind that the voice sounded a lot like Takato’s did when Takaba proposed a completely reasonable money-making scheme when they were short on rent. Just because unlicensed parkside carts selling 100 yen store candy repackaged to look like high class confectionary was probably illegal didn’t mean it wasn’t a brilliant idea, Takato!
Wait. A pillow?
Takaba mashed his face into the lumpy thing cradling his head. It pressed back, but he was pretty sure that could happen if the pillow was stuffed with down. Or anything more expensive than the deflated sacks of polyester provided by his airline. There was also a patch of dampness against his cheek, but that could have been drool.
Experimentally, he wiggled his fingers and toes. His skin brushed cloth on all sides. So: either he was entombed in an exceptionally comfortable cotton body bag, or at some point, he’d been put to bed, a pillow slipped under his head, and enough blankets thrown over him to smother a bear.
Takaba cracked an eye open. He regretted doing so immediately. As soon as he blinked a few times to clear his hazy vision, he was blinded by a searing block of white light. Just that split-second glimpse felt like driving a needle through his eyeball. He snapped his eye shut immediately, but the afterimage was already burned onto his cornea.
The room around him was as dark and humid as a cave, except for the window. It was square and bisected by rectangular panes, framed by diaphanous curtains, kept company by a hulking chair drawn up to its painful illumination. He’d seen a figure in that chair, staring out the window, its features blotted out by the light. Only the silhouette had been discernible. A strong nose, bangs a messy fall over its forehead. Pursed lips, from which dangled a crooked cigarette.
Well. At least now Takaba knew for certain that the smoke wasn’t because the room was on fire.
His restless shifting must have alerted the man sitting by the window, because a moment later he heard a rustle of fabric and the faint sound of feet padding across carpet. The mattress dipped as something heavy settled on its end. Takaba did his best to relax his face and breathe evenly. He couldn’t explain why, but instinct made him feign sleep. For all that it was a relief to discover that he seemed to be alive and mostly well, and resting in luxurious digs to boot, he felt like he was on the brink of exhaustion. Just remembering all the problems and responsibilities that came with being conscious was enough to make him welcome the fatigue, letting it wash over him in a benevolent wave.
A hand settled down on his leg. Takaba suppressed a full-body flinch.
“Takaba,” said a low voice. Familiar, too. But he resisted matching it with a face or a name. He wasn’t ready to deal with any of this.
Lucky for him, then, that the man seemed content to let him lie there in silence. Only the hand remained, a warm pressure on his leg that felt strangely proprietary. He let himself be pulled away by the tide of sleep.
The next time Takaba woke up, he almost missed the secondhand cigarette smell. Hell, being forced to chainsmoke Cuban cigars would have been better than opening his eyes to discover half a dozen people and almost as many cameras poised over him, recording his every grimace and confused blink. “Wha-?”
“Good morning, Takaba-kun!” Sakazaki carolled, leaning forward to pinch Takaba’s leg in warning as soon as he made to sit upright. “I trust you’re feeling much better today. Up for a little chat?”
Takaba gripped the rumpled comforter to keep himself from surging up and punching his way through the corral of producers and lenses. “This isn’t…” he winced at the dry crackle of his voice. God, he needed a glass of water. But no, why keep the invalided contestant hydrated when they could ambush him instead? “Where am I?”
Sakazaki rolled his eyes. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten everything? Though I suppose that could be a side effect of the sedatives. No, don’t give me that look, we had Confirmed Bachelor’s doctor administer them to you, so it’s all above board. Besides, you were hysterical when you came to, spouting all sorts of nonsense about being poisoned and locked up!” He laughed. “Like that kind of thing could happen at a talent show!”
Takaba sucked in a long, deep breath. Right then, it was either that or give in to the scream building in his chest. “I don’t remember any of that.”
Sakazaki sighed and turned around to locate Shinotake-sensei. Their director was examining an abstract painting hanging on the wall across from the bed, lifting a hand to finger the canvas curiously. For the first time since waking up, Takaba noticed how large and well-appointed the room was, filled with light flooding in from an enormous square window. Was this even the same hotel? “Shinotake-sensei? Should we just give him the rundown — or should we wait until Asami shows up? Could be a great emotional reunion moment, is what I’m thinking. Especially if we can squeeze a few tears out of it.”
Their director only grunted, waving a hand in a perfunctory gesture that could have meant anything. Takaba took advantage of Sakazaki’s consternation to lever himself upright, doing his best to ignore how the cameras tracked his movement. He glared at one of the cameramen. The man stared blankly back, as though Takaba were nothing but a piece of moving furniture.
“All right then,” Sakazaki said, put-upon, and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Long story short: you snacked on some of the reception’s fancy finger food without checking to see if it had tomato in it — you know, that food you’re deathly allergic to? Of course, a couple hours later you went into anaphylactic shock, but instead of injecting yourself with epinephrine like a sane person, you hightailed it to the prop room instead and fell over to die. If Asami hadn’t had some kind of lawyer sixth sense and gone to check on you, you’d be dead.”
“That’s not,” Takaba said, then broke off, all but choking on his dismay. “I didn’t touch the finger food! The tomato was in the punch!”
“Not this again,” Sakazaki groaned. “Listen, punk, we already investigated. The school even provided us with their fruit punch recipe. And what do you know? No tomato.”
Investigated? Takaba’s brain screeched. If they’d investigated then they’d know what really happened. Sudou had all but confessed — right before leaving him to die!
Takaba grit his teeth. “Where’s Sudou?”
Sakazaki raised an eyebrow. “Sudou-san? In his room, of course. Why? You want us to bring him here so you can thank him for saving your life? After all, if he hadn’t brought your pen injector thing to the prop room after Asami-san found you, you’d almost certainly be dead.”
Takaba’s mouth fell open.
“That’s right, your rival for our bachelor’s affections was actually your knight in shining armour!” Sakazaki turned to the nearest camera, smirking as if inviting their future audience to share in the joke. “Sometimes, true humanity does prevail. And to celebrate, tomorrow morning’s breakfast will be in honour of Asami-san and Sudou-san’s dashing rescue. Perhaps you’d like to make a little speech, Takaba, to show your gratitude?”
It was only then that Takaba realised his mouth was still hanging open, as though the hinge of his jaw had been busted, leaving him to a long, koi-faced future. But he couldn’t close his mouth, let alone think of a reply. There was an almighty rushing sound in his ears that picked up with his skyrocketing blood pressure. He honestly didn’t know what he would have done if someone hadn’t suddenly walked into the room, parting the bevy of crew members on his way to Takaba’s bedside.
Asami’s critical gaze took in everything: the room, its occupants, and Takaba’s gaping mouth. He didn’t sound at all pleased when he said, “What’s happening here?”
“Just a little interview,” Sakazaki grinned, though Takaba noticed when he took a step back, waving off the cameraman who swung around to capture his withdrawal. “No, stop with that.”
“Wouldn’t it be preferable,” Asami asked, tone pointed, “if the contestant were dressed first?”
Takaba glanced down, finally noticing that he wasn’t, in fact, dressed in his day clothes — or even that blasted purple Speedo. No, someone had apparently seen fit to stuff him into a billowy white night shirt. A quick wriggle of his legs under the duvet made it clear that there was nothing beneath it, either. The hell?
“Time for lunch!” Shinotake-sensei announced, his voice cutting through the room’s mounting tension. He headed for the open door without further ado, the crew slowly trooping after him. As he passed the bed, Takaba saw that at some point during his interrogation, their director had availed himself of all the alcoholic drinks in the room’s minibar.
“Enjoy your ill-gotten rest while you can, Takaba,” Sakazaki sneered, dawdling until he was the last person to leave. “Making yourself sick again won’t save you from another elimination.”
Takaba glared at Sakazaki’s back as the weasel finally slinked away. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he muttered, barely noticing as Asami crossed the room to close the door, listening for the schlock of its automatic lock. Alone at last. Except now that it was just him and the lawyer, the ringing silence was enough to set Takaba’s skin crawling with awkwardness.
At least until Asami actually replied. “The contestant with the fewest votes after the talent show was to be eliminated from the competition.”
It was a testament to how unforthcoming the man usually was that such a banal statement was enough to startle him. And then his words actually sank in, and Takaba felt indignation bubble anew. So Sakazaki was accusing him of faking the whole dying from anaphylactic shock thing, just so he could get out of competing? Because Takaba somehow magically knew that the loser was going to be eliminated? How did a condition like that even make sense? Just imagine if the decrepit teacher vote wasn’t enough to get Asami over the line — they could hardly eliminate the bachelor from Confirmed Bachelor, could they?
“Hmph,” Takaba grumbled, figuring that was more dignified a reply than punching the nearest pillow. He watched askance as Asami fished inside his suit’s inner pocket for a packet of cigarettes, making his way over to the window and cracking it open to let the first puff of smoke out. Maybe it was the extended period of unconsciousness making his brain screwy, but Takaba had to suppress a professional impulse to tell Asami to butt it out. Also: to butt out of this room. What was he doing in here, anyway? It wasn’t like…
“This is your room, isn’t it?”
Now that his view wasn’t blocked by people, equipment and the red haze of rage that seemed to cloud his eyes whenever his mind strayed back to everything that had just happened, Takaba began to notice all the little details he’d missed when he’d first woken up. Papers and a silver laptop were spread out over the handsome, leather-tooled desk. There were two large pieces of pricey-looking luggage over by the wardrobe, whose door was ajar to reveal a row of pressed suits hanging inside. Distressingly, the suits appeared to have been hung in order of colour. Well, in order of greyscale.
Takaba supposed he’d just answered his own question.
“Who knows what trouble you’ll get into without someone here to keep an eye on you?” Asami murmured, tipping his face up to the ceiling and blowing smoke out of the corner of his mouth, lips curving up.
There was something about that mocking tone that made Takaba want to rise to the bait. He probably would have, but for once he was both sore and tired enough to think twice about wasting his energy on an outburst, on Asami. After all, what could he say that wouldn’t make him sound like a whiny brat? Apparently, everyone thought he was a total moron for eating something at the reception he was fatally allergic to, or — worse — thought he was so desperate to stay on the show that he’d done it on purpose.
And now his would-be murderer was a hero.
He was surprised by how much the idea hurt. Maybe even more than his crushing anger, and there was a bottomless supply of that. “…Sudou.”
Asami’s attention, which had drifted into the middle distance at some point, snapped back to him. His expression didn’t have to change for Takaba to pick up on the keen shift in his eyes.
He had to look away from them just to get the words out. “In your experience. I mean, how easy would it be, for him to access private files on me? Like my contestant application. Or,” he swallowed, forced himself to speak past the frog in his throat, “police records. That sort of thing.”
He hadn’t yet had a chance to relive those moments in the prop room. No doubt he’d have plenty of time later to pull apart the long, indistinct smear of pain and fear, the certainty that he was going to die alone before anyone could help him. But one moment already stood out, all but clawing itself from the disjointed mass of memory, past the confusion and distraction of waking up in this room that wasn’t his.
It was of Sudou, standing over him with an inverted face. Smiling, like every lock of Takaba’s cramping limbs was an uncommon pleasure to witness. Saying he was glad that Takaba hadn’t died in that cell in Tamsui after all.
Because now, dying in this way…there’s a certain justice to it all, isn’t there?
“It’s possible,” Asami said, momentarily releasing Takaba from the clutch of his eyes as he considered the question. “He’s independently wealthy, and even if he didn’t possess the connections himself, his position in society affords him a certain level of access. Unless you had put in place countermeasures against illegally pulling your personal information, not much would be outside Sudou’s reach.” He tapped his cigarette into the ash tray on the windowsill. “Why do you ask?”
He sounded so casual when he said it like that, Takaba thought sourly. Too bad the sharp expectation in the lawyer’s eyes made it obvious that this was anything but idle curiosity. Asami was fishing. Well, too fucking bad. Takaba was damned if he was going to tell Asami anything, not after the lovely reception he’d received on waking. He wouldn’t be trusting anyone, or pointing any fingers again until he’d decided how he was going to fix things. Which meant he needed a plan, and — time to plan.
“No reason,” Takaba said, letting mouth split open in a yawn to end all yawns. He sunk lower in his nest of blankets and pillows. “Anyway, think I might go back to sleep. Do you mind closing the curtains? Oh, and going away. Thanks.”
Takaba watched the barest ripple of annoyance pass over Asami’s face. Serves you right, putting me in your room and expecting me to want you hovering around like a cloud of overpriced cologne. Even if you apparently saved my ass. Unless they’re just making that up, too.
“You should eat,” was the man’s unhelpful reply, stubbing out his cigarette as he pushed away from the wall.
Takaba closed his eyes and settled down on his back in bed, trying to force the tension out of his muscles through sheer willpower. “Not hungry.”
“Then reconsider your plan to sleep the rest of the day away.” Asami sounded so serious, that, despite himself, Takaba opened one eye. “The show is already over schedule, over budget, and yesterday they lost the location they reserved for the final tulip ceremony. You have today to recuperate, but tomorrow is the last day of filming. Do you understand?”
Takaba snorted and rolled over, putting his back to the lawyer. “Can’t wait.”
Asami didn’t reply (that’s more like it), and Takaba listened warily as the lawyer crossed the room and left though the door. There was a shrill beep as the lock re-armed itself. Alone again, he buried his head under the nearest pillow and exhaled slowly. Bastard hadn’t even closed the curtains.
When Takaba woke from the nap he didn’t remember deciding to take, it was mid-afternoon and the sky was so overcast that it might as well have been dusk outside for all the illumination it provided. He switched on the bedside lamp and sat up, surveying the room groggily. It didn’t look like he’d had any visitors while he’d been out for the count. At least, he hoped the bidet was only buzzing away in the en suite as part of some automatic self-cleaning routine, and not because someone had just broken in and availed themselves of the amenities in Takaba’s — Asami’s — posh room. Nothing else around him seemed disturbed though, so Takaba chalked up his creeping sense of unease to paranoia.
Speaking of toilets. Takaba had to bite back a moan as he clambered out of bed and hobbled to the bathroom. By the time he was finished, he was frankly astounded by the capacity of the human bladder. Also: relieved that it miraculously hadn’t burst on him and necessitated a trip to the hospital. Or more likely, given it was this show footing the bill, an unlicensed veterinarian.
He caught a glimpse his reflection on the way out of the bathroom. The wall above the en suite’s vanity unit was panelled in mirrors of varying magnification, from a normal full-length to one that could probably facilitate a microscopic inspection of the blackheads on his nose. The one thing all the mirrors concurred on, though? Takaba looked like roadkill. Week-old roadkill. Lank hair, sunken eyes, patchy complexion. Giant zit, rising like Godzilla reborn out of his chin. And, thanks to the sack of a nightshirt he was wearing, the body of an emaciated ghost. When’s the last time he’d eaten anything?
Takaba’s stomach rumbled by way of reply. Many aeons ago, it gurgled at him, and he patted it in sympathy as he made his way back into the room in search of food. Thanks to Shinotake-sensei’s pillaging, there was nothing left in the minibar but a fancy bottle of mineral water. He took that, breaking the seal with his teeth and chugging it down in three long pulls, before giving the rest of the room a once-over. His eyes fell on a wicker basket of fruit on the coffee table below the window. Takaba staggered over and collapsed into an armchair, eyeing its contents: Fuji apples, petite bananas, a green-speckled papaya…and a whole, uncut pineapple. Which he was apparently supposed to open with his bare hands, because there was nothing resembling a knife in sight.
Oh, who the hell was he kidding — he couldn’t eat this. Takaba buried his head in his hands, dragging in a stuttering breath. Just the thought of eating anything resembling fruit after what had happened yesterday was enough to make his stomach clench, shrivelling up until it was a hard pit inside him. He could distract himself as much as he liked by poking around the room, but that didn’t change what he knew he needed to do.
He’d always been someone for whom sleep clarified things. But even he was surprised when a restless nap in the middle of the day had him waking up with one clear, burning thought at the forefront of his mind: get the hell out.
If he quit the show immediately, maybe Sudou wouldn’t try and murder him again. Maybe then he could stomach the thought of eating. He could go home to Tokyo, crawl into his futon, and sleep soundly in the knowledge that some new humiliation wasn’t waiting for him at the start of each day. He could get back to work and remember what it felt like to be competent. And he was pretty sure ten long haul flights in a row would leave him feeling less exhausted, less wrecked than he was right now.
Because what was really keeping him here? Not Asami, that was for sure. He may have been the one to find him in the prop room, and he’d certainly cleared Sakazaki and the others out for him this morning, but — he hadn’t said anything to refute everyone’s claim that Takaba was careless enough to give himself a fatal allergic reaction. Which could only mean that he believed it, too. And when it came down to it, there was no way he’d ever back Takaba over Sudou. The singer was unassailable now. A hero.
Never mind that Takaba already had a fair idea of how the show’s editors would reconstruct the story: Takaba Akihito, too cowardly to perform Sudou-san’s famous song, incapacitates himself in the most attention-seeking way possible. Saves himself from elimination, and forces their bachelor to rescue him.
He snorted. Yeah, my evil master plan really worked out, didn’t it?
There was a knock at the door. Takaba half-rose from the armchair in surprise, but had to sit back down when his shaking legs buckled beneath him. Fuck, he was still weak.
“Come in,” he called, when no one barged in after several moments. Couldn’t be someone from the crew then, not when that lot seemed to be passing around this room’s keycard like a party favour. And Asami had his own card…
The electronic lock beeped as someone deactivated it from the other side, the door sweeping open to admit — Sudou.
Takaba’s heart leapt into his throat. His eyes frantically tracked the singer’s serene face, the way he stepped inside the room and nudged the door closed with the heel of his boot. He was carrying a bouquet of flowers, a riot of angry orange and bruised blue petals.
“How are you, Takaba-kun?” he asked solicitously, ignoring the way Takaba scrambled out of his chair and flattened his back to the window as he came forward, proffering the flowers. “I’ve brought you a little “get well” gift: lilies and monkshood. Beautiful, aren’t they?”
“How did you get in here?” Takaba demanded. But then he saw: pinched between the thumb and index fingers of the singer’s other hand was a keycard. The thought that Sudou could have let himself in at any time while Takaba had been asleep was enough to make bile rise in his throat. “Get out!”
Sudou laughed lightly, eyes flickering around the room and resting a second too long on the pile of pillows. “Such a rude reception, Takaba-kun. But given your recent ordeal, I suppose I can practice patience with you. Now, if you’d be so kind as to take these off my hands?” He raised the bouquet like a sabre.
Before Takaba could reply, someone rapped on the door. Sudou’s face went instantly blank; he clearly hadn’t anticipated an interruption. Relief seeped through Takaba’s body, and he sagged against the window. Sudou was certifiably insane, but surely he wasn’t brazen enough to do anything criminal with someone else in the room to witness it.
“Won’t you get that?”
Sudou eyes flashed, but after a second’s hesitation he dropped the bouquet onto the bed and turned on his heel to answer the door. When he opened it, his body blocked Takaba’s view of the newcomer, except for the crown of silky black hair. Which could only mean —
“Fei Long,” Sudou said, not bothering to hide his displeasure. “What are you — ”
“Doing here?” the man interrupted, pushing his way inside the room before Sudou could even attempt to close the door on him. “I must have had the same idea as you, Sudou-san, waiting until Asami’s beast of a bodyguard left his post before paying my visit.” He glanced down at Sudou’s hand. “Though even I failed to procure a key.”
“Asami-san gave it to me,” Sudou smirked. “He was touched when I mentioned that I wanted to come see how our dear Takaba-kun was recovering after yesterday’s accident.”
Fei Long smiled in return. It was the kind of smile that starred in people’s nightmares — if they lived long enough to fall asleep ever again. “My thoughts exactly. Won’t it be nice to spend an hour or two together, just chatting and keeping Takaba-kun company?”
Sudou turned until his back was to Takaba, but he couldn’t disguise the sudden tension in his shoulders. Or his free hand fisting at his side. “Actually, I was just popping by to leave him a token of my sympathy.” Fei Long’s eyes flicked to the bouquet that had been tossed on the bed. “I have a skype meeting with my band’s manager in ten minutes, and I was planning to use the business centre.”
“Then please don’t let us keep you,” Fei Long said, stepping back to the door and holding it open for the singer to pass through.
And just like that, with nothing more than a backwards glance of poorly concealed loathing, Sudou Shuu was gone.
But Takaba couldn’t relax yet. Call it the distraction of having his two sworn rivals in the same room — both of whom had proven on numerous occasions just how happy and capable they were of dealing out sudden violence — but Takaba hadn’t until now noticed the gift-wrapped box held under Fei Long’s arm. He wasn’t fooled by its sparkly bow for a second.
“Oh god, there are nunchucks inside that, aren’t there?”
Fei Long sighed, double checking that the door was locked before moving further into the room. If he was surprised to see that Takaba had plastered himself against the window like a terrified spider, he didn’t let it show. “And this is why I delayed the inevitable for so long.”
Takaba swallowed, wondering if it would be faster to unlatch the window or just smash through the glass, head-first. “The inevitable?”
Fei Long fixed him in the eye. “We must talk.”
To be continued…