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Law & Hors d'Oeuvres

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Week 1

No matter what anyone said, Takaba Akihito was not just a pretty face in a tight-fitting flight attendant’s uniform. He was smart (and okay, yes, moderately attractive — but so was everyone whose dress code required a personal arsenal of grooming products and enough hairspray to immobilise drunken first class passengers).  

Anyway, the point was: Takaba was not an idiot. And that meant he was perfectly aware that when he signed up for five weeks as a contestant on a reality television show, the most “reality” he’d be experiencing was sleeping and infrequent toilet breaks. Assuming he was allowed those without a camera following him into the bathroom. 

But still, it was worth it. Every second. Even when the first second involved being unceremoniously shoved into the back of a limo that drove, it turned out, for only about 50 metres before stopping behind all the other limos waiting to enter the TV show’s compound. 

“Remember,” growled Mitarai, one of the producers, worrying his lip ring and shoving the microphone down Takaba’s jeans waistband. “As soon as we get close, let out your best squeal. I don’t care if your first look at him leaves you feeling as excited as a dead fish, we still need sound bytes, and we need them hysterical.” 

Takaba glanced at the woman sharing the limo with him as she murmured her assent, keeping his gaze fixed resolutely above her neckline. It didn’t matter that her little black dress outlined every curve of her body, or that said curves didn’t do anything for him— if she or any of the cameras caught him staring, he knew they’d somehow edit the footage to make him look like a pervert. Never mind that he was only 23 and still prime chikan-bait, thank you very much. 

As if she somehow guessed the trajectory of his thoughts, the woman quirked her lips at him. Takaba looked down at his lap, jolted slightly as the limo began moving again. 

“Here we go,” Mitarai muttered, craning his neck to look out the tinted windows as they turned smoothly into a well-lit driveway. “Get ready to shriek your excitement in three, two…” 

“I can’t see anything,” said Takaba, as they drove past a blinding floodlight. 

“One!” 

The woman erupted into a girlish kyaaa at the same time the limo pulled to a stop. There was a beat of silence, then Mitarai kicked him in the shin. 

“Come on,” the producer growled, “don’t make me do an impression of you.” 

“But I can’t see him,” Takaba protested, his last few words cut off when Mitarai suddenly let out a disturbing groan. Takaba lurched backwards. 

“Oh my god, I can’t believe it,” Mitarai gushed in a strange, high voice, leaning forward until his mouth was in the vicinity of Takaba’s ass — or rather, his microphone. “So handsome! I can’t wait, oh my god, I must be dreaming! Okay,” he concluded abruptly in his normal voice, turning to crack open the door beside him and nodding at the woman. “You first, Shibata-san.” 

Takaba waited until she’d slipped out of the limo in a swish of fabric before rounding on Mitarai. “I do not sound like that!” 

“Who cares,” the producer drawled, carefully closing the door again. “This is all taped. Between here and your mama’s television screen, we can do anything. So a word to the wise, Takaba-kun,” and he tugged at his goatee for emphasis, “if you’re not willing to play along, go crawl back to whichever park bench you came from.” 

 

The wait in the limo felt interminable. Takaba tried to distract himself by leaning far enough back in his seat that he couldn’t smell Mitarai’s fruity cologne anymore, but that just left him with a face full of cigarette smoke instead. (It had taken him a while to figure out there was another contestant in the limo with them, though only their foot — encased in a silk slipper of all things — was clearly visible behind the heavy cloud of smoke. It was tapping against the floor impatiently). 

Soon enough, Takaba found himself flashing forward to the moment when he’d step out of the limo and Captain Yama would catch sight of him, eyes widening first in surprise, perhaps a slow smile of pleasure and recognition stretching across his face. His hands would reach out, those strong arms opening in welcome, shoulders pitching forward in joy, desire — 

“Hurry up, Takaba,” Mitarai growled, shoving him out through the limo door. Takaba stumbled out, yanking up his jeans when they slipped down to catch on his hipbones.  

When he managed to walk forward in an approximately straight line, Takaba finally caught his first glimpse of the bachelor. He was a tall man, dressed sharply in a three-piece suit, looking casual as he awaited Takaba’s approach beside the house’s glazed double doors. But it wasn’t Captain Yama. 

Takaba only just managed to keep from stopping dead in his tracks, and he was sure the cameras were picking up every second of the confusion and shock playing across his face. How? He’d been so sure, he would never have signed up for this farce of a TV show if he hadn’t been completely certain—  

It was only years of practice at maintaining his composure under pressure that kept him walking, forcing his expression into brittle neutrality until he’d reached the waiting stranger. The waiting stranger who was smirking at him, he saw now, with eyes so molten Takaba felt a shiver of apprehension even as he blurted, “Who are you?” 

The man lifted an eyebrow. “Who were you expecting?” 

For all that it was cool and deep, Takaba felt that voice like a punch to the heart. “Not you,” he muttered. 

If the man was surprised that one of his supposed romantic pursuers was displeased to see him, he did a good job of hiding it. Actually, he looked downright entertained. Takaba clenched his teeth, but before he got a chance to turn that smug nose into a satisfying mess of bloodied cartilage, someone hissed “Hug him!” from behind the bank of cameras and equipment. Ugh. 

“Well?” said the man, regarding Takaba from his unfairly elevated height. Shoe inserts. Takaba would bet his favourite pair of jeans on it. 

He should leave. Right now, he could turn right around and march away without a backward glance, and probably refrain from kicking over any lighting equipment too. He should do it, get out of here before he got pulled into this too deeply. 

The man swooped. Grabbing Takaba by the forearms, hauling him against his chest, which was hard underneath the sheath of expensive fabric. Takaba struggled until he felt a puff of breath against his cheek, freezing in anticipation of a phrase or two of whispered mockery that the cameras wouldn’t pick up. Instead something wet slithered into his ear. 

“The hell!?” 

Nobody came to rescue him, and Takaba tried to wrench himself free. But the man’s grip was like iron, holding him immobile. Oh, that was it. Takaba was officially, one hundred percent done with this crap. He was leaving immediately. Right now, he was going. So sayounara, mata never! 

 (Just as soon as the man stopped tonguing his ear). 

 

This is the story of how Takaba Akihito, underpaid but reasonably happy flight attendant, found himself on the doorstep of a house getting his ear tongue-fucked by a well-dressed stranger. 

In a convoluted kind of way, it all started three years ago, when some bright spark of a TV executive had decided that what Japan desperately needed was another reality dating show. And thus, Japan’s No.1 Handsome Confirmed Bachelor was born. Half-competition, half-soap opera, and with a liberal sprinkling of extreme dating locations aimed at stimulating domestic tourism, it was an instant social phenomenon that had since spawned a merchandise range and a themed café in Akihabara.  

Then, not long after the second season wrapped, the media reported that a man was suing the show’s production company after he’d been rejected as a contestant because, well, he was a man. And so was the bachelor. And what kind of red-blooded Japanese bachelor would choose a guy over a house full of cute, well-endowed girls with a propensity for maid cosplay? 

 The court case never amounted to anything, and media interest in the plaintiff’s suit fizzled out long before he lost. But whether it was because the channel execs had finally consulted their consciences, or because they were desperate to attract the female 18-34 demographic, the third season of Confirmed Bachelor would have a twist.  

It was still, at its heart, a harem show. But this time it was an equal opportunity harem, with the 26 contestants split evenly between men and women. And, supposedly, this season’s highly desirable bachelor was equally receptive to the attentions of both genders. Sure, if he wound up picking one of the guys to be his One True Love, they couldn’t get married — but this was television. And with television, staged homosexual weddings at Meiji Shrine were not out of the question. 

Anyway, it was during the contestant recruitment process for this year’s Confirmed Bachelor that Takaba had several very good reasons to believe that the object of his longtime crush had signed on to be this year’s bachelor. Captain Yama was a career pilot for Headline Airlines, a grizzled-but-handsome chain smoker with shoulders that Takaba had not infrequently imagined clutching onto during a tryst in an aeroplane toilet cubicle. 

But now, having stepped out of that limo and seen the new bachelor for himself, Takaba’s every dream of forcing Yama-sama to see him as something more than a nobody subordinate had been dashed. The Captain wasn’t on the show, and that left Takaba wedged into the far end of a couch in the Confirmed Bachelor compound, surrounded by 25 other contestants making stilted small talk.  

A dark-haired, sober-faced man in a suit was sitting beside him, staring contemplatively into the middle distance. On the sofa’s other end was a blond foreigner, who despite the ever-present cameras was regaling the room at length about the onsen he’d just opened in Hakone, and how he was only on the show to promote it on national TV. 

Takaba wanted to leave. Or at least find another room that wasn’t filled with well-dressed, well-spoken and terrifyingly good looking people. But when he’d tried to wander away the last time, a producer had appeared out of nowhere to corral him back into the meeting room. Takaba could only console himself with the thought that there was a good chance he’d be rejected during the first Tulip Ceremony later that night, and then he could go home with his sanity, if not his pride, left intact. 

(He refused to believe the amber-eyed bastard of a bachelor’s prolonged, non-consensual ear fucking had meant anything). 

And speak of the devil. The room’s chatter abruptly died away as the bachelor appeared in the doorway, preceded into the room by another man who paused long enough for the cameras to scramble forward and film their overdramatic entrance. The newcomer was bearded and wearing a truly ghastly purple leatherette suit, black hair slicked forward into a slimy fringe. Strangely enough, it was the thatch of chest hair spearing out from the gap in his crimson shirt that jogged Takaba’s memory: this was the host from the show’s previous two seasons, Sakazaki. He looked both shorter and smarmier in the flesh. 

When the director called action, Sakazaki lifted his flute of champagne and tapped it with a spoon, calling for quiet. The last of the talking contestants fell silent, and the room was filled by a strange charge that had Takaba sinking back into the couch as deeply as the cushions allowed him.  

“Welcome to Season Three of Japan’s No.1 Handsome Confirmed Bachelor,” drawled Sakazaki. “I’m your host for tonight’s proceedings, Sakazaki Masaki, and I’ll be here to guide you through the next five weeks as we find out which one of you has the qualities to meet our bachelor’s exacting standards. But first, the introduction you’re all so eager for — who is this year’s confirmed bachelor?” 

Unwillingly, Takaba let his eyes drift to the dark-haired bastard from outside, who was now standing beside Sakazaki with every appearance of amused serenity. If only Takaba hadn’t finished his drink, and was standing within striking distance… 

“If he looks familiar to you,” Sakazaki continued, some of the enthusiasm leeching from his voice, “that’s because he makes frequent television appearances on this channel and others as a legal expert, in addition to his work on high profile cases. He is Asami Ryūichi-san, a corporate lawyer for Scion & Partners, the firm he founded himself at the tender age of 28.”  

Now that his face wasn’t being assaulted in front of the cameras and he could take a good look, Takaba supposed this Asami man did look kind of familiar. He must have to every other contestant too, because he couldn’t find a shred of surprise or doubt on any of the others’ faces. Yes, there was delight and infatuation (the women), frightening concentration (a serious man with glasses standing by the fireplace) and the glazed eyes of outright worship (too many to count, though that look on the face of the huge guy with the bleached hair was a surprise) — but no one seemed at all curious about the bachelor’s identity. Had they all received some tip-off Takaba hadn’t been privy to, somehow? 

“Good evening,” Asami said coolly to the room, and Takaba was sure he wasn’t imagining the collective shiver his voice produced within the contestants. “I look forward to meeting you all and getting to know you…personally.” 

Takaba rolled his eyes at the ceiling. When he dropped his gaze again he saw that Asami was looking right at him. 

 

The formal on-camera introductions were followed by an “impromptu” nabe party in the compound’s dining room, which contained three long tables of provisions and cooking pots over candles, and more alcohol than Takaba had seen since his nights as an abandoned warehouse-squatting delinquent. Apparently the producers were very keen for people to make tipsy and/or drunken fools of themselves for the cameras, which were still circling the room like plastic vultures. 

At the head of every table was a chair reserved for Asami himself, and for the next hour the man switched seats to be schmoozed by whoever had elbowed and harassed their way into the spots closest to him. Takaba spent his time with his head down and his chopsticks always rooting around in his bowl or stuck in his mouth, trying to ignore the scary foreigner with the shaven head. Ever since they’d sat down, he’d been staring at Takaba with undisguised suspicion.  

“My uncle, Yuri,” the blond onsen owner explained, after introducing himself as Mikhail, a former swimwear model and entrepreneur from Russia. “I’m really here for him, you know,” he went on, indicating Yuri. “I got tired of him assaulting our male customers. So I thought, hey, bring him to this place, full of good-looking boys clearly gagging for a fuck, why else come here, right? This way no more unhealthy suppressed desire, no more lawsuits for the onsen.” 

And now Yuri’s hollow grey eyes and their unerring fixation made Takaba want to throw up. He hunched over his bowl, hoping the cameras had somehow miraculously missed that exchange. 

“That is ridiculous,” called a crisp, accented voice a couple seats away. Takaba dared to glance up — a woman? No, a man with long dark hair like a fall of ribbons over one shoulder, features as refined as a knife. He was dressed in Chinese scholar’s robes, patterned subtly with bamboo and flowers. Silk, like the stranger’s slippers in the limo. Was it the same person? 

“What’s that, Fei Long?” grinned Mikhail, leaning back in his chair and letting his t-shirt ride up, exposing his waxed and muscled midriff.  

“Your plan,” replied the man, Fei Long, with icy enunciation. “It is ridiculous. If you are here to play games and not take this competition seriously, then you should leave immediately. Don’t make us suffer your presence unnecessarily.” 

Mikhail laughed. “You say that like you forget this is just a trashy television show. We all have our own reasons for being here, and I’ll bet you most of them aren’t because we want that terrifying lawyer’s attention. Me, for example? Aside from Yuri, I want to promote my business, and maybe make a few deals of my own.” Mikhail lowered his gaze, and Takaba was startled by how blonde his eyelashes were, briefly shrouding the azure of his eyes. “A partnership between my onsen and the famous White Serpent Salon’s luxurious bath range could be profitable for both of us.” 

Fei Long snorted derisively, and rose from his seat. “You’ll excuse me.” And having smoothed down the front of his robe, he left their table to approach Asami on the other side of the room. Takaba watched as one of the cameramen scrambled to capture the moment he rested one fine-fingered hand on Asami’s shoulder, bending to whisper in his ear. 

A long sigh brought Takaba’s attention back to Mikhail, whose mouth was curved into a bitter smile. “Oh well, he never gives me the time of day anyway, usually.” His eyes narrowed as he tracked Fei Long and Asami, who were crossing the room to slip outside onto the patio, trailed by one intrepid camerawoman. 

“You never stood a chance, approaching him like that,” said the man sitting beside Takaba, who’d introduced himself before simply as Yoh, a security guard for ALSOK. 

Mikhail shot him a dark look. “I appreciate the advice,” he said sarcastically. 

Eventually the party wound down; or, rather, the producers decided they had wrung as much petty interaction as they required. Sakazaki reappeared, having stripped off his jacket at some point and unhooked a few more buttons on his shirt, revealing large pectorals and yet more chest hair. 

As soon as Asami and Fei Long returned from outside — the former looking as composed as ever and the latter apparently suppressing a tantrum — the group moved through the compound and into the back garden. A large pond filled with koi and renewed by a miniature waterfall was set against the property’s high stone walls. There was also a large paved area, empty until Takaba and the others were manhandled into three rows facing the back of the building and most of the cameras. 

Asami stood facing them, his gaze wandering over the contestants’ faces while Sakazaki and the crew finished setting up for the Tulip Ceremony. Takaba was in the middle row with the other men of average height, most of the women in front and the tallest of both genders standing sentry at the back. Takaba prayed that it was just the night breeze and not actually Mikhail’s depraved uncle Yuri breathing down his neck. 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Sakazaki as soon as the cameras began recording, pushing his glasses up his nose dramatically. “Welcome to this, the first Tulip Ceremony of Japan’s No.1 Handsome Confirmed Bachelor, Season 3. Now that you’ve all had a chance to meet Asami-san in person and share conversation over a delicious dinner, kindly provided by our friends at Noguchi Nabemono, it’s time to see who will remain to participate in Week 1’s Love Challenge, and,” pausing with apparent relish, “who will be going home in disgrace.  

“Asami-san has already considered the merits of each of you, and if you receive a tulip from him tonight, you may treat it as a token of his anticipation to learn all there is about you. But there are only twenty tulips here,” gesturing to the vase of pink flowers resting on a plaster column by Asami’s elbow, “which means that six of you will not survive this competition before the night is over.” 

Takaba swallowed, feeling the tension in the bodies around him. He was struggling to tamp down his own nervousness, annoyed with himself. There was nothing for him here now that he knew Captain Yama was not the bachelor, and he wanted to go home, so why should he care about tonight’s outcome? If for some perverted reason Asami wound up giving him a tulip, then he’d just — he’d just smash it in the lawyer’s smug face and walk right out of the compound, no regrets. Nothing in the contract he’d signed had said anything about not using the props as weapons. 

“Let us begin,” declared Sakazaki. 

Asami, spare grace in every motion, turned to pluck the first tulip from the vase. Takaba wasn’t sure when the man had had time to do this “deliberation” over who he wanted to stay on the show — maybe they’d be filming that later. 

A long silence dragged out as Asami stared at them all steadily, waiting until the director finally signalled for him to speak. 

“Shibata Etsuko,” he said, and Takaba watched at the woman he’d shared a limo with stepped forward, heels clacking over the pavement to reach Asami. The man had used her given name, Takaba noticed, and certainly nothing in the way she accepted her tulip signalled shyness. Did they already know each other? 

The process repeated: a long silence as Asami selected the next tulip and turned back to the assembly.  

“Kuroda-san,” he called next, and a bespectacled man from the back row, overdressed in a suit and trench coat, stepped forward eagerly. 

“Kuroda-san, will you accept this tulip?” Asami intoned gravely, the corner of his eye twitching as the other man instantly blurted, “Of course, Ryūichi.”  

Tulip clutched firmly in one hand, Kuroda stepped to the side where Etsuko was already waiting, the two of them safe from elimination. 

And so it went. Takaba tuned out after the third flower was bestowed, only paying attention when Mikhail, then Yuri, were called and received tulips, swaggering over to Asami like it was their god-given right to be selected. Yoh, the serious-faced security guard was next, then a slip of blonde starlet wearing an animal print cardigan. Gradually, the contestants thinned out around him, but Takaba stared straight ahead, making sure to keep his expression as uninterested in the proceedings as possible. (Though he couldn’t quite keep from widening his eyes as Asami called out “Kazumi-san”, and the mountainous blond contestant lumbered forward and bowed his head, all but reeking of humble gratitude). 

With about half of the contestants already in possession of tulips, Takaba felt his spirits rising. At this rate he’d be in the bottom six, and could leave before he missed the last train home. 

Asami paused overly long before calling out the next name, idly fingering the stem of the tulip as if re-considering his decision. “Fei Long,” he finally said, and with a flap of silk Fei Long left the back row and strode stiffly to Asami, snatching the tulip from his hand before Asami could ask the ritual question.  

Still smirking to himself, Asami turned his attention back to the vase as Fei Long made his way to the other safe contestants. But rather than pluck out a single flower, Asami brought both hands to bear — lifting the remaining tulips, all 13 of them, out of the vase in a loose bouquet. 

Sakazaki made a strangled noise and the director called cut, stepping forward and demanding to know what Asami was doing. But the lawyer barely spared him a cool glance, turning back to the remaining contestants and saying with deceptive mildness, “I thought I had ‘discretion’ to give out my tulips?”

After a moment of collective sputtering, it was agreed that Asami did indeed have that power. Sakazaki muttered something dark-sounding into his wrist, and not far from Takaba, he heard Mitarai squawk indignantly, “he’s supposed to consult us first before going off-script!” 

But only a few minutes later and the cameras were rolling again, all trained on Asami as he stood alone, somehow looking both stoic and full of gravitas — instead of ridiculous like he should have, damn him. 

“Takaba.” 

Someone nudged his back, and Takaba glanced behind him, wondering who was trying to get his attention. He met the gaze of a young woman, eyes wide and full of something — fear? Urgency? 

Takaba.” 

Oh. Oh shit. Takaba swung around, jarring his shoulder against the contestant beside him. But he didn’t pause to apologise, not when he’d only just realised exactly who had been calling his name, repeatedly. When he dared lock eyes with Asami, everything around him fell away. All that was left was that tall figure in a well-cut suit, waiting for him with a bunch of dripping stamens held out like an offering. 

Though if Takaba was telling the truth, as he stumbled forward on suddenly shaky legs, it was him who felt like the ritual sacrifice —  pulled towards the altar of Asami. 

 

Even if he’d been asked, Takaba couldn’t have said what he’d told the camera during his compulsory post-Tulip Ceremony interview. He vaguely remembered muttering things about how surprised he’d been — which was true enough — but he suspected he’d been too overwhelmed by the whole night to be anything close to coherent. No matter how they edited the footage later, he’d probably come off as ditzy and airheaded as most people assumed he was because of his job. 

When they finally let him go and he found the bedroom assigned to him on the compound’s second floor, he saw his luggage waiting for him at the foot of a single, Western-style bed. He also saw that he wasn’t alone — Fei Long was standing over the room’s other bed, his pink tulip gripped in one of the hands perched primly on his hips. He was speaking in a foreign language — Chinese? — to a young man, who was leaning back on the mattress and pouting pretty impressively. 

As soon as Takaba shuffled into the room Fei Long shot him a suspicious glance, which turned into an all out glare when he caught sight of the bouquet of tulips. (Takaba had yet to see a trash can anywhere in the compound, and Mitarai had just laughed at him when he’d tried to give them back to the crew).  

With a final angry-sounding stream of gibberish, Fei Long turned on his heel and swept out of the room in a cloud of fresh cigarette smoke. Feeling slightly dazed, Takaba turned back to the boy — who, no longer blocked from sight, seemed even younger than Takaba had first thought. The show’s minimum age requirement was twenty, but this kid only looked around seventeen. Or three, given how he seemed to be on the verge of a hissy fit. 

“Er,” Takaba began, creeping further into the room to dump the flowers on his bed. The duvet could absorb the excess water. “Hi. I’m Takaba Akihito.” 

“I know,” huffed the boy in accented Japanese, dropping back onto the mattress and glowering at the ceiling. Takaba waited about thirty seconds for a reciprocal introduction that never came, then decided to check out the en suite bathroom. It was small, but there was a bath at least. Maybe he could soak the humiliation of the day’s events out of his brain by sticking his head under the tap. 

An hour later, finally crawling into bed and clicking off the bedside lamp, he noticed that the foreign kid was still sprawled on top of his duvet, silent.  

“What’s your name?” Takaba asked, whispering in case the boy had actually dozed off. 

“…Tao.”  

“Pleased to meet you, Tao,” Takaba murmured reflexively. “Uh, aren’t you going to turn your light off?” 

“No,” Tao declared, suddenly sounding more indignant than sulky. “I’m going to use all their electricity and eat all their food. That’ll punish them for choosing such a homo.” 

Takaba winced. “What do you mean?” 

That man,” Tao hissed, rolling onto his stomach and peering at Takaba through to gloom. “He’s a homo. He sent all of the women away tonight. It’s his fault that Fei-sama is here, so I’m going to make him suffer!”  

Takaba opened his mouth to argue that Asami had in fact kept at least two or three of the female contestants around, and besides, there was nothing wrong with being gay, thank you very much. But before he could choose his words, Tao crawled up his bed and burrowed under the covers, looking rather like a caterpillar in a woollen cocoon. 

“Don’t talk to me,” came the muffled demand. 

Takaba rolled over himself and tried to comply with the prickly little brat’s wishes, but some habits were hard to break.  

Oyasumi,” he whispered into the dark. 

 

*

The next day the show chartered three mini-buses to take the contestants and crew to the location of the first week’s Love Challenge. As they merged onto a highway and left Tokyo’s well-developed streets behind, Takaba grew suspicious. The producers had told them all to dress for exercise, and as the view outside the window grew progressively more agrarian, Takaba began to worry about what he’d be expected to do. Some kind of rice planting contest? Horse riding? Or, god forbid, would they have to race back to the city on foot? 

Eventually the buses pulled up into a large parking lot filled with cars and much larger tourist buses, most of the area ringed by forested hills. The faint beep of the neighbouring train station’s ticket barriers filled the air as Takaba and the others piled outside, looking around. Some of the tourists waiting in line for the public toilets took our their phones and started snapping pictures of them. 

“Mount Takao,” breathed one of the remaining girls, Momohara Ai, looking up at the sloping mountainside in apparent delight. Takaba couldn’t help but notice the way she also subtly angled her body for the benefit of their audience’s camera phones. Though it made sense: she was a model and spokesperson for a cosmetics company Takaba couldn’t remember the name of, and he had to wonder if her current outfit (see-through top, spaghetti string camisole and bike shorts that exposed everything but her underwear) had been picked by her agency, or if this was just the standard exercise uniform of idols. 

“All right, move it along,” barked Mitarai, poking and jabbing them in the back until they started walking the sloping “trail”, which was properly paved and demarcated by a line of well-tended trees, their leaves rusted by the onset of autumn. Takaba suddenly saw a lot of hiking in his immediate future. 

“I’ve heard that you can see real tengu in the forest here sometimes,” Momohara whispered to Takaba, apparently undaunted by their producer’s increasingly laboured breathing. “Do you think it’s true?” 

“Only children would believe something like that,” said a new voice, and Takaba frowned as a lithe man, dressed in expensive and form-fitting sportswear, overtook them. 

“Shuu-san!” Momohara greeted him. “Don’t walk so fast!” 

The man obligingly slowed, his smile a little condescending to Takaba’s eye. “Ai-chan, you’ll have no hope of winning the Challenge today if you treat this like a stroll.” 

Momohara pouted.

“We don’t know what the Challenge is yet,” Takaba pointed out. The man ignored him, and with a toss of his honey-blond hair he surged up the hill to a small plateau where Sakazaki and the crew were setting up to film. 

“Shuu-san is always so mean to me,” Momohara sighed, slipping her hand into the crook of Takaba’s arm. “Just because DrakeEnema is so popular now, and my last single didn’t sell very well.” 

“Drake what?” Takaba couldn’t keep from asking. Though with hair and an attitude like that, it made sense that the man was in the entertainment industry as well. 

“Oh, you don’t know them? Sudou Shuu is DE’s lead singer. Their new song Mayu Doko?!? is always on TV lately,” she concluded glumly. 

Takaba supposed it was possible he’d seen this Sudou on one of those music billboards that were always driving around Shibuya, but with the amount of time he spent in the air and overseas for work, it was hard to keep up with all the new bands. Especially when they seemed to have all been cloned from the same blond alien. 

“Enough…chit-chat,” Mitarai groaned, doubling over and sucking in deep lungfuls of air as soon as they crested the hill. Takaba and the others milled around while the crew finished setting up, many eyeing the cable cars gently scaling the side of Mt Takao with longing. Asami himself had yet to appear, Takaba realised, and he hadn’t joined them for breakfast in the compound either. Not that Takaba was sad about that, oh no — if anything, it was a reprieve. He honestly wasn’t sure how he was going to face the bastard after last night’s stunt with the tulips. 

“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen,” began Sakazaki as soon as the cameras were rolling, “to this season’s first Love Challenge. We’re here today at famous Takao-san, ready to pit you against each other like starving pit bulls over a scrap of chicken. Now, I’m sure you already know the rules of the competition, but let me repeat them for the sake of our new viewers and the less cognitively blessed among you.” 

Takaba glanced around at his fellow contestants, but all of them looked too focused to be bothered reacting to their host’s monologue.  

“As you might have guessed, today’s goal is to climb Mount Takao as quickly as possible, with the first to reach the summit today’s Love Challenge winner. Why are we making you demonstrate your level of fitness or probable lack thereof on national television? Well, let us not forget that this is a love challenge. And what better way to show your future spouse, Asami Ryūichi-san, how much you care than by keeping that body of yours fit and trim for him?” Sakazaki paused, distaste twisting his face before he spat out the last line of his script, “With a man like him, you’re going to need stamina.” 

A few of the other contestants tittered at this, while Takaba just focused on not looking as bewildered by the proceedings as he felt. Why did they need so much pomp for what was basically a race up a small mountain crawling with tourists and day-trippers? 

“But that’s not the end,” Sakazaki said, drama creeping into his voice. “The winner of today’s Love Challenge will receive a reward — and that reward is a group date with Asami-san. And who will be joining him on this date? It’s not the race’s runners up, necessarily. Instead, Asami-san himself will choose one person from among the remaining contestants, and the other choice will be left up to our viewers, your fans.”  

When this announcement was met with nothing but a protracted, dubious silence, Sakazaki barrelled on with false cheer. “That’s right, a brief clip of each of you during today’s race will be uploaded to our Confirmed Bachelor website, and our viewers will vote on their favourite. The winner will be joining the contestant who placed first in today’s race, and Asami-san’s personal pick, in a group date tomorrow! And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what a valuable opportunity the group date will be to show our bachelor your best qualities as a future spouse.” 

Glancing at their director, who was making an impatient gesture with his hand, Sakazaki turned back to their assembly and boomed, “Let the race begin!”

Chapter Text

Takaba quickly decided that — beautiful scenery and adorable old people with hiking poles aside — he hated Mount Takao.  

Predictably, the most muscle-bound (and crazy-eyed) contestants in the competition had surged ahead as soon as Sakazaki had fired the starter’s pistol, with the man-mountain Suoh in the lead. He was closely followed by Fei Long, who despite having chosen yet another silk robe as his “exercise” gear, was astonishingly fleet of foot.  

Yuri, Kuroda and the strait-laced guy Takaba always thought of as ‘Glasses’, also seemed to have formed a kind of aggressive pack mentality, jostling each other but remaining close together as they rapidly hiked up Takao’s gradually inclining slope. 

The thing was, Takaba wasn’t trying very hard. In fact, he was doing pretty much everything in his power to climb as slowly as possible without looking like he was failing on purpose. When this morning he’d decided he couldn’t just quit the competition with no reasonable explanation (or at least one not involving Captain Yama), he’d realised doing poorly during the Love Challenges would be the fastest way to get eliminated from the show.  

It wasn’t honourable, sure, but it was the quickest way to get back to his normal life, back to the job he loved and, most especially, the to Captain of his heart. Even if that meant watching Momohara Ai and another female contestant, the stunning actress Azumi Ryouko, overtake him up the mountainside. In high heels. God. 

Two hours into the hike, sweat beginning to pool in his lower back and even the cameramen losing interest in his hiking party of one, Takaba stopped by a rock and sat down to catch his breath and stretch out his legs. He’d realised too late that walking more slowly would actually extend the amount of pain in his muscles. 

When he heaved himself up to begin the next leg of the hike, something hard landed on his left shoulder blade and sent him sprawling off the path. Grabbing hold of a scraggly bush, he just managed to keep from tumbling right over the lip of the trail and down into the dense tangle of forest below. 

“Argh.” He winced at the sting of his grazed shins as he inched backwards on all fours, away from the edge. “What-?” 

“Oh dear,” drawled a familiar voice behind him. 

Takaba twisted around, too shocked to even voice his surprise at seeing Sudou Shuu standing there, smiling down at him with hands resting casually in the pockets of his tight shorts. “I’m so sorry, Takaba-kun, my clumsy hand must have slipped. Here, let me help you up.” 

Takaba thrashed out of his way when Sudou bent towards him, gaining his own feet quickly. “What the hell was that?” he shouted. 

“What?” Sudou inquired serenely, looking around them to punctuate the fact that they were in a deserted part of the trail, not a camera or crewmember in sight. “You fell.” 

“You pushed me, you, you lying jerk!” 

Sudou’s face neatly re-arranged itself into an expression of chagrin. “Oh no, no no no. I came back to help you, struggling to keep up as you were. Unfortunately, you fell before I could help you.” 

Takaba was struck mute by this overplucked arsehole’s sheer, semi-homicidal nerve. He could have all too easily not caught himself before tumbling right off the edge of the path, crashing through shrubs and branches who knew how far down —  

“Anyway,” Sudou went on breezily. “We’d best get a move on, the others will have reached the summit by now, and the sunlight’s failing. Try to keep up, Takaba-kun.” 

Takaba watched his retreating back for several long moments before he came back to himself, limping back onto the trail. “Call me ‘kun’ again,” he growled, “and you’ll be the one taking a fall.” 

Everyone was indeed already at the summit by the time Takaba arrived, several minutes after Sudou — who had apparently seen no reason to stick around after trying to maim him. 

Most of the other contestants were sitting or milling around impatiently for the day’s filming to conclude, drinking coffee and eating ice cream from the vending machines placed near the seating area (which had apparently been cleared of other hikers). It seemed Fei Long had been declared the winner of the race, just ahead of a now wrathful-looking Kuroda. 

As soon as the director caught sight of Takaba’s grazed shins, he sent a swarm of cameramen over to film the first aid lady disinfect the cuts and wrap them in bandages, which was definitely overkill. Anyway, Takaba was definitely blaming the haze of exhaustion and embarrassment produced by all the unwonted attention on the fact that he failed to notice Asami’s presence until the lawyer touched his arm. 

“You’re injured,” he said, ignoring Takaba’s start of surprise. 

“How on earth did you figure that out,” Takaba muttered, refusing to meet the man’s eye. But apparently continuing to ask probing questions was an unbreakable habit with prosecutors. 

“How did it happen?” 

Takaba found himself glancing towards the group of other contestants unconsciously, but jerked his head away before his gaze could alight on Sudou. He refused to blame him, not when he had no evidence. With his luck he’d just come off as whiny and attention-seeking, and desperate besides. Anyway, he’d been independent from a younger age than most; he didn’t need anyone fighting his battles for him, least of all the “star” of this little production. 

“I’m fine, thanks for your concern,” Takaba said blandly, moving out of the range of Asami’s ever-roving hands as soon as the first aid lady was done with him. 

Mitarai finally corralled them all into a group to listen to Sakazaki announce the race’s winner. 

“But just because you failed miserably at this test of endurance doesn’t mean you’re out of luck,” he went on, smirking and flashing a hairy pectoral at the camera. “Tomorrow morning we’ll be announcing the winner of the “popular vote”, and Asami-san will join you over breakfast to console you — and, of course, to announce his own choice for the group date.” 

This seemed to cheer the other sweaty and fatigued contestants somewhat, and Takaba followed them as a group towards the chair lifts to descend the mountain. 

“It’s not like I tried that hard,” Mikhail was explaining loudly to Yoh, who was looking even more dour than usual. “I was taking it easy, actually, the better to enjoy Nihon’s unparalleled mountain scenery.” 

Takaba climbed in the second to last cable car behind Shibata and a cameraman. And seriously, they thought they’d be able to film interaction between the contestants that didn’t consist of exhausted and pained grunting this late in the day? 

And then Asami Ryuuichi himself climbed into the cable car beside Takaba, shutting its door with a ominously decisive click. Takaba froze, staring fixedly out the window even though the sun was setting directly into his eyes.

He absolutely did not jump when a warm hand insinuated itself onto his thigh. The camera swivelled immediately to capture it.

“Any reason why you intentionally lost the race today?” Asami asked in a deceptively quiet voice, right by his ear. Against his permission, every last hair on the back of Takaba’s neck stood to attention, and he felt his cheeks flush too. Damn it. 

“I didn’t,” he denied, still squinting out the window. A quick glance at Shibata provided no help; the woman was smiling indulgently at him, instead of turning into a jealous rage monster like she was supposed to. Supposedly, everyone else on this stupid show would’ve gladly given their right eye to be fondled by Asami. 

“Hmmm,” murmured the man. Then — oh god — he was leaning in again, closer, all but nuzzling Takaba’s neck as the grip on his thigh tightened and moved up — 

“I want to swap seats,” Takaba declared. 

Later that night Takaba was tucked up in bed with every muscle below his pelvis screaming bloody murder at him (yes, even that one, what with the apparently too-angry wank he’d had in the shower as soon as they’d arrived back at the compound).  

Tao eventually wandered into their room, attention fixed on the late-model phone in his hand. And it was a testament to just how tired he was that it took Takaba several minutes to notice what was incongruous about the scene before him. 

“How did you get a phone?” he croaked, watching as Tao flopped backwards on to his bed and dangled his bare feet over the edge. 

“Brought it,” the boy replied, in tones that said he thought Takaba was a complete idiot. 

“But we’re not allowed to bring internet-capable technology into the compound with us. We’re not supposed to be in contact with anyone outside while the show is being filmed.” 

Tao was silent for so long that Takaba thought he was back to being cold-shouldered again. But eventually Tao shuffled up the bed on his rump, rucking up the duvet, and reached to turn his lamp off. “Next time don’t hand over your phone when they ask for it then,” he advised, bathed in the mocking illumination of his phone’s screen. 

“Hate this show,” Takaba muttered into his pillow. 

*

Mitarai came in to wake them the next morning, playing K-pop at full blast from the speakers of a portable radio over their beds until Takaba was obliged to get up and try to strangle him. 

In the dining room, breakfast was again laid out on a long buffet table full of bamboo steamers of nikuman and rice, pots of miso and an assortment of toast and other western foods (Takaba made a beeline for the hash browns). Unlike yesterday, though, a large screen had been set up in front of the patio doors. As the rest of the contestants trailed in, Takaba noticed more than one wary eye cast in its direction. 

And then Asami strolled in, followed by Sakazaki. Takaba definitely did not hide behind his glass of orange juice, which was why he — and every other interested gaze in the room — saw that, for once, the man was dressed casually. Of course, “casual” in the land of corporate law meant his polo shirt and slacks probably cost more than Crown Prince Naruhito’s ransom, but it did make Takaba wonder what event had been planned for Confirmed Bachelor’s first group date. Not that he’d be there to find out. 

“I trust you’ve all rested well after yesterday’s little hike,” Sakazaki began when the cameras were rolling. This was answered with a hum of slightly mutinous agreement, and their host smirked at them. “Well, the excitement isn’t over. Or at least it isn’t for two of you in this room right now. As you know, last night your devoted fans watched clips of you all during your visit to Mount Takao, and voted for their favourite contestant. That winner of that vote will be joining Asami on his date with Liu-san today. Let’s see who it is, shall we?” 

After a momentary pause, the big screen lit up and began playing a video montage of yesterday’s hike: Glasses marching up the slope with grim determination, Tao running in spurts then hunching over to catch his breath, Momohara dawdling to appreciate a Shinto shrine beside the trail…the only glimpse Takaba got of himself was as he finally gained the mountain’s summit, sweaty and bleeding.  

The footage abruptly cut away to a new screen displaying a thumbnail of each contestant’s face that made Takaba feel like a playable character in an arcade game. “And now, the results of our viewers’ votes!” said Sakazaki in a pre-recorded voice over, and a miniature bar graph appeared beneath their faces. One of the bars jutted high above the others, beneath the face of… 

“Sudou Shuu-san, congratulations!” said the voice-over, a second after Sudou had already risen from his chair, smiling with lowered eyelashes at Asami, who’d remained expressionless throughout the video. It was, Takaba noted sourly, impossible to tell if their beloved “bachelor” cared one whit about anything that happened during this damned farce. 

“Not only are you the winner of the popular vote for this week’s Love Challenge, we also have an extra surprise in store for you. Are you ready to hear it?”  

“I can’t wait,” Sudou said demurely, eyes still fixed on Asami. 

“As of this season, we have a new rule — the winner of the popular vote for every Love Challenge is safe from elimination for that week!” 

Some of the others were unable to contain a cry of dismay at this news, and Takaba couldn’t blame them — if someone was safe now, that meant one less tulip to be handed out at the Tulip Ceremony at the end of the week. 

Still smiling beatifically, Sudou sank back into his chair and winked at one of the cameras. “Thank you all for your support at home, and especially to DrakeEnema’s loyal fans. I’m fighting for all of you!” 

“Now there’s some faulty logic,” Kuroda muttered into his napkin. 

Mikhail growled something in Russian at Yuri, though the dangerous vibe emanating from both of them was somewhat undercut by the fact that both men had apparently neglected to wear sunscreen yesterday — and were now the colour of well-cooked lobsters. 

“But as you all know,” Sakazaki interrupted the table’s growing chatter, “we still have one more place to fill on the group date. Asami-san,” stepping aside and nodding politely, “if you would like to announce your selection.” 

All heads swivelled in Asami’s direction, and it was almost a wonder the lawyer didn’t twitch at the mixture of silent entreaty and threats being levelled at him in the group’s collective gaze. But just before he spoke, Asami’s eyes flickered and a smirk lifted one corner of his mouth, and Takaba suddenly knew —  

“Takaba Akihito, I choose you.” 

Not telling them where they were going for the group date was probably supposed to make everything more mysterious. In reality, Takaba thought as he mashed his cheek against the bus window in the second hour of their trip, it made his low-level dread that much more intolerable. 

When they finally arrived though, Takaba couldn’t help but contain a grin of happy surprise: nestled at the base of Mt Fuji was a very familiar-looking amusement park. 

“Welcome to FujiQ Highland, Japan’s favourite destination for themed recreation,” Sakazaki enthused over the nearby rattle of a roller coaster zooming past, and the more distant screams of dismay as people were plunged from the peak of a red tower. 

“What about DisneySea?” inquired Fei Long, fiddling with a strand of hair that had come loose from the plait looped at the back of his head. Like Asami, he had forgone more formal clothes for a long-sleeved shirt and loose pants — both silk, as far as Takaba could tell. 

Sakazaki spared a moment to glare at him, before continuing his introduction. Eventually they were led to the admissions area, and each of them received a card that promised priority treatment for every ride. 

“Grope at will!” was Sakazaki’s parting remark, before leaving them for a nearby ice cream stand shaded by beach umbrellas. 

Sudou and Fei Long seemed to take this advice to heart. While the four of them were left to wander the park at will (though followed every step of the way by two cameramen), both of the other contestants seemed intent on monopolising every shred of their bachelor’s attention. Takaba happily left them to it. He loved roller coasters, the faster and more dangerous the better, and his unpredictable work hours meant he rarely had the time to indulge his adrenaline junkie side.  

Asami, unfortunately, had other ideas. While Fei Long kept up a very one-sided conversation and kept pointing to things he seemed to think Asami might find interesting, Sudou indulged in a more physical seduction: bumping into Asami’s side, brief touches against his elbow, and when hand-holding didn’t work, he looped his arm through Asami’s determinedly limp one. 

But every time Takaba tried to lose them by tearing off towards a new ride, Asami was fast on his heels, and before he knew it, all four of them would be packed in together and racing along a looping track upside down (Takaba was used to keeping silent on these things in deference to the park’s other patrons, but decided this time he didn’t care; he happily howled and screamed himself hoarse). 

As the afternoon faded into dusk and all four of them had started to hold themselves stiffly after a full day of being jolted and upended in the air, Sakazaki came back to collect them and declaim inanities about dates and bonding. Takaba ignored him right until the end, when Sakazaki’s voice dropped into mock seriousness. 

“But now, of course, comes the most difficult decision. Asami-san, have you decided which one of these lovely and eminently beddable young gentlemen you’d like to take to dinner tonight?” 

What, Takaba’s brain shouted. He’d actually enjoyed himself so much today that he’d forgotten there was a “solo date” up for grabs at the end of it. Sudou immediately turned to Asami and touched his hand, all but reeking of hopeful expectation. Fei Long, more prideful by half, drew himself up and turned his sharply beautiful face to the side, as though to weather either outcome. Takaba just tried not to look as rattled in front of the cameras as he felt. 

“It has indeed been a difficult decision,” Asami said, though his expression was as stoic as usual. “Although I rarely take time away from my work for leisure, I found today to be surprisingly enjoyable. And in light of that, I would like to reward the one man who I believe embraced this experience wholeheartedly.” 

Takaba’s stomach dopped. 

Clearly reading the dawning horror on his face, Asami smirked at him. “Takaba Akihito, would you like to join me for dinner?” 

“No,” Takaba blurted, voice still shredded from shouting. “No way.” 

“You’re much too humble,” Asami grinned like a shark, “denying my praise like this. You’re usually so quiet and shy, I was most pleased to see this other side of you.” 

Takaba’s mouth dropped open to clarify to everyone assembled exactly what he’d been saying no to, but as if sensing the tenor of his thoughts, Sakazaki swept forward to intercede. “Congratulations, Takaba-kun! Asami-san clearly sees a lot of potential in you, to honour you with a dinner invitation after inviting you personally on this date — despite performing so shamefully during the hike.” 

As Asami gripped his elbow and led him away, Takaba felt the fight leaving him. He was hungry, after all. 

“People need to stop calling me kun,” he muttered, but mostly to distract himself from the feeling of twin, poisonous glares pinned to his back. 

*

“I guess the view almost makes up for being trapped in another small space with you,” Takaba said, finding it easier to ignore a camera capturing their every exhalation when it was attached to the ceiling of a ferris wheel car. A selection of finger foods (and who seriously stacked a tower of chilli, cheese and shrimp on top of cucumber slices?) and a bottle of champagne had been laid out over the top of the seats opposite, leaving no choice but to share with Asami the bench opposite. 

With the pervert being who he was, Takaba hadn’t had his left thigh to himself since they’d first clambered into the self-contained car. 

It was all Asami’s fault they were up here, anyway, and if the other man wasn’t inclined to make conversation, Takaba wasn’t going to help him along. No matter that Mitarai was probably having heart palpitations down there, yelling at them to do something more than sit it uncompanionable silence. 

Still, the view was beautiful. Fuji was more a volcano-shaped patch of darker darkness through the window than the icon he’d grown up seeing everywhere, but with the amusement park spread out below them like a carpet of blinking lights, Takaba was content to spend the next hour taking in the scenery as they very, very slowly rotated around the wheel. 

But the almost calm feeling disappeared the moment Asami decided to up the ante and start nuzzling his neck. At first Takaba froze, and then he felt his skin prickling like it did when he stepped out into the cold without a jacket, and then he felt a very different sensation pooling below his navel, and that, that was just not on.

“Get off!” he growled, shoving at Asami’s chest, but the man was as stubborn and solid as a…as a something. A fat mule, maybe. How on earth had that bastard figured out his most sensitive erogenous zone and executed a tactical strike on it before they’d even cracked open the champagne? 

Seeming to take Takaba’s sudden stillness as permission, Asami pressed closer until their foreheads slid together, and a warm (and damp, ugh) breath puffed into his ear. 

“Seriously,” Takaba said in an undertone, gripping Asami’s wrists for emphasis, “back off. Or I’ll really put up a struggle for the camera, and everyone’ll see what a sexual harasser you really are.” 

Another exhalation by his ear, this time amused. “Really, Takaba, I thought sulking in silence was your way of inviting me to start something a little more entertaining. You’re not a very fun date.” 

Trust a lawyer to come up with such a screwed up justification for his lechery. “I’m hungry,” he said loudly, knowing their microphones would pick it up. “Let’s eat now, before the food goes bad.” 

And, not trusting Asami to move of his own volition, Takaba shouldered him aside and leaned forward to snatch up one of the weird food towers. Beef and corn on a thick slice of raw carrot. Was giving them food poisoning part of the writers’ strategy for making entertaining television?

Takaba treated it as no small victory when Asami subsided to his quadrant of the capsule, pouring them both champagne and showing zero interest in the food.  

“So,” Takaba said, his mouth still full of mushy carrot. He was rewarded for his disgusting efforts by a muscle near one of Asami’s eyes twitching. “I guess we’re supposed to get to know each other better by asking questions. But you’re a corporate lawyer, right? And I think I’d rather jump off the ferris wheel than hear about rich people suing each other. Your turn!” 

Rather than show offence at having his vocation disparaged, Asami actually smiled. Like, genuinely. Sure, it was a small smile, but no less surprising (and aggravating) for it. “Why did you become a flight attendant?” 

It was such an obvious question, and said in the tone of one baiting the other, that Takaba shouldn’t have been thrown. He scrambled for an answer that wouldn’t leave him exposed, and finally remembered the one he’d given the producers during the casting process. 

“What’s not to like?” he was pleased at how casual he sounded. “I get to travel around the world, I have great co-workers, I meet interesting passengers all the time. And during my downtime I can indulge my hobbies as well.” 

“What about difficult passengers?” Asami replied, blatantly ignoring Takaba’s attempt at shifting the topic into safer territory. “Surely a cute boy like you gets harassed all the time by men and women eager for your…special attention.” 

It must be an art, Takaba thought — the ability to make ordinary words sound so dirty. “Maybe if I were a ‘cute boy’ and not a trained professional man, that would be an issue,” Takaba grinned back. “But it isn’t, and I love my job. Maybe when this is all over I can comp you and your new spouse a ticket somewhere. It can be my honeymoon present, even.” 

Asami only remained silent as long as it took to take a sip of his champagne. Takaba did not at all watch the movement of the muscles moving in his neck as he swallowed. “So you truly don’t remember me then,” he said at last. 

“Remember what?” Takaba blurted, then could have kicked himself. He was supposed to be redirecting their conversation, not letting the bastard lead him into verbal traps! 

“Two years ago, on a flight to New York. I was in business class and you’d just been promoted.” 

Takaba quickly racked his memory. To be honest, he’d worked on so many different flights over the years, on so many different routes as his career developed, that it was hard to remember exactly what he’d been doing two years ago. It was possible the lawyer was telling the truth, he had been promoted to serving first class passengers around then. But again, this was Asami, a shark of a lawyer; no doubt the man could pull all kinds of information together in order to get a reaction, to lead him on. 

“I don’t remember,” he finally muttered, turning away to stare out the window again. And then he had to look away from the windowpane as well, because the soft light filtering through their reflections, Asami’s reflection, made him appear as graven, as solemnly beautiful as stained glass. 

*

When he got back to his room just past midnight, Tao was already in bed — a small mound under the duvet, pillow pushed to the far side of the mattress. Takaba stripped off to his boxers and brushed his teeth, using a dampened towel to scrub off the make-up he’d had slathered on his face for the cameras. (Hopefully for the next-to-last time). 

Though after tonight, with the discovery that Asami was nursing some kind of creepy crush on him after a flight two years ago that he didn’t even remember, Takaba was filled with fresh doubt. If the bachelor refused to eliminate him, he might be forced to take things into his own hands. 

He was crawling into bed when he caught sight of a blinking light in his peripheral vision. It was Tao’s phone recharging, its cord snaking down from the powerpoint set into the wall beside the kid’s bedside table.  

“Tao?” he whispered.  

The lump under the bedclothes remained motionless except for the barely perceptible rise-fall of breathing.  

His heart starting to race, Takaba crouched low and did in no way scamper to Tao’s side of the room, within reaching distance of the phone. Even if it had a lockscreen, he could at least check what the reception was like. And the next time they all went out for a Love Challenge near a Docomo or a SoftBank branch, and the producers weren’t watching them closely enough —  

He gripped the phone in one hand and thumbed it open. He had one second to notice that the phone was indeed locked before something warm wrapped around his neck and tackled him to the carpet. 

“Hyaa!” 

Takaba’s vision went black before he felt himself being rolled onto his back, something pressing uncomfortably against his adam’s apple. Something warm and hand-shaped. 

“So you’re back,” Tao remarked darkly, from where he was currently straddling Takaba’s stomach and using his whole weight to pin him down. “Have a nice date?” 

“Get off,” Takaba coughed, trying to bat Tao off him. God, if one of the others had heard them scuffling and came in now, or worse, called one of the cameramen, he didn’t want think what this would look like. 

“Fei-sama was very angry when he returned to the house,” Tao said conversationally, wriggling like an eel to avoid Takaba’s flailing arms. “But he wouldn’t say what had happened. I guess I will watch it on my keitai later.” And, grinning, he held up his phone. Takaba had to squint against the screen’s glare. 

“I just wanted to check the weather.” 

Tao snorted and rolled off him, springing back onto his bed before Takaba could think about grabbing his ankle. Little monkey brat. 

He returned to his own bed and rubbed his throat resentfully, glancing over his shoulder as Tao dived back under the covers.  

“Why does Fei Long want to win this competition so much?” Takaba wondered aloud, not really expecting a reply. “I mean, he’s a successful businessman, right? And he looks…well, he looks like that. He could probably have anyone he wanted. Even though I get the impression he knew Asami before all this started.” 

“Shut up,” said Tao sleepily. And then, very quietly, muttered, “Love.” 

“What?” Takaba blurted. 

“Love,” Tao announced grumpily, through a little blowhole-like gap he’d made in the duvet. “Fei-sama is in love with that stupid lawyer. Ever since he came to White Snake seven years ago. I have to watch them every month when Asami comes in to cut his hair and get a manicure. He’s so boring and annoying, I don’t understand why Fei-sama likes him so much!” 

Takaba could only agree with that sentiment.  

“Then, I don’t get it, Tao. Why are you in this competition if you don’t want to, uh, marry Asami?” Assuming their “bachelor” decided any of them were worthy enough for his manicured hand in marriage.  

Tao hissed like he’d been burned. “I told you already, stupid Japanese! I’m here to protect Fei-sama. Everyone in this house is full of greed and lust, and if I don’t watch out, they’ll all try to do terrible things to him…” 

The kid’s voice had become so small and miserable-sounding that Takaba felt unexpectedly sorry for him. Still, so much of this didn’t make sense. “Did you lie to get on the show then?” Tao seemed like a pretty terrible actor, so surely it would have been obvious that he wasn’t actually there to try and woo Asami? 

“How all of us got on,” Tao huffed. “Bribes. Now go to sleep, no more talking.” 

Takaba didn’t need to be told to shut up — he was reeling too much to form words. Had all of the contestants really bribed their way onto Confirmed Bachelor? It would definitely explain why so many of the remaining contestants seemed to already know Asami, or at least why they hadn’t been surprised when his identity as this season’s bachelor was revealed. But Takaba hadn’t paid a single yen himself. He hadn’t known anything. Surely he wasn’t the only one in the same position? 

Takaba was so lost in his thoughts that he almost missed it when Tao mumbled something. 

“What?” 

“I don’t hate you anymore,” Tao repeated drowsily. “You’re going to win. You’re going to take Asami away from Fei-sama, so we can go home.” 

And Takaba found that he didn’t have the heart to crush the kid’s hopes by refuting that. At least not aloud. 

*

Later that week, though, something happened to sorely shake Takaba’s determination to escape the compound as quickly as possible.  

The previous few days had mostly passed in a blur of boredom and aimlessness, as the contestants who weren’t going outside on large group dates with Asami were confined to the house. They were allowed to watch TV and the ‘library’ had a decent selection of novels, current magazines and, uh, porn. But Takaba was used to being on his feet all the time; all this pointless sitting around was starting to make him feel physically itchy, like he was a caged zoo animal (the ever-present cameraman wandering around hoping to capture any spontaneous fights between the contestants did little to abate this impression). 

So it happened that one day Takaba was making another restless round of the house, along the second floor corridor where the women-only bedrooms were (largely unoccupied since the first Tulip Ceremony) — and heard a scream. Heart pounding, he ran towards the sound and slammed into one of the bedrooms. The large assortment of stuffed animals, including a lifesized rilakkuma and mamegoma, told him immediately that the room belonged to Momohara Ai. 

Steam was pouring out of the door leading into the en suite bathroom, and the faint hiss of a running shower was drowned out by another bloodcurdling scream, this time followed by a loud thump. His crisis training kicking in, Takaba dashed into the bathroom. Through the warm wreath of fog he could make out a hulking figure in a black shirt, pressed up against the frosted glass of the shower cubicle. Ai was a flesh-coloured, cowering blur on the other side. 

What happened next, he could only remember later in snatches: grabbing the back of the man’s shirt, hot pain lancing through the bones in his hand as it connected with the man’s face, more screaming, and the belated realisation that one of the producers — and a cameraman — had muscled their way into the bathroom. Then, finally, the relief as he watched security drag the man, semi-conscious, out of Ai’s bedroom. 

Later in the compound’s main living room, with Ai huddling into his side and looking up at him with so much wide-eyed worship that Takaba was, frankly, starting to feel queasy, the truth came out. Well, some of it. The man who’d broken into her room, Onoda Mitsugu, was not an intruder from outside as Takaba had assumed, but one of the male contestants that Takaba had simply failed to notice properly before. Oh, and he was also Ai-chan’s number one fan/stalker. 

“I didn’t recognise him,” Ai-chan mumbled, her still-trembling arm locked around Takaba. “He usually just sends me letters made out of newspaper clippings and clumps of his hair, so I didn’t know it was him! I just thought he was another creepy ojisan when I met him here.” A dramatic shiver. “Thank god you saved me, Takaba-san! I’ll never forget your kindness.”  

Takaba could only reply by awkwardly laughing off her thanks, all too aware of the camera trained on them for this “heartfelt moment”. But Ai-chan’s eyes were filled with a determined gleam, a gleam that Takaba could tell immediately did not bode well for his self-preservation. “You won’t leave me, will you?” Ai-chan wheedled. “We’re in this together until the end, aren’t we?” 

So sue him, he was an upstanding guy, and had been practically trained since birth to acquiesce to the pleas of vulnerable women besides. 

“Of course I won’t leave you,” he promised. And immediately felt his hopes of an early escape from Confirmed Bachelor plummet to the worn-down soles of his slippers. 

The next night, with everyone once again gathered in the back garden for the filming of the second Tulip Ceremony, Takaba was no clearer about what he should do than he’d been a week ago. In fact, he felt more conflicted than ever. Asami hadn’t once glanced in his direction since he’d turned up at the compound in the late afternoon, which was a nice change, but the way the other contestants tensed up when he joined their ranks told him that he was still an odds-on favourite to receive one of the lawyer’s damned flowers. 

In the end, Momohara Ai was given the first tulip. Takaba immediately assumed it was out of sympathy for her recent fright. That was until Asami called his name second, and it was only Ai-chan’s pleading eyes clearly visible off to his side, all but swimming with hope, that compelled Takaba to make the short walk up to the bastard and swipe the flower out of his hand, grumbling his acceptance. 

So Asami must have seen footage of the promise Ai-chan had extracted from him, vowing to stay in the competition. Well, if the man was going to play dirty, then the only option left was for Takaba to manipulate him right back. Just because he wasn’t going to leave the show voluntarily anymore didn’t mean he couldn’t make the experience so frustrating, so awful for Asami that the lawyer had to finally reject Takaba simply to preserve his own sanity. 

And so it was that Takaba stood, tulip in hand, lost in his increasingly devious plans and barely seeing as Yuri, Mikhail and the actress Azumi Ryoukou were left at the end of the ceremony in various states of anger and dejection, tulip-less. 

And so it also was, a few days later, that Takaba got his hands on his very first blowtorch.  

Chapter Text

Week 2

“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. 

Takaba groaned. 


 

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: 

1923-1935

8

Akita-ken 

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. 

“Takaba.” 

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.  

“Wha-?” 

“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. 

“Oh.”  

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.

Chapter Text

Week 3

Takaba forced himself to wait until the following night to use the phone. Unlike Tao’s, it was only picking up one bar of reception in the bedroom, so he waited until it was past midnight before sneaking up to the compound’s third floor.

The only female contestant left was Shibata, but that wouldn’t make Takaba look any less like a Mikhail-esque stalkerish pervert if he was caught up here, skulking around with a camera phone clutched in hand.

At the end of the third storey hallway was a large window, and this Takaba jimmied open until he could squeeze through the gap and grab onto the edge of the roof overhead. After hoisting himself over and crawling up a safe distance from the ledge, he fished out Ai-chan’s phone again. Four bars of reception!

There was a slew of LINE notifications, missed call alerts and texts for Ai-chan, but these Takaba ignored in favour of typing in the phone number he’d had to learn by heart after more calls from Yokohama police stations than he cared to remember.

Takato’s mother answered on the third ring, but cut her warm greetings short to transfer him as soon as he told her it was urgent.

“Akihito,” Takato said, in such a heavy voice that the sound of his name alone sent an ominous shiver down Takaba’s spine. “What have you done.”

“Well, hi to you, too. And what do you mean? I’m sorry for calling your house suddenly, but I couldn’t remember your cell number — ”

“I mean,” Takato interrupted, that edge still in his voice, “what the hell are you doing, taking five weeks’ leave out of the blue? And then going on a, a dating reality show! What were you thinking?

Takaba felt his jaw drop. “What, how did you — ”

“I’ve seen the clips online, Akihito! We all have. You climbing Takao-san — ”

“Oh no.”

“ — Burning food on a cruise ship, I mean, I didn’t want to believe it, but there you were on the website! Yoshida has been sending the links to everyone, but I could only load the videos yesterday because I’ve been stuck in transit for days with shit internet. What are you thinking, Akihito! Are you trying to become the airline’s laughing stock?”

“It was Captain Yama!” Takaba cried, and then felt the overwhelming urge to punch himself in the face. So much for coming up with a plausible-yet-totally-fake excuse for why he’d secretly signed up for Confirmed Bachelor.

A tense pause. “What about him?”

“Well, uh, you know how I feel…about him. You know.”

A gush of static as Takato sighed. “Not this again.”

“But he applied for leave! Seven weeks of it, and then I realised the dates coincided with the filming of the show, and I thought he must have been approached by the producers to be this year’s bachelor…”

“Akihito,” Takato said, his voice finally softening. “It’s true that Captain Yama is off work at the moment. But it’s not because some TV people suddenly decided he’d be the perfect chain-smoking ojiisan to woo a bunch of wispy girls.”

“And boys,” Takaba grumbled. “And I’m not wispy.”

“Just listen for a minute! Yama took that leave because he’s been put in indefinite detention until his trial begins. He couldn’t afford bail, because he’s gambled away his life’s savings in pachinko parlours — not just his savings, but the millions of yen he was laundering from the airline too.”

“What!?”

“I’m sorry,” Takato said, not sounding very contrite at all. “I know your crush on him was kind of…intense.  But we only found out about this a few days ago, and it’s being kept pretty quiet as it is. At least this way you can shift your feelings onto someone else, maybe like an actual potential lover instead of some miserable excuse for a father figure who doesn’t deserve your loyalty, yeah? …Akihito?”

Takaba stared into the dark, his mind reeling. His beloved Yama-sama, whom he’d idolised ever since becoming a flight attendant, was a lying, gambling thief? “I…I feel betrayed,” he croaked.

Takato just grunted.

“What am I even doing here, Takato?” Because that was the question, wasn’t it? He’d known since the first night that Captain Yama wasn’t involved with the show, and he could have withdrawn whenever he liked. But whether through indecision, fear of humiliation or the hysterical promise-extraction of Ai-chan, he’d stayed on for two weeks. Two weeks of being molested by lawyers, throttled by tiny hair salon assistants and almost pushed down mountainsides by bleached boyband members.

“Don’t worry, Aki,” Takato soothed, some of the usual wryness finally leaching back into his voice. “We’re all going to vote for you online this week. It’s the least we can do for you since you’re providing us with this much entertainment.”

***

After he’d hung up on Takato, Takaba decided to call his mother. He’d been planning to anyway, but if it was true that most of his colleagues had seen the clips of him during the Love Challenges online already, it was only a matter of time before his mother saw them too. And he’d really rather the news that he was voluntarily participating in what had turned into an extreme gay dating competition came from him.

Part of him hoped his mother was in transit overseas, or even in the air. No such luck.

“Yoshida-kun already sent me the link,” Takaba’s mother informed him, a little primly, after Takaba had dithered too long trying to broach the subject of Confirmed Bachelor. “When I had trouble accessing the videos, he came over to my apartment with his laptop to show me in person.”

Takaba was going to eviscerate Yoshida. He was going to disembowel him and string his entrails from next year’s tanabata tree. As soon as he got out of here, it would be done. “I’m so sorry, Okaasan. I didn’t know they were going to post clips of the show online before it was shown on TV. And they took away all our electronics when we arrived, or I would have called you earlier — ”

“Akihito,” his mother interrupted, and Takaba fell silent. His mother was a serious woman long inured to the excuses he tried to give her for the shit he did, and now there was footage of Takaba making a fool of himself on the internet. What could he really say? “I have always tried to be understanding, no matter what trouble you happily threw yourself into when…” she trailed off, and Takaba’s heart clenched.

Okaasan,” he mumbled.

“You listen to me,” she said, voice regaining its usual fierce edge. “I saw those videos of you, and then I did some research of my own. I learnt about this television show you’re filming, and also about Asami Ryuichi.”

Oh god, she hadn’t seen the article about Asami suing that restaurant over the azuki bean bun, had she? Or the blog post alleging he’d been involved in a Wisconsin tractor chase during his law school years in America?

“I don’t care if it’s all fiction, all tricks of editing,” she continued. “That lawyer, Asami-san, is the most handsome man I’ve ever seen outside a plastic surgery waiting room.”

Takaba yanked the phone away from his ear. “Mother!?”

“He looks a lot younger than thirty-five, too, even with the smoking. You’ll have to get him to quit, though, or twenty years later you’ll end up as his full time nurse while he coughs up his lungs in bloody chunks and can’t get his prick up."

Takaba tried to breathe, he really did, but still wound up choking on air.

“Never mind that he’s also rich, talented, and dresses tastefully. None of those torn jeans and plaid shirts you’ve subjected me to for years. So if you don’t stop putting our family to shame by floundering around like a dying fish every time you’re in front of a camera, there will be hell to pay when you get home. Do you understand me, Akihito?”

“But, Okaasan — ”

“No! Bring me back Asami-san.”

It wasn’t fair, Takaba thought glumly. It wasn’t like anyone was allowed to refuse their mother.

***

He made sure to turn off Ai-chan’s phone before he descended the roof, because he didn’t have a charger and it would have to last him for however long he stayed on the show. (Also, the sheer number of text messages coming in from unknown numbers with subject lines like I want to lick Ai-chan’s cute feet! was starting to get creepy).

But getting down proved to be much harder than climbing up had been, even after years of crawling into his second-storey childhood bedroom post-curfew under his belt. He had to dangle from the roof until he could swing forward enough to hook his legs over the window sill, and then trust that gravity wouldn’t yank him down to a grisly, bone-cracking fate as soon as he let go of the roof.

He landed safely, the carpet muffling his drop to all fours. But it didn’t matter how quiet Takaba was, not when someone was lying in wait for him.

“Takaba Akihito, nimble as a monkey. And as stupid.”

Takaba scrambled to his feet, jamming Ai-chan’s phone into his jean’s waistband before it was noticed.

“I saw that.”

Shit. Detaching itself from the wall, the silhouette moved with self-assured laziness into a beam of moonlight several feet away. Even with the figure’s face only partially exposed, Takaba only needed a glimpse of the skin-tight, electric blue hot pants to know who it was.

“I’m sure I don’t need to remind you of Confirmed Bachelor’s rules about contraband telecommunications devices,” Sakazaki purred. “Or about the contract you signed promising not to use them while you’re a contestant on the show. Eh, Takaba-kun?”

Takaba had to force his lips closed lest he burst out with a list of all the other contestants he’d seen using their phones or tablets on the sly. But while he didn’t care a whit if that puffed up prig Kuroda got slapped on the wrist, he didn’t want Tao to get in trouble. (Especially if it meant that Tao decided to channel his rage into suffocating Takaba with a pillow).

“I don’t know what you mean.” Takaba could only hope he sounded suitably wronged and indignant. “I was just enjoying the night air for a while. I have respiratory problems, you know, and the ventilation in my room is, uh, substandard. I’m thinking of filing a complaint, actually.”

“And to enjoy the night air, you had to climb onto the roof.” Sakazaki grinned, and took a few steps closer.

Takaba backed away quickly. “Yes,” he agreed, heart clenching when the backs of his thighs made contact with the wall beside the open window. Sakazaki was backing him into a corner. In more ways than one.

“Come now, Takaba-kun, I’m sure those fake jewels stuck all over Momohara Ai’s phone must be digging into your lovely skin. Doesn’t it…” and with one long step he ate up the remaining distance between them, grabbing Takaba by the forearms. “…hurt?"

“Let go,” Takaba hissed, twisting out of the other man’s grip. It held. “What are you going to do? Shibata-san is just down the hall! You try anything with me, and I’ll shout until she hears.”

Sakazaki leered. “Believe me, Akihito, with the sounds you’ll soon be making, you won’t want anyone to hear you.”

The window. Takaba could jump out the window. What were a few broken limbs compared to the terrifying glint in this bastard’s eyes? But he had to stall for time— “Oh yeah? What makes you think you won’t be the one making noise? Screams of pain when I knee you in the groin, for example.”

Sakazaki’s fingers clenched around Takaba’s arm when he tried to sidle towards the window, yanking him forward until they were pressed chest-to-chest. Takaba could suddenly feel the rattle of Sakazaki’s rapid breathing, his exhalations landing like humid slaps against Takaba’s cheeks.

“That won’t happen,” panted Sakazaki, pulling Takaba closer until he could no longer ignore the hardness jabbing at his hip. “That won’t happen, because in a moment your knees will be smack against the floor while you suck my cock.”

Takaba squeezed his eyes shut, trying to shove Sakazaki off him. He felt crushed between the wall and the other man’s superior height and bulk, and panic was starting to edge out the voice in his head, the one calmly telling him to jump out the fucking window.

“Oi!”

Sakazaki froze at that one, booming syllable. Takaba used the man’s distraction to stamp on his feet until he could wriggle away. Sakazaki barely seemed to notice; he’d turned around, peering into the darkness as a figure in a white bathrobe approached them with an unhurried, even stride.

When a patch of light finally illuminated Asami’s face, all the air Takaba had been holding inside rushed out of him. It was all he could do not to sag against the wall.

“Asami-san,” Sakazaki greeted, doing a fair job of sounding like this was nothing more than an accidental meeting on a moonlit stroll. “How unexpected to see you up here.”

Asami barely spared him a contemptuous glance. “Takaba, come with me.” His hand reached out.

If Takaba hadn’t just averted that with Sakazaki, he’d be inclined to feel insulted that Asami was apparently here to escort him away like a pre-schooler. As it was, he bowed his head and scurried over to Asami’s side, submitting to a hand landing heavily on his shoulder to guide him away down the corridor.

“Enjoy your night together, gentlemen,” Sakazaki called after them, his voice dripping with its usual sleazy insinuation.

Takaba raised his head to question Asami, then caught sight of Shibata-san’s face peeking out from behind her door. She waited for them to pass by, nodding at them both in acknowledgement before closing it neatly again.

“What was that?” Takaba whispered on the staircase down to the second floor. Asami’s hand had migrated from his shoulder to his upper arm, unknowingly digging into the bruises already left there by Sakazaki. “How did you know to come up there?”

Asami didn’t reply until they were paused on the landing to make sure there was no one else about. “Isn’t it obvious? Shibata called me.”

Takaba had several things to say about that, not least of which was Shibata has a phone too? So why am I the only one getting molested for it? “But why did she call you instead of security? Or even Mitarai?” Takaba demanded, allowing himself to be pushed down a new corridor that ended, abruptly, in a service elevator.

“She’s my personal assistant,” Asami replied blandly, jamming the down button.

“What-?” Takaba yelped as the doors opened and Asami yanked him inside. “Ow! Stop digging your fingers in like that, you bastard.”

Asami released him, stepping back to lean against the wall as the elevator jolted into its descent. And really, Takaba thought angrily, no one should be allowed to look that self-possessed when walking around a shared house in the middle of the night in a terry cloth robe.

“What do you mean she’s your ‘assistant’? Did you blackmail her into becoming your spy, or something?”

“I mean it in the usual sense,” Asami replied as the elevator gradually slowed and dinged its arrival.

“What floor is this?” Takaba muttered suspiciously as Asami led him into a windowless corridor. It was carpeted like the rest of the compound, but lit by an array of small lamps drilled into the plain cream walls. The air felt strangely still and enclosing.

“B2.”

“B? Basement? Oh, don’t tell me you’re taking me to an interrogation room! Or some kind of bunker. God, I’m innocent, all right? Sakazaki was the one who jumped out of nowhere and grabbed me — ” he broke off when he heard what sounded very much like a snort of amusement. Asami was snorting at him now. “Shut up! See how much you like it, getting attacked by the man who’s supposed to be your charming presenter when you’re just having a little walk around at night, minding your own business and not bothering anyone.”

“You’re very noisy,” remarked Asami, extracting a key from the pocket of his bathrobe and unlocking a door at the very end of the corridor.

“Wait!” Takaba hissed as Asami grabbed his bruised arm again, dragging him into what was probably a nuclear fallout bunker or a cold storage room for all the corpses of the court room defendants Asami had smirked to death in the past and — “Oh.”

For a suspicious and secret basement room, it was pretty luxurious. Plush carpet covered in foreign-looking rugs, an assortment of blocky leather furniture, a massive television hanging on the wall, and a four-poster bed lying in wait in one corner like a hibernating monster (made of pillows and blankets). There was even a kitchenette with a refrigerator and microwave, and another door presumably led to an en suite bathroom.

“This is. Uh.”

“My bedroom,” Asami supplied drily.

“What, you actually stay here? And here we all were imagining you swooped into the compound every other day in a helicopter or a chartered blimp. Wait — if you actually live here with us then how come you’re always showing up late for the group dates? Tell me you’re not just tormenting the other contestants for fun.”

As far as Takaba was concerned, Asami’s silence said everything.

It took the click of the door’s lock sliding closed reminded Takaba of his current situation. That situation being: alone and underground with a noted pervert, with nobody to hear him scream.

“I’m, uh, I’m just going to go back up to my room. Now.”

Asami raised an eyebrow, fiddling with a control panel set into the wall until the bedroom’s lights were extinguished but for a soft glow cast across the living room area — and the bed.

Asami caught the direction of his gaze. “You’re nervous.”

“No,” Takaba snapped automatically. “But it’s been an eventful night already, and I’d rather just go to bed. My own bed,” he amended quickly.

Asami made no reply, but stepped closer. This near, a loosely-corded bathrobe really didn’t seem like much of a barrier between him and muscles that, frankly, looked painted on. Takaba swallowed and retreated — straight into the wall beside the door. Oh great, déjà vu from about fifteen minutes ago. Why was it always Takaba getting backed into corners and aeroplane toilet cubicles by randy middle aged guys?

But rather than shove himself forward and pant into his face like a dog in heat, Asami’s hand flashed out and snaked around Takaba’s waist. Takaba gave an involuntary hiss as fingers grazed the small of his back, brushing down to just above the cleft of his ass.

“Stop it,” Takaba hissed, grabbing Asami’s wrist and yanking it out of there. To Takaba’s surprise, Asami allowed it. But that was only because it seemed the bastard’s aim hadn’t been an ass grope after all, but the pink glittery thing now nestled in his palm.

Asami brought the phone up to his face to inspect it. “Interesting accessorisation.”

Obviously, it’s not mine,” Takaba grumbled, crossing his arms.

“So you stole it?” Asami pressed a button, bringing up the home screen. Which was backgrounded by wallpaper that was, unfortunately, a photograph of a pastel blue bedroom all but heaving with enormous plush animals and cushions.

“I’m borrowing it,” Takaba corrected, reaching out a hand. “And I’d like it back now. Thank you.”

Asami hummed, turning the phone over in his palm before casually slipping it into his robe pocket. “I’m sure you would. The question is, how much would you give to have it back?”

“What, you’re blackmailing me now? Wait, no, extorting! You’re an extortionist.”

Asami only smiled slightly at the accusation. “Call me what you like. But if this really isn’t yours, then I’m sure you would feel responsible if something bad were to happen to it. If it accidentally fell into the bathtub, for instance.”

You wouldn’t! Takaba wanted to cry. Except this was Asami, and Asami was the devil incarnate. “But you’re an attorney, so if I sue you for property damage you could get, I don’t know, disbarred.” Probably.

“But it would be an accident. Not that I imagine you’d be so keen to expose the circumstances that resulted in its unfortunate dowsing, eh?

Asami stepped closer again, and Takaba immediately slid sideways with his back to the wall. It would have been a handy escape route except for the massive leather armchair that was in the way. Asami reached out a hand —

“Do that and I’ll bite you.”

Asami smirked and placed his hand above and to the side of Takaba’s head, palm flat against the wall. “You’re welcome to bite me wherever you like.”

“If this is how you usually flirt,” Takaba said, intent on ignoring the fact that he was now truly hemmed in on all sides, “then I’m not surprised you’ve had to come on a dating show to find someone to sleep with.”

It must have been a trick of the light, but this close Asami’s eyes looked molten, strange. Takaba had never seen anything like them before, which was why he became so intent on pinning down their exact colour that he missed the surreptitious approach of Asami’s other hand. He startled at the sharp flick of his jean’s button coming undone.

Ah,” he gasped when a warm hand shoved itself into his briefs without warning. “Ah, stop — ” he broke off when Asami’s fingers wrapped around him, tugging ungently. “Oh god, oh god…”

“So responsive,” Asami murmured, pressing Takaba flush against the wall with his body. “From your reactions alone, one would think you were a virgin, Takaba.”

The haze of heat and sensation that had been threatening to overwhelm his brain seconds before abruptly evaporated.

“Wrong,” he grated out, unclenching his fingers from where they’d burrowed into Asami’s bathrobe. “But from your reaction to other people’s distress I’d think you were very experienced — with sexual assault!”

Asami froze. Noticing the man’s sudden hesitation, Takaba didn’t think twice about lunging forward, using his weight to push Asami backwards and biting at whatever came in range of his teeth. Something crunched, and Takaba tasted blood.

He reared back in panic, spitting out the taste of copper and grabbing the door handle with nerveless fingers. A second before he fled the room, he chanced a look behind him. Asami had fallen to a crouch, one hand cupping his nose, staring right into Takaba's face with eyes that burned.

Chapter Text

If this was what women had to deal with whenever they got married, then Takaba was surprised that the country’s spousal murder rate wasn’t higher.

On Friday morning the remaining contestants were driven to a warehouse not far from Tokyo Bay, which convinced Takaba’s sleep-deprived brain that another aerobic competition was in store for them. Except maybe this time they’d be loading cargo full of black market firearms and drugs onto the freight ships moored in the harbour.

Though really, that the idea of weapons trafficking seemed like a plausible Love Challenge scenario was probably a testament to the stress of spending the remainder of the previous night convinced that Asami was going to seek his bloody revenge for the Nose Incident as soon as Takaba closed his eyes.

Instead, Takaba had been left gratefully un-attacked (probably because he hadn’t shut his eyes), and after breakfast they’d all been escorted into this innocuous warehouse. Or at least it had seemed perfectly ordinary, until Takaba discovered the true purpose of the long row of small inner rooms, all of which were open where a fourth wall should have been — like a diorama or an indoor Ikea display room.

“Two of the vital axes of household management,” Sakazaki proclaimed, looking unruffled despite Takaba’s persistent glaring after last night’s activities, “are budgeting and interior decorating. To succeed in your domestic endeavours, one must maintain a delicate balance between taste and frugality. And if you wish to convince Asami-san that you deserve a permanent place in his home, then what better way could there be other than to compete for the coveted title of Best Waifu?

Takaba glanced around at the others as Sakazaki paused with predictable theatricality, and was glad to see he wasn’t the only one annoyed at the idea of having to prove their credentials as housewives. (Only Shibata, the show’s sole remaining female contestant, seemed unbothered by the challenge’s implications…then again, if she were really Asami’s personal assistant, her ability to endure obnoxious men on a daily basis must have been phenomenal).

“Each one of you will receive one of the ‘rooms’ you see here, and will be free to decorate it however you wish. However, you only have two hours and ¥25,000 to complete this task. Later this afternoon, we will escort Asami-san here to view each of your rooms, and as with our thrilling culinary Love Challenge, our bachelor will be picking his favourite room ‘blind’.” Sakazaki quickly dropped his air quotes to raise his right index finger, wagging it in warning, “so that means no leaving clues behind that might point to your identity!  You must adhere to the constraints of both budget and taste in order to have a chance of winning this challenge. Good luck! You philistines will certainly need it.”

Call it a holdover from his past as the quasi-delinquent son of a single working mother, but Takaba felt a pang of disappointment when the ‘yen’ they received turned out to be large, multicoloured plastic notes with cartoonish numbers on them. And to add insult to injury, they could only spend the faux money in a neighbouring room of the warehouse, which had been kitted out like a hundred yen shop: every household item imaginable was stocked, as well as a fair number of things Takaba had never seen before and didn’t know the purpose of.

“We printed this money up just for you, Takaba,” Mitarai said, having cornered him while he was examining a shelf of what were either avant garde vases or impractical drinking glasses. “We knew if we gave you the real deal you’d just spend a few hundred yen on a knock-off tatami mat and call it a day.”

“Don’t pretend to understand my strategy,” Takaba shot back, selecting the ugliest glass/vase thing of the bunch just to be spiteful. (Here was hoping Asami hated neon orange as much as Sakazaki seemed to love it, judging by today’s velvet trousers).

Having filled his shopping cart with precisely the junk he needed and handed over the fake cash to the suspiciously photogenic cashier woman, Takaba returned to his little cut-out room. For the next hour and a half Takaba worked steadily, filling his room and meticulously re-arranging his furniture and ornaments to his own satisfaction.

“What if the paint doesn’t dry in time?” he asked Tao, during one of the breaks he took to stretch out his back. Tao was crouched on the floor of his own room, randomly dabbing the walls with powder blue paint.

Tao shot him a sneaky grin. “Maybe that’s what I hope for.”

“Genius brat,” Takaba muttered.

By the time a siren blared to signal the end of their time limit and all the leftovers and rubbish had been cleared away for the ‘grand unveiling’ of the finished rooms, afternoon sunlight was streaking through the warehouse’s skylights and infusing Takaba with an uncharacteristic desire to get back to the compound. They were all waiting for Asami to arrive, but unlike the time on the cruise ship  — when Takaba had been relishing the idea of seeing Asami’s face twisted up in sugar-induced agony — right now he was feeling unaccountably nervous.

And that nervousness turned to outright dread when the lawyer finally turned up with his own retinue of production staff, a flesh-tone-but-still-conspicuous bandage taped across the bridge of his nose.

“Asami-san,” Sudou cried in distress, breaking out of the cluster of contestants to approach him. “What happened to your face? Are you all right?”

“Don’t concern yourself,” Asami replied, angling his head to allow a last minute touch up to his make up. “It was merely a run in with a mentally unbalanced fan. You must know the feeling, Sudou.”

Takaba felt his adrenalin surge, as though he could do anything but stand at the back of the group with downcast eyes and a fervent wish to become invisible. It would be one thing if Asami had brushed off their encounter last night as a joke or a humorous tussle, but the lawyer was holding himself stiffly now, with no hint of his usual wry smirk.

It’s his own fault, Takaba’s mind silently raged. A bitten nose isn’t such bad payback for unauthorised groping, not when I could have punched him in the crotch instead!

But what if he’d done more damage than he realised? What if — what if Asami’s nose cartilage was inflamed or something? Or got infected? He’d tasted blood, after all. And Asami may not have been in front of a camera very often in real life, but who’d hire a lawyer who’d had obvious rhinoplasty?

“You should sue her for assault,” declared Kuroda, adjusting his glasses. “Or battery, perhaps. We should find time to discuss the particulars tonight, Ryuuichi.”

“Enough of that,” barked Mitarai. “We need to get this shit filmed before the light’s all gone. Go to your appointed positions, now!”

It took several minutes for the cameras to pan across the line of rooms, but Takaba thought that it was immediately obvious which contestants had the magic combination of desire to woo Asami via interior decoration and the taste to actually carry it through. Shibata had produced a comfortable-looking room filled with warm colours and cushioned chairs; the only incongruous element was the enormous desk set against the back wall. Well, she probably knew better than anyone what a workaholic Asami was when he wasn’t giving up his important day job to participate in reality TV.

Fei Long had somehow managed to produce what looked very much like a luxurious sitting room— either that or an opium den. A long velvet fainting couch was the centrepiece, with dark wallpaper lending the small space a dim, secretive atmosphere. Sudou must have also had reclining on his mind when he furnished his room, given the double bed he seemed to have spent the bulk of his funds on. (Takaba chose to ignore the handcuffs dangling from the bedstead).

Asami was being walked through each room by Sakazaki, who was clearly having a hearty time pointing out the more unusual features in his commentary. But even he struggled to find words when they reached Tao’s room: apart from the haphazard splotches of paint Takaba had already seen, the only extra item Tao had seen fit to furnish his room with was…a hammer. Sitting alone in the middle of the white plaster floor.

“‘Aim at your ugly face’,” Sakazaki read off a note lying on top of the hammer.

“I think I can guess whose room this is,” Asami remarked drily, already moving on to the next room.

Despite himself, Takaba’s heart lurched, the urge to shout No, no, no that one wasn’t mine! worryingly strong inside his head.

“Oh dear,” Sakazaki drawled when he joined Asami in front of Yoh’s room. “Why do I feel this is plagiarism masquerading as a homage?”

He had a point. Yoh had used the same wallpaper as Fei Long, though the latter seemed to have snapped up the only lounge-type furniture in the shop — Yoh had instead used a narrow, blanket-draped mattress resting atop a row of overturned buckets to form his ‘couch’.

“Why do I have the feeling this room isn’t intended for my approval?” Asami countered, finally allowing a hint of private amusement to touch his lips.

And then they came to Takaba’s room. Asami paused before it for a long moment, seeming to consider it carefully.

“Whoever made this room clearly has a strong affinity for antisocial teenage boys,” said Sakazaki, shaking his head in the manner of a disapproving parent (though the very thought of their host spawning was enough to roll Takaba’s stomach in a way that had nothing to do with nerves over the inspection).

The room was a close replica of the one Takaba had first rented after moving out of his parents’ house in Yokohama. He’d been poor back then, even by the standards of his early childhood when his father’s freelancing meant their income was unpredictable. He’d only been able to afford a tiny room in an apartment block far from the nearest train station, but at least it had been his shitty place.

A single bed was set against one wall, a small rug lying across the narrow corridor of space between that and the TV. Twine was strung from the ceiling and both walls, and pegged on the line were sheets of blank paper representing the photographs he’d used to hang up there and watch getting buffeted by the weak blasts of his shitty aircon. Next to the TV was a shelf holding a variety of cheap, colourful knick-knacks and figurines he’d picked up at secondhand stores. They added personality to the room, he’d thought. And other faces around made things feel less lonely, even when the faces were painted.

“I see,” Asami finally said.

Takaba huffed silently. He knew the room wouldn’t appeal to someone refined and wealthy like Asami, but undermining the man’s high standards wasn’t even the point this time. When it was eventually revealed who had done each room, Takaba wanted Asami to be faced with visible proof of just how incompatible they were. Then the next time Asami approached him, Takaba could point to this moment and say, “See, this is why we’ll never get along.”

They belonged to different worlds, and no amount of lingering looks and heated touches would change that.

***

It shouldn’t have surprised anyone when Asami declared Kuroda’s minimalist, starkly furnished room his favourite — though judging by his reaction, Sudou had been anticipating a very different outcome.

“He doesn’t want handcuff sex with you,” was Tao’s observation.

“I don’t need to win this,” Sudou said, forcing his lips into a painful-looking smile, “because I’m going to get the fan vote tomorrow.”

Fei Long looked distinctly displeased by the result as well, and as soon as the cameras had finished taking enough reaction shots of the contestants, he returned to his display room and collapsed onto the fainting couch in an elegant sprawl. Yoh followed him to the threshold, then seemed to think better of it and turned back around. Give him a nightstick to match that stiff-backed posture, Takaba thought, and Yoh would have made the perfect bouncer for Fei Long’s makeshift boudoir.

Needless to say, the following morning’s breakfast was tense.

With only seven contestants remaining in the competition, it was hard for Takaba to get lost in a haze of competing conversations and chatter when every clink of cutlery on crockery resounded like the prelude to open warfare. Only Kuroda seemed to be in a relaxed and chipper mood, trading his usual suit and overcoat for a woollen sweater and charcoal slacks. Though as soon as Asami showed up for the morning’s filming, he pulled down his collar to scratch an itch (and not incidentally flash his well-defined pecs at everyone).

“Let’s get it over with it, I need a smoke.” Sakazaki tucked a fresh cigarette behind his ear and moved into position beside the TV. Footage of the previous day’s Love Challenge unfolded on the screen, and then a bar graph popped up below pixellated thumbnails of the contestants’ faces. But Takaba found himself struggling to pay any sort of attention to the proceedings, and not even because the conclusion was foregone.

From the moment he’d entered the room, Asami hadn’t once made eye contact with him. And call Takaba paranoid, but for a man who’d turned ogling while smirking at him into an infuriating art, this was not normal. Especially not when this was the second day in a row that Takaba’d been practically ignored. Asami couldn’t still be furious about the sort-of-accidental nose biting, could he? He wasn’t wearing a plaster on his nose anymore, and make up was covering any lingering marks.

Takaba snapped back to attention when applause broke out around him. “Congratulations, Sudou-san,” Sakazaki said unenthusiastically, “you’ll be joining Kuroda-san on a 3-way date with Asami-san. But who will be joining you, I wonder?” He gestured to Asami, who stepped forward. “Your decision, Ryuuichi?”

A muscle in Asami’s temple twitched, either from Sakazaki’s overly familiar address or the tension of the moment. Takaba found his heart lodged in his throat, aware of the side-eye being sent in his direction by the rest of the table.

“I choose Fei Long.”

Takaba felt his mouth drop open. There was a long, surprised pause at the table before the others remembered to applaud. Tao shot him an incredulous look, his mouth moving quickly. But Takaba couldn’t hear him, not through the sound of all the blood in his body rushing up to pool in his cheeks.

So. It looked as though Takaba had finally succeeded in his ultimate goal of making Asami reject him.

Victory wasn’t sweet in the slightest.

Chapter Text

Back when he’d been a hyperactive kid with no concept of what responsibility was, Takaba had begged his parents for a pet dachshund. Fed up with his nagging, they bought him a parakeet instead.The distraction had worked (for a while), and Takaba had loved nothing better than to let Suzu-chan fly around the kitchen unimpeded whenever his parents went out.

But then there was the Vase Smashing Incident, and the sudden removal of Suzu-chan’s birdcage onto a high shelf in his father’s studio. Takaba had needed permission to enter that sanctum of basins and curling negatives, and the few times his dad indulged him, Takaba had approached Suzu-chan only to find her huddled in a corner of her cage, turned away from him. She didn’t react to his voice, or his tentative touches. It was like he’d become a distrusted, repulsive stranger — or worse, beneath her notice at all.

Now, trailing behind the group following Asami around Kouyama Aquarium, Takaba felt that old rejection afresh. Every glimpse of the man’s stony expression, every time he angled his body away when Takaba drew near, felt like a slap to the face. And it wasn’t like he meant to compare Asami with his childhood parrot, exactly, but this studied days-long silence was starting to get to him. Even Tao was shooting him dark looks, silently mouthing, “Do something!”

“It’s not what they think,” Takaba muttered, glaring into the seahorse enclosure. If there were any seahorses inside, they were doing a sterling impression of yellow seaweed. “I don’t care if he ignores me, because it’s part of my plan.” An unexpected and aggravating part, sure, but right now Takaba had never been so certain that Asami would give him the flick at the next Tulip Ceremony. Obviously their bachelor was much more delicate than his reputation would indicate, if getting rebuffed from sex and bitten just a tiny bit on the nose was enough to send him into an unrelentingly foul mood.

Unless.

Unless Asami really was like Suzu-chan. When his parakeet had first withdrawn from him, Takaba had blamed himself. But after a few months had passed and his parents had finally taken her to the animal clinic, the vet told them she was probably just depressed because of the change in her environment. Sure enough, as soon as Suzu’s cage was returned to the counter beside the kitchen’s sunny window, she’d returned to her former chirpy self. So maybe Asami’s problem wasn’t with Takaba at all, but was actually a symptom of something bigger. Deeper.

Clearly this required further investigation.

“Oi,” said Mitarai, coming up behind him and jabbing him in the back with a clipboard. “They’ve already moved on to the jellyfish, so get over there and flirt.”

“Uh. I need the bathroom!” And, dodging Mitarai as the producer tried to swat his head, Takaba jogged towards the nearest illuminated toilet sign. Slipping quickly into the men’s restroom, Takaba was bombarded by…the ocean. Manta-ray wallpaper, eel-headed faucets and a row of lobster hand dryers that gusted hot air out of their claws. Mildly terrified, Takaba ducked into a cubicle and slammed the door behind him, only to be confronted by a toilet moulded to resemble an open clam.

“…Really?” It was just as well he didn’t actually have to pee. Takaba wasn’t sure he could bring himself to put his bits in the vicinity of something that looked like it would snap shut without warning.

As soon as Takaba was sure none of the crew were going to follow him into the bathroom in the hopes he was having an exciting breakdown, he crept back out and made for aquarium’s lobby. By the main entrance was a souvenir shop crowded with shelf upon shelf of fish toys, fish cakes and fish posters. It was also all but swarming with elbow-high kids and their grabby hands. Takaba sucked in a breath and waded in, letting himself be jostled around in the search for something suitable. But it wasn’t until a little girl wearing a shark hat bumped into him — its soft felt jaws knocked askew on her glossy head — that Takaba had his brainwave.

***

In hindsight, he should have tried the aquarium’s cafeteria in the first place. In reality, though, he’d wasted almost an hour creeping through dimly lit room after dimly lit room of tanks containing everything from sea snakes to tortoises, trying in vain to find where the others had disappeared to. He might never have spotted them, if it hadn’t been for Tao almost running in to him in his haste to leave the dining hall.

“Hey!” Takaba hissed, grabbing his shoulder. Tao squawked and swung around, cranking one skinny arm back as if to punch — “Wait, it’s me!”

“Akihito?” Tao dropped his arm and squinted at Takaba’s face, clearly dubious. “What are you wea — ”

“Don’t worry about that, just tell me: are the others in the cafeteria?”

“Yes, but I have to — ”

“Thanks! You saw nothing!” Takaba hurried past him, flattening himself against the wall just inside the cafeteria and scanning the crowded tables and food cabinets for his quarry. Mitarai, Yoh and the two cameramen were easy to spot; along with their equipment, they’d taken over a whole table and seemed oblivious to the pleading looks of parents trying to find seats for their hyperactive children.

Asami was harder to find, which was just like the bastard. The only good thing about his location in a comparatively secluded corner of the cafeteria was that it was shielded on one side by a ceramic planter of ferns. And while Takaba may have been neither a botanist nor a private investigator, he knew for a fact that potted plants were all but an invitation to eavesdrop.

Keeping to the edges of the cafeteria, Takaba did his best to ignore the curious and suspicious looks children kept throwing him as he made his way over to Asami’s table. Shibata was his only lunch companion, sitting to his left and sipping from a tall glass of iced tea. Her expression was soft, and she nodded occasionally as Asami spoke to her.

“How cozy,” Takaba muttered, then zipped his mouth as he came into range of the ferns. They were densely planted, but probably wouldn’t be enough to hide the presence of someone lurking on the other side for long. He dropped to a crouch, crab-walking until his shoulder brushed against the planter. He huddled there, just barely making out the voices on the other side.

“Tell Hayashi to prepare the memoranda for when I return,” Asami was saying, to which Shibata murmured her acquiescence. “I’m sure Kuroda thinks he’s on top of the precedents for this, but I want to be certain before we meet with the company. There is no room for error on this.”

“Understood, Asami-sama.”

They were talking shop? Takaba was briefly disappointed, before realising this was still proof. Proof that Asami wasn’t the cheerless, reticent slab of marble he’d been impersonating all day. No, apparently that was just an act designed to make everyone around him miserable and confused while he snuck off to do business with his assistant in secret.

“Manipulative prick,” Takaba muttered, then shut up as Asami gave another slew of orders in legal jargon. When he was done, a long silence followed before Shibata dared to break it.

“And the date yesterday, Asami-sama?” she gently pressed. “You haven’t mentioned it.”

Takaba felt his heart begin to thud, but Asami only said, “How trite of you to call it that.”

“I hope you don’t mind my asking. It’s just that I feel a need to know how my competition is faring, if they’ve managed to snare your affections yet. ” Something about her tone of voice, the amused lilt to it, confused Takaba. But he didn’t have time to wonder about it, not when Asami seemed determined to drive a stake through his chest.

“Sudou’s performance was more satisfying than I was expecting. To my surprise, he knows how to be obedient after all.”

“Oh?”

“He squeals delightfully.”

Takaba felt his mouth drop open. ‘Squeal’? Sudou? But, but what kind of situation could have made him —

“Fei Long, though, was as good as I remembered. It had been far too long since I’d seen him in action like that. His prowess is second to none. Something of which he is well aware, of course.”

Takaba gritted his teeth, refusing to believe it. No. Sudou, Fei Long, and Kuroda had been tight lipped about what they’d gotten up to on yesterday’s date, but it couldn’t have been. That. With Asami.

“Oi, Takaba!” someone shouted. Takaba startled, knocking his head against the planter as he turned to see who was calling him. Mitarai was marching down the aisle between tables, his clipboard flung out before him like a sword. “Stop skulking there and stand up! And get that thing off your head!”

Takaba’s knees twinged painfully as he forced himself to his feet. But he couldn’t bear to pull off his hat, not when it was the only thing that was disguising his face. Asami and Shibata had both risen at the sound of Mitarai’s voice, and were now peering over the ferns at him.

“Off!” Mitarai said when he reached them, swiping at Takaba’s headgear with his clipboard before Takaba could mount a proper defence. His octopus hat flew to the floor in an ungainly tangle of furry tentacles. “Where the fuck have you been? Sorry,” he added to a shocked father, passing by them at that moment with his daughter.

“I, uh, just needed to ask Asami something,” Takaba mumbled, undercutting his excuse with his total inability to look the lawyer in the face.

“Ask away,” Mitarai drawled, gesturing at Asami and Shibata. “I’m sure they’re dying to hear what you have to say.”

Takaba forced himself to meet Asami’s eye (though it might have possibly slid away just a bit up to his forehead instead). “The pink, um, the pink square thing with the dangly bits you’re holding for a friend of mine. I need it back.”

So much for effective indirection. But Asami seemed to know exactly what Takaba meant. He also didn’t seem surprised to discover that Takaba had been spying on him, though maybe he was just hiding his anger behind that usual stoic mask. Which was firmly back in place, Takaba noted glumly. “I’ve already had it couriered to Momohara-san’s agent’s office.”

“Oh,” Takaba croaked.

“Momohara?” Mitarai looked between them. “Did Ai-chan forget something when she left?” He wheeled on Takaba. “It’s not a sex toy, is it?”

At that moment, Takaba spotted Tao returning to the cafeteria. “Look, Tao!” He waited until Mitarai had turned to see what the fuss was about before ducking down to scoop up his octopus hat.

“So what? Oi!”

Takaba ignored the shouts aimed at his back as he ran the length of the cafeteria, dodging around people and chairs in time to intercept Tao. He skidded to a stop just before they collided, and only then noticed how gingerly the kid was moving. His face was a pale mask of horror.

“Tao?” Takaba grabbed his shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

“I went to the bathroom,” Tao said, his tone worryingly vague.

“So?” Takaba couldn’t help but look back over his shoulder. None of the production team were in pursuit, thank god. Though Yoh was giving him a very unimpressed look from his own table. Judgemental dick.

“The toilet-clam tried to eat me,” Tao murmured dazedly. “When I sat down, it snapped shut.”

“Er,” Takaba said, thrown for a second by the image of Tao almost drowning in a novelty toilet. He held out his octopus instead, letting its tentacles wobble in front of Tao’s shellshocked face. “Want a hat?”

***

The following night was the Tulip Ceremony that Takaba had been dreading. During the day, all the contestants had been banned from entering the compound’s back garden, and not even some fast talking by Kuroda or the offer of autographed photos from Sudou could convince the small army of workmen coming in and out of the house to let them take a peek.

And now it was clear why. An arched platform of interlocking steel panels had been erected over the garden’s pond, an elbow-high barrier of red lattice rising from the sides to make it resemble a decorative bridge on a nobleman’s estate. Takaba had a bad feeling just looking at it.

“Don’t break an ankle getting up there,” Mitarai smiled, shoving them into a line so the cameras could capture them teetering up the temporary stairs and onto the structure. “We’re already paying through the nose for insurance.”

Tao shot the man a disgusted look and cut to the front of the queue, muttering something to Fei Long in Chinese that Takaba assumed meant “Allow me go up first to test the bridge, Oh Great Lord Fei Long, lest it prove too weak to support your enormous ego.”

And actually, the panels clacked rather alarmingly as Takaba shuffled onto them via the stairs, moving to place his feet over the X marked in scotch tape with a pixellated sticker of his face stuck underneath it. Either the director was being even more pedantic about the contestants’ placement than usual, or this thing had been balanced with their individual weights in mind. At least Suoh wasn’t still in the competition — just one tap of his snow shovel-sized shoes would have been enough to send them all crashing down into the pond.

“Oh, yes,” Sudou murmured, ‘accidentally’ stepping on Takaba’s toes as he moved into position on the next panel over. Takaba would have elbowed him had he not looked up at that moment, catching sight of what had drawn out Sudou’s admiration.

Asami had appeared while they’d all been occupied moving onto the bridge. Even from his distant, elevated vantage point Takaba was struck by how sleek the lawyer looked in his black satin dinner jacket, the way he was casually smoking in the shadowy lee of the compound while the cameras were re-arranged for the rest of the night’s filming.

“All right, Takaba?” asked a low voice. Takaba cut his eyes to his left, surprised to find Yoh looking down at him.

“Fine,” Takaba muttered, unable to muster more than a grimace for the man’s consideration. He wondered how terrible he must look to attract the usually reticent security guard’s concern. But he was fine. Maybe now he felt a pang of regret over last night, standing in the airless basement corridor leading to Asami’s private room but unable to make himself move the last few steps it would have taken to knock on the door.

Though even now he wasn’t sure what he could have said. Something like “What the heck is your problem, old man?” was just too general. (Asami had a lot of problems).

And “So I hear you’re sleeping with Sudou and Fei Long now, huh? Is that why you’re pissed at me, because I didn’t put out that night?” would have probably taken Asami aback for a moment, sure. But Takaba didn’t want to give the lawyer definitive confirmation that he had been eavesdropping on him at the aquarium, either.

Why are you ignoring me?

Well, that was just pathetic. Especially because this is what you wanted all along, Takaba Akihito! Him leaving you alone and knocking you out of the competition for good.

At any rate, it looked like Takaba would be getting his wish tonight. Asami didn’t once look in his direction while the final preparations were made for filming, and Sudou was all but preening beside him now, assured of his safety in the competition after the fan vote. Takaba was feeling physically ill by the time the ceremony finally started.

“Welcome to tonight’s very special Tulip Ceremony!” Sakazaki exclaimed. Apparently having run out of Western-style clothes to butcher, he’d moved onto Chinese robes. “You are all no doubt wondering why this week, this perfectly ordinary week of wooing, has culminated in this.” With a grandiose sweep of his arm, Sakazaki indicated the bridge.

Fei Long made a noise in his throat that managed to convey You are an imbecile and Hurry this farce up already at the same time.

“Well, I’m here to tell you right now that this is no ordinary Tulip Ceremony! Just today we received some very surprising news from Asami-san’s law firm, Scion & Partners. It seems that in their boss’ absence, the firm has taken on a very important, high profile case. This means that we will need to return Asami-san a whole week earlier than was originally planned so he can personally lead his peons through this development.”

The news was greeted by awkward silence. Fei Long made no derisive sounds, Sudou stopped stroking his index finger over his lips, and even Tao stopped rocking from side to side impatiently. Takaba’s mind raced to work out what this meant, because if Confirmed Bachelor was ending a week earlier than it was supposed to, that would mean —

“That’s right!” Sakazaki crowed, “Tonight is a double elimination!”

Takaba gasped. Thankfully he wasn’t the only one who’d been knocked (figuratively) sideways by the news: Yoh was muttering under his breath and Fei Long had his hands balled into fists, staring resolutely ahead as if determined to weather whatever else was coming. Sakazaki obliged.

“Four of you will be leaving the competition tonight, and only two of you along with our fan favourite Sudou-san will continue into next week — our final week! And you all know what happens in the final week of Japan’s No.1 Handsome Confirmed Bachelor…”

It was clearly a rhetorical question, but Tao answered breathlessly anyway. “Vacation destination!”

Sakazaki scowled. “I think what you meant to say was Sensual Exotic Date Week. But yes, three lucky contestants will be joining Asami-san at an exciting overseas location for the final week! Now, we’ve given you some clues. Who can guess where you’ll be headed to?”

“China?” Yoh ventured, clamming up again when Sakazaki said “Wrong!” with relish, adjusting the fabric clasps on his robes.

“Hong Kong!” Tao suddenly screeched (Asami winced). “Yes! Yes yes yes!”

“Wrong!” Sakazaki shouted over him. “And please show some decorum, Li-kun.”

“Korea?” Sudou blurted, an anticipatory light shining in his eyes. “DrakeEnema have a lot of fans in Korea,” he added.

“As much as I’d like to see you all sent to a North Korean gulag,” Sakazaki mused, “that is not the correct answer. Either Korea,” he interjected, when Shibata opened her mouth.

Drawn out silence followed this last quashed guess. Takaba just hoped this bit would be edited out of the show — he had a feeling they were all looking like idiots at this point.

“Oh come on,” Sakazaki growled. “What kind of underfunded public schools did you morons go to?”

Asami adjusted his stance slightly, gazing over all their heads at the night sky in private amusement.

Takaba heard Fei Long take a deep breath. “Taiwan.”

“Finally!” Sakazaki groused, then seemed to realise how that had sounded. “Correct! Well done, Liu-san.”

“Look excited!” barked the director. “Squeal like you mean it.”

“Don’t jump around though,” Sakazaki smirked. Takaba wondered what that meant. He didn’t have to wait long, though, because as soon as the cameras had recorded enough of the contestants cheering half-heartedly, Sakazaki stepped closer to the pond.

The others must have recognised the sudden change in atmosphere, because a hush fell almost immediately over the bridge. Of course, not all them would be going to Taiwan with Asami. But now that he noticed, the usual vase of tulips was missing, and Asami had his hands folded casually into his jacket pockets. As though he were merely content to watch what was unfolding in front of him.

“But who will be going to Taiwan for the romantic holiday of a lifetime, and who will be rejected? I can reveal now that Asami-san has already finished his deliberations. In fact, your fate was decided before you even ascended the bridge tonight. And let me tell you, some of you are about to find yourselves in very deep water.”

The hell? Takaba wondered, a second before the screech of juddering steel sounded below him. One by one, the bridge’s panels dropped away beneath the contestants’ feet, cries and screams splitting the air as they plunged into the pond.

Takaba grabbed onto the bridge’s rail on instinct, bracing himself for when the panel beneath his feet would collapse and send him tumbling into the water after them. But it held fast.

“Congratulations, Sudou-san, Liu-san and Takaba-kun,” Sakazaki called over the noise of splashing and curses below the bridge. Takaba, unwilling to let go of the bannister, glanced to either side. The panels supporting Fei Long and Sudou hadn’t fallen away, either.

“You are the final three contestants on Japan’s No.1 Handsome Confirmed Bachelor!

Chapter Text

Week 4

Four hours after the Tulip Ceremony ended, the remaining contestants were bundled onto a chartered flight to Taipei.

“We could have at least waited until the morning,” Sudou complained, swiping concealer on the bags under his eyes from a private make up arsenal.

Mitarai, looking more like a grizzled neolithic hunter-gatherer by the hour, ducked around his headrest to glare at Sudou through the cabin’s murky light. “Yeah? You offering to underwrite another night in that fucking fortress, Sudou? Or do you want to go on holiday and buy the shit out of some souvenir fridge magnets? Huh?”  

“I’ve been to Taiwan before.” Sudou closed his compact with a snap. “I much prefer South Korea — they understand the value of beauty there.”

Even though he was supposedly fast asleep across a row of seats at the back of the plane, Takaba could have sworn he heard Fei Long mutter something that sounded like “plastic surgery”.

Sighing, Takaba wriggled in his seat and tried to find a comfortable position for sleep. To be honest, even though he’d been going stir crazy in there for weeks, Takaba wouldn’t have minded a final night in the compound. For one thing, it was shame that his last memory of the other contestants was of them splashing around in the pond while the cameramen zoomed in on Shibata’s soaked shirt and Kuroda vented his rejection by punching a koi. At least he’d spent a few last moments with Tao while they packed up their room (even if most of that had been Tao hissing threats of bodily harm and/or a campaign of hateful voicemail messages if Takaba dared to lose the competition and not send ‘Fei-sama’ back to him safe and sound).

“I’ll have the chicken and rice please, steward.”

The voice startled Takaba out of the light doze he’d fallen into. When he looked up blearily, it was to find Sudou looming over him with a smile, his lips shiny beneath a fresh layer of lip gloss. “Wha-?”

“And some red wine, I think. What’s for dessert?”

When Takaba finally realised what Sudou was insinuating, he felt himself flush. What made it worse was that ever since they’d boarded the flight he had felt an intermittent compulsion to get off his lazy arse and serve the passengers their dinner. Or at least some complimentary peanuts. Ugh.

“You’re not a very good flight attendant, Takaba-kun,” Sudou went on, when it was clear Takaba wasn’t going to reply. “What would your supervisor say if he knew?”

“Go serve yourself,” Takaba muttered, flinching when Mitarai suddenly popped up like a whack-a-mole from behind his headrest again.

“If you two don’t shut up and let me…Takaba! What the hell is that on your chin?”

Takaba swiped at his face in confusion, freezing when he felt something —

“Oh dear,” murmured Sudou. “I think that’s the most protuberant zit I’ve ever seen. It’s like a little Mt Fuji has sprouted out of your face!”

“Shinotake-sensei!” Mitarai called to the director. “Come look at Takaba’s face. Looks like we’re gonna need to hire some extra make up artists once we land…”

At the sight of their director and one of the cameramen lurching out of their seats to come ogle him, Takaba took action. He reached into the seat pocket in front of him, ripping the plastic wrapping off the air sickness bag and cramming it over his head. It tore open at the sides, but at least it covered the front of his face. Sort of. Though Takaba soon realised that not even the patches of darkness in front of his eyes could erase the mental image of Asami, two rows ahead, neatly folding his newspaper and sitting back to enjoy the spectacle.

***

Their hotel, when they arrived in Taipei, was tucked into a neighbourhood side street between a McDonald’s and a Family Mart convenience store. The building itself was worn and water-damaged and looked like nothing more than an abandoned warehouse — albeit one that was ten storeys high. Takaba felt his hopes wither as they waited for the taxi drivers to unload their luggage, and could only partly blame his low spirits on exhaustion. If he, Takaba —barely reformed Yokohama delinquent of old — was less than impressed with their new digs, how on earth would fancy-pantses like Sudou and Fei Long react? Let alone Asami, whose tie clips probably cost more than the down payment on Takaba’s apartment.

Just as well, then, that the hotel’s interior turned out to be nothing like its façade.

“Shut your mouth, Takaba,” Mitarai groaned, dragging his pre-wheel era bag into the hotel’s expansive, glittering lobby. It screeched along the marble. “You look like a brainless catfish. With a giant zit instead of whiskers.”

Takaba closed his mouth. For a second. “But I thought, when we were outside — ”

“Yeah, yeah, we’re taking exterior shots of the Grand Hotel, but this is where we’re sleeping.”

And Takaba was grateful that they were all being put up in a classy hotel (even if it was a classy hotel with an outside like a deserted chemical manufacturer) — but did they really have to share a room?

“Queen size,” Sudou complained, shoving past the attendant as soon as she opened the door at the very end of a purple-carpeted hallway on the fifth floor. He pointed the porter to the bed closest to the suite’s window, which showed nothing but grey skies and a vertiginous drop onto the roof of the neighbouring building.

“Hold up, Sudou.” Sakazaki stuck his head through a door in the room’s intervening wall. “This is a suite, so you’re in here. With me.”

“Fabulous,” Sudou muttered, while Takaba recovered from the near heart attack he’d had at the sudden thought of having to share a room with Sakazaki. At least their host had been avoiding him ever since That Night back at the compound. Initially, Takaba had wondered if the reprieve had something to do with Asami. Though now, of course, the idea that Asami would stick his neck out for Takaba’s sake seemed ludicrous.

As soon as Sudou left the room, Fei Long wasted no time in staking a claim to the window-side bed.

“So,” Takaba sighed, then struggled not to start gaping again as a retinue of three porters arrived to haul in two pieces of Fei Long’s luggage — each. What, was the guy planning to set up a subsidiary beauty salon in between location filming?

But Fei Long shot him a sharp look before he could make any comment. He went into the en suite bathroom, and five minutes later came back out dressed in a pair of loose pants and a turquoise silk shirt. He left the room without another word, rolled up yoga mat slung over his shoulder like a pastel pool noodle.

“So,” Takaba said.

***

As they weren’t filming the new Confirmed Bachelor episode until later in the evening, Takaba decided to go outside and explore until he felt tired enough for an afternoon nap.

Each of the contestants had only been given the equivalent of about three thousand yen in spending money, but as it turned out, a thousand Taiwanese dollars was more than enough to buy milk tea and some Pocky from the Family Mart next to the hotel. Takaba spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the neighbourhood, getting used to the milder weather and the constant roar of scooter traffic zooming past on the road and, on one death-defying occasion, the sidewalk.

It was as he was buying some local pastry-type thing from a guy with a portable deep fryer (and wondering if he was about to contract food poisoning) that Takaba spotted it. A conspicuous tuft of bleached blond hair peeking over the top an outdoor display shelf belonging the bookstore on the corner. It was an extremely familiar tuft of hair.

Quickly paying for his food, Takaba made his way over to the bookstore with narrowed eyes, ignoring the grease that was soon soaking his fingers through the pastry’s paper sleeve. He reached the bookstore and made way for a group of chatting teenagers, before approaching the shelf and peering around it to see —

“Ah-ha!” he blurted, too distracted by the adrenaline of being right to care about drawing attention to himself.

Because there he was: Suoh, the suit-clad giant, hunched awkwardly behind one of the bookshelves cluttering up the shopfront. For someone who seemed to live and breathe professional security, he was pretty crappy at stealth.

“I knew it was you! What are you even doing in Taiwan?” Suoh didn’t reply. “Don’t tell me you decided to follow Mikhail’s lead and start stalking Fei Long on your own time. Or, uh, Asami?” Come to think, Suoh had never seemed very smitten with their bachelor. If pressed, Takaba would have pegged the man’s attraction to those around him at about the same level as Takaba’s sexual interest in houseplants.

But Suoh remained silent. He stared stonily over Takaba’s shoulder and slowly relaxed out of his crouch, as if Takaba hadn’t just caught him trying and failing to shield his enormous, woollen-clad bulk behind a shelf of cooking magazines.

“Pretending you don’t know me? Fine, then. Have fun staring into space all day.” But as Takaba turned to leave, he heard a deep rumbling, grating sound. Apparently that was what passed for the man’s voice. “What?”

“I’m on holiday,” Suoh repeated.

Stuffing the by-now mushy pastry into his mouth, Takaba treated that excuse with the respect it deserved. He walked away.

***

Seeing that he still had several hours to kill before he was due to meet the others for dinner, Takaba made his way to the hotel’s bar to cash in his complimentary drink coupon. The place wasn’t that busy in the early afternoon, but the bartender spoke good Japanese and Takaba was privately relieved to have found somewhere to recharge before that night’s filming. He couldn’t bring himself to go back to the suite yet, not when Fei Long or Sudou might be there, ready and willing to flay him with their contempt. Or worse, have Sakazaki suddenly waltzing in to demand he compliment the man’s latest revolting dinner jacket…

“Takaba Akihito!”

Takaba jumped, immediately wishing he’d given the bar’s other occupants more than a cursory glance when he came in. Already dreading what he’d see, Takaba swivelled around to face the man sitting two barstools away. Well, shit.

“I shoulda known,” Glasses slurred, half-slumped over the bar. The glass tumbler squeaked in his white-knuckled grip.

“Should’ve known what?” Takaba asked warily, discarding his real question, which was Why the hell aren’t you in Japan? Maybe he and Suoh had gotten some kind of two-for-one deal on flights?

“I shoulda known,” Glasses said again, sliding off his stool and staggering towards Takaba, “that you’d come to stop me.”

Takaba shuffled back to the edge of his own stool. “Er — ”

“But you can’t, see,” Glasses rasped, spectacles fogging up as he exhaled deeply. “It’s too late, ‘m already here. No more students, never talking! Not never helping. Just dis-disappearing after they get the, uh, essay topic. Little…big bastards. Big. No more As for them now! Haha!”

Before Takaba could even try to figure out what the hell that meant, Glasses lurched forward. Takaba leapt back off his stool, throwing up his hands in case the man made a grab for him. But Glasses only braced himself on the bar, panting as a hazy expression overtook his face. Using the man’s distraction, Takaba quickly fished around in pocket for money to pay his tab.

“Oi. Oi, Tata-takaba.”

Takaba ignored him, slapping the notes down on the bar and calling to the barman, “Here, keep the change!”

Channelling all his self-control into overcoming his instinct to run, Takaba marched to the bar’s exit without a backward glance. But just as he the doors, the sound of heavy footsteps rushed up behind him and arms snuck around his sides. “Argh!” Cinching his waist, Glasses collapsed against his back. “Get off me, you crazy drunk!”

“Where’s he?” Glasses slurred, clinging to him until Takaba’s legs started to shake with the effort of holding up their combined weight. “Where’s the boss?”

“I don’t know, we don’t share a room!”

“The desk,” Glasses groaned, reacting to Takaba’s frantic attempt to disentangle them by tightening his grip. “Wouldn’ tell me his room number.”

“You’re making a scene,” Takaba hissed as his knees threatened to buckle. “Please, get off! I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you, just let me go, please.”

Much too slowly for Takaba’s liking, Glasses withdrew his arms by jerky increments and staggered backwards. “Where?” This close, the crazed glint through Glasses’ fogged-up spectacles was almost enough to send Takaba fleeing again. Maybe he’d be lucky and on their way through the lobby, Glasses would go careening into a potted ficus.

“Why do you want to know?” he asked instead. Glasses’ eyes narrowed, hand twitching up in warning. “I mean! Okay, it’s just, the director doesn’t know you’re here, right? I could get in trouble for leading you straight to Asami. Given that he’s such a precious commodity and all.”

“Listen to me, you bratty little upstart!” Takaba blinked, wondering where Glasses’ slur had disappeared to. “If you don’t do this for me right now, as soon as you win this piece of shit competition and we get back to Tokyo, I’m going to make your life a seething hell. When I set my sights on your plain little face and your fake ratty hair, not even the boss’ protection can save you!”

“Right, er,” Takaba pointed vaguely. “Right this way.”

One good thing about leading around a half-drunk, half-mental person: he wasn’t likely to notice that you had no idea where you were going. They had the elevator to themselves, small mercy, and Glasses didn’t seem at all suspicious when Takaba hesitated before pressing the button for a floor at complete random.

The elevator opened onto an unfamiliar, cream-carpeted hallway, and Takaba noticed that the ornate doors were spaced much farther apart here than on their suite’s floor.

“This way,” Takaba said, aiming for a breezy confidence. “We’re all staying in the room at the end.”

“Wait,” Glasses grabbed his arm when Takaba tried to turn back to the elevator. “What’s that sign outside the door?”

“Er.” Because there was one, he now noticed, along with one of those red ropes they used to corral throngs of excited spectators at celebrity events. “It’s just telling people not to go inside. In case we’re filming. Or something.”

“Show me,” Glasses demanded, shaking Takaba’s arm. “Take me there yourself.”

Crap crap crap, went Takaba’s private mantra, helpless to do anything but let himself be dragged along behind Glasses as he staggered down the hallway. At the far end, the man didn’t pause to read the sign; he simply swept away the red rope like he was brushing away a cobweb. Takaba winced as it crashed to the floor, but Glasses already had his free hand on the doorknob, jiggling it until the door swung open on well-oiled hinges.

Soft rainforest music wafted out into the hallway, followed by a cloud of jasmine perfume and artificial humidity.

“This is…a salon,” Glasses murmured, incredulous. With terrifying slowness, he swivelled his head around to stare down at Takaba. The fingers wrapped around his arm clenched with bruising strength. “This. is. a salon!”

Disrupted by the noise, the figure covered in hot rocks on the massage table closest to the door raised his head, a cucumber slice falling off his right eye.

“Oh no,” Takaba moaned.

“Fei Long!” Glasses called to the man on the table. “Where is Asami-sama!”

Takaba elbowed Glasses in the stomach and ran for his life.

Chapter Text

“Don’t you think someone should re-write these?” Sakazaki asked over dinner that night, gesturing in the direction of Sudou with his cue cards. 

For a moment Takaba was sure Mitarai would say what everyone was thinking — that Sudou’s “fainting spell” during the entree was about as real as his peroxide-blond hair — but their producer only rolled his eyes. “The writers are all off on a bender somewhere. Besides, we can’t keep re-writing your intro every time something unexpected happens.” He cut his eyes to Glasses, seated on Asami’s left and staring at his former boss with an intensity usually reserved for religious visions.

Or ‘current boss’, Takaba should day, seeing as sometime between his fleeing the hotel’s spa and dinner beginning Glasses had convinced Asami to give him his old job back. Which thankfully meant that Glasses was too blissed out to stay mad at Takaba for leading him on a wild goose chase. Fei Long, on the other hand…

Takaba risked a glance at him across the table, and — yep, still using his eyes as death rays. Takaba looked down at his plate, annoyed. How long could someone stay angry at the person who’d accidentally led a drunken, incensed love rival into the middle of their hot rock massage? It wasn’t like one of Fei Long’s eyes looked any less hydrated for being momentarily deprived of its cucumber.

“Ah, I’m feeling dizzy again,” moaned Sudou, clutching his flushed face (which had remained such a consistent shade of pink over the last few hours that Takaba suspected rouge was at work). “Asami-san, please…”

Brow furrowed, Asami reached behind Glasses and patted Sudou on the shoulder. One of the on-call medics rushed over again, offering Sudou an oxygen mask and suggesting he leave dinner early to lie down.

“No!” barked the director. “No more delays! Let’s get this shitshow wrapped up so I can go to bed.”

“It’s all right,” Sudou said in a high, feeble voice, angling his head towards the cameraman hovering nearby to capture every moment of this ‘medical emergency’. “It’s just been a tiring day. But after years of hard work in the entertainment industry, I know better than most: the show must go on."

Takaba sighed into his milk tea until it was frothing with matcha-tinted bubbles.

“All right, I’ll just use the old intro and you can frankenbite my audio like you always do, anyway,” said Sakazaki, clearing his throat. “Kirishima, get lost while we finish filming.”

Lips pressed together, Glasses rose and left the table. Sudou slipped into his empty seat without delay.

“I never thought I’d feel grateful for your impatience, Sakazaki,” remarked Asami, smiling wryly. “Do continue.”

Sakazaki ignored him, adjusting his ascot and waiting for the director to give him the go-ahead. “Gentlemen and Asami-san! I’d like to use this sumptuous dinner as an opportunity to formally welcome you to Taiwan, this season’s location for our Sensual Exotic Date Week! You’ve all survived numerous trials on your journey here, from extreme hiking to extreme cooking, extreme interior decorating to whatever extremes will await your next, here.”

Well trained by now, Takaba, Fei Long and Sudou all made appropriately excited noises, though Sudou added a hysterical little trilling sound while clutching his head.

“Though you can only spend one week here,” Sakazaki went on, “you now have the opportunity for unparalleled access to our bachelor, Asami-san. At last, each of you will be allowed an entire day to enjoy his company on a solo date! And if all goes well, and both parties clear their health check-up,” he paused to chuckle to himself, “you may spend the night together in the special Ecstasy Suite we’ve prepared for you! That’s right, nights of blistering passion await you — but! While each of you are guaranteed one day to prove your worth as a future spouse, which day your date falls on…will make all the difference.”

Their director called cut as soon as the ominous quality of Sakazaki’s pause started feeling forced instead. Ushered away from the table, Takaba and the others were made to wait as servers came forward to clear away plates and remove the table cloth. Beneath the linen, the table was a solid metal block with stubby legs, like a water trough with a flat lid.

“Okay, get a camera on this, we’re opening it up.”

“Oh,” Takaba breathed, as the top of the table was lifted away to reveal a deep channel of bright blue water inside the table.

“They really don’t have many original ideas, do they,” Fei Long murmured, flicking back a lock of his hair. On the other side of the table-trough, Sudou remained silent, though Takaba couldn’t help but think his eyes were too sharp and calculating for someone who’d supposedly been seconds away from unconsciousness a couple minutes ago.

The assistants came forward again to dump several dozen plastic, floating lotuses in the channel, though it wasn’t until Takaba noticed them dropping in three miniature dragon boats — each sprouting an antenna from its stern — that he began to suspect what was about to happen.

Sakazaki swept forward as soon as filming resumed. “As you can see, this is not a mere table. It is, in fact, a battleground. Each of you will gain control of one of these boats, but only the first to reach the other end shall claim victory! Victory, and the choice of which of the following three days you wish to woo Asami-san on.”

Personally, Takaba didn’t think being given the option to plan out his calendar in advance was much incentive to humiliate himself on national television, much less in a motorised dragon boat race. Then again, judging by Fei Long and Sudou’s fervent expressions, it would probably give him an advantage in terms of strategy. Even if Takaba’s only strategy so far had been to fail epically at every task set before him.

Takaba accepted his remote control, turning slightly to catch a glimpse of Asami out of the corner of his eye. The lawyer looked comfortable, smoking an after-dinner (and blatantly illegal indoor) cigarette outside the range of the cameras. He looked like he was settling in for some entertainment at everybody else’s expense.

Just like on the plane over here, Takaba thought, gritting his teeth. Well, let’s see just how amused he’d be when Takaba refused to be the victim of everybody’s ridicule for once!

“Bring it on,” Takaba muttered, shuffling to the end of the water channel where their dragon boats were bobbing around in a messy line. Fei Long shot him a curious glance as he stepped in beside him, but Takaba ignored him. The red stripe on his blocky remote control matched the red stripe on the little dragon boat penned in by the other two, and a floating lotus was blocking the way immediately in front of it. He’d have to guide the boat around the obstacle if he were to pull ahead early.

“Wish me luck, Asami-san!” called Sudou, having finally slunk over to join them. Behind the cameras, Asami raised an eyebrow and blew a sinuous stream of smoke through his mouth.

Sakazaki positioned himself by the ‘finish line’. “Remember, the first boat to touch the other end of our river here, wins. On my count, now. Three…two…one — !”

Like a duck carving a swathe through the water, Fei Long’s dragon boat shot ahead. Takaba jammed his thumb on the joystick, but he hadn’t anticipated how damn fast the boat would be: it rammed straight into the first lotus.

“Shit!”

Sudou chuckled, jostling Takaba’s boat into the side of the trough when he tried again to steer around the flower. “Oops.”

“Liu-san has an early lead!” Sakazaki called out, though Takaba tuned out any further commentary, trying desperately to get his uncooperative boat to stop swimming straight into every damn lotus.

“Stop sideswiping me,” he snapped at Sudou, who had snuck up behind him again to slam his boat into the edge of the channel. His poor antenna was already crooked.

“So sorry, Takaba-kun,” Sudou murmured, clipping Takaba as he steered his boat around a devilish line of four lotuses blocking all but a narrow passageway through the water. “I don’t seem to be very good at this, do I?”

Bullshit. But Takaba didn’t have time to call foul, he had to get his boat through that gap if he was going to stay in the race. He flicked his joystick to the left, wincing as his boat emitted a staticky sound of duress. It finally moved, sluggishly and off-kilter, but close enough that he thought he’d make it, if he could just nudge it forward a little more…

With a crash that echoed against the trough’s steep walls, Sudou crashed into the back of Takaba’s boat. Its antenna snapped clear off.

“Liu Fei Long wins the race! Congratulations!” cried Sakazaki, at the same time Takaba’s boat tipped sideways in the water and finally went straight — to the bottom of the channel. “How are the others faring? Ah.”

Takaba turned on Sudou furiously. But before he could so much as lob his remote control at the prick’s coiffed head, Sakazaki came over to inspect the damage. “Well, seeing as neither has reached the finish line, but Takaba-kun has managed to sink his boat, I think it’s safe to say that Sudou-san is the runner-up by default.”

“Thank you, Sakazaki-san,” replied Sudou, ducking his head. “And my deepest apologies to Takaba-san. I fear my hand-eye coordination has suffered after my dizzy spell earlier.”

“Very understandable. Now, as we get this cleared away, it’s time for the big decisions. Liu-san, on which day would you like to step out with Asami-san?”

Fei Long, sitting primly on a chair by the finish line, looked over to catch Asami’s eye. Having finished his cigarette, the bastard had stepped into the range of the cameras again. Something silent passed between them. “The third day. Just before the day of the Final Tulip.”

“A wise choice, I’m sure.” Sakazaki turned to Sudou, angling himself in front of Takaba as he did so. Which was just as well for Sudou’s continued existence. “And you, Sudou-san?”

“Tomorrow, the first day. If it would please Asami-san, that is.”

Sakazaki barked a laugh. “Oh, I’m sure it would. You seem very confident, Sudou-san. You’re not at all worried that our bachelor will forget you after the two dates following yours?”

Sudou cocked his head, smiling coyly. “I have nothing to be worried about. Not when I’m going to give Asami-san a night that will be impossible to forget.”

***

“Stop sulking.” Takaba watched Fei Long’s reflection in the hotel’s rain-fogged window as he rose gracefully from the bed. “You should have enough self-respect to stop moping like a spoilt teenager.”

“I’m not moping, I’m watching TV.” Though Takaba couldn’t actually bring himself to turn around in his chair and fake-watch the screen. The rise and fall of voices and cartoonish sound effects on the local talk show had become a comforting kind of background chatter over the past few hours. He’d long since given up on concentrating on anything other than his water-streaked view.

Fei Long was too dignified to snort, even if the noise he made sounded an awful lot like one. “I’m changing the channel back to NHK. My Mandarin’s better than yours, obviously, but this drivel is giving me a headache.”

“I thought you were Chinese,” Takaba said, craning his neck around to watch Fei Long circle the room and flop backwards onto the bed again, kicking off his slippers and stretching luxuriantly. More and more Takaba was starting to believe he was actually sharing accommodations with a finicky cat.

“Once again, I struggle to understand how a well-travelled flight attendant can be such an uneducated moron. Then again, you work for a budget airline.”

Takaba swallowed down his indignation with difficulty. “Once again, Fei Long, I struggle to understand how you can act like you’re my superior when you’re the one who’s been sulking in bed all day, refusing to eat.”

“Oh, like you’re not just as tormented as I am, thinking of what Asami-san at this very moment is doing with him. And now that night has fallen, it brings about thoughts of other things they could be doing together, doesn’t it?” Takaba turned back to the window in lieu of a reply, and Fei Long barked a laugh. “Say what you will about Sudou, at least he’s sincere in his desire to win. You don’t even know what you’re still doing here, do you, Takaba?”

“None of your business,” Takaba muttered, drawing up his legs and wrapping his arms around them. Who cared if he looked defensive, it was cold in the room. And Fei Long was clearly too busy needling Takaba to do anything useful like turning down the air con.

“A lot of people who wanted to be here aren’t because you never stopped being a coward enough to leave of your own accord. And yet it’s clear to anyone who looks at you that you wish you were anywhere else right now.”

“Not true,” Takaba muttered, struggling down from his window seat on legs full of pins and needles. He wasn’t going to just sit there and take all the complaints about him Fei Long had been apparently cataloguing for weeks. Even if that meant hiding in the bathroom for a while. Or better yet, taking a very long, very cold shower until his hands were too wrinkled and shaky to form the fist he was dearly considering planting in Fei Long’s self-righteous face.

But before he could get even halfway across the room, Fei Long slipped off the bed and stood to block him. This close, Takaba realised that the other man wasn’t just trying to get a rise out of him for his own amusement — he was angry. Beneath the pristine, unflustered façade he constantly wore, Takaba caught a glimpse of barely-contained emotion.

Emotion that did not bode well for Takaba.

“What?” he challenged, wincing at how diffident he sounded.

“I don’t understand what Asami-san sees in a little brat like you,” Fei Long mused, the brief hint of raw emotion quickly subsumed by the man’s usual haughtiness. “A boy with no discernible talents, wasting his parents’ dedication and resources on a vapid job as a glorified waiter.”

“You — ” Takaba cut himself off, feeling his blood pressure rise dangerously.

“Oh?” Fei Long raised one scythe-sharp brow. “What has you all fired up?”

Someone knocked on the door.

After a tense pause, Fei Long directed whoever it was to enter. “Uh…excuse me?” One of the junior producers poked his head around the door, a cameraman visible over his shoulder. “Sorry to disturb you, Liu-san, Takaba-san. But Shinotake-sensei asked us to film you two while you were waiting for Sudou-san’s date to finish…er…should I come back?”

Takaba let out the breath he’d been holding in, trying to will his heart to stop pounding. Had he really been about to attack Fei Long? Fei Long, the man who had probably trained Tao in the fifteen most painful ways to throttle someone to death?

“Not at all,” Fei Long replied coolly. “Please, come in.”

They watched as the producer walked around the room, looking for a suitable backdrop to film them against before pulling one of the chairs away from the suite’s desk so they had somewhere to sit during their by-now-routine daily interview.

With the suite’s other occupants safely out of range, Fei Long leaned down to whisper in Takaba’s ear. “You should just leave, Takaba.” He tapped one painted nail against Takaba’s bare arm, digging it in when Takaba didn’t reply. “For everyone’s sake, you should recuse yourself now. No one will miss you.”

He was probably right, Takaba thought gloomily. But the words crystallised something else in Takaba’s mind, and screwing up the last of his courage, he turned to look Fei Long dead in the eye. “I won’t. I won’t, because if I do, Asami will be stuck with one of you.”

***

Takaba was busy picking cherry tomatoes out of his breakfast salad the next morning when Sudou made his way into the contestants’ private dining room, looking refreshed and tousle-haired. A cameraman followed him in, which made Takaba suspect that Sudou sitting down at the table directly across from him was something set up by the show’s (evil) invisible writers.

Lounging outside on the terrace, Fei Long ignored them entirely.

“Have a good night, Takaba-kun?” Sudou said. “Not too sleepless, I hope?”

“It was just great,” Takaba replied, holding out his glass for the dining room’s waiter to refill it with orange juice. “Can I get another bowl of misoshiru? Thanks.”

“I’ll have some rice and an omelette, please,” Sudou smiled, handing the hotel’s special order menu to the waiter before fixing his attention on Takaba again. “I usually forgo carbohydrates in the morning, but considering how much exercise I got last night…well, it wouldn’t be very decorous of me to go into detail, would it?”

Takaba clenched his teeth and focused his attention on mangling his salad instead. Despite himself, he wished Fei Long would come back inside so he and Sudou could snark at each other and leave Takaba alone. Sudou was obviously trying to throw him, get him in the wrong headspace, before his date with Asami. Well, Takaba wasn’t an idiot, and he’d show Sudou and that prying camera that nothing could rile him up today. Not even thoughts of exactly what kind of ‘exercise’ Sudou and Asami had been participating in last night…ugh.

“Sir? Your miso soup.”

“Oh,” Takaba said, surprised when the waiter plunked down a silver tray with a domed lid beside his salad. His first bowl of miso had been delivered in just that — a bowl. But before Takaba could ask, the waiter swept away and into an adjoining room.

Sudou snorted. “You’re really very gullible, Takaba-kun. It’s obviously your date card under there.”

And while Takaba hated to prove the snake right, when he whipped off the lid, there it was. A handwritten note on pink card stock, signed with a flourish and the English letters ‘R. A.’

“You shouldn’t look so disappointed,” Sudou advised, more than loud enough for their microphones to pick up. “People will think you’re disappointed it wasn’t actually some soup under there, instead of Asami-san’s gracious invitation. That isn’t true, is it?”

“What does it say?” Fei Long interrupted from the threshold of the terrace’s doorway, abandoning his pretence at boredom. “Read it out.”

Takaba picked the card up and frowned at it. Yet more proof that Asami was an ancient fogey way too old for him: his handwriting was all but illegible. “‘Zip up your jacket, you’re in for the ride of your life.’ Jacket? I’m not even wearing one…”

“Better go put one on then,” Sudou sighed, leaning back in his chair and stretching indolently. “Sounds like you’re going somewhere cold. A shark tank, perhaps? Or a meat packing factory?”

It was still a couple hours before Takaba was supposed to rendezvous in the lobby with the crew for the start of his and Asami’s ‘date day’, but then again, he wasn’t about to pass up a chance to escape forced social interaction with Sudou and Fei Long.

“See you later,” Takaba said, standing and folding his cloth napkin distractedly. “Break a leg!” he heard Sudou call on his way out.

Back in the discreetly-lit corridor leading from their private dining room, Takaba was momentarily torn between going back to their suite to change or just finding one of the hotel’s many secluded relaxation nooks and picking up something to read (or taking, given how supernaturally comfortable the chairs and lounges were, a nap). He decided on the latter when he noticed a gaggle of Japanese tourists near the bank of elevators. That was one definite downside to staying in a place popular with cashed-up business people from his home country: some of them actually recognised him from Confirmed Bachelor’s website or the publicity campaign already beginning in the major cities.

He made a u-turn away from the elevators and turned a corner, walking quickly down a corridor he vaguely remembered ending in a cosy library with two tiers of bookshelves and enough couches to sack out on. It was as he was passing a wall of  doors that matched the wall (utility closets?) that he heard the click.

Takaba paused, glancing around. There was no-one and nothing on the long stretch of shiny parquet floor behind him that could account for the sound. But then he heard a drawn-out scuffling noise, like shoe soles scraping across wood.

“Hello?” he called, his voice almost drowned out by a sudden upswell of strings from the classical music being piped through the hotel’s speakers. “Uh…Ni hao?

“Takaba?” whispered a voice, the accent distinctly Japanese. Takaba wheeled around, looking for its source. It was then that he noticed the gap between one of the closet doors and the wall, the narrow seam between them dark. Was someone hiding behind it, waiting for him?

“Please, quickly,” said the voice, and Takaba took a wary step closer. The voice was familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it. Both Sudou and Fei Long were back in the dining room, and the voice definitely didn’t belong to either Suoh or Glasses. Could one of the show’s other former contestants have followed them to Taiwan? “Please,” begged the voice, hitching on a sob.

His emergency training kicking into gear, and suddenly worried that someone had been tied up behind the door — trapped there for who knew how long — Takaba lurched forward and slipped his hand into the gap between the door and wall, pulling it wide.

He had a split second between opening the door and the room beyond flooding with borrowed light to notice the man in goggles, before hands grabbed him and wrenched him inside. Everything went dark.

Chapter Text

Looking back, Takaba would be annoyed at how long he’d taken to react — long enough that the man who had him pinned to the wall could get a length of cloth knotted over his eyes. And that was another thing that he was ashamed to remember panicking over, because what kind of crazy murderer would bother to blindfold someone before mutilating them in a pitch black room?

But sue him, Takaba wasn’t thinking clearly at the time. All he could do was struggle and curse and try to jab his elbow into the kidnapper’s ribs. Which he finally succeeded in doing, judging by the guy’s surprisingly whiny “Ow!” a second later.

Takaba braced himself against the wall and shoved backwards, swinging out the arm that wasn’t trapped in the restraint the kidnapper had been forcing him into. He missed, but the body check had the guy retreating. Takaba yanked off the blindfold and searched the darkness in vain. Beneath his own panicked breaths, he could hear the other man’s quiet panting. Takaba lunged in its direction.

“Argh, shit,” the kidnapper shouted as Takaba’s fist connected with skin. “Stop it! Help! Make him — ”

Light exploded in his eyes.

When Takaba came back to himself, he was huddled against the wall with his legs tucked under him and his kneecaps gripped tightly in both hands. The sound of his own rapid breathing seemed to deafen everything around him.

“Takaba, come on.” He realised that Mitarai was crouched in front of him. The producer flicked his cheek with a finger. “Stop freaking out.”

Slowly, and with a lot of effort, Takaba began to take in the scene around him. The bare room he’d been dragged into was now flooded with fluorescent light. One of the on-call medics was tending to a junior producer — the kidnapper — who was leaning against the opposite wall and nursing a rapidly bruising cheek. His night vision goggles were hanging loosely around his neck. A cameraman was recording everything.

“What…” Takaba broke off to moderate his breathing. His lungs ached.

Mitarai seemed to catch his drift. “You went apeshit and started attacking the assistant. When we tried to abort the scene you kept laying into him, so we had to drag you away. Then you shrieked like a little girl and collapsed. The end.”

Takaba stared incredulously. “He, he grabbed me — ”

“Yeah, that was the point. We were going to film a fun little prank in the dark while we got you ready for the date,” he hiked a thumb in the direction of the ceiling, where Takaba noticed a little camera was screwed into the wall, “but we had no clue you’d react like that. I don’t even know if you going psycho like that is going to be the highlight of the episode or something that can never see the light of day. So to speak.”

Takaba just kept staring. He had a lot to say about all this, actually. Things like What the heck were you thinking!? And What kind of psychopaths decide that a simulated kidnapping will be fun for anyone!? But he couldn’t find the energy right then. He felt tapped out, and every last shred of his self-respect was being put into maintaining his composure. You’re on cameraYour mother will be watching this.

“So…” Mitarai began, apparently giving up on a cogent response from Takaba. “Can you guess what you’ll be doing today? We didn’t get it all on you, but.”

Takaba followed the producer’s careless gesture, and looked down. His right arm, the arm he’d felt being restrained by the ‘kidnapper’, was encased in the sleeve of a jacket. A motorcycle jacket, to be exact.

“Oh, come on, you useless lump,” Mitarai groaned, wincing as he stood from his crouch and yanked Takaba up with him. Takaba, his legs currently possessed of the staying power of melting jelly, wobbled in place. “Let’s get a move on while we still have light.”

And it was that statement, Takaba thought later, that should have tipped him off to the fact that today was going to be a Long Day.

The time it took to get cleaned up and dressed appropriately passed by Takaba in a blur. He felt too wrung out to do more than grumble in annoyance as he was manhandled into biker boots and marched from the hotel and into a side street. Asami was waiting for them, perched almost indolently on a sleek black motorcycle.

Takaba walked up to him and accepted the helmet extended his way, too resigned to do more than clamber up behind Asami when he was told to get on.

“You look terrible,” the lawyer remarked, shifting in the seat as he prepared to follow the production crew’s van out to the day’s first filming location. Wherever the heck that was.

“Thanks. That’s exactly what someone wants to hear from their date.”

“What happened?” Asami asked, slipping on his own helmet but cocking his head slightly — waiting for Takaba’s answer.

He sighed, placing his hands on the lawyer’s hips gingerly. “After this is all over, can I hire you to sue the show’s writers? And Mitarai. For pain and suffering and mental anguish.”

“I’m a corporate lawyer,” Asami reminded him, nudging up the motorbike’s kickstand with his boot. “Regardless, you signed a contract before you became a contestant.”

Stupid law. Stupid lawyers. “You should make an exception.”

“Should I,” Asami said, and Takaba could practically hear the smirk in his voice. “I might consider it, if we manage to get to the seaside without you throwing up on my back.”

Takaba groaned. Then clamped his mouth shut.

***

At high noon, the sun’s rays were beating down on their backs like an enraged toddler’s fists. And it was supposed to be winter.

“Hold on tighter,” Asami commanded.

“I am,” Takaba snapped back, but the lawyer had already flicked his visor back down and was revving the engine for the next take. Which left Takaba with no choice but to slip his arms around Asami’s waist and squeeze him hard enough to register his annoyance with this whole exercise. Actually, all he was doing was probably making Asami get off on everything even more. Takaba let his helmeted forehead thunk down on the back of Asami’s motorcycle jacket, no longer caring if the cameras caught how tiresome he was finding their ‘Romantic Motorcycle Ride to the Seaside’. If they ever got to the seaside.

“Okay, one more time,” called Mitarai’s amplified voice, speaking through a megaphone on a grassy hill overlooking the little-used road they’d been using to film the opening scene of his and Asami’s date. Takaba suspected the production company either couldn’t afford or hadn’t bothered to get permission to close a main road for the shoot, so instead they were using an uneven side road in the hopes the police didn’t notice and/or they didn’t collide with any innocent motorists. The cameras that weren’t set up along the unpaved roadside were stationed on top of a pedestrian overpass a few hundred metres ahead, ready to capture Asami roaring below them.

It mustn’t have looked as romantic or dashing as they’d been expecting, because this was the eleventh take.

“Is there any way you can crash this thing and make it look like an accident?” Takaba asked Asami, as soon as they’d powered under the overpass and turned around to go back to the starting point for the next take.

“With or without permanent injury?” Asami replied, re-adjusting his gloves and looking perfectly relaxed despite everything. (And Takaba, grudgingly, mind you, had to admit that all the motorcycle gear looked pretty good on him).

“I’m starting to think some not-too-debilitating brain damage would feel better than doing any more of this,” Takaba muttered, stretching out his shoulders. All the hunching over to clutch at Asami for balance whenever they were forced to do a u-turn was starting make the muscles in his back burn. To think some people travelled this way by choice. “At the end of this there better be the best damn beach in Taiwan.”

***

There was no beach.

Instead there was a town filled with an odd blend of dilapidated shopfronts, modern high-rises and the drowsy air of a tourist hotspot where nothing much ever happened. A painted cartoon mural that read Welcome to Tamsui and looked as though it had been painted by local elementary schoolers stood facing a wide grey river dotted with passenger ferries. In place of the golden sand Takaba had been dreaming about all that torturous morning was an expanse of thinning turf and gravel. Opposite the metro station, naturally enough, was a five-storey Starbucks.

“Where’s the ‘seaside’ part of the ‘seaside date’?” Takaba grumbled.

Mitarai shrugged as two of the cameramen got ready to tail them through the crowds of families and elderly day trippers. “Technically, the water here does let out into the ocean.” Takaba frowned at the river, whose opposite shore (complete with a small mountain) was clearly visible through the mist.

“Okay, you two, get chummy,” Mitarai ordered, pointing in the direction of the bustling shopping boulevard that curved along the riverside as far as they could see. Takaba nodded when Asami caught his eye, apparently waiting for him to start walking. They quickly fell into a casual rhythm, strolling side by side within touching distance as one of the cameramen trailed behind while the one up ahead did his very best not to walk backwards into an oncoming scooter.

Silently, Takaba let out a deep breath and focused on letting go of the useless resentment that had been festering inside him since the day before. Luckily, between the surprisingly balmy weather and the palpable cheer of the other tourists and pedestrians enjoying a pleasant day by the almost-seaside, Takaba didn’t take long to unwind and begin to enjoy himself. If anything, Tamsui reminded him of Yokohama on the weekends, with portrait artists and buskers providing a mismatched festival backdrop for the strolling groups of wannabe stylish teenagers and parents with small children holding balloons and ice cream.

And dear god, the ice cream.

“No,” Asami said curtly, before Takaba could do so much as point to one of the dessert vendors, where machines pumped out gravity-defying swirls of multi-coloured ice cream as long as Takaba’s arm.

“But, but,” Takaba protested, hurriedly digging in the pocket of his jeans for his wallet.

“No food unless it’s weird,” Mitarai commanded, dogging them just out of range of the two cameras. “We’re trying to show ‘local colour’, yeah? So you can have some of that deep-fried squid on a stick, but nobody wants to watch you guys chowing down on something as vanilla as ice cream. Ha. Now please do something more exciting than walking in a straight line and pretending not to look at each other! This is television.”

Trying not to sulk, Takaba put his wallet away and only glanced back at the swirly ice creams three times as they passed into a stretch of shops selling toys and arcade games. “Stop, there!” Mitarai called out when Asami looked like he was going to stride right past. “Mini games, how fun. Go buy some tokens so you can make fools of yourselves. We’ll set up.”

The shop Mitarai had directed them to was a shabby establishment. Small balloons filled with water were pinned to a far wall made of corkboard. BB guns and paper cups filled with pellets were set up at the front, and container bins full of inflatable toys littered the concrete floor. The shop attendant eyed them dubiously. Asami stared stonily back.

“Don’t worry, Asami-san,” Takaba smirked. “I’ll win something for you, a token of our magical romantic date. In which I kick your arse.” He lifted up one of the BB guns in challenge.

Asami glanced at him sideways, one corner of his mouth lifting very slightly. Ha, Takaba crowed to himself, he thinks I’m kidding. Little did he know that Takaba had spent most of his school years in local arcades, finessing his talent for everything from Dance Dance Revolution to Time Crisis. If this starched suit of a corporate lawyer knew the difference between a controller and an AV cable, Takaba would die of shock. Or he’d eat ten ice creams in shock. Mm. Ice cream.

“Okay, kiddies,” Mitarai barked, snapping Takaba out of his daydream. The interpreter they’d hired must have doled out the right amount of money, because the mini game’s supervisor had finally stepped back to the wall and was gesturing wordlessly for them to start. “We’re ready.” Mitarai patted Takaba on the head, before stepping well out of range. “Permission to shoot the balloons and each other? Granted.”

***

“Have some crab,” Asami suggested, holding out one of the mini-crustaceans Mitarai had bribed a local fisherman into offering them straight out of a bucket on his dinghy. “They’re fresh.”

“I’m fine,” Takaba muttered, turning away and shaking his head when the fisherman himself thrust one of the little mud crabs into his face and croaked, “Chi a, xiao peng you, chi a!” repeatedly.

“Don’t be such a sore loser, Takaba,” Mitarai said around his own mouthful, watching as one of their cameras zoomed in on Asami’s face as he ate. Which was just more evidence for Takaba’s theory that the cameramen who worked on this show used to be in the food porn industry. “You’re supposed to be acting all starry-eyed because Asami-san won you that thing.”

That thing was an inflatable Pikachu hammer. It was obviously meant for a child, but was large enough to be wielded by an adult, as far as Takaba was concerned. “I haven’t ruled out bonking you on the head with this until you have a seizure,” Takaba told Mitarai, then Asami, solemnly. Asami just licked the tip of his index finger as he finished his crab. Takaba’s belly squirmed at the sight. “And besides,” he huffed, “is no one here going to mention how incredibly suspicious it is that a lawyer is such a good shot? He hit every damn balloon! I bet you have an illegal gun collection at home, and whenever someone refuses to settle with you outside of court, bam!”

Asami smirked. “I reserve the right not to incriminate myself at this time.” The wriggly feeling in Takaba’s tummy intensified.

“Oh, go jump in the river,” he muttered.

Shortly thereafter Mitarai and the interpreter shepherded them away from the waterside boulevard and into Tamsui’s backstreets, leading them up a steep hill and into a well-kept garden filled with hedges and flowers. Two heritage mansions were perched at the peak of the hill, overlooking a glittering grey bay that stretched endlessly towards the horizon.

“Told ya,” Mitarai puffed, stopping beside Takaba and Asami to catch his breath. “Gentlemen, I give you: the ocean.”

“We’re facing North,” Asami remarked.

“So?” Takaba said, watching as a container ship peeked through a fog bank in the distance.

“We’re also facing the East China Sea, so if you turn a little to the East and go straight” — Takaba startled as Asami lightly clasped his shoulders, turning his body north-east — “you would eventually reach Japan.”

Despite himself, Takaba was hit by a wave of homesickness at the thought. Homesickness? He asked himself incredulously. He’d only been in Taiwan for three days!

“Your geography skills are amazing, Asami-san,” Takaba said, wresting himself out of the bastard’s grip. “Maybe you should swim back to Japan. I’m sure the viewers at home would appreciate watching that.” The lawyer’s usual stoic expression didn’t flicker, but Takaba caught the knowing look in his eyes.

It was a relief when Mitarai called them away from the bluff and over to the smaller and more ornate of the two mansions, their interpreter informing them that it had been the residence of British consular officials in the 19th Century. On the tiled terrace overlooking a pristine square of lawn was a cloth-draped table and two chairs. Takaba felt his stomach rumble and couldn’t help but walk faster, looking forward to finally sitting down and eating something that wasn’t thrust at him by sadists.

But when he stepped onto the terrace and got a closer look at their lunch, he was rudely reminded that this show never made things that easy. “Oh hell no.”

Asami grunted in acknowledgement, which probably meant he hadn’t been part of this plan to make them starve and die with food in sight, yet just out of reach. Takaba stomach grumbled again. To his despairing ears, it sounded like a death rattle.

“Okay,” Mitarai had the cameras set up quickly. “Sakazaki is down with what he’s pretending is the ‘flu but what’s probably the early symptoms of chlamydia after last night, so we’ve re-written his script into a role-play kind of deal.” He handed Asami and Takaba a short stack of cue cards with near-illegible scrawl on them. “There you go. You first, Asami-san.”

Asami reluctantly brought the first card closer to his face, clearly having some trouble deciphering its contents. “I begin to remember why I re-hired Kirishima, if this is an acceptable standard of penmanship.”

“Just read it,” Mitarai barked, only to wilt under the look Asami shot him. “Er. If you would.”

“‘Oh my, what have we here?’” Asami recited in a voice devoid of inflection. “‘Just when I thought we could enjoy a delicious repast provided by our friends at Qian Hui Catering, it seems our plans for a romantic meal have been foiled, Takaba-kun. Oh no.’”

“Now say it into the camera,” directed Mitarai, “and try to sound less like a robot whose dog died.”

“Do robots generally own dogs?” Asami asked.

“Just do it!”

While Asami droned his lines, Takaba shuffled over to the table to get a closer look. Like the dinner at Aoyama Cemetery, their food was hidden under a silver dome with some kind of locking mechanism. But instead of the keyholes he’d been expecting, there were two little ashtray-sized discs connected to the dome by a pair of levers.

“Your turn, Takaba.”

“Does Asami have to butt out a bunch of cigarettes into those things before it’ll open?”

Their producer glared. “Read your damn card and find out for yourself.”

Takaba squinted at the scrawl. “‘Don’t worry, Asami-san, I’m sure we can work out the secret to getting it open if we work together.’ Ugh, really?”

“Read,” growled Mitarai, while Asami quirked his lips and looked up at the sky.

Takaba sighed. “‘It looks like the tray is controlled by these weighted pads and some levers.’ Oh, the ashtrays are scales.”

“It’s called a script for a reason, Takaba. Read it and stop editorialising. Otherwise you’ll never get to eat and I may have to accidentally and tragically push you off the nearest cliff.”

“Fine,” Takaba grumbled, wishing that the crew hadn’t somehow realised that food was one of his greatest personal motivators. “‘Do you think if we find two objects of the correct weight to place on these scales that the lid will open for us?’”

“Now, repeat that into the camera.”

By the time Asami and Takaba had managed to trade their lines in a poor approximation of natural conversation, Mitarai was ready to compromise the ‘game’ for the sake of getting back to the hotel faster. “It’s eggs,” he told them. “Two of them, hidden in the old Spanish fort over there.” He pointed to the tall red building overlooking the bay. “Bring ‘em both back here and the stupid thing will open. Hop to it!”

They hopped to it, a lone cameraman trailing in their wake while the other went on a smoking break. “This will be faster if we split up,” Takaba decided. “Asami, you go inside and search the building. It looks like there’s a basement level I can reach via those stairs outside.”

And before either Asami or the cameraman could react, he was pounding down the flight of stone steps that led into a narrow brick-paved trench hugging the side of the building. As soon as he was out of sight of both eyes and lenses, he breathed a sigh of relief and slowed down. It felt like he’d taken for granted all those group dates back in Japan, when the camera never stayed pinned to any one person for very long — unless they were embarrassing themselves in an entertaining way, of course.

Following the trench around a corner of the building, Takaba was confronted by a little walled-in courtyard with a stature of a Western man standing with his arms folded behind his back. No doubt he had something to do with the history of the building, but his vague expression gave Takaba the heebie-jeebies. He turned away from the statue and the nearby stone arch leading to what looked like an adjoining courtyard. The only other point of interest was an open door with bars across it, which led into —

Takaba’s stomach dropped. An old jail cell.

“Stupid writers,” Takaba muttered, edging closer to the murky room and peering inside. He suspicion that Confirmed Bachelor would plant one of the eggs in the creepiest place possible proved correct when he caught sight of a pink box in the cell’s dingy corner, a golden tulip embossed on its lid.

Trying to ignore his strong feeling of unease, Takaba crept into the empty cell and over to the box. It was the only object inside, the floor well-swept and the stone walls bare of the rusty, clanking chains he’d half been expecting to still be there. He crouched down and gently lifted the lid off the box, relieved to find a speckled chicken’s egg lying inside a nest of purple and orange tissue paper.

“Gotcha,” Takaba murmured, plucking the egg up and transferring it to the palm of his left hand. It barely weighed a thing, but Takaba wouldn’t put it past whoever had set up the food-withholding dome thing to have calibrated the scales exactly to the combined weight of the two eggs. “Here we go,” Takaba told the egg as he rose from his crouch, suddenly wondering if Mitarai would force him to re-shoot all this when he found out Takaba had successfully escaped Asami and the cameraman.

Something slammed loudly behind him and Takaba startled. He dropped the egg.

“Shit!”

It cracked open against the floor, spewing bits of shell and runny yolk all over Takaba’s left sneaker. “Shit shit shit.

A snicker drew his attention away from mess. There was a man dressed in black — black boots, jeans, leather jacket and black balaclava — standing on the other side of the door. Which was now closed against him. He was trapped in the cell.

“Not again,” Takaba groaned, stumbling forward. The stranger stepped away as he approached the bars and tested the door. It rattled in its frame but held, and a second later Takaba noticed a plastic cable tie around the deadbolt and a metal bracket in the outer wall.

“Hey!” Takaba shouted. “This isn’t funny! Let me out right now.”

But the man didn’t answer. He took off without another word, dashing through the courtyard’s archway and out of sight. Takaba swore and stuck his fingers through the bars, trying to tug the cable tie loose. But after a couple of minutes of fruitless yanking and twisting all he achieved was cutting off his own circulation.

“All right, don’t panic,” he told himself, glancing around as if another exit would miraculously appear. The only other thing in the cell was the box and the egg, cracked open as lasting, sticky evidence of his failure. “Haven’t you humiliated me enough today!” he shouted, imagining the hidden cameras outside picking up his voice. Any moment now, he was sure, Asami would come out of hiding and smirk at him through the bars, before clipping the cable tie with faux gallantry and freeing him. If Takaba happened to respond by punching the man’s lights out and kicking him in the groin, he could just chalk it up to the stress of the situation.

But Asami didn’t come. No one came.

“Still just a joke,” he muttered to himself, considering then quickly discarding the idea of shouting until they let him out. He was already short of breath. “You can see still outside, so it’s fine.” He had only himself to convince, but the walls already felt like they were closing in around him, and his changeless view through the bars was starting to look less like the promise of a quick release and more like yet another wall trapping him inside.

He was just beginning to consider letting his shaky legs buckle under him when something blocked out the rest of the light. He cried out, too frightened to censor himself.

“Takaba,” said someone in a gravelly voice.

Takaba snapped his head up. “Su…Suoh?

The blond giant peered through the bars at him suspiciously and shifted his suited bulk until chinks of light darted into the cell, exposing him against the wall. Takaba didn’t give a crap what he looked like, or that he’d never had a civil conversation with the guy in his life. “Please,” he croaked. “I’m locked in.”

Suoh glanced down at the deadbolt and the cable tie, but remained motionless.

“Please,” Takaba repeated, caught between exasperation and a fresh wave of fear that Suoh would just leave him here without a word to anyone.

Suoh reached for the tie and held it between two blunt sausage-fingers. With a single quick motion, he snapped it in half.

Takaba groaned in relief and stumbled for the door faster than Suoh could get it open, almost crashing to the courtyard’s stones in his haste to get out. He ended up holding himself up with an arm around the creepy statue’s neck. It was several minutes before he could summon the wherewithal to thank his unlikely rescuer, but when he looked up Suoh was busy texting someone on his phone.

“Where is everyone?” Takaba wondered, looking around. He was still expecting a contingent of cameras and to pop out from behind the archway or the garden hedge now that the prank was over.

Suoh just grunted.

***

“For the last time, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mitarai snapped. “We didn’t send anyone to lock you up, not when we already did that this morning! We’re not that predictable.”

“If it wasn’t you, then who the heck disguised themselves and trapped me in that cell?” Takaba pressed. “It was definitely planned. No one just walks around carrying cable ties and a balaclava.”

“You’d be surprised,” Asami remarked, taking a fresh drag of his cigarette. It was his second one since Suoh had hauled Takaba back to Mitarai and the food dome, Asami and the cameraman having arrived before them. The other, undamaged egg now rested expectantly on its weight.

“It was just a random attack,” Mitarai pronounced with finality. “Get over it, Takaba. Now hand over your egg so we can watch you and Asami-san stuff your faces. The sooner we get to the hotel, the sooner I can sink into some hot springs and forget about wasting my youth and virility babysitting brats like you.”

“Do you see an egg?” Takaba muttered. He couldn’t bring himself to say anything involving the words “fallen”, “cracked” or “split into a billion yolky pieces, never to be whole again.”

But it turned out he didn’t have to. Not when he had Suoh here to rat him out. “Takaba dropped the egg.”

There was a moment of stunned silence. Then —

“He what!?” Mitarai yelled.

Takaba wheeled on Suoh. “Traitor! Not that we were ever allied, but — ”

Sighing over the incipient bloodbath, Asami moved from the wall and approached the dome. Carefully, he placed his index finger on the empty weight pad and slowly exerted pressure on it until the lid popped open with a ding. A large bowl of dumplings were under it, along with two smaller ceramic bowls streaked with condensation.

Takaba and Mitarai watched in shock as Asami pulled up a chair and sat down, tucking a cloth napkin into his shirt. The lawyer raised an eyebrow when he noticed the others looking on speechlessly.

“S-sit down, Takaba,” Mitarai said, shoving Takaba into the other chair and pushing down on his shoulders until he collapsed into it. “Did you get that?” he asked the cameraman. “We can probably spin this as ‘Asami-san’s lateral thinking ingenuity blah-blah’, or something. If Shinotake-sensei gets suspicious, we’ll just say we were losing light and couldn’t re-shoot anything. Yeah?”

The cameraman nodded uncertainly.

Takaba took a tentative nibble of a dumpling when Asami handed him his bowl. “Is there crab in this?” he demanded.

“Good news, there’s also deep fried squid for afters,” Mitarai said cheerfully.

Takaba couldn’t help the wordless exclamation of fury that burst out of his mouth. “As soon as we eat this I’m walking down that hill and getting my swirly ice cream. Two cones. No more excuses! I have an inflatable hammer.”

Across the table, Asami rolled his eyes.

Chapter Text

Takaba got his ice cream. He also got a stomach ache that rendered him unable to do more than sit and groan in the cab on the way back to Taipei. At least that’s where Takaba had assumed they were going, right up until the moment Mitarai spoke to the driver in broken Chinese and gestured frantically for him to turn off the freeway. Slowly, they wound their way up steep hills, past houses and an electricity substation. They came to a stop on a wide road flanked by expensive condos with a view of the bay, which was stained pink and peach by the setting sun.

Takaba managed to pull himself up just long enough to glimpse the rest of the town spread out dizzyingly below them before falling back in his seat. “Where are we?”

Asami flicked a glance his way. “The hotel.”

Takaba’s stomach jolted — and not just because it was packed painfully tight with frozen sugar. How could he have completely forgotten about the other part of this date? The part where he was expected to jump Asami’s bones in a hotel room that had been converted into a creepy boudoir?

Asami, sitting beside him calmly in slacks and an open shirt like he was going to a frickin’ tropical resort, seemed to read his mind. “Not looking forward to our leisure time in the Ecstasy Suite, Takaba?”

Mitarai twisted around in his seat and barked, “Save your chit-chat for the cameras!” — which was probably just as well, given that Takaba had been about to admit he was presently too indisposed from gorging on dessert food to…perform.

Oh god.

Shinotake-sensei met them outside a tastefully discreet white building that was apparently their hotel. Their director’s cheeks were flushed and he was leaning against a potted fern like it was the only thing keeping him vertical. “Welcome to Hot Springs Palace,” he slurred. “Lez get a drink.”

Takaba and Asami exchanged glances, and even Mitarai seemed concerned by the man’s inebriation. “Er, sensei, shouldn’t we go directly to the Ecstasy Suite? It’s almost dark enough to start filming.”

Their director flapped a hand in a way that might have signalled agreement, but the sudden movement threw him off balance and caused him to fall into the neighbouring pot plant. “Sensei!” Mitarai cried, and Takaba rushed over to help him keep the man from collapsing right onto the hotel’s courtyard.

Asami sighed and checked his watch.

 

***

 

By the time they’d left Shinotake-sensei to recuperate in the hotel’s private lounge and taken the elevator up to the so-called Ecstasy Suite, it was pitch black outside. Takaba caught glimpses of the room over the producers’ shoulders as they hurried around inside, tidying up and replacing the champagne that their director had helped himself to in their absence.

“All right,” Mitarai finally sighed, ushering everyone out of the room except for a sole cameraman who was meant to capture their entrance. “You first, Asami-san.”

Asami walked up to the door and promptly swept it open, beckoning Takaba to join him and then just pushing him along with a hand at the small of his back when he hesitated too long. “Welcome,” he purred into Takaba’s ear, and Takaba had to quickly suppress an eye roll. Was he really supposed to pretend that Asami had prepared everything in the suite by himself? And that he was charmed by it?

Thankfully, ‘everything’ turned out to be much less tacky than Takaba had feared. The room was slightly smaller than the suite he shared with Fei Long in Taipei, with a king sized bed dominating most of the floor space. A love seat and a coffee table containing a vase of pink tulips and an ice box of champagne took up the corner by the door. Two other doors were open, revealing a bathroom and another whole room beyond the bedroom. A large stone recess was cut deep into the floor.

“I hope it’s all to your liking,” Asami said, and Takaba immediately recognised his words from the cue cards they’d had to memorise after lunch. “We can spend the night however you wish. I hope, though, that you’ll join me in the bath later. The pipes are connected to a local hot spring and provide many therapeutic benefits.” He crossed to the coffee table, plucking one of the tulips out of the vase and holding it out. “Particularly if you find yourself — sore — in the morning,” he smirked.

Takaba glared. That last bit had definitely not been part of the script. Trying to ignore the way one of the cameramen was all but shoving a lens into his face to record his reaction, Takaba stiffly recited, “I’d be delighted."

“Take the tulip!” Mitarai stage-whispered.

Takaba swallowed and went forward to accept the proffered flower. He knew that wouldn’t be enough to get the crew to leave, though, so he forced himself to take another step and lay his palm flat against Asami’s chest. Through the fabric of his shirt, the lawyer’s skin was firm and warm. Takaba swallowed. “If you’ll have me.”

“Of course,” Asami murmured, and dipped his head down to capture Takaba’s chapped lips in a slow kiss. It was surprisingly chaste, even when Asami slung an arm loosely around Takaba’s waist and pressed them closer together.

Takaba was concerned the nervous tension in his posture would be obvious to both the crew and their cameras, but after they managed to capture his and Asami’s clinch from several different angles, they seemed satisfied that their work was done for the day.

“Shall I leave the champagne?” Mitarai asked as the rest of the crew trooped out of the room. He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

“Yes!” Takaba broke free from the possessive circle of Asami’s arm, which hadn’t disappeared from around his waist no matter how many times he poked at it. “Leave all of it.”

Mitarai snorted, and shot them both one last, extremely inappropriate look before sauntering out of the room and closing the door behind him. Takaba crossed the room and locked it immediately. He considered pulling the latch across as well, but what if he needed to make a quick escape later?

He glanced over his shoulder, but to his surprise Asami’s attention was now completely focused on the vase of tulips. He was picking through them carefully, as though he expected a spider to leap out at him. His grim face was in such stark contrast to the heated expression he’d worn in front of the cameras that Takaba felt a pang of dread. Quite suddenly he wanted to do nothing more than climb under the bed and burrow down until he fell straight into another dimension — a dimension where lawyers and stomach cramps didn’t exist.

Instead, Takaba flopped backwards onto the enormous bed, sighing in relief as the mattress swallowed him up like a fluffy white cloud. He closed his eyes and patted his distended stomach, ready to fall asleep right there. “Pass me the booze,” he murmured.

“It’ll only make you sleepier,” was Asami’s unhelpful reply, his voice coming from farther away than Takaba had expected. Unwillingly, he cracked an eye open, only to find Asami fiddling with the shade of a standing lap in the far corner of the room.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Checking for recording equipment.” Asami lifted the shade clear off, checking its underside. “The Ecstasy Suite on my date with Sudou was littered with them.”

Takaba felt like he’d been slapped across the face. He was torn between horror at the idea of having his night with Asami recorded by the show, and a swift swell of jealousy at the reminder of Asami’s date with Him. To his shame, the thought of Sudou and Asami together loomed larger in his imagination.

“Find anything?” Takaba croaked.

“Nothing yet,” Asami said, lifting a painting of a white suspension bridge off its hook and checking the other side. “I think they learned their lesson,” he added ominously. He placed the painting back on the wall and finally turned to look at Takaba, still sprawled on the bed belly-up. “We should shower before using the tub.”

“Maybe I don’t want to use the tub,” Takaba snapped, not caring that he sounded petty. He kicked off his shoes one by one and stretched out on the mattress until his joints popped.

Upside down, he saw Asami raise an eyebrow. “So keen to get to the main event, hm?”

Takaba flushed. “Seriously, how one track is your brain? It’s like you hit your head when you were still a horny teenager, and now all you can think about is…”

Sex.

But his throat closed up before he could get the word out, as if it had a mind of its own and was convinced that as soon as he said the word aloud, it would instantly happen.

Asami didn’t laugh at him, but his expression spoke volumes. “How else do you suggest we pass the time? Pluck the tulips and strew the bed with petals? Have a pillow fight?”

In lieu of a reply, Takaba rolled over onto his front and mushed his face into the comforter. Why couldn’t the bloody show have at least given them a room with a TV? Or something that could be jerry-rigged into a weapon. Not that he wanted to maim anyone, but there were only so many ways an innocent man could defend himself against attacks on his virtue when he was locked in a room with the enemy.

“I’ll go in first then,” Asami said, and Takaba lifted his head up just in time to get a glimpse of Asami — a newly very very naked Asami — pad into the shower room. He had an incredibly firm arse.

Takaba slammed his face back into the mattress. Oh god oh god oh god. It was just as well he was lying face down now, because he didn’t think he’d ever live it down if the lawyer caught a glimpse of Takaba’s display of completely involuntary interest. It didn’t mean anything! It was just that the male brain was very susceptible to visual stimuli! And you’d have to be blind not to notice that Asami bore a striking resemblance to a Calvin Klein underwear model.

Takaba was still willing down his strangely persistent hard-on when Asami finished his shower and came back out, this time with a towel loosely knotted around his waist. He gave Takaba a long look. “Something wrong?”

“No,” Takaba mumbled, burying his face in the duvet again.

“…Shower’s yours.”

Takaba grunted, listening carefully as Asami’s footsteps receded into the other room, followed a moment later by the loud hiss of water beginning to fill the tub.

He couldn’t spend the next however many hours just lying there, Takaba knew that, but he was hoping if he waited until Asami had been submerged in the tub for a while before Takaba joined him, the heat would have already fried the man’s brain. Or made him wrinkly and desiccated enough to slow him down if he tried to make a move.

When the water was finally shut off and Takaba heard the tell-tale splash of Asami entering the tub, he half-pushed, half-rolled off the bed and to his feet. He stripped off slowly, keeping an eye and ear out in case Asami suddenly popped back into the room. He left his clothes in a heap on the settee, the cord of his EpiPen curled on top. Then he dashed into the shower room like a streaker at a soccer game.

The shower room was actually two rooms, it turned out, the larger of which was a small but fully equipped bathroom with a toilet and vanity unit. The smaller, self-enclosed room contained two shower heads and no bath products but a small bar of soap that faintly smelled of eucalyptus. Takaba flicked the shower on and scrubbed himself down as the water warmed, those water-saving habits from his impoverished student days still dying hard.

He hadn’t realised just how tired and grimy he’d become during the day until the piping hot water thudded into his aching back and legs. He let the shower douse his head and exhaled slowly as the room filled with steam and droplets of water trickled down his body like teasing fingers.

“You forgot this,” said a voice. Takaba jumped in surprise, slamming his cheek into the room’s stone wall as he swung around.

Asami was standing in the room’s threshold, holding out a porous sponge attached to a long wooden handle. Some kind of loofah. He was naked again, too, but Takaba barely noticed. His heart was already thudding hard in his chest, vision slipping until Asami’s body seemed to expand and fill the whole room, obliterating the doorway and trapping him inside.

Asami must have read something in his body language, though, because he stepped back, laying the sponge on the counter in the other room. “It’s there if you want it.” He turned to go, swinging the door shut behind him.

“No!” Takaba shouted. “Leave it open!”

Asami glanced over his shoulder, and Takaba wished desperately then that panic hadn’t seized his body and force him to cower like this, in the corner, like some pathetic and terrified child. He wished that the moment wasn’t drawn out, that it didn’t feel like an eternity passed before Asami broke eye contact and disappeared into the other room — the door left mercifully ajar.

He wished that he didn’t feel immeasurably better when he was alone again.

“Fuck.” Trembling, Takaba shuffled back under the spray and rested his forehead against the wall, exhaling shakily. But the water didn’t feel therapeutic anymore, just hot and stinging. His cheek throbbed in time with his heartbeat, and he used it to count down the minutes until he could wrestle back control.

 

***

 

The courage Takaba found to join Asami in the bath was entirely liquid.

He was halfway through the bottle of champagne by the time he stumbled into the sauna-hot room, saluting the other man with his flute as he plopped down onto the floor. He slowly stretched his legs out until his feet could dangle over the edge of the pool and skim the water.

“This is tepid,” Takaba complained, kicking up water with his toes. Asami, reclining on his bench seat on the other side of the tub, remained tragically un-splashed. “You let it go cold, Asami-kun.”

The lawyer raised an unimpressed brow. “I think you’ll find that it went cold while you were boozing by yourself in the other room. Come here and refill it if you’re so particular.”

But that would require going into the water! And Asami was holding the levers that controlled the bathtub’s drain hostage behind his back! Takaba pouted. Then he poured himself more champagne, though the level in his flute didn’t seem to change very much. Oh. That was because it’d spilled onto the floor. “Oops.”

“When I envisioned this night,” Asami drawled, slapping a damp towel over his forehead and contemplating the ceiling, “it never involved you having such a grievous lack of hand-eye coordination that you’d be lucky to tell your arm apart from my cock.”

“You’re not that big,” Takaba protested, lifting the bottle and shaking it to gauge how much was left. The champagne sloshed inside, but provided no answers. “I know that, ‘cause I saw it before. Want some champagne?”

“I think right now you’re wasted enough for the both of us, Takaba,” Asami said, and while Takaba couldn’t quite interpret subtle shades of tone presently, he was still sober enough to realise when he was being mocked. Mocked! By Asami.

I’ll show him, Takaba vowed, and lunged forward with his hands outstretched. But where the floor should have been suddenly there was only pool — long, long stretches of pool that crashed around him as he fell into it.

“Argh,” Takaba yelled, and swallowed water. His chest burned, the towel that had been wrapped around his waist unravelling like a serpent to twist around his legs, keeping them bound when he tried to kick free. Takaba’s hazy mind cleared just long enough for one last cogent thought — I’m going to die — before he sank to the bottom in a tangle of cramping limbs.

Two pincers came out of nowhere and grabbed him under his armpits. They dragged him up, and Takaba wheezed as he was lifted above the surface. He hung there, suspended in the water for a moment, too dazed to struggle as Asami pulled him out with an arm around his waist. He was laid down roughly by the side of the pool, tipped onto his side with his left arm tucked under his cheek, the other moved so it draped over the first. Then something thumped his back. Hard.

“Ow,” Takaba groaned — or would have, if his mouth wasn’t suddenly full of champagne-flavoured water and traces of stomach acid. He spent the next minute wracked with involuntary coughs, bringing up the swallowed water and what felt like most of his intestinal lining.

By the time he’d finished almost drowning, Asami had re-appeared beside him with a new flute. “Don’t get excited,” the lawyer said as he knelt over Takaba’s prone body. He raised the familiar bottle of champagne, tipping it over and shaking it until the last few, sad drops fell and dashed uselessly on the floor. “You destroyed your own supply when you decided to go scuba diving.”

“No,” Takaba said, though his voice came out as little more than a rasp. He couldn’t think of a reason why the alcohol’s untimely demise wasn’t his fault right then, but if he just had a minute to think about it —

“Drink,” Asami ordered, and brought the glass of water to his lips. Takaba drank.

When he was done and Asami took away the glass, placing it and the sodden towel he must have fished out of the pool in the corner, Takaba finally noticed something very important: he was naked. “No,” he moaned, trying to roll onto his front to hide himself. Asami, the bastard, shoved him right back onto his side.

“Stay in the recovery position. I won’t be held accountable if your penchant for self-destruction finally catches up with you tonight.”

“‘M not…self-…what you said.” Being jostled around so much must have done something to Takaba’s vision, because it looked like a faint aura of light was encircling every inch of Asami’s wet, probably steroid-sculpted body. The glow pulsed before his eyes, clinging to the lawyer like a halo. Or like a mystical, full-body condom.

“Oh,” Takaba said, realisation finally dawning on him.

Asami raised an eyebrow so high it disappeared below the wet fall of his bangs. His hair looks good like this, a traitorous voice whispered in Takaba’s ear. Wet and loose, not combed back like a scary lawyer mannequin. He almost looks human. 

“‘Oh’, what?” Asami pressed, flicking Takaba’s forehead with his thumb. “Stay awake, Takaba.”

“You saved me,” Takaba announced, keeping hold of the thought even as it tried to slip away from him. It was hard to concentrate when every part of your body was insisting in no uncertain terms that it wanted to go and hibernate for the next decade in a remote mountain cave. “You’re my saviour. My human saviour. And now, your reward!” He reached up to Asami’s flickering face.

“Still not sober, I see.” Something batted his hands away.

Takaba grunted at the defence and redoubled his efforts, raising both arms and grabbing at Asami’s approximate location, even as the man kept uncharitably wobbling around the edges. “Aha!” He caught hold of something hard yet flexible between his fingers. It had a familiar fold to it, and little bumpy caverns inside. “I got your ear! Asami, I — mmf!”

Something hot and wet crashed against his lips, prising them open before something even hotter and wetter speared between them. Takaba’s jaw slackened on a gasp. Oh. Asami had given up on trying to escape and had gone into full assault mode. The silly man seemed to think kissing would be enough to derail Takaba’s war campaign, but he was wrong. He couldn’t be wronger, even if Takaba couldn’t remember what they were fighting about.

Feeling his way up the man’s wet back, Takaba grabbed him around the shoulder blades and dug his nails in, fighting back with his tongue at the same time. Asami grunted into his mouth, surging forward with a shift of hard muscle under his still-damp skin. Something hard jabbed Takaba in the thigh and sent waves of heat flooding through him that left him dizzy and breathless. Somehow he’d fallen onto his back with Asami on top of him, and suddenly everything was too overwhelming. He scrunched his eyes shut and tried to move his head away, even when Asami pursued him and hardened the kiss until Takaba’s mouth felt raw.

He lost time for a while, and when he next came back to himself it felt like he was floating through space. The crisp, recycled air of the suite raked over his body in cool waves as he was lifted up and carried away by an invisible force. The walls and ceiling spun in front of Takaba’s eyes as he drifted into the bedroom, finally landing on the well-cushioned bed back first.

He only realised his eyes were slipping closed when the comforting sight of the ceiling’s shaded lamp was blotted out by Asami’s big head. Takaba grunted his discontent.

“Sleepy, Takaba?” came the lawyer’s voice, though it sounded like it was filtered through wads of cotton stuffed in Takaba’s ears. They blunted the man’s usual serving of mockery.

“Getting the bed wet,” Takaba murmured, wriggling a little on top of the comforter. His limbs felt like they were being dragged down by a skin-tight mesh of lead weights. “Cold.”

“I’ll warm you up,” Asami murmured, climbing up the bed until he was crouching over Takaba on his hands and knees. “Just relax.”

Takaba was still awake enough to know that there was something wrong with being told to relax when he was already a boneless glob of jelly sprawled out on the bed — but he couldn’t remember what that problem was, especially when Asami lowered his deliciously warm body down until he was covering Takaba like a human blanket.

“Hmmm,” Takaba murmured, managing the superhuman feat of strength required to raise his hands up to Asami’s waist. But there wasn’t much to hold there, so his hands drifted down until they reached the firm swell of the lawyer’s arse. “…Road block.”

Asami half-snorted into Takaba’s neck where he’d been nuzzling, though his wet kisses soon turned to nips of teeth when Takaba started wriggling under him, trying to escape the insistent jab of the other man’s erection against the sensitive dip between hip and thigh. Too late, Takaba realised his half-hearted struggles were only providing Asami with more friction; the instant he felt the first smear of the other man’s pre-come, he lurched up and shoved him away weakly.

Despite the lack of force, Asami rolled off Takaba immediately. “Problem?” The man kept a proprietary hand on his waist, though his expression had turned inscrutable. Takaba didn’t want to meet those watchful eyes, but letting his gaze trail down…that wasn’t happening, either. He was flushing enough already.

“Turn the light off,” he whispered, trying to buy some time. Like a veil torn away from his eyes by adrenaline, Takaba felt his head clearing quickly. Enough, at least, that he wouldn’t let himself be tipped onto his back and used as a rutting post for the other man, a toy to be poked and prodded to test the limits of its endurance.

So when Asami flicked off the master light switch and the room was doused in darkness, Takaba took the upper hand. He crawled across the mattress and pushed hard against the other man’s shoulder, making his intentions plain. Part of him was expecting resistance, but Asami obliged by lowering himself onto his back and guiding Takaba with a light grip on his elbow as he crawled over and straddled the lawyer’s waist

Takaba had been wrong: there was light after all, filtering weakly through the paper-paned windows in the pool room. It was enough to illuminate parts of Asami’s face, and the longer Takaba looked down, the more he felt like he would fall into the twin wells of the other man’s eyes. He’d probably drown in them. But would he care? When it came down to it, would he even struggle?

“Here,” Asami murmured, and gripped the back of Takaba’s neck, bringing their heads together and catching Takaba’s lips in a soft kiss that quickly turned bruising. Takaba shuddered, struggling to keep himself up the longer the kiss continued. He lowered himself down shakily until their legs tangled, their bellies pressed together and their chests almost flush but for Takaba, still straining to stay up on his elbows.

A hand trailed down, fingers skittering along his back. Takaba tried to breathe in through his nose, tried to keep himself focused on meeting every swipe and jab of the lawyer’s invading tongue. But his hypersensitive skin and Asami’s wandering hands kept scattering his concentration, reminding him of other places — other needs. Asami was hard again under him, beginning to lightly thrust against Takaba’s leg without a shred of embarrassment. Annoyed, Takaba snaked one of his hands down and grabbed the man’s cock in a punishing grip. Asami bucked up and grunted into his mouth.

“No,” Takaba gasped, breaking the lock of their mouths. When Asami only responded by thrusting up into the tunnel of his fingers, Takaba strengthened his grip. The lawyer winced. Then he grabbed Takaba’s arse as collateral, digging his fingers into the soft flesh and bringing tears to the corners of Takaba’s eyes.

“Into pain, are you, Takaba?” Asami murmured, flexing his fingers until Takaba was sure he wouldn’t be able to sit tomorrow — and not for the reason he’d expected.

“You wish,” he panted, trying to decide if he’d sacrifice his grip on Asami’s cock in order to fight off the man’s assault on his arse. He needed the other hand to keep a safe distance between their faces, because one thing was clear: Asami wasn’t above using his teeth as a weapon.

How did this become some kind of weird sex-chess game? his mind wailed. Some other part of his brain, though — the part that was still operating under a cloud of champagne and rising arousal — just wanted to come hard and sleep for a thousand years.

“Listen,” Takaba managed, ducking his head when Asami suddenly rose up in a vicious attempt to recapture his lips. “Listen to me, bastard! If you want to get off at all tonight, you’re gonna follow my lead, all ri — argh!” he cringed as Asami bit his collarbone, the accompanying lick hardly a salve for the giant hickey he’d probably be sporting tomorrow. “G-got it?”

“By all means,” Asami purred, unclenching his fingers from Takaba’s tender arse and sliding both hands up to his hips, which he held lightly between his palms. Feigned passivity. Not that it mattered. Asami Ryuuichi, famously smug bastard and oversexed attorney-at-law, was currently lying quietly and mostly compliantly beneath him. Like a conquered enemy, submitting freely to the victor of a short and brutal war.

That, Takaba could work with.

 

Chapter Text

When Takaba woke next it was pitch dark, and instead of a blessed few moments of complete amnesia in which he could innocently wonder how he’d gotten here and exactly whose weight was causing that dip on the other side of the bed —

He remembered. In vivid, sweaty detail.

At least the pillow provided a bit of cushioning while he rammed his head into it. And really, if drunken flashes of Asami moving under him, lips slack and open in some kind of lawyerly sex expression…if that was all he got out of this stupid competition, then at least it would save him money he’d otherwise be spending on a certain type of magazine when he was on standby. Probably after he stopped reflexively cringing every time he remembered what had just happened, memories of this night would be an ever-returning investment in his personal spank bank.

“That’s right,” Takaba whispered, ignoring the way his throat sounded like something had died inside it. “Think positive thoughts.”

As if to sound a death knell for his attempt at optimism, something heavy banged into the wall. A split-second later Asami shifted on the bed and switched on a lamp. Takaba squinted and groaned at the flash of light, and was about to call the other man out on his suspiciously quick reflexes for someone who was supposed to be fast asleep, when the thing slammed into the wall again. This time, though, the sound was accompanied by the rattle of their door handle turning violently.

“Someone’s trying to get in,” Takaba croaked, groping for the comforter as Asami slipped out of bed and grabbed a bathrobe.

“It’s locked,”  the lawyer said, tying the belt around his waist before padding to the door and checking the peephole. “Ah.”

“Who is it?” Takaba grabbed fistfuls of the duvet and wrapped it around himself in a misshapen cocoon, though as it turned out, he needn’t have bothered to protect his modesty: their nighttime visitor was much too drunk to notice the state of anyone else’s dress, including his own. As soon as Asami opened the door, a shirtless Mitarai fell right through it.

“Mraaaagh,” the producer drooled into the carpet.

“I suppose the best way to avoid censure for drinking on the job is to surround yourself with lushes,” Asami said, stepping down on Mitarai’s head with the sole of his bare foot until the man squawked in pain.

“What’s he doing in here?” Takaba demanded, faintly embarrassed to hear himself sound so shrill. “This didn’t happen to you and, uh — last night. The other night, I mean. Er. Did it?”

“No, this is an entirely new and unpleasant surprise.”

“‘sami?” Mitarai slurred, turning his head so slowly it looked as though it was jammed fast on his neck. Though maybe that was just the weight of Asami’s foot, which was still casually grinding Mitarai’s face into the floor. “Wha’ you doon here?”

“Debauching prudish flight attendants,” the lawyer replied. He glanced at Takaba. “Are you still planning to sleep?”

Takaba sank a little deeper into his comforter-cocoon, aware that he probably greatly resembled a suspicious turtle. “Why?”

“Mitarai-san’s snoring could test the earthquake resistance of every buildings he sleeps in. So if you plan on resting more tonight, I suggest we either evict him from this room or go somewhere else.”

Takaba wondered what made Asami think there was any ‘we’ involved in this. But before he could open his mouth to say so, the lawyer crossed the room to rifle through a basket of fresh towels near the bathroom door. He produced a new bathrobe and held it out to Takaba wordlessly.

“Can’t we just kick him out?” Takaba complained, though he noticed that Mitarai’s body was already overcome by an ominous rumbling noise that was only growing louder each second.

“If you feel like dragging him back to his room by the ankles, then be my guest. If nothing else, it would make for an amusing Confirmed Bachelor segment.”

Takaba pouted. At this rate, Asami would leave the room and abandon him to his nest of bedclothes and — and Mitarai. “Ugh, fine. Put the robe on the bed and turn around.”

Asami smirked, and Takaba was sure some dirty little remark was about slip from those lips to slap him in the face for being a —  what had the man called him again? A ‘prudish flight attendant?’ Well, it was lucky for the continued structural integrity of Asami’s balls that all the lawyer actually did was comply, laying out the robe on the bed in front of Takaba and going back to the door to check the hallway. Takaba quickly snaked both arms out of his duvet fort and struggled into the robe before the bastard could change his pervy mind.

“Don’t worry, Takaba,” Asami said, pretending to examine a painting by the door. “Now that it’s been thrust upon me, I’m honour-bound to protect your chastity.”

“I didn’t thrust anything…” Takaba broke off as soon as his brain caught up with his mouth. It was probably just as well Mitarai had chosen that moment to transition from strained snuffles into truly gusty snores that drowned out all other sound in the room. He all but jumped off the bed to get away.

 

***

 

“Where the hell are we going?” Takaba muttered through chattering teeth half an hour later.

He really didn’t think he was being unreasonable for expecting that following Asami would lead him directly to a new room — preferably one with two separate beds. But apparently, Takaba was wrong. Apparently, they were doing a spot of garden exploring in pre-dawn 6 degree weather instead.

“I need to drink something. My teeth feel like I brushed them with beer.”

“There’s probably a drinking fountain nearby,” Asami said. “Walking now will sober you up and help prevent you from choking to death on your own vomit while you’re asleep.” The last bit was said in such a neutral tone of voice that Takaba couldn’t tell if he was being serious or sarcastic. No doubt the man’s constant poker face and ability to drain his voice of all inflection came in handy in court or depositions or whatever, but it was just plain maddening when you were trying to figure out his angle.

Maybe that’s why he’s still single even though he’s really old, Takaba thought uncharitably, watching Asami’s back as the lawyer led a confident path along a line of hedges. Maybe Asami had been forced onto the show by overzealous friends and relatives who were convinced that if he didn’t get hitched soon, he’d end up dying wifeless, childless and alone with nothing but a tumbler of expensive whiskey to see him out.

“Wait!” Takaba said, grabbing a handful of Asami’s sleeve before the man could turn the corner into another part of the garden. “Do you hear that?”

Asami stopped and cocked his head. “Water,” he said, with a lack of excitement that only proved he, unlike Takaba, was not about to keel over from dehydration.

“Do you think it’s another hot spring?” Takaba placed his ear against the chain link fence that stood opposite the hedge, behind which was a dense plantation of trees and shrubs. Along with that incredibly alluring sound of trickling water. Maybe in the daytime he could have peered through the foliage, but the fairy lights that had dotted the patio and flower garden closer to the hotel hadn’t been placed in this far corner of the property. Unless…that was only to preserve the anonymity of the VIP guests given exclusive access to this outdoor pool? The steel door and keypad embedded into the fence only fuelled Takaba’s growing suspicions.

“There aren’t any true hot springs in this area,” Asami remarked, walking to the security door and examining the lock. “Despite our hotel’s advertising.”

“Still,” Takaba said, by now hardly surprised that Confirmed Bachelor had chosen a shonky fraud of a hotel to put them up in, “even if it’s not a real onsen, water is water.” And getting a chance to wash off all the remnants of sex, sweat and alcohol from his body was now his number one priority.

…Which was why the look Asami shot him when he started scaling the fence was totally uncalled for.

“What,” he panted, digging his slipper into one of the chain links to hoist himself up over the top. The trees were planted just far enough away on the other side that he probably wouldn’t scratch himself to death on the descent. “Aren’t you coming up?”

Asami continued to stare up at him wordlessly, and Takaba didn’t need a flashlight to guess at his expression.

“You just wait here then,” he called, and climbed over the edge. It was faster on the way down, though mostly because he lost his footing and fell the last metre and a half. Luckily the earth was loamy and damp when he landed on his ass — surely because of its proximity to the delicious pool of steaming water that was trickling away sweetly in the background.

Takaba got to his feet and brushed himself off quickly. The enclosure he was in was smaller than expected, and difficult to navigate in the near darkness. Although they were up in the hills over Tamsui and the night was clear, few stars twinkled above them and the crescent moon provided only indifferent light. But it was enough to see the strange assortment of metal containers, meters and fans all packed together like an industrial graveyard.

“Decoys,” Takaba muttered to himself, letting the sound of the running water guide him deeper into the enclosure. To do so he had to sidle through and step over more metal boxes, some spray-painted with high voltage warnings and others sporting a perplexing assortment of dials. But when he eventually reached the fence on the other side and found the source of that tempting sound — a huge, rusting water heater — Takaba had to concede defeat. There was no pool, and he’d just climbed over a fence in front of Asami for absolutely no reason.

Takaba groaned, sinking to the ground and leaning back against one of the big metal cabinets. In that moment he didn’t even care if it was one of the electrified ones.

A sharp series of beeps sounded on the other side of the enclosure, followed by the chlunk of a door opening. Takaba tensed where he sat, wondering if Asami had already wandered off, leaving him alone to deal with a security guard who’d caught him breaking and entering the area on CCTV and had come to investigate. He huddled in the shadows, running through plausible excuses to explain his presence. He could claim he was still sloshed, of course, but would a drunk have enough fine motor control to climb a fence without toppling off and cracking his head open like a ripe watermelon?

Asami appeared through the maze of boxes.

“You opened the door?” Takaba’s mouth fell open. “But it had a keypad!”

“You develop a facility for certain things in my line of work,” Asami said, coming to a stop a few feet from Takaba’s cross-legged sulk. He all but loomed in the darkness, wearing the faint moonlight like a cape around his shoulders.

“And what work is that — cat burglary? So much for being a shining paragon of lawyerly virtue, upholding the law and balancing justice.”

“Corporate law is less about chasing the truth and more about manipulating circumstances to suit one’s own purposes.”

Takaba snorted. “No wonder you were attracted to the field.”

“Says the kid who just broke into a restricted area on a senseless lark and has nothing to show for it.”

“It wasn’t on a lark.” Though Takaba was finding it increasingly difficult to remember just why he’d thought it was a good idea to steal into a fenced enclosure in search of water when it would have been much easier to break into the hotel kitchens instead. Or Mitarai’s room, because it wasn’t like the volcanically snoring dickhead was currently using it. “And I’m not a kid! I was just feeling gross and sweaty after — after what you subjected me to!”

To Takaba’s surprise, anger flickered across Asami’s face. But the man kept his stance casual, hands folded in the pockets of his robe like it was just another one of his three piece Italian suits. “If you’d care to consult your short-term memory, I think you’ll find that any relations between us started only after you binged on champagne, half-drowned yourself, and then attempted to maul me as thanks for saving your life. Not to mention,” he said, speaking over Takaba’s outraged squawk, “the only reason you feel as ill-at-ease as you do now is because you spent hours tossing and turning and moaning in your sleep. Something plaguing your conscience, Akihito?”

“Don’t use that name,” Takaba said automatically, his pulse already quickening at the thought of having said something incriminating in his sleep. “And it isn’t like I wanted to share a bed! My body was probably just rolling over in self-defence against you groping me. And don’t pretend you didn’t want to!”

“I don’t think many men would blame me if I continued to seek my pleasure when my bed partner falls asleep, on top of me, immediately after rutting against my stomach like a horny rabbit and coming his brains out. Consider yourself fortunate, Takaba — I’m not usually one to abide such a selfish lover.”

Takaba quickly racked his brains for the memory of…well. But to his embarrassment, while the picture of him and Asami writhing together on the bed was quite clear, he couldn’t remember much of anything after the glorious orgasm that had finally washed through him — and apparently rendered him totally unconscious. He probably had left Asami lying there without a helping hand. As it were.

Oh geez. Takaba rubbed his face.

“And yet you accuse me of taking advantage of you?” Asami murmured.

Takaba shook his head. Much as he still wouldn’t put it past the bastard to be a closet somnophiliac, he hadn’t felt any particular soreness when he woke up. Or at least nothing that he couldn’t put down to a remembered moment during their drunken and apparently mostly one-sided roll in the hay.

“Very well,” Asami said, and took a step closer. Takaba’s throat went dry as he looked up, disturbed suddenly by the way the other man was towering over him. He had his back to the water heater, with Asami in front of him and the other cabinets ringed around him like a pen.

Asami’s eyes bored into his. “You’re claustrophobic.”

Takaba swallowed dry, and tried to hide the clench of his fingers in the folds of his bathrobe. “No.”

“You’re something, though,” Asami mused, glancing up at the sky. Takaba felt minutely relieved to be released from the intensity of that focus. “You fear being trapped, or caught unawares when you’re alone. Something happened to you and now its memory manifests itself in a fear of enclosed spaces. Nightmares, too.”

“If that’s true,” Takaba said hotly, “If it is, who can blame me? I got locked up twice yesterday! First by this bloody TV show, then by a masked stranger who no one even bothered to report to the police. And it isn’t like I can fall apart in front of the cameras, is it?”

“I wouldn’t advise it, no,” Asami remarked, face smoothing out to its usual stoicism as Takaba struggled to his feet. The lawyer would always be taller than him, but at least this way they were both on some kind of level. Takaba refused to just sit there there while Asami pondered his insecurities like they were a mildly interesting but inconsequential finance report he’d read in the newspaper.

“Speaking of things that shouldn’t go on camera,” Takaba said blithely, “if you’re so worried about preserving your reputation on national television, maybe you shouldn’t hop into bed with every contestant who has a pulse. Or, you know, become reality TV fodder at all. Because I don’t buy that you’re just doing this for your firm’s publicity.”

Asami’s brow lowered. “Say exactly what you mean, Takaba.”

Takaba forced his lips to stretch into a smile. “I don’t think I have to explain what your behaviour makes you look like. That’s two out of three so far, isn’t it? And you’ve still got another date tomorrow.”

Asami’s frown was threatening to become full blown glower. And sure, Takaba was trying to needle him, but he was kind of surprised at how little insinuation it took. After all, if he was being honest with himself, Takaba knew perfectly well that being the bachelor basically gave Asami a giant green light to sleep with every contestant who so much as glanced his way.

“What?” Takaba crossed his arms.

“Who told you that I had sex with Sudou Shuu?” Takaba blinked and Asami cocked an eyebrow. “Don’t look so surprised that I’m being frank. You’ve hardly been a master of subtlety.”

“Sudou told me himself,” Takaba muttered.

“And he strikes you as a very honest and trustworthy person, does he?”

Well, now that Asami mentioned it…But the lawyer had told Takaba himself that he’d had to disarm recording devices in the Ecstasy Suite he and Sudou had shared on their date, so he knew for a fact that they’d cohabited overnight. And even if Takaba trusted Asami’s sense of discretion, which he did not, there was simply no way Sudou would have lost such a perfect opportunity to climb Asami like a tree. A tree made of man meat.

“Even if you’re claiming that you and Sudou didn’t get up to anything on your sleepover the other night, which, ha! You can’t pretend that you haven’t sampled the goods on this show before. I remember what I overheard at the aquarium, all right?” Takaba uncrossed his arms, pointing an accusatory finger. “On your so-called ‘group date’ with Sudou and Fei Long, remember? Well, it was definitely a group something. And don’t try to deny it — you incriminated yourself!”

“Water skiing is an incriminating activity?” Asami asked, staring down at Takaba’s index finger as though it were a brazen fly he was considering swatting.

Takaba opened his mouth to deliver a devastating retort that would blow all of Asami’s slippery, lawyerly weasel words completely out of the water for good, except — water skiing, really? That’s what Asami was pretending they’d all gotten up to on that date? It wasn’t even a contact sport!

“Your problem in this competition, Takaba,” Asami continued, not waiting for Takaba’s reply, “is that you take everything at face value. Your mind constantly jumps to the worst conclusion, which makes you prone to the deception of those more cunning than you.”

“I’m cunning!” Takaba said, then shut his mouth. Even spitting mad as he was, he had to admit to himself that he wouldn’t win an argument of words against Asami, at least not without hard evidence. He needed to make his accusations infallible before he could hammer them over Asami’s head in victory.

But that didn’t mean he’d let Asami get away with such blatant hypocrisy, either.

“So you’re denying that you’re just an egotistical horndog who only came on this show to drill the arses of any contestants stupid enough to fall for your gentleman act, huh?”

To Takaba’s surprise, Asami didn’t look offended. For god’s sake, his smirk was back. “There’s only one arse I want, Takaba.”

What…what the hell was that supposed to mean! Takaba gritted his teeth, preparing to jab Asami in the chest until the bastard stopped looking so damn self-satisfied. Unfortunately, the leg he used to step forward was also the leg that had fallen asleep at some point during their stand off. It buckled immediately when he put weight on it, and only Asami’s hand shooting out to lift Takaba up by the collar of his bathrobe prevented him from faceplanting spectacularly in the dirt.

Asami slowly lowered him back down to his feet, but kept his fingers wrapped in the bathrobe. “Let me go,” Takaba glared.

“You’re welcome.”

Talk about adding insult to abject humiliation. When Asami still wouldn’t let go of his collar, Takaba rolled his shoulders and broke the other man’s grip. He couldn’t break the tension in the air, though, and quite suddenly he wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and sleep his way through the rest of the competition.

He sighed. “Let’s just go back inside. We can sleep in Mitarai’s room, right?”

As though it had been his idea the entire time and he was only waiting for Takaba to stop dawdling, Asami turned on his heel and walked back the way he’d come. Takaba hurried behind, wincing as the leg that had lost all feeling exploded with a painful pricking sensation every time he took a step.

“He may only have a single bed.” Asami glanced at Takaba sideways when they reached the enclosure’s door, which could thankfully be unlocked from the inside with the flick of a switch.

“You can sleep on top of the desk then,” Takaba declared, pushing through the door first and breathing a silent sigh of relief to be back in the main garden. Dawn was already peeking crisp and lavender above the horizon.

“You’re in a better mood,” Asami murmured, falling into step beside Takaba as they made their way back to the patio. A heavy, warm hand came down on the nape of his neck, resting there like it had the unchallenged right.

“You’re imagining things,” Takaba replied, deciding on the spur of the moment to allow the bastard’s hand to rest there, just this once.

It was a cold night, after all.

 

***

 

For the rest of the drive back to Taipei, the words There’s only one arse I want sloshed around inside Takaba’s skull like the narration to a porno that had taken over his life.

Asami and the only cameraman who hadn’t consumed brain-shredding amounts of alcohol the night before took a taxi back to the city early in the morning, leaving Takaba sandwiched between Mitarai and Shinotake-sensei in the taxi that ferried them back later that afternoon. The only thing worse than nursing a hangover, it turned out, was nursing a hangover when your producer was too bleary to give voice to all the inappropriate things he wanted to say, so just kept staring at your arse instead.

There’s only one arse I want.

“Stop it,” Takaba groaned.

“No,” Mitarai rasped. “Nice hickey, by the way.”

Their director lifted up his face mask. “Shut up. Or I’ll arrange both your deaths. Onscreen.”

Takaba and Mitarai stewed in sullen silence for the rest of the journey back to the hotel. When they finally arrived, the rest of the crew were doing a poor job of appearing as though they weren’t panicking about having lost an entire day of filming.

“Fei Long-sama is very upset,” one of the junior producers said, hovering over Shinotake-sensei as the man lowered himself into an armchair in the lounge Confirmed Bachelor had taken over for their production meetings. “He is demanding an extra half-day for his and Asami-san’s solo date as recompense.”

“What?” the director barked, and Takaba thought he’d feel a similar swell of outrage if he wasn’t so distracted by how Fei Long had somehow managed to convince the crew to designate him sama while they’d been away. “Don’t be a moron. We’ll just shoot the date tomorrow instead, and swap around the…” he trailed off, shooting a disapproving look when he noticed that Takaba was still in the room. “The you-know-what. Has Sakazaki regained consciousness yet?”

Takaba could take a hint. He made his way towards the lounge’s exit, thinking longingly of a shower and the downy promise of a bed he didn’t have to share with horny lawyers and snoring producers.

“Takaba-kun!” Shinotake-sensei barked. Takaba jumped to attention and swung around. “You’re roommates with his manicured grace, the great snake lord, aren’t ya?"

“Er…” Takaba hedged.

“Go upstairs and get him to come down. Now!”

Takaba rushed out of the room before he could remember to mumble his assent. In the elevator up to their floor, he quickly rehearsed what he’d say if he bumped into Sudou or any other nosy crew members that wanted to know about his date with Asami. It was very nice, he’d say. We ate freshly caught crab and watched the sun set over the ocean. Asami-san was the perfect gentleman.

“Except for when he was being a giant perve,” Takaba muttered to himself, getting off the elevator and trudging to his room.

There’s only one arse I want.

“Oh, screw every — ” he cut himself off as soon as he opened the door.

Despite instructions, he hadn’t really expected Fei Long to be up here, not when it was daylight outside and he could be swanning around the local boutiques or checking on White Snake’s Taiwanese holdings or generally terrifying everyone with his eyebrows. But there the man was, stretched out across his bed on his back with some kind of cream caking his face like a Noh mask and twin slices of cucumbers adorning his eyelids.

In Takaba’s absence, he’d apparently commandeered the other bed as a second wardrobe.

“This is not okay, Fei Long,” Takaba grumbled, walking over and starting to sift through the frankly alarming layers of robes, shirts, loose-fitting pants and some very flimsy silk things that Takaba really didn’t want to dwell on. “I need somewhere to sleep too. Unless this is your way of telling me I can lie on top and make everything creased and wrinkly, huh?”

Fei Long didn’t reply. In fact, if it weren’t for the gentle rise and fall of his chest, Takaba would be tempted to think he’d beautifully arranged his body before topping himself in a fit of pique. Maybe he was just giving Takaba the cold shoulder for taking up more than his allotted time for the solo date?

“Not my fault,” Takaba muttered, stepping between the beds and staring down at Fei Long, waiting for a sign that the other man was listening. “And it’s not like we did anything extra this morning, either.” Asami had gone back to Taipei while Takaba was still sleeping, for cripe’s sake, even if the lawyer-shaped indent on Mitarai’s single bed suggested that the man hadn’t spent the whole night on the couch Takaba had relegated him to, the sneaky bastard.

Fei Long mumbled something incomprehensible, the lips he’d smeared with some kind of green balm twitching slightly but otherwise remaining lax with sleep.

Oh my god, Takaba’s mind crowed, I’ve caught the great Liu Fei Long completely off guard! Oh, the things I could do to him now that he’s at my mercy…

Takaba hunkered down beside the bed and rested both hands on the edge of the mattress, relishing this unparalleled view of Fei Long’s nostrils — sadly perfect though they were. He only wished the man’s face wasn’t slathered with the cream mask, because he knew exactly where he could find a permanent marker and his brain was already teeming with artistic inspiration.

“Hey, Fei Long,” Takaba said quietly. “I’ve been wondering. Do you have to sharpen your claws on a rock or are they just naturally like that?”

Fei Long mumbled something, turning his head slightly in the direction of Takaba’s voice. “…Paris.”

“Paris?” Takaba asked, rising from his crouch and hovering over Fei Long’s head. “Paris what?”

“Boulangerie française,” Fei Long whispered.

Takaba rolled his eyes. Great, he finally had Fei Long in a vulnerable position, and the man’s sleep talk was a bunch of nonsense of no blackmailing value whatsoever. Unless…he just needed a little direction?

Fei Looong,” Takaba droned, letting his voice drop low in the way TV hypnotists’ always did. “Tell meee…what you, Sudou and Asami did on your group date in Tokyo. Tell meee…gah!”

Faster than his eyes could track, a hand shot up and grabbed Takaba by the throat. He gasped, struggling to breathe as Fei Long tossed his glossy head, dislodging the cucumber slices and staring up at Takaba with a murderous scowl.

“You have questions for me, Takaba?” Fei Long hissed. “You want to know what Asami and I get up to when you’re not around? Why not simply join us on our next date and satisfy your own curiosity.”

“N-no, that’s fine,” Takaba coughed, arms flailing as he tried to find purchase on the bedclothes. Fei Long’s grip tightened. “Just…just came to tell you that Sensei wants you downstairs.” He winced as air struggled to move through his pinched windpipe. “And that, uh…you have very fast reflexes. Must have trained Tao, huh? Haha. Ha.”

Fei Long let out a put-upon sigh and released Takaba’s throat. “Go away, you miserable little brat.”

Takaba was all too happy to comply. As fast as he could walk without looking as though he were fleeing for his life, Takaba crossed the room and opened the bathroom door.

“Takaba?” Fei Long called, sounding creepily cheerful for someone who’d just woken from their meditation to find their sworn love rival hanging over their face and trying to subliminally interrogate them.

Takaba turned around reluctantly. “…Yes?”

“You’d best do something about your face. That zit of yours is making quite the impressive comeback.”

Deciding that settling for verbal insults was the better part of valour right then, Takaba scuttled inside the en suite and locked the door. Though as he sat down on the edge of the bathtub and stared into space, waiting until he could go outside again without getting high-kicked in the nose, something Fei Long had said suddenly struck home. The more he thought about it, inviting himself along on the man’s solo date with Asami was actually an incredibly brilliant idea. It couldn’t be that hard to remain undetected if he followed a little behind them, and then he’d know definitively whether Asami’s claims about desiring ass-monogamy were true. Or true with someone, even if that someone wasn’t Takaba.

What could go wrong?

 

Chapter Text

“Oh dear.”

Takaba’s stomach, deprived of food since a long-ago 7-Eleven ham sandwich, rumbled in agreement. It was probably telling that the first time he’d ever agreed with Sudou Shuu about anything was this.

“Look happy!” Mitarai hissed, shouldering the doors all the way open and pushing Confirmed Bachelor’s remaining contestants inside the meeting room, which had been converted into a library complete with old-fashioned lamps, wingback chairs and a flatscreen TV displaying a pixellated gif of a roaring log fire. The video juddered every five seconds as it looped and the same bit of kindling collapsed in a crash of silent sparks.

“Please take a seat, boys,” called Sakazaki from an armchair beside Asami, adjusting a gold-rimmed monocle that only magnified his bloodshot eye. Fei Long swept over to the room’s settee immediately, leaving Takaba and Sudou to cram themselves onto the loveseat opposite.

“Welcome to Professor Sakazaki’s study,” their host purred, taking a swig of sherry from his glass that left several drops dribbling down the front of his glitzy waistcoat. “Thank you all for joining me here in my private sanctuary of books and booze for a little chat — and a special surprise.”

Takaba swallowed. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Sudou leaning forward expectantly. Apparently the singer had used his two days off filming to buff, pluck and sculpt himself until he looked as sinisterly tapered as a knife. Well, Takaba amended as he crossed his arms and slunk down in his seat, a knife in a cream suit and crocodile-skin loafers.

“But first!” Sakazaki paused and chuckled, trying for distraction as the monocle fell right out of his eye socket. “I trust your one-on-one dates with Asami-san were truly affairs to remember. As our viewers at home saw, the time you spent with our bachelor was a unique opportunity to uncover and unlock the secret parts of each other otherwise left hidden by propriety — and clothes. Which brings me to the topic of your special time together in the Ecstasy Suite! May I ask, Asami-san, if you were satisfied with these three young and luscious men…vying for your attention?”

At the word “three”, Fei Long snorted from his place on the settee. Though Takaba had heard Shinotake-sensei promise that his solo date with Asami would go ahead tomorrow after all, it looked as though he was currently in no mood to play pretend for the sake of the show’s chronology.

“The experience was…” Asami paused, pouring himself a glass of sherry from the decanter on the tea service to his left, “all told — rather wet.”

Takaba flushed, hugging himself tighter as his mind was instantly bombarded with memories of the pool in their shared hotel suite. Also, of him falling into it. Unless of course Asami was referring to something that had happened on his date with Sudou.

Maybe they went water skiing again, a nasty voice whispered in his mind.

Sakazaki laughed boisterously to cover his monocle popping free again. “Well, we’ll all have plenty of time to dish the dirt on everyone’s prowess in the bedroom later, I’m sure. But now, moving on to the purpose of tonight’s little gathering. As I’m sure you all know, this would usually be the time our beloved bachelor would retreat to a private place in order to make his decision. That is to say, which one of you will receive the Final Tulip. However, this season, something very unusual occurred! Didn’t it, Asami-san?”

“Yes,” Asami said, taking a sip from his glass and wincing at the taste.

“…What I’m sure Asami-san meant to say is that he recently approached me to discuss something unprecedented in the history of Japan’s No.1 Handsome Confirmed Bachelor! It seems that he is unable to decide on the recipient of the Final Tulip until he sees you all perform in a Final Challenge!”

In a rare show of unscripted unity, Takaba, Sudou and Fei Long all sighed simultaneously.

“No,” barked Shinotake-sensei, sitting forward in the director’s chair and glaring at them. “Gasp instead. Come on, gasp!”

Takaba obediently made a little noise of surprise, though he was the only one who bothered. Fei Long’s face looked stony enough to set solid, while Sudou just smiled. Creepy bastard.

“That’s right, boys, there is still one last opportunity to prove to Asami-san that you are the one truly deserving recipient of his sole remaining tulip! After all, the nature of this challenge shall reveal whether you are competent enough to publicly assist Asami-san, as his spouse, during his many charitable pursuits in the future. Are you ready to hear your brief?”

Without waiting for a reply, Sakazaki bent forward and pulled out something that had been hidden under his chair. It was a clock, stout and old-fashioned with a face full of Roman numerals and two little wooden doors beneath that seemed to threaten the imminent release of a spring-coiled cuckoo. “Thanks to the kind assistance of Kirishima Kei-san,” Takaba had to suppress his start of surprise when, as if summoned by his name, Glasses suddenly loomed behind Fei Long’s settee, “we have managed to organise a very special excursion to an underprivileged school here in Taipei city. They’re holding a fundraising talent show on their campus tomorrow evening. Guess who’s going to be providing the entertainment?”

Oh no, Takaba thought, brain instantly filled with visions of himself at the school, scores of rosy-cheeked middle schoolers all looking up at him in horror as he did star jumps…only to trip and go plunging off the stage in a way that caused a permanent and loud re-arrangement of bones.

“Judging by your faces,” Sakazaki went on with relish, “you are all resigned to your fate as performing monkeys for these delightful and ever-so-impoverished children! But don’t worry — Asami-san will also be participating in the talent show. Won’t you, Asami-san?” Asami returned Sakazaki’s smug expression with a look so devoid of emotion that Takaba thought his nerve would have curdled in their host’s place.

“Ahaha. Well. In any case, we would never be so cruel as to make you all do something in a setting so rife for potential humiliation without first giving you time to prepare. You will be allowed to choose your own routine. But choose wisely! The children and teachers will be voting for their favourite performer on the night, and whichever one of you receives the fewest votes….” Sakazaki grinned, “will have something most unfortunate happen to them.”

No singing, no dancing then, Takaba thought quickly, only half-watching as Sakazaki prised open the clock’s little wooden doors with visible effort. But what the heck am I actually good at — better than anyone else here? Never mind that it has to be something that will work on stage in front of all those little kids…oh god, I’m screwed.

“So please find a piece of paper and a pen, and write down a brief description of what you’d like to perform tomorrow night. But don’t tell anyone, it’s meant to be a surprise! Then just pop it inside my clock here, and — ”

“The doors are moving,” Fei Long interrupted, pointing one pointy-nailed finger at the clock resting on Sakazaki’s knees.

“Oh, silly me!” their host laughed. “Yes, they’re shutting, all right. You have thirty seconds to put your piece of paper inside the clock before the doors have finished closing, or you won’t get to choose what you do at the show. Though I suppose with all this chatting, you probably only have about twenty seconds left. Oops.”

What? Takaba’s mind screamed, as around him the others burst into action. In the blink of an eye, Fei Long had procured a packet of blotting paper and a stick of eyeliner from within one of his flowing sleeves. Uncapping the makeshift pen, he scribbled furiously on the thin sheaf of paper and all but leapt off his sofa to stuff it inside the chamber of the clock — whose doors were inching shut with every passing second. Before he could move back to his seat, though, Sudou struck: he snatched the eyeliner from Fei Long’s hand and rapidly scrawled something on the back of one of his DrakeEnema business cards.

“Chop-chop, Takaba,” Sakazaki called, patting the top of the clock as Sudou cast his paper inside it. “Don’t just sit there like a dumb mutt, or you’ll have to perform whatever we tell you. You don’t want to be the one who introduces the concept of a lap dance to the innocent little urchins tomorrow, do you?”

Even though Takaba’s mind was stuck in a screeching litany of Fuck fuck fuck, it still found time to focus on Asami rising out of his chair, ignoring Sakazaki’s startled “Oi!” as he stole one of the host’s cue cards to write on with the fountain pen from his suit’s breast pocket.

“Ten seconds, Takaba,” Sakazaki said, “and come on, we’re in a library. Of books. How hard can it be to find something to write on?”

Little did Sakazaki know that the mere suggestion he start defacing books was enough to send him right down memory lane, back to all the times his mother rapped his knuckles and yelled at him for ‘improving’ her magazines with crayons from the 100 yen store.

“Here,” Asami said, having magically appeared behind Takaba’s shoulder while he’d been locked in panicked recollection. Takaba took the proffered fountain pen and felt his eyes bug out as Asami dropped something into his lap. His writing surface was apparently going to be the lawyer’s blue pocket square.

“Three…” Sakazaki crooned. “Two…”

Takaba lurched out of his seat and leapt towards Sakazaki’s lap with his arms outstretched. Their host squawked and tried to rear back with the clock cuddled against his chest, but couldn’t avoid Takaba as he and jammed his middle finger into the narrowing gap. The doors stopped closing with a mechanical whine, stuck fast on either side.

“Ow,” Takaba moaned.

“What,” Sakazaki said, still frozen in his chair. From behind the camera, Shinotake-sensei barked a startled laugh.

“I call foul,” Sudou said, sitting primly on his seat with one leg crossed over the other. “Takaba-kun clearly didn’t meet the time limit aspect of this challenge, and now hopes to cheat his way out.”

“I believe Sakazaki-san’s words were ‘before the doors finish closing’,” Asami said, crouching down to retrieve the pocket square that had fallen when Takaba jumped off the loveseat. He held it out, flat on his palm, to Takaba. “And as you see, they remain open.”

Takaba decided he’d have time to stew over Asami’s motivation for helping him later — right then, all he cared about was getting his choice of talent show performance written down and inside the clock before the bloody thing snapped his finger off at the joint.

Asami’s palm wasn’t the best desk stand-in Takaba could have thought of, but beggars-in-extreme-pain couldn’t be choosers. He held the lawyer’s fountain pen awkwardly in his left hand and scrawled Mixing drinks from a height onto the man’s pocket square. It was a mess, but probably legible, given the quirk to Asami’s lips as the man read it upside down.

Pocket square safely shoved through the gap, Takaba wrenched his finger out of the clock and stuck it in his mouth, trying to suck the pain away.

“Charming,” said Sudou, barely waiting after Shinotake-sensei had called a break before he rose and went over to Mitarai, apparently to argue that Takaba should be disqualified from the competition.

Sakazaki just stared down at his lap. The clock’s doors were still open half an inch, apparently stuck from the force of Takaba’s intruding finger. “You broke the damn clock, Takaba.”

Takaba glanced at Asami and spoke around his throbbing finger. “Refer all complaints to my legal counsel.”

 

***

 

Dinner was a noisy affair. Between Shinotake-sensei and the producers trying to convince Glasses that it was time for him to go home, to the roving cameramen instructed to capture the contestants “chatting naturally” with each other over the meal, Takaba was all but fantasising about the compound they’d been imprisoned inside back in Tokyo. At least there he’d been able to escape to the roof when things became too much. Though thoughts of the roof inevitably led to thoughts of the house’s basement. And its secret resident.

Unable to help himself, Takaba risked a glance in Asami’s direction. As usual, the lawyer was keeping his distance from the contestants by dining at the director’s table, though by the look of things both Glasses and Shinotake-sensei were trying to recruit him to their side of the argument. (And judging by Glasses’ plainly wounded expression, Asami was all in favour of his re-hired employee jumping on the next plane back to Japan and doing something more useful than hovering around like an anxious vampire).

“He looks surprisingly delicious in casual wear, doesn’t he?” said a voice by Takaba’s ear.

Delicious. He shuddered. “I wasn’t looking at him.”

“At who?” Sudou laughed scornfully, settling down into the chair beside Takaba’s like they were old pals ready for a cozy catch up. “So tell me, Akihito-kun. What sort of performance will you be gracing us with at the school talent show?”

Takaba sighed. Reminding the little shit that they’d just participated in a secret ballot for a reason would probably be about as useful as telling him to go water-board himself in the hotel pond. “Have a guess.”

“That’s not fair,” Sudou bumped their shoulders. “I’d probably die of old age before I could think of anything you can do that might be construed as a talent.

“What are you two whispering about?” Fei Long demanded, appearing in front of Takaba’s table and looking down at them both like they were conspiring against him. Takaba — and Sudou, as if that weren’t the most unlikely idea of a partnership in the history of reality television.

Sudou smiled. “Takaba had just promised to tell me all about his date with Asami-san. Especially the juicy bits.”

“Is that so?” Fei Long said faintly, eyes coming to rest on Takaba’s face until it took all of his concentration not to crack under the scrutiny.

“Um.” Takaba bit his lip, suppressing his first instinct, which was to scream No repeatedly before kicking Sudou in the crotch and fleeing the dining room forever.

“Go on,” Sudou nudged him, “don’t tell me you two didn’t get up to anything together! Now that would be a scandal.”

“Of course we did,” Takaba snapped, before his brain caught up with his mouth and decided to suffuse his face in burning heat, just to make his inner mortification completely obvious.

“Details, details,” cooed Sudou, slipping his arm through the crook of Takaba’s and squeezing it. “You can’t just leave us hanging like this.”

“A…a gentleman never tells,” Takaba warbled.

Sudou nodded. “No, a gentleman wouldn’t, that’s true.”

“I’m not sure I want to hear what sordid little sex games Takaba bullied Asami-san into,” Fei Long said, starting to look as though he regretted entering the conversation. “The last thing I need are those kinds of images sullying my time with him tomorrow.”

“I didn’t bully anyone into anything!” Takaba exclaimed, flinching at the way his voice carried through the room. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Asami turn to look over at their table, impassive but watchful. “We had a very nice night, and that’s all I’m going to say about it. Okay?”

Fei Long raised his eyebrows. “‘Nice’?”

“Well,” Sudou laughed, slipping his arm out of Takaba’s and patting his back just a little too hard. “With such a glowing review, it certainly doesn’t sound like you have anything to worry about when it comes to Liu-san’s time with Asami in the Ecstasy Suite tomorrow, eh, Takaba-kun?”

“Correct,” Takaba said, refusing to meet anyone’s eye as he went back to his pasta, now gone cold.

 

***

 

He really wasn’t concerned, of course. It was just that monitoring the situation was the responsible thing to do, and Takaba was nothing if not an adult dedicated to minding his own business. That his business overlapped with Fei Long’s in this particular instance was purely coincidental.

The main problem with watching someone from afar without their knowledge or consent was, Takaba soon discovered, having to always stay a few steps ahead. This necessitated getting out of bed and ready for the day long before your target, all the while mindful that they might suddenly wake up and ask inconvenient questions. Such as why you were showering and shaving at 4 in the morning.

But luck seemed to finally be on Takaba’s side: Fei Long didn’t stir from his inhumanly still hibernation in the time it took him to dress and go downstairs for breakfast. Really, experienced…people observers…probably forwent time-consuming tasks like eating, but a lifetime of believing in the magical restorative power of food made it impossible for Takaba to ignore the suffering of his belly. Even if the hotel’s current offerings were no more varied than rice, noodles and custom omelettes from a bar run by a chef who looked as though he’d stab you with his spatula if you asked for anything more original than extra chives.

I wonder if Asami gets up this early every day. Takaba glanced around at the only other denizens of the hotel dining room — resigned-looking businesspeople clutching their briefcases or staring glumly at their napkins. Or if he even bothers to eat anything before he goes about his busy days of buying suits and practising his poker face.

“Or maybe he’s like an incubus,” Takaba pondered aloud, “but instead of living on a diet of sex, he survives by mocking people then sucking up the waves of humiliation that come off them. Like photosynthesis, but for embarrassment.” Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a nearby salaryman shoot him a disturbed look.

“Too many Japanese people in this hotel,” Takaba mumbled into his omelette.

By the time he’d finished breakfast and made it outside to the lane adjacent to the hotel where Asami had picked him up for their date a few days ago, the sun was rising, the traffic was roaring, and Takaba realised there was a slight hitch in his brilliant plan to tag along on Fei Long’s date. Namely: transport. And how he didn’t currently have any.

Hanging around the hotel’s bar and listening to the producers drink themselves into a stupor last night hadn’t turned up any helpful info about where the day’s date was supposed to be filmed, which meant he’d have to wait until Asami, Fei Long and the crew set off from the hotel so he could follow behind them. It would be best if he could blend in with the rest of the traffic, but right now he had neither the know-how nor the money to hire a car or a motorscooter for the day.

“Something cheap and quick,” he ticked off on his fingers, moving out of the lane before someone from the hotel could come out and accuse him of loitering. “Something the crew won’t pay attention to. That I can pick up and drop off easily.”

Takaba stopped in his tracks.

 

***

 

Yellow and orange weren’t very furtive colours, particularly in combination. But Takaba had no other choice. Taipei city’s bicycle share program had a station set up a few streets away from the hotel, and for a small fee plus a deposit, he was able to rent an orange and canary-yellow bike for the day.

The only thing he hadn’t counted on when he rode back to the hotel, though, was that his new helmet left his face completely exposed — and recognisable — to certain people who would instantly notice him following behind them like a brightly coloured bloodhound.

“Takaba?” Mitarai frowned, stepping away from the limo idling in the hotel’s laneway. “The hell’re you doing here?”

Takaba broke roughly, coming to a screeching halt only a few feet short of the limo’s fender. He shot the alarmed driver a strained smile through the tinted windshield. “Uh. Just a morning ride. You know, taking in the sights of the city, enjoying time by myself. Thinking, uh, thoughts.”

“Yeah, right.” Mitarai gave him the once-over, an examination that left him staring at Takaba’s face, almost awed. “You look like a middle schooler. I mean, I know we all call you kun half the time, but you actually look like a little kid in that helmet.”

Takaba quickly pressed his lips together lest they burst into a pout without his conscious permission. “I had my coming of age celebration three years ago!”

“Well, whatever. Asami and His Magnificence are due out here any second, so scram. You should be practising your routine for tomorrow.” He punctuated this advice with some flurried hand-waves that took a moment to register in Takaba’s brain as Mitarai trying to mime mixing drinks.

“You looked inside the clock,” he accused, turning the bike’s handlebars around and preparing to ride back to the front of the hotel. Really, he was neither surprised nor angry that a creeping rat like Mitarai had taken a peek at Takaba’s routine for the talent show. No, what really made Takaba’s heart start pounding was the knowledge that Fei Long and Asami were only minutes away from leaving for the day and scuttling any attempts to tail them.

“And if I have?” Mitarai smirked, but Takaba wasn’t listening. He needed to run into the hotel and get something to cover up his face, pronto, or his plans to secretly third-wheel this date were over before they’d even begun.

 

***

 

When Takaba Akihito panicked, one of two possible things could happen. Either he’d come up with a completely innovative solution involving lateral thinking and gut instinct that would stunningly resolve all of his problems in one fell swoop, or…

Or this.

And Takaba was beginning to think that sneaking into the hotel’s kitchen, stealing a bowl of cooked but tepid ramen noodles, dumping said noodles over his head before re-donning his helmet and then racing after Fei Long and Asami’s limo as it pulled out from the curb was not one of his best ideas. Certainly, trying to ride a pushbike in downtown traffic while bits of soggy dough flew into your eyes and mouth was a good way to almost become roadkill seven times before midday.

When the limo got stuck in an intersection that led directly onto a highway — a highway Takaba was pretty sure was a bike-free zone — Takaba had to quickly reconsider his means of pursuit. This meant dumping his borrowed bike next to a bunch of parked scooters on the sidewalk (he’d return for it, of course he would, everything would be fine) and hailing down the next cab.

He clambered in and smiled awkwardly at the driver as she stared at him, dumbfounded, in her rearview mirror. It was a shame he couldn’t speak enough Chinese to explain himself, though Takaba suspected it would have been difficult to describe the necessity of keeping one’s helmet on when it was the only thing kind of holding one’s noodle-wig in place. As it was he had enough trouble directing her to follow behind the limo, especially when it turned onto the elevated highway and drew ahead of Takaba’s taxi by a span of several cars.

“Crap.” Takaba slid forward on the edge of his seat and craned his neck around the empty front passenger headrest to see through the windshield. The driver batted his face away.

Hao wei xian!” she chastised.

“Limo,” Takaba said, pointing at it desperately as traffic began moving again. “Follow. Limousine!” God, he hoped the Chinese word for that had come from English too. Unless the driver spoke English?

“Uh…” Takaba racked his brains for the right words, not for the first time cursing his flight attendant training and its lack of emphasis on any vocabulary beyond food, drink and proper aeroplane evacuation procedures. “Uh, English? Madam, you speak English? Pursue black car, please!”

Zun ming,” the driver said, rolling her eyes and hitting the gas.

“Woah!” Takaba grabbed the front passenger seat just in time to avoid being smashed into the car door as the driver abruptly swerved into the next lane, increasing their speed until they’d almost pulled level with the limo. The windows of the other vehicle were too tinted to see through, but that didn’t mean Fei Long or Asami couldn’t look out and see him.

Takaba slunk down in his seat. “Doesn’t Taiwan have a speed limit?”

The driver didn’t reply, though she was looking pretty smug as she turned up the volume on her radio station of syrupy 80s power ballads.

“Fine, I can take a hint,” Takaba muttered, crossing his arms and blowing a clump of slimy noodles away from his mouth.

The rest of the drive flew by — almost literally, as the nauseous churning in Takaba’s stomach could attest.

Asami and Fei Long’s limousine had pulled off the freeway after half an hour, navigating a series of largely empty roads into a residential district of apartment buildings and featureless company headquarters. The whole place had an expensive, desolate feel to it, and Takaba couldn’t help but wonder what kind of date Confirmed Bachelor had dreamed up that could be staged here. Drag racing, maybe?

“Stop! Stop, please,” Takaba said, leaning over the front passenger seat and trying to grab the driver’s attention when he realised the limo was starting to slow down. Thanks to the almost non-existent traffic he’d probably be spotted by the show’s crew as soon as he got out of the cab. He’d have to hold back and wait for a couple minutes until they got ahead again.

Yao bu yao ting?” the driver demanded, pointing at the limo as it turned left and headed up a long driveway, then under a brightly coloured sign full of kanji in a combination Takaba couldn’t parse. Though with all the pictures of cartoon golf balls and children’s smiling faces, he was starting to have his suspicions.

“OK,” Takaba said, making a cut-off gesture with his hand. He reached into his jacket for his wallet, opening it to discover a few scant pink bills that he quickly realised, when he glanced at the cab’s metre, wouldn’t even put a dent in his fare. Well, shit on a stick.

“Credit card OK?” Takaba asked in English, sliding out his Japanese debit card while silently praying that Takato had covered the rent for their apartment this month and that he wasn’t actually an accidental hobo. “Yes?”

The driver shot him a dirty look, but snapped the card out of his fingers after a few nerve-crumbling seconds of leaving him hanging.

Shi-eh shi-eh,” Takaba smiled, trotting out the one phrase of Chinese he could reliably remember. She snorted and shooed him away.

Back outside and left in the dust of the departing taxi, Takaba made his way up the driveway on foot. The area in front of him was hung with a finely meshed net several storeys high, the kind they used in Japan to keep stray balls from shooting out of the rigid confines of inner city golf courses and baseball diamonds.

Let’s hope Fei Long doesn’t mind breaking a sweat, Takaba thought, unable to suppress the smile that rose to his lips at the thought of the salon owner having to do something as inelegant as swinging a club at a tiny white ball. Then again, the man was a martial artist with homicidally precise reflexes. Heck, if Takaba didn’t strongly suspect that golfing was a requirement of entry into Tokyo’s social elite, he’d suspect Asami would be the awkward one out there. Three piece suits, even tailored ones, weren’t exactly made with their owner’s range of motion in mind.

Well, it looked like he’d be finding out soon enough.

“Mini-golf?” Takaba gaped, staring at the parking lot/entrance fee attendant through the booth’s glass window. The young man stared back uncertainly, eyeing Takaba’s bike helmet and the tangled strands of congealed noodles fringing his face. After a tense moment, he reached under his desk and pulled out a sheet of laminated paper full of ungrammatical Japanese text explaining the park’s fees and rules. “They’re making Asami and Fei Long play mini-golf together?”

That practically made his and Asami’s stroll by the quasi-seaside look classy. But sure enough, when Takaba squinted through the park’s gates, past a fountain in the shape of a giant yellow conch, instead of the undulating green lawn of a professional golf course full of the leisure class and their caddies…there were a bunch of animal sculptures. The closest one appeared to be of a belly-flopping walrus with its tusked maw open just wide enough to allow a golf ball inside.

The park’s attended gabbled a long string of Chinese, jabbing the sheet of translated Japanese again. “Five hundred New Taiwan Dollars one person,” he added in English.

Takaba didn’t have to check to know he wasn’t carrying that much cash. And while he could try using his debit card again, he had a strong feeling that it wouldn’t work this time. Never mind that for all that the park seemed pretty big, its facilities hardly looked state of the art — the booth didn’t even seem to have a proper cash register.

A thought struck him.

“Television,” Takaba slowly said in English, trying to mime hoisting a camera over his shoulder and filming. When the attendant only stared at him blankly, he pointed inside the park. “Japanese television.” He pointed at himself, then again inside the park, begging with his eyes for the guy to understand. I’m with that crew you already let inside, and they totally paid for my ticket, yes, yes they did. “Uh, group ticket. Me. Television people.”

A look of understanding slowly dawned across the attendant’s face, and he nodded quickly. “OK. Group ticket, two hundred dollars.”

Takaba sighed. It just figured that he’d be bankrupted by an overseas mini-golf park.

Finally inside, it didn’t take him long to discover that Asami, Fei Long and the crew hadn’t made it far. They’d chosen a knoll covered in plastic turf beside a miniature rotating windmill for Sakazaki to make the date’s introductory speech, but this close to the entrance there weren’t enough things to hide his approach. He couldn’t hear a word that was being said or see more than the indistinct outline of Asami standing beside Fei Long, either. What if they suddenly started sending each other heated glances, or began stroking their golf clubs meaningfully between rounds? (Did golf even have rounds?)

Takaba had to get closer.

He skulked around the park’s perimeter for a while, waiting until a family with a portly father and three scampering children wandered past. Sidling up behind them, he used the group as a moving shield on his way towards the windmill. It worked perfectly up until the moment the mother glanced his way and her eyes widened, taking in his disguise and ignoring Takaba’s charming smile in favour of grabbing her youngest’s hand and fleeing.

“I’m not a creep!” Takaba hissed at her, but then the father turned around and fixed him with a look smouldering enough to flambé his helmet. Then it was Takaba who was the one fleeing.

By the time he found a fake European castle for cover and could observe the date’s proceedings from behind a shabbily-painted battlement, Sakazaki was already wrapping up his talk. Fei Long had his hands on his hips, regarding the scene around him with violent impatience. If it were Takaba, he wouldn’t be about to give the guy a club.

“Now remember gentlemen, while there’s nothing more jolly than a bit of friendly rivalry, the winner of today’s game will be receiving a very, very special surprise.” Sakazaki grinned crookedly. “So be careful where you swing, and to the victor go the spoils!”

Neither Asami nor Fei Long replied, but as Takaba surreptitiously followed them from hole to hole and hazard to hazard over the next few hours, it was clear that both men had taken the advice to heart. Hell, if Takaba hadn’t already gone through his own version of what Confirmed Bachelor considered a romantic date, then looking at Fei Long and Asami now, he never would have guessed that this was meant to be an opportunity to bond. Or relax, for that matter. Every calculated swing of their clubs, every grim glance and ferocious pencil mark on their score cards, seemed designed to intimidate each other.

It was mini-golf to the death.

I’m afraid for the guy who loses, Takaba thought, peeking over a static wooden ocean wave painted blue and white to resemble foam. They were at the last stage of the match, a devilishly tricky enclosure dominated by a pond full of stagnant water. Takaba supposed, what with the plastic polar bears screwed onto platforms raised above the ‘sea’, it was supposed to resemble the arctic. The hole itself was inside a dome that might have been an igloo.

Asami stepped up to the tee and raised his club, judging the distance with his eye and carefully aiming. The silence was absolute as the camera rolled, and even Sakazaki had put away his phone and watched on as the lawyer finally swung.

Takaba bit his lip, watching the little white ball as it shot over the pond and landed, judging by the sound, on a chunk of ‘ice’ he’d briefly glimpsed before, the one that sloped down to the igloo.

Crap, can’t see. Still crouching, Takaba edged around the periphery of the pond, making sure to keep hidden behind the fence of ‘waves’ — right until he’d circled around to the back of the pool and the waves abruptly ended. Which would have been just great, if he could see anything from here but the igloo’s flaking behind, ringed by a patch of stagnant water filled with leaves and discarded candy wrappers. He guessed not many of the park’s patrons had reason to skulk back here, and that apparently included the cleaners.

“Hole in one!” Sakazaki called, and Takaba risked a quick peek behind the last remaining slat of the fence. He caught sight of Asami at a distance, standing straight and august as he jotted down his score. Fei Long stepped up just behind him, raising his club and preparing to aim. Or possibly bash the lawyer’s skull in, whichever was more expedient.

“It’s Liu-san’s turn now,” Takaba heard Sakazaki call out, then strained to hear the rest as the wind picked up and whipped the host’s voice away. Takaba had been keeping a close enough eye on the game, though, to know that unless Fei Long could match Asami with another hole in one, he’d lose everything.

Takaba dug his fingers into the overgrown turf and resisted the urge to look around the fence again, growing frustrated when he couldn’t pick up any more voices, let alone the sound of the ball either making it to the igloo or plonking ignominiously into the water. He was officially fed up with this vantage point. But could he risk leaving the safe barrier of the fence long enough to creep around the other side of pool?

Takaba was saved from making a decision when Sakazaki spoke again, this time in frustration. “Try again.”

A deeper voice replied, but Takaba couldn’t hear what Asami was saying. Damn it.

“Of course it’s rigged!” Sakazaki suddenly cried. “We only have a special surprise prepared for Liu-san, so he better damn win it. Hear that, Your Majesty? Stop glaring at me and start again. I don’t think that polar bear can stand to lose another ear.”

Well, if seeing the conclusion of the mini-golf death match wasn’t enough incentive for Takaba to come out into the open to get a better view, then seeing Fei Long fail miserably at hitting a tiny white ball sure was. Besides, he seriously doubted any of the crew’s attention would be fixed on the far side of the pond when Fei Long was apparently struggling to get the ball even as far as the igloo.

Takaba gathered his nerve and scuttled around the back of the pool until he reached the other side where the wave-fence started up again. Some of the painted panels were chipped or missing, and it was through one of the larger gaps that Takaba finally got a good angle on what was happening. He’d barely had time to sit on his haunches when Fei Long at last managed to hit his ball so that it landed on the faux ice floe, before gently rolling inside the igloo and into the hole — or close enough for the cameras.

“Finally,” Sakazaki groaned, before snapping back into his enthusiastic host persona. “Congratulations, Liu-san! You are the winner of our friendly little mini-golf game. And as such, will receive a special surprise! Are you ready?”

“Oh, quite ready,” Fei Long said, crossing his arms and raising his eyebrow like he expected someone to appear carrying nothing more exciting than a bouquet or a fuzzy plush golf ball.

“Then turn around,” Sakazaki smirked, making a swirling motion with his index finger. Fei Long paused, tense, before turning reluctantly on his heel.

Oh, this is going to be good. Takaba pushed his helmet through the gap in the fence until the wood scraped against its sides, desperate not to miss anything. But for a few long seconds, nothing happened. Until suddenly it did: out of the corner of his field of vision, a man appeared and, without invitation, stepped smoothly into the loosely gathered circle of Fei Long, Sakazaki and Asami.

For one crazy moment Takaba thought the newcomer actually was Asami — or at least a doppelganger.

He had dark, slick-backed hair and was wearing an expensive suit, but the more Takaba squinted, the more the resemblance between the men ended there. This stranger had a mole, and wore a slimy, nasty expression that would have looked alien on the precisely maintained landscape of Asami’s face.

“Fei Long,” the man said in an accented voice, and opened his arms out. For…a hug?

If anyone was expecting a touching reunion, though, they were rudely disappointed. Fei Long seemed frozen in place for a protracted and intensely uncomfortably moment, before suddenly lunging forward, grabbing fistfuls of the stranger’s jacket and shoving him backwards. He screamed something incoherent, and the man responded in a rough and furious voice. Fei Long aimed a kick at the man’s head but was instantly blocked by the stranger’s arm in a motion so fluid it looked automated.

Asami and Sakazaki were already backing away even as one of the cameraman surged forward, getting an elbow in the lens for his trouble. The parry of fists and kicks continued in the confined space even as the men shouted at each other in what had to be Cantonese. Takaba watched, helpless to do anything but gape in awe and fascination as Fei Long unleashed his fury on the stranger, even as the man gave back as good as he got.

Someone laughed.

Takaba frowned, failing to see the humour in the situation, but then his brain caught up with his instinctive distaste and he realised — that sound had been way too close. Takaba looked around, stunned to see another person not two metres away crouching in the shadow of a gorse bush beside the fence. He was dressed entirely in black, and his face was obscured by a ski mask. Just like…

“You!” Takaba hissed, hardly realising he’d spoken aloud until the man behind the bush turned to examine him. “You’re the one who locked me in that jail cell on my date!”

Part of Takaba must have been expecting the stranger to flee as soon as he was noticed, which was why a dart of fear pierced his chest when the man slowly unfurled from his crouch and started towards him instead. Takaba reared back, fumbling over legs stiffened from so much crouching. He fell on his arse, scrabbling on the ground to find leverage to push himself up.

The man in the mask was too quick. He grabbed Takaba under the arms with a strength that belied the slender frame beneath the dark clothes, wrenching Takaba up and slamming him face-first into the fence. The wood splintered under the blunt force of his bike helmet, a broken ramen noodle sucked up his nostril as Takaba gasped in shock. He coughed convulsively, too distracted to fight the man off as he grabbed Takaba around the waist this time, hoisting him up — and over the damaged fence.

Takaba hit the water belly first, putrid water filling his mouth and punching down his throat before he could close his mouth. His brain flashed back to that night in the hotel, the blurred memory of drowning in hot water and champagne before Asami fished him out, laid him out on the ground like an ailing fish.

Not deep, Takaba’s inner voice screeched, and he forced his flailing arms to search for the bottom of the pool so he could push himself up. It’s too shallow to drown here.

Except that wasn’t true, and the water already sloshing around inside Takaba was keeping him on the edge of total panic. If he swallowed more —

Someone grabbed the back of his shirt and yanked him out of the pool. The man in the ski mask, come to finish him off. Takaba struck out with his arms, trying to twist in the stranger’s grip, but only managed to catch his arm in the fence’s splintered wood. He cried out from the pain and began coughing again, helpless as the man grabbed him around the waist with one arm, hoisting him up onto his hip and holding him there like Takaba was a barrel. A barrel that needed to be transported at very high speed away from the pool.

Takaba hung under the man’s arm like a limp scrap, catching juddering glimpses of grass and stone and shiny black shoes large enough for a sasquatch. It took way too long before Takaba regained enough composure to realise that no way, no freaking way did the man in the ski mask have enough strength to bear his entire weight with one arm and jog out of the park at the same time.

So it was only half a surprise, when his rescuer dumped him on his arse on the pockmarked asphalt of the parking lot and Takaba looked up, to see a familiar blond giant looking down at him.

“Hey, Suoh,” Takaba wheezed, letting his head hang over the ground in case his stomach felt like suddenly rejecting all the disgusting pool water he’d just ingested. “Fancy…” he broke off as his abdominal muscles spasmed. “…Seeing you here.”

Asami’s bodyguard didn’t reply, but left Takaba where he was half-sitting, half-sprawled on the tarmac long enough to cross the car park and bring around a scooter that didn’t look like it’d fit two skinny people on it, let alone Suoh by himself. He hoped it had good suspension.

“Uh…”

“We’re going back to the city now,” the man rumbled, in a I am in no mood to brook argument from an inconvenient brat like you voice.

“What happened back there?” Takaba said, bring up trembling hands to undo the clasp of his helmet. A bowl’s worth of newly sodden noodles fell into his lap. “Did you see that guy in the ski mask? It was the same man as the one who locked me in that old cell in Tamsui, right?”

Suoh grunted and produced a key, fitting it into the scooter’s ignition.

“You did see him, right? And what about the others? Did Asami notice anything?” Please, please let him have been too busy watching Fei Long’s fistfight with the dude with the beauty spot.

Suoh pinched Takaba’s ear lobe, hard, effectively breaking him out of his reverie. “Up,” the giant growled.

Takaba sighed, creaking to his feet and wincing at the feel of his soaked, slimy jeans sliding down his thighs. “Fine, don’t offer me a hand. It’s not like someone just tried to murder me again.”

Suoh ignored him, sitting astride the scooter and revving its engine in a clear signal to hurry the hell up and climb on.

“Hey,” Takaba said, awkwardly settling on what was left of the seat behind the giant — all half an inch of it. “You’re not going to tell Asami I was here today. Right?”

The bodyguard didn’t reply, but the tight set of his shoulders told Takaba that Suoh choosing not to report everything to his boss was about as likely to happen as his suddenly developing a delightful, charming personality. Or any personality at all.

Typical.

 

Chapter Text

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.

Takaba stared.

“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…?”

“Uh…episode filler?”

“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.

 

Chapter Text

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.

  

Chapter Text

Week 5

 

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.

…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…

Oh. Shit.

“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?

Sudou knew.

“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.”

 

Chapter Text

In Takaba’s (admittedly limited) life experience, a sudden demand to talk was usually a sign that no good, very bad, terrible things were about to happen. Specifically, to him. Never mind that this was Fei Long, a man who’d never made any secret of the fact he thought Takaba had about as much business competing on Confirmed Bachelor as a sea sponge. Still, if this was happening — and he didn’t see how it wouldn’t be, not when Fei Long had him cornered, a mysterious, probably weaponised package tucked under his arm — Takaba wouldn’t spend another second cowering. This was his room. Well, Asami’s room, but it was his at the moment, and damned if he let wouldn’t let Fei Long or anyone else trample over him again.

So when Fei Long sauntered over to the desk and pulled its chair up to the coffee table, looking meaningfully at the vacant armchair, Takaba peeled himself off the window and lowered himself into it with as much dignity as a billowy white nightgown would allow him.

“What do you want?”

In lieu of a reply, Fei Long extracted the package from under his arm and placed it on the coffee table between them. And then proceeded to stare, silently and unnervingly, at Takaba’s face. Not long ago, that trail of eyes across his features, that obvious cataloguing of imperfections and inadequacies, would have made Takaba want to flee the room and curl up like a hedgehog.

Now, it just pissed him off.

“I guess you’ve come to tell me what a coward I am, that I should have died yesterday thanks to natural selection. Or are you here to demand I add you to the list of people I’m supposed to be grateful to?”

Fei Long snorted. The sound was so at odds with his usual demeanour that Takaba broke off, his rant losing steam before he could really get going. “Don’t treat me like one of those clueless idiots.” He tucked a silky strand of jet-black hair behind his ear, fixing Takaba with a stare. Not for the first time, Takaba was alarmed by how pretty the man’s eyes were. His whole face, its lines as smooth and regular as a classical portrait. Sometimes it was too easy to forget that beneath Fei Long’s beauty lurked a burning will.

“Sudou Shuu has been trying to remove you from this competition from the very beginning. Though even I never imagined he’d grow so brazen. Believe me, Takaba, if I were trying to bump you off, I’d be much more subtle about it.”

And that’s supposed to be reassuring? Takaba’s brain squawked. But that didn’t matter, not when — “You believe me?” Before he could stop himself, Takaba was surging forward in his seat, desperately searching Fei Long’s face for any sign of mockery. “Then you know it was Sudou who spiked my drink?”

“As I said, unlike most of the people I’m forced to interact with on this accursed television show, I’m not an oblivious fool. And if I were you, Takaba, I’d change into something actually resembling clothing and seek my revenge immediately. You’re running out of time if you want to finish Sudou off before the final tulip ceremony. If you don’t do it, surely he will, and soon. Do you have another auto-injector for your allergy?”

“No,” Takaba said warily. “Why?”

“Aim for his jugular, and everything will be over quickly. Perhaps he won’t even die. For someone like him, some sort of disfiguration would surely be just as effective a punishment as anything more…” Fei Long smirked. “…Permanent.”

“I’m not going to — I’m not a murderer!” Takaba spluttered. “How could you think that I’d…like maiming him is some sort of option.”

Fei Long sighed, the expensive fabric of his cream trousers drawing briefly taut over his toned thighs as he crossed his legs and leant back in his chair. Takaba swallowed and looked away, but that only made his eyes land on the V of bare skin left exposed by the man’s scandalously low-cut, lavender shirt. Seriously, for all that Fei Long was advising Takaba to go haring off and start stabbing people with his freaking EpiPen, the man himself looked completely relaxed. Sinfully relaxed. Almost…vacation-y.

“A tender heart never got anyone what they wanted, Takaba.”

“Yeah, well I’d have to have a tender brain to think attacking someone like Sudou Shuu would turn out well for me. The guy has a reserve army of millions of fangirls at his beck and call. He could just tweet my home address and I’d be dead within a day!”

“And you like to imagine yourself friendless and alone, don’t you?” Fei Long’s voice took on a bitter edge. “The better to feel sorry for yourself. Pitiful Takaba, everyone’s so cruel to him.”

What the hell do you know? Takaba wanted to snipe back. Liu Fei Long was rich, powerful, and had — well, he had that face. And hair so shiny it could probably reflect more light than the surface of the sun. But most importantly, he had people like Tao on his side, people who’d defend him to the death. And, as Takaba sadly knew from more than one close shave, people who’d willingly cause other people’s deaths if so much as the man’s name was defamed. And Fei Long seriously thought he was the underdog in this competition?

“What are you doing here?” Fei Long raised one pencil-thin brow, but Takaba wasn’t putting up with it. “Don’t look at me like that. You didn’t just come here to tell me I should kill Sudou.” Takaba’s eyes fell on the gift box, still lying between them on the table and looking, if it were possible, even more ominous for its twee wrapping. Please don’t tell me there’s a grenade in there. “Did you?”

Fei Long clasped his hands together in his lap, the whites of his knuckles belying his casual tone when he said, “I’ve come to inform you that I’m planning to withdraw from this competition. Effective immediately.”

“You’re — ” Takaba choked. Surely he’d misheard? Surely — “What?

“The truth is,” Fei Long continued, still in that eerily light tone, “I have too much self-respect to continue pursuing someone who —  does not return my interest. And while my participation in this program hasn’t been an entire waste of time given the publicity for my brand, recent events have made this decision unavoidable. So you see: I will reject Confirmed Bachelor, before he can reject me.”

The words…they sounded rehearsed, like Fei Long had put them together carefully in his head and then siphoned all the emotion out before they left his lips. But he had to be covering. From the very beginning, Fei Long had fought harder than almost any other contestant for Asami’s attention, and more honourably than Sudou ever had. Definitely more earnestly than Takaba had. It was obvious Fei Long and Asami had some sort of connection, so to just up and leave like this out of nowhere? Even if it was to save his pride…it didn’t make any sense!

“Recent events? I don’t understand.”

Fei Long’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t play dumb with me, Takaba. I’m doing you a favour. One that you’re making me regret with every passing moment.”

“Hey!” Takaba broke off when he caught the tightening of the other man’s mouth, the barely-concealed taint of pain in his eyes. He suddenly looked as though one poke would shatter the desperate armour he’d pulled around himself. “I’m not making fun of you,” he said quietly. “I just…you’re the best, the most worthy contestant on this show, Liu-san. Everyone knows that. I’m just shocked. Why are you quitting now, right before the end?”

“Because I will lose.”

“You can’t know that,” Takaba insisted, too caught off guard by Fei Long’s announcement to question how wise it was, trying to talk one of his rivals out of quitting the show of his own free will. “Who the heck knows what’s going through Asami’s head? Seriously, he’s more likely to give the final tulip to himself than he is to reject you.”

Actually, now that the possibility had dawned on Takaba, it made a scary kind of sense: Asami clearly idolised himself, so why not decide all the contestants were ultimately unworthy of him? He could just picture it now, Asami plucking the flower from its bowl and pinning it to his lapel, announcing, I choose me! Fufufu.

“Yes, well, not all of us had the luxury of being unconscious,” Fei Long snapped. Something Takaba had said must have mollified him, though, because he unclenched his hands and adopted a more relaxed pose — one that didn’t seem to indicate he was dangerously close to launching himself across the table and strangling Takaba.

“I was dy — ”

“And I was there. Had just finished performing for that passel of ingrate schoolchildren, in fact, only to descend the stage and find Asami storming out of the change room, slamming open every door in the hall until he found the one that was locked. I don’t know what possessed him, what made him so certain it was you behind it…Or even how he knew you were in peril, when the conclusion I would have drawn was that you were simply hiding from your responsibilities. In any case, he kicked the door down, until the wood cracked open and let him through.”

“H-he did?” Takaba squeaked.

A muscle ticked in Fei Long’s jaw, but he went on, as blandly as if he were relating the plot of a movie he’d seen years ago — one hadn’t cared for. “He was already kneeling over you when I arrived. It was soon obvious that no one could revive you by conventional means. Asami then asked after the whereabouts of your auto-injector. I suppose the obvious absence of life-saving medication is one advantage of being all but naked at your moment of death.”

Takaba couldn’t help but rankle at Fei Long’s tone, painfully banal even when he was describing Takaba’s near-demise to his face. “I had to leave it in the change room, all right? Producers’ orders.”

“Well, lucky for you then that Sudou happened to come in at that very moment with your missing auto-injector. He has a preternatural sense of timing, doesn’t he?”

Takaba couldn’t even dredge up a snort at that. He stared at his lap, all too easily imagining the act Sudou had put on as he swept in to ‘save’ Takaba. No wonder everyone thought the sun shone out of his arse. “How much of that did they get on camera?”

“Oh, all of it,” Fei Long said, raising a hand to examine his manicure — an affectation, because Takaba was pretty sure people like him had innately perfect (if not quite so pointy) nails. “Even so, they were planning to continue with the talent show. How, I don’t know. Propping you up with a hand-cart and finding a ventriloquist, perhaps. In any case, Asami managed to convince them that the footage they had of you gasping your last breaths was more than enough to fill an episode.”

His Though not soon enough to save me from having to perform for those snotty brats went unspoken. “Okay, but.” Takaba bit his lip. “Why are you telling me this? Isn’t it more your style to…” don’t say flounce, don’t say flounce “…leave secretly, without anyone knowing until it was too late to stop you?” Well, either that or make a dramatic exit in front of the cameras, metaphorical middle finger at full mast.

Fei Long leant forward and tapped the box sharply with his index claw. “I came to give you this.” Takaba mustn’t have done a very good job of hiding his shudder, because the other man huffed, and said, “It’s not for you, Takaba, it’s for the stylist tomorrow. Exclusive products from my self-titled collection of beauty essentials.” Takaba resisted the impulse to snap a hand over the proximate location of the Zit that Wouldn’t Quit the moment Fei Long’s eyes dropped to his chin. “She’s going to need it.”

“Since when do you have your own makeup line?”

“Since I decided I have suffered under the oppression of White Snake and the unreasonable demands of my family long enough. In that regard, this television show was a worthwhile endeavour. My face will now be recognisable to a broader audience in time for the premiere of my own show in the new year. The ink’s fresh on the contract, but it’s never too early to start recruitment. In fact,” he tapped his chin, “I can invite you on as my first guest, Takaba-kun. It will, after all, have a focus on the miraculous makeovers of everyday Japanese citizens — especially those with all the allure of a wizened kappa.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Your hair, for example,” Fei Long said, reaching across the coffee table in a flash of movement that had a strand of Takaba’s bangs caught between his fingers before Takaba could even react. “Coarse, no lustre. Poorly cut. Have you ever considered dyeing it? I can picture you as a red-head. Come on my show and I’ll do it pro bono. Consider it a public service.”

“I have a strict dress code at work, you know.” He slapped Fei Long’s hand away. “And anyway, since when have you had time to sign a contract for a new TV show? Unless — unless that man with the beauty spot? The one you beat up on your date with Asami?” Fei Long’s eyes narrowed into slits. “Uh, I mean, that’s just the rumour I heard. Is he your agent or something?”

“No. He was…an envoy, from my family. Suffice it to say they were displeased when they heard that I was on the cusp of striking out on my own.” He smiled, but it was such a bitter, complicated twist of his features that Takaba decided, for once, to resist his curiosity and keep his trap shut.

The silence stretched between them. Takaba shifted in the chair, wondering how long Fei Long was planning to stay. Had he already booked a flight back to Tokyo? Or would he have to go to Hong Kong first, smooth things over with his no doubt equally terrifying family? If that’s why he was camped out in Asami’s room, frowning out the window, then Takaba could empathise.

“Uh…” Takaba said, ten minutes later when he couldn’t take the awkward quiet a second longer. “So. Good luck with your new show, I guess. I don’t watch much TV, but I’ll try to catch it when it comes on.” He managed a half-hearted grin. “I’m sure it’ll be great.”

Takaba’s voice seemed to finally snap Fei Long out of his reverie. Without replying, he stood and brushed his clothes down, smoothing out imaginary creases. And with it, the flashes of vulnerability Takaba had glimpsed, until the man that stood before him looked as aloof and unapproachable as an ice berg. “I’ll be going then.”

Takaba hurried to stand as well. “Thanks for the present.”

“I already said it wasn’t for you,” Fei Long glared. Things were back to usual, then. “It’s for the stylist — heavens help her. Don’t you dare open the box before tomorrow. I’ll know if you do.”

“But — ”

“And I’ll tell you right now that I expect you to get through the final tulip ceremony alive, Takaba. If I discover that Sudou has polished you off and my sacrifice has been in vain, mark my words: there will be a reckoning between us.”

Takaba gulped, momentarily too distracted trying to figure out how Fei Long was planning to take revenge on Takaba if Sudou had already bumped him off to realise the other man was already crossing the room.

“Wait!”

Fei Long turned at the door and raised an eyebrow.

Shit. “Uh. Goodbye, Liu-san. Thanks, for…” Sharing information? Not trying to decapitate me with a roundhouse kick? “You know.”

The sharp pinch of the man’s lips said that the only thing he knew for certain was that Takaba was an idiot. “Farewell.” He pressed a button to disengage the lock and pulled the door open, slipping out into the hallway.

Takaba released a long breath, staring down at the carpet. He almost jumped a foot in the air when Fei Long suddenly stuck his head back into the room, delivering the parting volley that he really should have seen coming. “Oh, I didn’t mention: a man from Tokyo has been calling the producers all day, trying to get through to you, Takaba-kun. You should ring him back.”

A man? “Do you know who — ”

The door slammed shut. Fei Long was gone. “Goddamnit.” Takaba kicked the coffee table. “I don’t even have a phone!”

The only reply was the beep of the lock re-engaging.

 

***

 

In the end, the armchair was right behind him, and it was too easy to simply fall back into it. Takaba couldn’t even pretend to himself that it was because of relief, or the exhausted kind of gratitude everyone seemed to think he should be feeling. Sure, Fei Long had forfeited the competition and left the road to the finish line a little less crowded. But even coming from an enemy, Takaba couldn’t accept the man’s unshakeable belief that Asami was going to choose him over Sudou.

The result, everything, was out of his control. The only thing left that was in Takaba’s control was the decision to leave the competition as well. After all, Confirmed Bachelor was in the business of pleasing its audience and advertisers, and there was never any question which contestant was the favourite to win. Had always been the favourite. Especially now, when Takaba supposedly owed the cheating little prick his life.

Him and Asami.

“Asami,” Takaba murmured, then clamped his lower lip between his teeth when he realised he’d done more than just think the bastard’s name. He staunchly ignored the temptation to visualise Fei Long’s description of the lawyer’s rescue, no matter how vividly he could imagine him kicking down that door, crouching over him, cradling his face and stabbing the EpiPen into his thigh…

Takaba was glad when the doorbell rang. Well, when it had rung three times and was finally accompanied by a banging fist. “Hold your horses,” Takaba muttered. Seriously, how was he supposed to have known his room had a freaking doorbell when all his other ‘guests’ had either knocked first or straight up let themselves in?

It was Suoh. “Oh,” Takaba said, gripping the doorframe. “You’re still in Taiwan.”

“Compliments of Asami-sama,” the giant husked, trying to shove a covered, silver tray through the narrow gap. His tone said that the message he really wanted to deliver was How I wish I could squash you under my toboggan-sized loafers. But what else was new?

“Thanks,” Takaba said, wincing as he took the tray and it burned his hands. Still, he wasn’t going to turn down a piping hot meal, especially when he didn’t have to pay for it. He wouldn’t have to pay for room service, right? Not when it was sent to his — Asami’s — room by someone else? “Uh, do you know who’s paying for — hey!”

Asami’s bodyguard had slammed the door. In his face. This was not a pattern he was growing to like.

“Arsehole,” Takaba said, gripping the tray more firmly and taking it over to the desk. He returned the chair Fei Long had been using to its proper place and sat down. He lifted off the domed cover, all but salivating as an unfamiliar but divine combination of scents rose up to envelope his face. Takaba’s stomach, shy since its run-in with the spiked punch, gave a gurgle of interest. “I know,” Takaba smiled, patting it. “Looks like you’re not broken after all.”

He’d demolished the ramekin of baked eggs and was already making impressive inroads into the spinach and cheese filo when he suddenly noticed that the tray contained more than just food. On its own little platter, tucked under the lip of the salad bowl, was a new EpiPen. Takaba grabbed it up, hands beginning to shake for some reason, and felt — blank. Then he saw the note that had been under it.

Be prepared, the little handwritten card said. That was it. It was signed at the bottom with the English letters R.A., and it took Takaba longer than he’d like to admit before he realised that those were Asami’s English initials.

He huffed, dropping the card and injector onto the desk beside the tray. The remainder of the food was still steaming away, but Takaba’s appetite had fled as stealthily as it had come. Still, he forced himself to pick at the meal, not knowing whether anything would be sent up for dinner. What time was it, anyway?

There was a silver laptop on the desk in front of him, plugged in with its lid closed. Takaba lifted its screen one-handed, on a whim, and almost laughed when it came on and prompted for a password. The bastard had left his personal laptop turned on in a room that so many people had access to? Given how many clandestine lawyerly documents were probably on it, it seemed like an uncharacteristic risk.

“Probably thinks his password is uncrackable,” Takaba snorted, shoving the dinner tray to the side and pulling the laptop towards him. Painstakingly, he typed in ilovewaistcoats, and pressed enter. The window jiggled at him, flashing red in warning.

“Fine.” Thinking for a moment, he tried lawb4whores. No luck.

For the next fifteen minutes, Takaba tried every password that occurred to him, surprised when the computer never made any attempt to lock him out. By the time he’d taken to repeatedly typing 69696969 in, he had to admit defeat. He slid the chair back and looked over at the bed, its downy duvet rumpled invitingly. It had to be late afternoon by now. Surely it wasn’t too early for another nap? He could decide what he was going to do when he woke up.

On his way to the bed he passed by the coffee table, catching sight of the box Fei Long had left behind. The one for his ‘stylist’. And yet the man had left it in Takaba’s possession overnight, forbidding him from opening it and claiming that he’d know if Takaba tried. What was it, rigged with a localised security system? Would an alarm go off somewhere if he so much as fingered its sparkly bow?

Or maybe it’s a bomb, Takaba’s inner paranoia whispered. That’s why he left it in here and said I couldn’t look. There’s no proof he’s even left the competition! It could all be a ruse to make me lower my guard. There could be a timer inside, ticking down right now…

Before he’d even thought about it, Takaba lurched forward and tore the lid off the box, sending the ribbon and bow flying off into a corner. The breath caught in his throat when he saw a slim, buttonless black rectangle. The bomb. And below that — a matching collection of coloured bottles and squares wrapped in floral paper.

The scent of vanilla entered his nostrils.

“It’s a phone, you moron.” Takaba released a shaky breath and picking up the tablet-style cell phone. He found the power button on its side and watched the screen flash on. 3.24pm. 97% charged, with three bars of reception for a carrier called Chunghwa Telecom. And a notification for an SMS…from Fei Long.

“Son of a…” Takaba swiped the lockscreen away, grateful that this, at least, didn’t require a passcode. He opened the phone’s messaging app, saw a couple texts in a dense block of Chinese characters. Nothing that made sense to him. He opened the most recent one, the one from Fei Long. I knew you’d open the box, the message read. Pity you never learned to channel that rebellious streak into something more useful. Takaba gritted his teeth, not sure whether to be more annoyed at its self-satisfied tone or the fact that Fei Long had called his bluff.

He could reply later. Right now, predictably obnoxious behaviour aside, Fei Long had left a functioning phone in his hand, and Takaba wasn’t going to waste time when one of the crew could come in at any second and claim it as contraband.

Back on the phone’s home screen, Takaba searched through the apps, almost disappointed when he didn’t find anything but the default ones. Except — that was the icon for Skype, wasn’t it? He tapped on the client, curious to see if Fei Long had forgotten to scrub out some of his contacts before he’s passed the phone along. Though the text message seemed to indicate the man had another working cell, anyway.

Rich jerk, Takaba sulked, watching as Skype automatically logged in to an account with the username Taka_chan. Taka…was that supposed to be him!? The account’s icon was a blurry shot of his face that someone must have taken in the hotel’s dining room: he was bent over a bowl of something, looking morose even despite the picture’s blurriness. So Fei Long, possibly brain damaged after his throw down with Mr Beauty Spot, had decided to open a brand new Skype account for him.

“Gee, thanks.” He thumbed over the contacts tab, finding only two. The first one was called Tao1995, and Takaba’s heart leapt, almost blindsided by the wave of happy surprise he felt at the idea of talking to Fei Long’s devil of a protégé again. Maybe they could catch up when he got back to Tokyo…

The only other contact had the screen name Skyprince_Takato, and an icon of a model aeroplane.

“Oh my god,” Takaba breathed, hardly believing his eyes. “How…”

Before Takaba could even begin to figure out how Fei Long had gotten hold of his best friend and flatmate’s Skype ID, the app’s screen changed and the phone began vibrating and ringing in his hand. Too late, Takaba realised his status was listed as ‘online’ — there for anyone to see.

Takato was trying to call him.

 

Chapter Text

Takaba’s finger trembled above the call button. There was an ache inside him, urging him to answer so he could see Takato’s face again. But he also felt rattled enough by the last few days that he was afraid the sudden intrusion of someone from his old life would be more than he could handle. As ridiculous as it was to make that kind of distinction; it had only been a month. Or a little over. Enough time, anyway, to make it feel like everything had changed. What if Takato noticed?

Stop overthinking everything.

He jammed the button on the phone to answer the call. For a moment the screen turned blue, then green, then a mass of grey pixels resolved into Takato’s face. His blond hair was brushed back from his forehead and the collar of his steward’s uniform peeked from the bottom of the frame. It took Takaba a second to recognise the overpoweringly teal upholstery behind Takato as belonging to the couches in Headline Airlines’ staff lounge.

“Thank fuck,” said Takato’s tinny voice. He brought his own phone close to his face, as if jamming his eye against the lens would grant him a 360º view of Takaba’s room.

Takaba blinked back at him, wondering why the little window with his own face in the corner kept juddering. Oh right, his hands. Still shaking with adrenaline, as if he weren’t just talking to his lifelong best friend, the one who could yell at him whenever he did something impulsive and dangerous — only to stop as soon as Takaba turned on his well-practised lip-wobble, tearfully begging for forgiveness. He wondered if that would still work when they were separated by an ocean. 

“Hey.”

There was a lag in the video as Takato’s eyebrows steadily climbed up his forehead. “Seriously, Aki? ‘Hey’ is all I get after I spend all day trying to track you down? I called every number I could find online, and let me just say, you’re going to be chipping my emperor’s ransom’s worth of international phone bills.”

Considering Takaba’s bank account was currently on its way down Highway Abyss, destination: Oblivion, Takato clearly hadn’t checked to see if Takaba’s half of the rent had been drawn out of his bank account. 

“Yeah, okay, but why’re you even calling?” He shuffled backwards on the bed and pushing his legs up until his backside hit the small mountain of pillows against the headboard.  A warm pocket of happiness opened in his chest as a thought struck him. “Missed my face, didn’ cha?”

“Oh yeah, I had to remind myself what you looked like, what with all the humiliating TV screencaps of you everyone keeps printing out at work. Not to mention the gifs. And imagine when the show actually starts airing…” Takato glanced to the side, craning his neck to see something on the other side of the room. “Actually, the bulletin board’s over there, I can show you the Takaba meme wall right now — ”

“Please don’t.”

“Seriously, Aki,” Takato sighed. Takaba suspected that if the phone’s resolution was better he’d see his friend’s face scrunched up into a spiderweb of frustration. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” Just a puff of breath. But even as he exhaled, something hard rose up in Takaba’s throat. Don’t fucking cry. It had been too long since anyone had asked him that question and actually cared to hear the answer. “‘Course I am. Why would you think I wasn’t?”

“There were rumours that one of Confirmed Bachelor’s contestants had died or was in critical condition after an accident. There was nothing on the show’s website, so I called the TV station. They denied everything, so I called the production company, but they just stonewalled me. I was ringing around for more than an hour and getting nothing, so I…” he trailed off into an uncomfortable silences. “You know.”

Takaba knew. But an accident? Could information about his anaphylactic shock have already made it online? Not that it wouldn’t eventually, when footage of him laid out in the store room was going to replace the cancelled talent show. But everything was supposed to be kept under wraps — he’d had the wrist strain after signing those volumes of confidentiality agreements and non-disclosures to prove it.

Did Confirmed Bachelor have a mole?

“I was about to do something drastic,” Takato went on, falling back against the lounge, “when suddenly I get a call from a foreign guy called Liu Fei Long. Apparently he’s a contestant on the show with you?”

Takaba felt his eyes widen. “Uh…” Well, that explained why Takato was one of the contacts programmed into this phone. Though it was still anyone’s guess how or why Fei Long had intercepted his friend’s call to the crew. And then decided to ring him back?

“Really nice guy,” Takato went on, as if saying so wasn’t the most implausible thing Takaba had ever heard. “He told me there’d been a minor incident yesterday during one of your challenges or something, and now you were resting back at the hotel. So.”

Takaba swallowed. “So?”

“Now that you can’t weasel out of my questions and pretend nothing is going on, I’m going to repeat: are you okay? For real this time?”

“Takato,” Takaba moaned, wishing he had the nerve to hide under his pillow pile until Takato stopped looking at him like he was ready to reach through the screen and force-hold Takaba’s mouth opened until he spilled his guts. “It’s complicated.”

“Yeah, it’s you, so that’s a given.” Takato rolled his eyes. “Look, if you tell me what happened, no one will hear it from me, all right? My lips are sealed. As sealed as they were when I made the mistake of agreeing to be your guinea pig the first time you made nougat.”

Takaba couldn’t help his snort of laughter at the memory. Damn him and his ability to weaponise nostalgia like that. Never mind the genuine worry in his voice, the kind that dredged up enough guilt that Takaba’s conscience wouldn’t let him lie. Sanitising the truth, though? He could probably get away with that. 

“So I may have kind of gone into a bit of anaphylactic shock yesterday — ”

“What? But you’re always so careful — ”

“It was in a drink at a party all the contestants had to go to, but I didn’t realise what was happening until the reaction was, uh, not-good.” Until it was almost too late, he managed not to add. 

Unfortunately, Takato’s sour expression made it clear he found Takaba’s explanation less than convincing. “Okay. Now tell me the rest.”

 

***

 

Takaba caved in the end, of course. He told Takato about the talent show, the stolen can of tomato juice, having to swap performances, and Sudou Shuu isolating him in the prop room. Locking him inside, alone, without his EpiPen. The only thing Takaba neglected to mention was that it was Asami who’d rescued him. He knew as soon as he breathed a word of that little detail, his overactive imagination would supply the rest. 

…Such as the lawyer throwing off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves to bust the door open, falling to his knees (careless of the filthy floor) beside Takaba’s prone form to check his airway, turning to their unwelcome audience of crew and cameras and demanding to know where his EpiPen was in that deep, arresting voice — 

Takato broke into his fantasy with a pointed cough. “What are you going to do now?” 

Leave. The word burned on Takaba’s tongue. He was going to, he had to quit Confirmed Bachelor. He couldn’t admit it aloud at the moment, but he was afraid of what would happen if he stayed. Right now, Sudou was somewhere in the hotel, planning his next desperate ploy to cut him from the competition — and life altogether. Surely if Takaba left now, he wouldn’t follow. (Best not to think of how Fei Long would react to his departure. Him and his bottle of Liu Deluxe Bleach.)

He scrubbed a hand across his face. “I don’t think I can keep this up much longer.”

Takato opened his mouth to reply when the image suddenly jerked, like someone had grabbed his phone and yanked it away. There were a few crackling seconds where the screen was nothing but a mass of black and flesh-coloured pixels. It cleared to reveal a middle-aged woman, grey-flecked hair pinned neatly back from her face. Her cherry-coloured lips were set in a thin line.

Okaasan?” Takaba spluttered. “What are you — why are you in the Headlines staff lounge!”

“Have you forgotten our airlines share a parent company, Akihito?” his mother said, stiffly. Uh-oh. “Or that it’s my job as your mother to watch over your welfare? Even when you choose to compete in overseas reality television programmes and almost get yourself murdered ” 

“You promised not to tell, Takato!” he yelled into the phone’s speaker, knowing his friend couldn’t be sitting more than an arm’s length away if his mother had heard, well, everything. Shit on a stick.

“I only promised not to tell anyone,” came Takato’s voice, offscreen. “I can’t help it if you go blabbing within your mum’s earshot, can I?”

“Traitor,” Takaba seethed. 

“Don’t blame Takato-kun for your own indiscretion,” his mother said, drawing a veil of prim disapproval around her, the one that had taken most of his childhood to realise was only used when her emotions threatened to overwhelm her. “He was right to bring this to my attention.”

Takaba almost winced at the pang of guilt that instantly bloomed in his chest. No matter the damage sustained to their relationship over the years, it couldn’t be easy for her to hear that her only child had almost died.

“I’m fine, truly.” As you can see, he almost added, then thought better of it when he remembered that he currently looked no better than warmed-over roadkill. In a nightgown that wouldn’t look out of place in Casper the Friendly Ghost’s wardrobe. “Don’t believe everything you read online.”

Half of Takato’s head popped into frame again. “But what are you going to do now?” 

“Get even,” his mother said, before Takaba could even open his mouth. “I’m sure there are some stairs that boy, the singer, can trip down. Accidentally.”

The sliver of Takato’s cheek Takaba could see bobbed up and down. “Or an unfortunate hotel room fire?”

“Too easy for the local authorities to find evidence of arson. Perhaps a carbon monoxide leak could be arranged. What’s the ventilation like in this hotel?”

Okaasan,” Takaba moaned, looking up at the ceiling as if the moulded plaster could send him aid. Aid, against all the people in his life suddenly advocating his participation in homicide. “Murder is not an option, okay?”

Takato laughed, an ugly bark that didn’t suit him at all. “Why not, Aki? Get him before he gets you!”

“The son I know never backs down from a fight,” his mother added quietly.

And right there, Takaba’s mother sealed his fate. He could never quit Confirmed Bachelor now. Not when the last morsels of her respect for him were at stake.

 

***

 

By the time he finally got off the phone, Takato had weaselled out the bare bones story of Asami’s “heroic” rescue, and his mother had all but swooned at every scant detail (before sternly reminding Takaba of his duty to ‘win’ Asami, if only for her sake). Which would have been bad enough, but then Takato had the gall to ask Takaba how far he and the lawyer had “gone” in the Ecstasy Suite. Apparently, Yoshida had a pool going at work. Takaba not-so-accidentally pressed the end call button shortly after that, though not before promising to text them both again soon. 

When he knew what the hell he was going to do now.

He felt too keyed up to take another nap, so he shuffled his way over to the desk and picked at the remainder of the food tray. Something inside him balked on a primal level at the idea of offing someone — even someone as richly deserving of a swift downfall as Sudou Shuu. But at this point, not taking action felt just as wrong. 

As much as it burned to hear her say it, his mother was right: the Takaba of only a few weeks ago would never have rolled over and just taken whatever shit was handed out to him. He may have grown out of the selfish recklessness of his youth, but he was still the same person at his core. And Takaba’s gut was telling him now that he couldn’t spend another moment drifting around this room, tensing at every sound behind the door, just waiting for the enemy to make his next move. No, it was time to take the fight to Sudou. 

He plucked up the card Asami had sent along with the food. Be prepared. That, and the new EpiPen. But that was just a shield, and he was long past the point where it was enough to simply defend himself. 

“Why wait to finish things tomorrow, Asami?” Takaba murmured, dropping the card and pushing his chair back. He should toss the room in search of a weapon — Asami seemed like the type to plan for every eventuality. For a crazy second Takaba’s gaze fell on the fruit bowl and he imagined himself grabbing the pineapple, swinging it around by the stem and braining Sudou in a spectacular explosion of blood and fruit juice. See how much of the dirt he’d dug up on Takaba he could remember then.

“Fruit,” Takaba snorted, moving away from the desk and over to Asami’s luggage beside the wardrobe. “He’ll be so intimidated.”

The larger suitcase was padlocked with a five-digit code, and would probably have been too heavy for Takaba to lift single-handedly if he hadn’t spent what felt like half his life helping idiots who’d bought too much duty free junk shove their luggage into overhead compartments. When he shook it though, it sounded like Asami hadn’t packed anything but papers. Really heavy, doubtlessly boring corporate law papers.

He moved on to the wardrobe, rifling through Italian leather shoes and plastic garment bags full of neatly pressed suits. Apparently Asami kept all his loose things in the pockets of his waistcoats: Takaba found change, a lighter and more handkerchiefs than he realised one person could reasonably own. Probably enough to tie together and lower himself out the hotel window, if it came to that.

At first glance the bathroom was a bust as well. Nothing but a manchester department’s worth of fluffy towels and onsen-style bathrobes. Nothing of Asami’s at all, not even the wooden comb, carved as it was with the hotel insignia. This suite was definitely more expensive than the one he’d been sharing with Fei Long, where they’d had to contend with plastic combs and plastic tubes of chemical-smelling shampoo — nothing like the crystalline glass bottles arrayed on the counter here. Takaba uncapped a bottle and took a whiff. Mint and…cucumber? He put it back to try later.

Takaba found a shaving kit in a drawer beneath the vanity unit and that funhouse mirror he resolutely refused to look at. And not a modern one, either. There was a brush, cream, a leather strop — and a straight razor. The last Takaba picked up carefully, holding it up to the light and examining it. He pressed the blade gently against the tip of his index finger and hissed as the skin split. 

“Ow.” He stuck the finger in his mouth before the blood could well up to the surface. At least it wasn’t blunt. And most definitely sharp enough to stick in Sudou’s neck. 

He closed the razor and found its sleeve, gripping it inside his fist. It was only after he left the bathroom and made his way to the hallway door with its bamboozling electronic lock that Takaba remembered that he might not be alone. Suoh could be out there, guarding Asami’s possessions from thieves or whatever it was he did all day while standing around and looking menacingly blank. And if the twin shadows shooting out from beneath the door and onto the carpet were anything to go by, he’d returned to his post since Fei Long had left.

Well, crap. Between his gaze alighting on the razor and imagining himself slipping cleanly out of the room, at no point had he considered the possibility of a human-shaped roadblock standing quite literally between him and vengeance. There was nothing for it now, though. He jammed the button to disengage the lock, the door swinging open onto solid darkness. 

The darkness moved immediately, hectares of black fabric rippling over his back as Suoh turned around and stared at Takaba, hesitating on the threshold. The man’s face didn’t so much as twitch. Takaba swallowed. Asami’s bodyguard didn’t need expressions when his silence was more than enough to remind Takaba of his place on the totem pole (namely: the rung between earwig and cockroach).

“Uh…I don’t feel well.” Takaba coughed into his fist, eyes darting up to see Suoh’s reaction. Of course, there was none. “Maybe I should see a doctor. Can you get someone to come up here?”

In lieu of a reply, Suoh raised one meaty paw and shoved it into the pocket of his suit, extracting a cell phone. Oh no. No no no. Suoh wasn’t supposed to call someone, he was supposed to leave his post and go downstairs to consult whoever he had to consult! Goddamn modern technology.

“Wait!” Suoh froze, his sausage-thumb hovering over the keypad. “Shouldn’t you…I mean, I’m sure they’re more likely to take you seriously if you go down in person, you know?”

Suoh jammed a button on the phone and raised it to his ear. Takaba didn’t think — he just lunged, slapping the cell out of Suoh’s hand. The handset went flying, smacking with a crunch of plastic into the opposite wall before bouncing off again. It skittered across the carpet and came to a stop several metres away.

Takaba darted a look up at Suoh. Those were not the bulging eyeball veins of a calm and collected person, no they were not. He ran. 

It was only as he was pounding down the hallway, razor gripped in one hand and the other clenched in the fabric of his nightgown to hold it up, that Takaba realised he had no idea which floor he was on. Or where he was going. Or how in hell he was going to outrun a trained security profession with legs as long as palm tress.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

Takaba hid behind a potted ficus until his legs went numb.

Suoh had pounded past him only seconds after he’d dived behind the stand of plants, the guard’s head oscillating madly from side to side as he searched the hallway. He must have decided that Takaba had sprouted wings and flown away, though, because a minute later he heard the ding of the elevator and the squeak of cables struggling under Suoh’s weight as the bodyguard climbed aboard. But was he continuing the search for Takaba, or alerting Asami? Or, worst case scenario--both.

He didn’t know how high up they were, but the hazy vista he’d seen through the room’s window suggested this was one of the hotel’s top floors. So: down. And quickly, if he wanted to find Sudou before the producers and everybody else noticed Takaba was no longer being all obediently cowed and bedridden.

It took a minute to find the emergency stairs, a dank cement stairwell poorly illuminated by bare lightbulbs screwed to the walls. He made his way down slowly, wincing at the rough cement scraping the bare soles of his feet. He really had to start planning his grand escapes from captivity better. Or at least so that he wasn’t dressed in nothing but a floaty white nightgown, damn it.

Five floors down he left the stairwell and crept towards the door that led to the room Sudou was sharing with Sakazaki. There was no one else in the corridor but a maid, bent over while she cleaned the rubbery leaves of a bromeliad with quick little swipes of her feather duster. Takaba slid the razor into the nightgown’s breast pocket and raised his fist to rap on the door.

There was no guarantee Sudou was even inside, of course. In fact, shouldn’t Takaba really be trying to gain the element of surprise here? Simply standing outside the range of the peephole wouldn’t cut it. He glanced at the next door down, the one leading into his and Fei Long’s ex-bedroom. There was an internal door between the two rooms, he remembered. And thanks to Sakazaki’s annoying habit of “popping in” uninvited to primp in their bathroom mirror, the door was usually unlocked. He could sneak into Sudou’s room, and if the singer hadn’t returned from the gym or the spa or wherever the hell it was he spent his time, then Takaba could lie in wait. And if he was inside…

Well. Takaba was going to bring Sudou the showdown he’d been begging for from the very start.

Fate seemed to agree: when Takaba leaned down on the handle, the door to his old room swung open soundlessly. He felt a spike of alarm, but that dissipated as he stepped inside and found the space steeped in gloom. Even without the aid of artificial light (don’t turn them on, not even a lamp, what if Sudou notices?) the room had been cleared out. Fei Long had left quickly then, taking his cargo yard’s worth of luggage with him. Taking — where the heck was Takaba’s stuff?

Never mind that now. He eased the door shut behind him with painstaking care until it clicked into place. Cut off from the light flooding in from the hallway, it was harder to navigate his way past the TV and the en suite, over to the internal door. The darkness had one advantage, though. He could discern a yellow band of light beneath the door to the adjoining room. Occupied. Takaba’s toes curled against the carpet as he crept forward, hunching slightly as he fit his ear against the wood.

He heard nothing for a long time, and then after a few minutes, only a faint rustling sound that could have been anything. Sudou pouring himself a drink from the minibar? Or turning the page of a newspaper—probably the lifestyle section, looking for paparazzi pictures of himself. Or maybe he was in bed, secretly curled around a giant tube of Pringles and trying not to eat too loudly?

As quietly as he could, Takaba reached into his pocket and extracted the razor. He wouldn’t knock. He’d count down from ten and throw the door open, walk straight in with guns blazing. Well, shaving implement blazing, but whatever. Sudou wouldn’t know what hit him.

Ten little elephants. Nine little elephants. Eight…

He was on four when he heard a voice behind the door. It was low, definitely male, but too indistinct to hear clearly. A moment later a higher, throatier voice responded—Sudou. Takaba’s heart kicked into high gear. So the little prick wasn’t alone in there after all. That complicated things. Takaba didn’t want to storm in there and confront someone who had nothing to do with their blood feud, especially if they happened to be someone who could break all the bones in his body with nothing but their bare hands and a nearby object…like the room service menu. Or a complimentary hotel body sponge. But how long could Takaba afford to wait for the mystery person to leave when Suoh and his axe murderer impression were still out there, right now, tracking him down? His old room wasn’t exactly an obscure hiding place, even if all his belongings had been spirited away to parts unknown. Shit.

“A-Asami-san, please!” Sudou whined behind the door.

…Asami?

Takaba lurched away like he’d been slapped, heart beating double time. Asami was in there with Sudou? But…what was he—

He was clutching the handle and flinging open the door before his brain could even process the idea. It banged into the wall and ricocheted back, smacking Takaba’s arm on the way back ‘round, the frame vibrating on its hinges. Takaba barely noticed. The room beyond was a smear of beige utilitarian lines as Takaba’s eyes raked across it. Desk, rumpled bed, bland artwork on the walls leading to the bay windows—there. Asami. Sitting on the far side of the room in an armchair, bathed in a pool of soft light from the lamp on the table by his elbow. Posture relaxed, fingers curled over the chair’s armrests.

Sudou on his knees, cradled in the vee of Asami’s open legs.

They both turned to look at Takaba as he stumbled into the room, but where Asami’s face was a dispassionate mask, Sudou looked blindsided—like someone had whacked him across the cheek with a truncheon. His wet cheeks, Takaba noted. Wet eyes, wet face, wet…lips. Wet, swollen lips.

Too late, Takaba realised exactly what he was seeing. A tangled mass of something burned its way up his throat as he opened his mouth to speak. Nothing but a choked breath came out. There was a pressure building inside his head, throbbing in time to the sick tattoo of his heartbeat.

Sudou grit his teeth and shuffled backwards on his knees, folding his fingers into the carpet as he prepared to stand.

“Don’t,” Takaba said, taking another step into the room. His hands trembled as they closed into fists. Sudou ignored him, straightening out of his crouch and backing away from Asami, still sprawled in that fucking armchair like a king. Sudou’s cheeks were chalk-white as he wiped his spit-slick lips with the back of his hand. Like he was mortified at being caught. What a farce. As if he wasn’t crowing inside that the timing was so perfect, that he could rub this in Takaba’s face!

“What are you doing here, Takaba?” Asami adjusted himself in the chair, covering the motion with the stack of paper files he was holding.

A laugh burst out of Takaba’s mouth. “Should’ve known.”

Sudou tensed, darting a look between him and Asami. Takaba could have called him out for pretending to be nervous now, of all the goddamn times—but really, who cared anymore? He’d thought the bone he had to pick was with Sudou, when all along the singer was no better than Takaba: strung along by the same manipulative piece of shit.

Said piece of shit cocked an eyebrow. “Should have known what, Takaba? Is this a habit of yours, breaking into other people’s rooms?”

“It is now, you bastard!”

In the ringing silence that followed, Takaba sucked in a breath. Tried to stitch the tatters of his self-control back together on the fly. But all he had to do was let his gaze get sucked back into Asami’s molten eyes, the man’s expression surprised and questioning, like butter wouldn’t fucking melt, and he lost it again.

This is what you do? I’m lying there in that fucking bed, terrified for my life, and you open your pants for him? Sudou’s the one who put me there, Asami! How can you…I can’t…” His voice petered out to a whisper. But of course, Asami had no idea. Like everyone else, he thought Sudou Shuu was a saint, and Takaba no better than an attention-seeking gnat. Why wouldn’t he take the opportunity when it presented itself? Like it had been the whole damn competition, god.

I’m such a fool.

He tried to swallow past the ache that was closing up his throat. A dart of panic went through him. What if he was having another anxiety attack? What if this was just the beginning of his lungs not working again?

Asami stood up in one fluid motion, tucking the folders under his arm and coming towards Takaba with a hand outstretched, palm cupped to land on his shoulder. “Calm down.”

“Get away from me!” Takaba slapped the hand away and staggered backwards, turning to get out through the door. His bare foot caught on the tasselled end of a floor rug and he tripped. He avoided falling only by virtue of Asami’s hand, snapping out to grab a handful of the nightshirt, pulling him back. He stepped in then, close, bracketing Takaba against the doorjamb with his body. No no no.

“Be calm, Takaba.” How dare he? How dare this traitorous slimeball tell Takaba what to do, ever? He wants that right, he should have kept it in his pants.

He slammed his hands into Asami’s chest. “Don’t touch me.” There, just behind him, the door. He turned, ducking under the arm Asami reached out to snare him again. He darted into the darkness of his old room without looking back, his hands shaking so much it took him too many precious seconds to shove the razor back in his pocket and grip the door handle.

Back in the hallway, Takaba stumbled past the rows of anonymous doors and blandly cheerful hotel art to the elevator, too furious and heartsick to care when the young couple just stepping off it gave him wide-eyed looks as he shouldered past them. Inside the lift, he pressed a floor button at random and sank back against the mirrored wall, trying to get his breathing under control. It didn’t matter where he was going, so long as it was away.

Takaba didn’t worry about being followed until a hand shot between the elevator doors a second before they closed.

Fingers curled around steel as Takaba watched, forcing the doors back until they juddered open again. Asami strolled into the elevator, casually straightening the cuffs of his shirt. He ducked the punch Takaba threw at his face.

“What’s gotten into you?” the lawyer growled, grabbing Takaba by the wrists before he could lash out again. His stoic mask of a face had finally cracked: fine lines of frustration were gathered between his brows, his jaw clenched until the skin was stretched across bone.

“Nothing at all.” Takaba watched helplessly over Asami’s shoulder as the elevator doors slid shut again. No escape now. “What could I possibly have to complain about? Especially when it turns out our beloved bachelor is just a scumbag who gets off on screwing over anyone who thinks they might have the slightest chance with him, when all he really wants is a hot mouth on—”

Asami slammed their lips together, hard enough that Takaba thought his teeth would crumble. It was dry, a rough pressure that Takaba felt thrumming all the way down to his toes, curling against the elevator’s sticky floor. Don’t yield, his mind screamed, even as his body trembled under the insistent pressure.

He turned his head sharply, breaking the connection between their mouths. “You think I hate myself that much?” he gasped. “That I’d give in to you, right after…” he pressed his lips together when he realised Asami wasn’t listening. The lawyer’s eyes had slid to a lazy half-mast, and that, coupled with the obstinate way his head was weaving closer again, back into kissing distance, reminded Takaba of a predator. A lion or a jaguar or something; content to play with its prey a little before mealtime.

The moment Takaba parted his lips to tell him to back off, that he wasn’t some captured prize, Asami struck. The man’s tongue speared inside his mouth, and for a moment Takaba had visions of his face ripped to bloody shreds, but then the kiss slowed and gentled. It felt oddly molten, a flush of heat that spread through Takaba’s core and raised gooseflesh on his arms, neck, thighs—and when had the nightgown ridden up like that? Never mind, didn’t matter. Stop thinking. He let his eyes fall closed, letting Asami guide the kiss, letting him wring every last morsel of thought from his brain until all that was left was sensation. No more thinking.

Asami pressed him back against the mirrored wall. It chilled his skin through the thin fabric, but when he tried to wriggle away Asami pinned his legs and pressed their hips together. Takaba gulped. Well. Either that was a cucumber in his pocket, or Asami was very, very happy to see him. He had pretty good stamina for someone who’d just been…serviced…he’d give the old bastard that.

But his pants are zipped up, Takaba’s hopelessly optimistic side whined, even as he submitted to having his neck mauled by Asami’s lips and teeth.

“A-ahh.”

So? Hissed another voice, one that wasn’t ready to roll over after what he’d just witnessed. He probably zipped himself back up when he came after you! He’s a lawyer, dumbass. He can multitask!

“S-shut up. Ah…ow!”

Asami had found the junction between his neck and shoulder, biting down until Takaba could vividly imagine his tendons snapping and fountains of blood geysering up to splatter against the low ceiling. “Jesus, what are you—are you a vampire now?”

The elevator suddenly dinged and pulled to a stop. Asami unclenched his jaw from Takaba’s neck, moving away to stand beside Takaba in one smooth, unruffled motion. He stared straight ahead, adjusting the sheaf of manila folders under his arm: a picture of respectability. Takaba, on the other hand, didn’t have the presence of mind to do more than gawk as the doors slid open to reveal a willowy woman in a maid’s uniform. She was pulling a trolley full of rolled towels and bathrobes behind her, but froze when she saw that the elevator was already occupied. Her gaze glided over Asami and landed on Takaba, eyes darting from the rucked up nightshirt to his neck, damp and mottled with hickeys.

Bu hao yisi—” she blurted.

Asami stepped forward, saying something in rapid-fire Chinese, his voice low and measured. Whatever he said must have reassured her, because a second later she was smiling and nodding, backing out of the elevator. Asami stepped forward and pressed the button to close the doors, turning to glance at Takaba and smirking slightly at the venomous look he got in return.

Complacency like that would be probably his downfall one day. He certainly didn’t see Takaba coming—not until the manila folders were wrenched out of his grip. And spraying their contents all over the floor when Takaba failed to keep them in hand. Shit.

He fell to his knees and hurriedly scooped up the papers and photos before Asami could reclaim them. “Ow!” he squawked when Asami grabbed his arm, tugging him back up at the same time Takaba tried to belly-plant on the floor to protect his discoveries. Even if they were all a blur of dense text and glossy black and white photographs of some random person in a crowd, they were important—to get away from Asami. He just knew it.

And suddenly the elevator was slowing, the same ding sounding as they reached another floor. “Let me go!” Takaba hissed, aware of how this would look to whichever poor stranger was waiting on the other side. Asami released his arm and Takaba rushed to pick up the last of the papers, stuffing them back into the folder just as the elevator doors slid open onto another brightly-lit hallway.

An expensively dressed middle-aged woman paused on the threshold, the toe of one shoe frozen in midair as she watched Asami lift Takaba off his knees by the scruff of the nightgown. “Excuse us,” the lawyer addressed her in Japanese.

The woman smiled tightly and stepped onto the elevator, clutching her purse to her abdomen and eyeing Takaba’s get-up.

“Which floor would you like?” Asami asked her solicitously, at the same time he tried to subtly tug the folders out of Takaba’s arms. Takaba just held them tighter, enjoying the man’s frustrated huff of breath as he shuffled out of reach. If there was one thing Takaba knew for certain, he wouldn’t make a scene.

“Five, please,” the woman said with a Kansai inflection. “Is there a costume party in the hotel today?”

“Not that I’m aware.” Asami reached across to the panel of buttons and pressed one.

“Thank you,” the woman said, smiling at Asami before averting her gaze politely—only to freeze, something catching her eye on the ground. Takaba tracked her gaze and felt his heart lurch when he saw the razor. The razor just lying there for all to see on the floor of the elevator. Glinting at him. Mockingly. It must have fallen out of his pocket when he dived for the documents.

Trying to ignore the sinking feeling in his chest, Takaba raised his eyes. Sure enough, Asami was staring straight at him over the woman’s head, eyes hooded and calculating. Takaba didn’t need to hear the sound of gears and cogs turning to know that the lawyer was putting it all together. Fuck.

The woman pointed at the razor. “Does that belong to either of you?”

“No,” Takaba blurted.

“I’m not in the habit of shaving in the elevator,” Asami said mildly. When the woman still looked concerned, he leaned down and swept the razor off the floor, tucking it into his shirt’s front pocket. “I’ll be sure to inform a member of staff that it was found here.”

“That’s a fine idea,” she nodded, the elevator slowing down as they reached her floor. She gave a little wave as she exited, though Takaba didn’t miss the way she darted one last appalled look in Takaba’s direction. Witch, Takaba sulked, wrapping his arms around himself—and the documents. All alone in the elevator.

Wait, I changed my mind, come back!, he almost called out as the doors slid shut again. Don’t leave me with him—he has a weapon now!

Asami waited just long enough for the elevator to start moving again before he pulled the emergency break. Takaba almost jumped out of his skin as a buzzer sounded overhead and everything jarred to a stop.

“So, Takaba,” Asami murmured, turning to face him and ignoring the choppy static of the emergency intercom buzzing to life.

“I have no idea where that came from, all right?”

“I do,” the lawyer replied, and the air around them suddenly felt about five degrees cooler. Takaba would have gulped, except a giant glob of anxiety had risen up to choke him. “And violence is not the solution to your problems.”

“He came into my room!” Takaba shouted. No point feigning innocence—they both knew who they were talking about here. “You weren’t there, okay? I know you think he’s sex reborn or something—”

Asami cocked an eyebrow.

“I needed to defend myself!”

“And if you’d actually used it?” Asami all but growled, closing the gap between them in one stride and towering over him with eyes that suddenly looked black. “There’s no ‘reset’ button for something like that.”

“If you knew, Asami, damn it, if you knew what he—”

“I know more than you think.”

“He wants to kill me,” Takaba’s voice cracked. “He almost did it at that school, and I…I couldn’t just hide in that room by myself! I had to do something.”

Asami gazed down at him, unblinking. After a moment, he said, “I’m taking care of it.”

Takaba snorted, thoughts laced with bitterness. “Yeah, funny, but it looked like he was taking care of you.”

“Memories can be false,” the lawyer said, which was vague bullshit if Takaba ever heard it. “Whatever you think you witnessed—”

“I know what I saw in there, Asami-san,” Takaba said, forcing a smile to his face and freezing it there by sheer force of will. “And the worst thing is…the worst thing is that I was surprised at all.” He glanced down at the papers in his arms, feeling like a moron for taking them in the first place. Who cared what was inside? Probably just more evidence that Asami had been banging Sudou from the start. That it had all been one great big joke on Takaba Akihito, no matter what Fei Long or anyone else said. They’d all been taken for fools.

“You can have these back,” Takaba sighed. He gathered the papers up in one hand and extended them to Asami. “Sorry.”

Rather than look relieved or satisfied or whatever he expected the other man to be feeling now that the tension had unspooled between them, Asami just looked…pissed. Mad, even, if the vein that was suddenly jumping in his temple was anything to go by. And that was all there was to go by, actually—if there was one thing Takaba could say he’d gained from this experience, it was the ability to read Asami Ryuichi’s microexpressions.

“…What?”

Without replying, Asami turned and jabbed the mute button on the intercom, instantly cutting off the operator on the other side who was trying to get through to them with increasingly desperate gobbledygook. 

“A-Asami?” Takaba’s eyes widened as Asami came towards him again, pushing aside the arm Takaba still had extended and stepping into his personal space, sliding his hands up Takaba’s neck and sinking his fingers into his hair. Tipping his face up and pressing their mouths together gently, restrained violence in every tight, tense line of his body.

For all that Takaba had seen it coming this time, had watched and catalogued every microsecond of movement before their lips met, it was the most unexpected kiss of his life. The most confusing. Unexplained. 

Takaba sank into it anyway.

Chapter Text

Takaba absolutely refused to attribute any magical powers whatsoever to Asami Ryuichi. The man was completely ordinary. Boring, even. Press a gun to his head, and Takaba would have struggled to name a more sense-numbing, brain-meltingly dull occupation as attorney. What were they, after all, but glorified paper shufflers, going around charging people a bundle of money to write gibberish that only other lawyers could understand. All so they could keep their closets well stocked with fancy striped suits. And silk pocket squares. And cigarettes hand-rolled by acolytes in Cambodian monasteries.

None of this explained why it took a good ten seconds between the elevator doors opening onto the hotel lobby and Takaba noticing that he was now locking lips with one of those incredibly tedious corporate lawyers, who also happened to be man, in full view of the hotel-residing public. All Takaba knew is that it had nothing to do with Asami’s being a good kisser. Because he wasn’t. He was clearly an amateur, which was what happened to people who spent too much time sitting behind desks and not enough time interacting with flesh-and-blood human beings. That was just science.

The worst part was, if one of the women waiting for the elevator hadn’t gasped as the doors opened, Takaba might have just kept on snogging the bastard. Asami certainly showed no signs of slowing down. Even when he noticed they’d arrived on the first floor and there was a gaggle of people in the lobby, gawking at them, he did nothing more than step back and dab at his mouth—with his pocket square, because of course. Which was about the same time Takaba realised he was now technically visible to not just the people waiting for the elevator, but also the reception desk, the staff behind it, people queuing for taxicabs by the main doors, and anyone leaving the bar. Including, apparently, Mitarai.

As Takaba watched with slowly dawning horror as the producer stumbled out and began weaving his drunken way towards the bay of elevators. Shit.

“What’s going on?” a foreign man waiting for the elevator asked in English. He was staring at Takaba’s nightgown with obvious alarm. “Has an asylum patient escaped?”

Asami, looking perfectly unruffled, reached forward and pressed the Close Doors button. Takaba released a pent up breath, all but collapsing back against the wall as they were cut off from the onlookers and their noises of protest.

 And then, a second before the doors could finish closing, he saw a flash of yellow. A hand the size of a spade jammed itself between the doors and forced them open again, and a moment later Suoh gallumphed his way into the elevator. Without visible reaction, Asami stood back and pressed the button for the top floor.

“Asami-sama,” Suoh said, extending a sheaf of papers once they were moving. “These were just faxed through.” Asami grunted and began shuffling through them, his face creased in a frown. Takaba shuffled closer, trying to be furtive about it, but froze when he thought he caught Suoh glancing in his direction. But when he looked the bodyguard was just staring into the middle distance directly above Takaba’s head. As if he’d forgotten all about the whole chasing Takaba down a hallway half an hour ago thing. 

Probably for the best that we just pretend the other is an unremarkable patch of wall to be ignored at all costs, Takaba mused as Suoh stepped off the elevator on the next floor. Can do.

Call it distraction after the ki—the events—of the last few minutes, but it was only as they were getting off the elevator themselves and Takaba found himself trudging down the hallway behind Asami, arms wrapped around his midsection to ward off a sudden chill, that he finally noticed where they were headed.

He cleared his throat. “Hey.”

Asami didn’t turn around, and it was only the slight tilt of his head as he swiped the keycard across the door’s sensor that indicated he was even listening.

“So you got it back from Sudou?” 

Takaba had tried to disguise the venom in his voice, but given the look Asami shot him then, a sharp glint under hooded eyes, he’d probably failed.

“What are you talking about?”

“The keycard to your room. You gave it to Sudou after your visit. After I woke up,” Takaba clarified, when Asami just looked blank.

“He told you that, did he?” 

Speaking of scary voices. “Yes. So I’m sure you’ll understand why I’m not just going to blindly follow you around. In fact,” he jerked a thumb towards the elevator, keeping the exit to the stairwell in view too in case the lawyer suddenly went feral. Whatever that looked like. “I think I’ll just go back to my old room. Now that Fei Long’s left, I have the whole place to myself.”

Not so much as a ripple of surprise passed over Asami’s face at that particular item of news. Unbidden, the man’s voice echoed through Takaba’s mind: I know more than you think. 

“So you’d rather decamp to the room next door to Sudou Shuu than find out what’s in these?” Asami lifted his clutch of papers slightly, both the original documents that Takaba had made a grab for, and the mysterious new papers that had just been ‘faxed through’. And Kami-sama help him, it was like waving the proverbial carrot in front of the freaking horse. 

Asami slipped into his room before Takaba could even reply, leaving the door to close by itself, painfully sluggish.

Asami really had his number. Damn it.

Takaba barged into the room before the door was even halfway shut, but that didn’t mean squat. He had business to settle, that was all. “Well where else could Sudou have gotten the key to your room?” He frowned as Asami placed the folders on the rucked-up bed covers and shucked off his suit jacket.

“The crew has a spare copy of every keycard to every room one of us is sleeping in.” He paused as he loosened his tie. “In case of emergency.”

“What are…what are you implying?” But Takaba’s mind was already racing. If Sudou had gotten access to the spare keycard to Asami’s room from one of Confirmed Bachelor’s production staff…

It would explain why he gets away with everything.

“You’re saying he has a friend ‘on the inside’?” Takaba didn’t have to manufacture the scorn in his voice. Asami filling his mind with that kind of doubt, just when it was in his interest to distract Takaba from what he’d walked in on him and Sudou doing together, was just way too convenient. “I don’t buy it. Why would I believe anything you say?”

“This,” Asami said, walking back towards the bed and plucking one of the glossy photographs out of the pile, seemingly at random. He held it out to Takaba, who was still standing uncertainly near the door. Trying to lure him in, the sneaky manipulator.

But what if it answered everything? And god, what Takaba wouldn’t give to have the panacea for all the pain, fear and uncertainty of the last five weeks fall into his lap like this. The skeleton key to the tangled lock of hurt that had taken up residence inside his chest.

Fighting a strong sense that he was accepting a writ of his own doom, Takaba walked over and took the photograph from Asami’s hand. It was one of the ones he’d glimpsed when he’d dropped the contents of that folder all over the elevator floor, and at first, this piece of paper was the same incomprehensible blur of monochrome shapes.

Then he took a deep breath, and looked properly. It was surveillance photograph, that much was clear, given the subject’s distance and the slightly out-of-focus quality that earmarked the use of a long distance zoom. That, and how the person in the photo was turned away from the lens, seemingly unaware he was being observed. But Takaba didn’t need a close up portrait to know who the man in that costume of all black was. He was caught in the action of kneeling down and pulling a motorcycle helmet off his face, exposing the hem of the ski mask as he did so. Gradually, Takaba recognised the painted, indistinct waves in the picture’s background.

“This was at the mini-golf park,” he breathed, looking up at Asami for explanation. The lawyer had moved across the room to the desk, zipping the folder Suoh had given him inside a leather pocket. He didn’t reply, but Takaba sensed that his nonchalance was, for once, a cover for something else. Takaba felt himself being watched as he went over to the bed to examine the rest of the photos.

They were all roughly the same. The man he now knew had been Sudou all along, in his disguise, captured on film in various locations around Taipei, but always from a distance. There were dozens of them, some taken on nondescript streets, in the shade of buildings, riding through traffic on a scooter.

Takaba’s stomach clenched as he fell backwards to sit on the bed, picking up a photo of Sudou scaling a hill overgrown with trees and underbrush. Tamsui’s red fort was just visible at the crest of a hill, which meant the photograph had been taken shortly before Sudou had trapped Takaba in that cell during the egg hunt. And indeed, there he was in the next frame, standing before the cell and bending to tamper with the lock, Takaba barely a shadow behind the bars. 

He shoved away the memories of that day viciously and gathered up the last few photographs, flicking through them quickly. The last one made his heart stop.

“How did you get these?” Takaba said, warping the edge of the picture in his fist. But there Sudou remained, unharmed in the centre of the photograph, frozen forever in the motion of peeling off his ski mask in some dingy lane, his face as clear and recognisable in this unguarded moment as it was on all those billboards in Shibuya.

“My staff have been working overtime lately,” Asami said, leaning against the desk with his shirtsleeves rolled up. He was waiting for Takaba’s reaction to the photos, that much was obvious.

Takaba dearly wanted to give him nothing. Not so much as a glimmer of the fury bubbling up inside him, but—

“You’ve known all along what Sudou was doing. That he was stalking me and looking for any opportunity to get rid of me. You have all the evidence right here!”

Asami didn’t reply. But he didn’t deny it, either. Takaba crumpled the photograph in his fist and cast it away, too pissed off to care that it sailed only a few feet before ricocheting off the carpet. “Why didn’t you say something? You could have reported him any time. You could have told me it was him!”

“And what would that have accomplished?” Asami countered, voice and expression equally dispassionate. “Sudou Shuu is Confirmed Bachelo’s golden goose. Without his participation in the program, the station risks its advertising partnerships and cross-platform publicity. They’re not going to fire him, no matter what he does.”

Takaba gaped. “Even if he murders someone?”

“You haven’t finished,” Asami said, gesturing at another small stack of surveillance photos that Takaba hadn’t noticed before, shoved as they were under a fold of rumpled duvet.

Scowling, Takaba picked them up and sorted through the images quickly. The first few were more of the same, just Sudou running around the city like a homicidal ninja. The last few, though…Takaba’s fingers stilled as he examined the series of photos, the blurry silhouette of another man captured in conversation with Sudou in each of them. One in an alley somewhere, another in the shady lee of an office building. In the final frame, Sudou was passing a slip of paper to the man. 

Takaba would have recognised that velour smoking jacket, that bouffant hairstyle anywhere.

“…Sakazaki?”

“I don’t know what deal they’ve made,” Asami said. “But my research indicates that our esteemed host has been attempting to develop stronger contacts within the industry. I expect he believes that by currying favour with Sudou now, he’ll be given support for his own projects once this season concludes shooting.” The lawyer paused, then, his eyes raking over Takaba’s face. Which, if the feeling of being gut-punched was anything to go by, probably wasn’t looking too great right now.

“Surely you didn’t think Sudou was working alone?”

“I…I guess so,” Takaba croaked. 

From his position against the desk, Asami hooked one ankle over the other. Somehow even that small movement seemed to convey his great disappointment in Takaba’s deductive capabilities. Takaba grimaced. So sue me for thinking there was only one person on this show out for my blood.

“You never considered how Sudou managed to contaminate the fruit punch with tomato juice in a school full of his devoted followers—without being noticed?” 

“When you put it like that,” Takaba grumbled, letting the photos drop from his fingers before crossing his arms and leaning forward slightly. He could use a rush of blood to the head right now. Because the truth was he hadn’t spent more than a split second thinking about how Sudou had orchestrated his scheme at the talent show. Had actively avoided thinking about it, in fact. Which was great for avoiding quasi-PTSD freakouts, apparently, but not so great for figuring out that Sudou had an accomplice.

“I guess I assumed he must have done it during his bathroom break. The one all his fangirls were getting distraught over.”

Asami cocked an eyebrow. “Do you recall seeing him take the punch bowl with him backstage?” 

“Shut up!” Takaba said, lifting his head to pin the other man with the glare of a thousand suns—except the bastard was smirking. At him. Like Takaba getting flustered was the best entertainment around. Takaba slid off the edge of the bed, rising to his full height (while trying not to care that amounted to only 175 centimetres) and opening his mouth to give Asami the dressing down he’d so long deserved.

“Luckily for you, Takaba,” Asami interrupted smoothly, “the school’s administration are full of simpletons who run scared at the first sign of legal trouble. One politely-worded request on my firm’s letterhead was enough to procure CCTV footage of the hall’s backstage area.”

“They had cameras back there?” Takaba blurted, his brain immediately latching onto the horrifying thought that he’d been recorded while changing costume. That even now, right this second, some stranger with warped morals could be uploading video of him and the others in the altogether onto the Confirmed Bachelor website. Which apparently everyone at the airline was following. And one thing was certain: if Yoshida got his hands on that footage, then his mother would be the first person he forwarded it to. “Oh no.”

“Evidently there had been some theft of furniture and props over the years. It was a precaution the school only followed through with to the extent of installing one camera in the hallway. Nonetheless, it recorded Sudou entering the room which stored the drinks before the performances began. A minute later, he exited with the tomato juice can. From there he passed it to Sakazaki, who we believe spiked the punch while attention was diverted.”

“So what you’re saying is, there weren’t any cameras in the changing room?”

Asami frowned. “No.”

Well, that’s something, Takaba sighed, turning around and beginning to gather together the photographs spilled across the bed on autopilot. Anything to avoid the stare Takaba could feel directed at him by Asami. What did the man want from him, anyway? The shock that someone in the crew would be so casual about abetting Sudou as he tried to off a contestant was already wearing off. From the very beginning it was clear that the show was more concerned with ratings than they were about anyone’s wellbeing. Any feelings of betrayal, or of being used—that was just naïveté.

And Takaba wasn’t a kid anymore, no matter how many people called him -kun.

He finished stacking the photographs and turned back to Asami, intending to pass them over and leave the room. He needed time to think things through, catch his breath, and that was impossible under the man’s laser scrutiny.

But when he approached the lawyer and held out the evidence the man had compiled—seemingly, uselessly on Takaba’s account—Asami didn’t take them back. Instead he held out a single sheet of copy paper. Just the sight of another piece of evidence, doubtless more proof of exactly how fucked Takaba was, made him want to throw up. “No, I—”

“Just look.”

Taking in a shuddering breath, Takaba ripped the paper out of Asami’s hand and forced himself to scan it. It was a report. Or rather, some kind of file full of biographical information and half a dozen dates. Takaba’s biographical information. And the dates all documented Takaba’s prior arrests from his past life as a teenage delinquent. So. Asami had his criminal record.

Funny how Takaba had thought he’d burned through his store of anger for the day. “How did you get this?”

“That’s a copy of the file Sakazaki furnished Sudou with. He was trying to dig up information on you, and Sakazaki is friends with several private investigators.” 

Takaba quickly scanned the record again, flipping it over—blank. “Is this all he got?”

Asami dumped the stack of surveillance photos on the desk and turned back, expression almost questioning. “I believe so.”

Takaba let out a secret sigh of relief. The paper didn’t look like his full record; it was more a typed-up précis, mentioning his old arrests and what they were for, but nothing about how long he was detained for, or where. Most vitally, there was no mention of his father in the text whatsoever. Which meant when that mangy weasel Sudou had him choking on the floor, tormenting him about how fucking poetic it was that he was going to die locked up by himself in a storage room…he didn’t know what he was talking about. He’d just meant that historic Tamsui cell he’d zip-tied him inside. The barb had a been a fluke, that it struck deep only chance.

Takaba handed the paper and photographs back to Asami, who took a moment to accept them. As if Takaba would want to hold onto something like that in a million years. “What I don’t get is why you’ve been collecting all this if you’re not going to do anything about it.” He steeled himself and met the lawyer’s eyes. “Sudou is safe no matter what he does. You said that.”

“At the time I thought by presenting him with what I knew, he’d have the sense to resign from the competition himself.” Asami’s lips twitched in distaste. “Little did I realise he was so delusional he believed that by prostrating himself in front of me he could earn my regard.”

…Prostrate? Takaba’s mind flashed back to the scene in the singer’s bedroom, how he’d been huddled at Asami’s feet, face streaked with tears. Lips wet from tears, too? He’d never seen the lawyer’s fly undone, after all. And Takaba remembered Asami had been holding the folder full of surveillance photographs, so that, at least, wasn’t a lie. 

 All of a sudden it was too much to bear, and Takaba found himself turning away and stalking to the room’s window. The sun was setting, bathing the worn façade of the apartment complex across the way in shades of waning daylight.

“He’s still not going to quit, is he?”

“He hardly had the opportunity.”

Takaba turned back to Asami, the question already forming on his lips, but then it hit him. He’d stormed into the room before Asami could make his demands of Sudou, full of—apparently baseless—accusations. Takaba quickly turned back to the window to hide his flush of embarrassment. How many times had he made a fool of himself today?

“I doubt he would have seen sense in any case,” Asami said, in a tone that could almost be mistaken for conciliatory. Unwillingly, Takaba glanced back in Asami’s direction, watching as the lawyer loosened his tie and dropped it to coil on the desk on top of the discarded photographs. “He’s more obsessed than even I had suspected. He’s going to see this through to the end.”

Takaba gulped, and it wasn’t just because everything Asami was saying smacked of bad portents. No, the lawyer appeared to have given up on just getting comfortable; instead he was disrobing entirely, unbuttoning his white dress shirt to expose pecs and abs so defined they looked like they’d been painted on.

Where does he even find the time to pump iron? was the first thought Takaba’s crazed brain latched onto, and definitely not because it was trying to distract itself from the fresh, extremely explicit memory of what they’d just been doing in the elevator…and where things likely would have led if they hadn’t suddenly gained an audience of gawping onlookers.

“Come here, Takaba.”

He meant his reply to sound challenging, but the “Why?” he ended up squeaking—coupled with his face’s untimely transformation into a sunburnt tomato—ruined the effect.

Asami didn’t say anything, just stared with smouldering eyes and he casually popped the buttons on his cuffs and finishing removing his shirt.

“Here,” Takaba said, tripping forward and snatching the shirt out of Asami’s hand before the man got a chance to drape it meaningfully somewhere, or get to work on something even more alarming—like his socks. “Let me iron this for you!”

“Takaba,” Asami said again, but Takaba ignored him on his quest to reach the closet, which he knew from his prior snooping contained an ironing board.

“You definitely don’t want this to crease. Not classy apparel like this, especially when it’s made of, uh. Hey, how much does a shirt like this cost, anyway?” Out of the corner of his eye he saw Asami moving towards him, but Takaba managed to snap the board’s legs out and place it firmly between them just in time. Now if only he could get the iron plugged in and heated up to second degree burns-inducing temperatures, he’d have something to fend the man off with.

Asami didn’t reply. Big shocker there. At least he’d stopped saying Takaba in that stupid, skin-prickling voice. The only problem with refusing to meet someone’s eyes? You were forced to stare in another direction. The down-direction, where Asami just happened to be bare chested and incredibly distracting.

And it’s not like he’d been doing…sex stuff…with Sudou, right? It was all just a misunderstanding. So it would hardly be icky if he…with Asami…

“I-I guess with a salary like yours you could afford a new shirt every day, right? Hey, I wonder if that’s why you got hired for Confirmed Bachelor in the first place. You know, because you could supply your own wardrobe and the producers are always bitching about the bottom line.”

“Takaba.”

“What?” he snapped, flicking the switch on at the outlet and straightening up, holding the iron aloft by its handle in prime head smacking range. “You got a problem with me doing the ironing? You some kind of domestic control freak, huh?”

Asami smirked. “There’s no water in it.”

Takaba looked down at the iron, tipping it ever so slightly with a twist of the wrist. And—yep. Definitely no water inside. Shit. “No problem,” Takaba grinned until he felt his cheeks cramping. He bent to unplug the iron, easing around the edge of the ironing board on the way to the en suite bathroom. I’ll just go and fill it—uuuh-p!”

So fast Takaba hadn’t even seen him coming, Asami snatched him around the waist and pulled him in until they were standing chest-to-chest. Well, very, very bare muscular chest to way-too-thin nightgown. Crap. “Let go!” 

“Why?” the bastard purred, leaning down until his face was only a few centimetres away and Takaba’s nose was filled with the faint scent of expensive cologne.

Why? Because I’m still not sure you didn’t sleep with Sudou.

“Tell me, Asami,” Takaba said, doing his best to keep a level voice and ignore their current…configuration. “What’s your policy on sleeping with the enemy for information?”

That smirk deepened, and Takaba struggled not to wince as Asami tightened his arms where they were already wrapped around him like the tentacles of a clingy, litigious octopus. “We’re enemies now?”

“Not us!” Takaba said, flustered, but any further explanation was cut off in the next second by Asami kissing him full on the mouth. It was the predictability, Takaba told himself, that made it okay to give in. After all, kissing the man was practically routine now. Just another occupational hazard of a television show that repeatedly threw a bunch of attractive lunatic single people together in confined spaces. Out of his control.

“Close the curtains,” Asami murmured when he pulled away a few minutes later, tracing Takaba’s wet lips with a thumb. It was several embarrassingly long moments before Takaba’s brain kicked back into gear enough to parse what he’d said. He stumbled towards the window on shaky legs, turning back to see Asami unbuckling and slipping off his belt in a few spare movements. Takaba’s mouth went dry. He yanked the curtains closed.

The room went dark in an instant, and Takaba’s heart, already pumping hard from adrenaline, went into overdrive. But then his eyes adjusted, and he couldn’t have cared less about the gloom; Asami was just a more solid patch of darkness, stalking towards him and filling his vision and crowding him back, step by teetering step, to the bed. Breath rushed out from Takaba’s lungs as he was pushed onto the mattress. Asami was looming over him again in an instant, bracketing Takaba’s head with his arms and leaning down, their faces a finger’s breadth away.

Takaba’s lips parted, ready for whatever came next. Kissing or biting or barbing each other with words. But for a long, painful moment, the man didn’t move. Takaba could still hear him though, gusts of warm air puffing out of Asami’s nostrils like he was a bull teetering on the edge of a charge. 

Hesitantly, Takaba trailed a hand up the other man’s straining arm, willing him to do more than stare down at him with frightening intensity. That skittering of fingers seemed to jolt Asami from whatever fugue state he’d fallen into, and a second later a warm palm tripped under the hem of Takaba’s nightgown and moved up, laving over his inner thigh where his legs were sprawled over the edge of the bed. “Ah,” Takaba choked out, skin oversensitive and thoughts frozen with uncertainty. And the waiting. Why had Asami stopped again, what did he have to do to —

Takaba’s body acted before his brain could caution him against it, and he was seizing Asami’s head by the fine hairs at the back of his skull and pulling him down, slotting their mouths together with finesse-less desperation.

The other man reacted like electricity was spiking through him, gripping Takaba’s thigh with bruising force and breaching Takaba’s mouth with his tongue. Takaba groaned his approval, letting his body fall pliant as Asami pushed him further up the mattress and crawled up after him on hands and knees.

“Y’re still dressed,” Takaba managed when he broke their kiss for air. God, his mouth stung. At this rate he’d be going down to breakfast tomorrow with bloody, shredded strips of skin in place of his lips. And the crazed, primal animal that seemed to have overtaken his brain didn’t mind that idea at all.

“So are you,” Asami murmured, soundly frustratingly composed for someone who had Takaba laid out before him, willing and ready, thank you very much. At least the bulge Takaba thought he could make out in the placket of Asami’s suit pants proved he wasn’t as unmoved as he was pretending. As if to prove his point, the lawyer rose from his crouch, kneeling on the mattress with enviable balance as hands went to his fly. At least that’s what Takaba thought he was seeing. All of a sudden he wished there was a light, the better to observe any cracks in Asami’s poker face. Too bad he’d been too drunk last time to remember if Asami even had a sex face to be revealed.

“This doesn’t count,” Takaba muttered, feeling mutinous as his hands fumbled to get the nightgown off. He had to lift his ass up in order to pull it up past his torso, and then there was a lot of wriggling and writhing on the mattress to get it up far enough to slip his arms through. It was only after he’d torn it over his head and cast it to the side that Takaba realised Asami had paused in his undressing to watch.

Enjoying the show, arsehole? “What,” Takaba bit out, swiping his bangs off his sweaty forehead and glaring up at Asami.

The lawyer didn’t reply, just moved backwards until his feet hit the floor and he could step out of his dress pants. Except Takaba got there first.

“Allow me,” he said, smirking a little as he made a play of undoing the button of the fancy wool pants, accidentally brushing the side of his hand over the tent behind the zipper. The lawyer’s involuntary shudder was an unexpected reward. Grinning, Takaba took his time pulling the waistband down past Asami’s hips, feeling his gut clench in excitement when his fingers brushed against the wet patch in the man’s briefs. Oh yes, not so unaffected after all, was he?

And then the bastard had to go and grab his hands.

“Hey!” Takaba groused, thrashing as Asami pinned his wrists neatly behind his head as if they were as malleable as a pair of limp noodles. “What, why’re you— ”

“Hush,” Asami murmured, placing the index finger of his free hand against Takaba’s damp lips. “I’ll take care of you.”

Well, yes, that was all right and good, but Takaba didn’t think his getting off had been in doubt before the man had suddenly decided to employ some half-arsed bondage. “But,” Takaba said behind the finger, frowning as Asami shushed him again, finally stepping out of his pants while he remained upright. Standing. And for one split, insecure second Takaba was certain Asami was just going to leave him there, hard and waiting and doomed to disappointment like a schmuck. But then the lawyer leant forward again, big hands sliding behind Takaba’s bared knees and lifting until he had him in position, legs bent and pelvis raised.

Despite knowing where this had been going all along, Takaba felt himself flush, unused to being completely open like this. Exposed. Why be embarrassed, it’s not like there’s anything wrong with your…proportions, his brain kindly reminded him. Besides, Asami’s really old, he probably can’t see anything in the dark.

And then the lawyer went and shot that theory to hell by ducking between Takaba’s legs and swallowing down his cock.

“Ah! Oh my—oh my god!” Takaba screeched, clamping Asami’s head between his knees in shock. “S-sorry,” he groaned, when the lawyer made a disgruntled noise, though the vibrations from that just made Takaba want to curl up into a reflexive ball. He forced himself to relax, opening his legs again and letting his heels skid down the mattress, giving Asami room to…well, to go down on him.

Asami Ryuichi is giving me a blow job. Asami. Ryuichi. Lawyer Extraordinaire. Bachelor. Me, Takaba Akihito. Giving—

“Head,” Takaba moaned, thoughts melting away into a nebulous whirl as Asami moved his head up and down, bringing his other hand up to gently cup Takaba’s balls, teasing out sensation until Takaba thought he’d start sobbing. His arms fanned out and his fingers dug into the bedsheets, trying to find purchase and direct the wonderful, aching coils of sensation outside himself before he imploded.

But the feeling only kept building, ratcheting up until Takaba was helpless to contain the long moans that seemed to loop in on themselves when he ran out of breath to voice them. He heard himself as if he were across the room, an observer removed from what was happening. But every time Asami sensed him drifting away, he brought him back with the insistent pressure of his lips or a sharp tug of his hand.

You’re here, he seemed to be saying. Don’t forget I’m the one making you scream.

Takaba wasn’t sure how long it was before he came, Asami pulling off at the last second and catching every last string of come in his hand, as if he were collecting it for later. Though Takaba’s strung out brain couldn’t imagine what use he’d have for it. As far as his body was concerned, melting as it was into a satiated puddle on the softest mattress in the world, everything was over. All he could remember before his eyes slid blessedly shut was the indistinct shape of Asami’s face hovering over his own, staring down at him as if looking for the answer to a question he hadn’t asked.

 

***

 

He woke some time later, body prickling with heat. As if there was a furnace nearby. No, as if the furnace was wrapped around him.

“Wha?” he said, trying to lift his groggy head.

“Go back to sleep, Takaba,” came a gravelly voice, vibrating through his pillow. That was odd. He rubbed his cheek against it, marvelling at the warmth and texture. His pillow felt weirdly like skin. Smelt like someone’s skin too, with just the faintest hint of sweat. 

“What happened?” Takaba managed, even as he felt himself quickly losing the battle against impending sleep.

“You owe me two orgasms now,” said the voice. “Go to sleep.” 

Well, that made no sense at all. But Takaba did as he was told.

Chapter Text

After three drinks, it slowly occurred to Takaba that he had no way of paying his tab. He cast a bleary-eyed look at the bartender. The guy was in his early thirties, with a conservative haircut and large, square-cut fingers that looked too clumsy to be mixing drinks. The droop of the bartender’s mouth and his glazed expression made him seem almost as wrung out as Takaba felt—but that could’ve been because of the hour. Only a maudlin contingency of hotel guests had stuck around past midnight, and only the most plastered of those were still here at one. Takaba was the last person sitting at the bar.

He thought about leaving. But every time he contemplated making a run for it, or trying to forge Mitarai’s signature on a cheque, or admitting to the bartender that he didn’t have a single yen or New Taiwan Dollar left to his name but would be willing to instead offer his indentured servitude to pay off his tab—his eyes would catch on the leather folio by his elbow. And then would come the sick lurch of betrayal, the aftertaste of humiliation, and the crushing certainty that he had nowhere else to go. (Anywhere, anywhere but upstairs.)

“Nice duds there, Takaba-kun,” someone behind him said.

Takaba startled, too drunk to suppress the reaction. Goddamnit, of all the people to be lurking around the hotel at this time of night. He downed the last of his drink, pointedly ignoring the man even as he slipped, uninvited, onto the stool at Takaba’s right.

“Come now,” Sakazaki said, plucking at Takaba’s sleeve to drive home his point. “You can’t go around wearing the bachelor’s clothes and not expect people to notice. You should be grateful I haven’t called the crew; just think of the audience at home, their reaction when they see you’ve been holed up in Asami-san’s room. All day long.” 

Just the sound of Asami’s name had the last of the alcohol burning a fiery path down Takaba’s throat. What made it all the more bitter was the memory of just a few hours ago, of waking to find the man sprawled beside him in bed, face unguarded in sleep and hair tousled over his forehead in a way that made Takaba’s stomach flip over and a tender pang bloom in his chest. 

You fool. 

“A piece of advice?”

And he just wouldn’t shut up, would he? Takaba turned on the stool, fixing Sakazaki with a glare. He was proud—his vision only swam a little bit. “I don’t need advice from the criminally insane.”

“What a thing to say,” Sakazaki laughed, though the curving expanse of his lips belied the flint in his eyes. “I’m proud to say I passed Confirmed Bachelor’s psych evaluation with flying colours.”

“You know what I’m talking about.” Takaba ignored the little voice in the back of his head that was squawking at him to shut the hell up, that Sakazaki was clearly here on a fishing expedition. But whether it was the alcohol loosening his lips, or the contents of that fucking folder on the bar—physical proof of what they all knew—what did he have left to lose? “You know what you did, you—crazy weasel.”

“Exactly how many drinks have you had tonight, Takaba-kun?” Sakazaki smirked, catching the eye of the bartender and ordering in Japanese, “Sakura martini, hold the grapefruit.”

“Oh no. No no no,” Takaba said, waving a finger in front of Sakazaki’s face. “You’re not staying here. You’re a murer…murdrer…helper.”

The smile dropped from Sakazaki’s lips, and Takaba didn’t miss the way the bartender seemed to scurry to the other end of the bar, busying himself with the preparation of the man’s stupid fruity drink with his back to them both. “I think you’re very, very drunk, Takaba-kun. And you don’t know what you’re saying. It’s time to shut up now, all right?” 

“I know exactly what I’m saying!”

“Keep your voice down,” Sakazaki hissed, leaning forward grabbing the sleeve of Asami’s crisp white shirt, its cuffs gaping around Takaba’s skinny wrists. “I’m warning you, kid, you better keep your mouth shut about any unfortunate ideas your pea-brain has seized upon.” His eyes narrowed, grip tightening when Takaba tried to yank his arm away. “Tomorrow is the last day of filming, and emotions will be running high. Who knows what could happen if you don’t stop jumping to conclusions. Get it?” 

Takaba gave up on trying to reclaim his arm, falling still on the bar stool and letting his glazed stare settle on Sakazaki’s face. “I get it.” 

Sakazaki nodded, releasing Takaba’s arm and pushing his glasses up his nose. “Glad to hear it—” 

“I get that as soon as this is over, I’m going to the media about everything. I think I have enough material now for a tell-all interview, or three.”

Sakazaki glanced back from where he’d been watching the bartender work, the greasy smile melting off his face. “Little punk. Did you forget how many NDAs you signed at the start of all this?”

Takaba grinned brazenly. “I wonder what the audience reaction will be when they realise what you and Sudou have been cocking—cooking up behind the scenes. Do you think the station will care about non-disco…NDAs in the middle of a scandal?”

Sakazaki leaned in again, a bitter whiff of smoke on his breath as he said in a deadly hush, “You open your mouth on the outside and breaking your contract will be the least of your worries. We can make your life hell. You think the station is going to care about your whiny accusations? Let me educate you, Takaba-kun: you’re nothing. You’re less than nothing to all of us. We can make it so you’ll be begging to clean toilets in a Kabukichou soapland just to eat once a day.”

“Is that supposed to scare me?” Never mind that it probably would have a few days ago. Too bad for Sakazaki that his fear was all burnt out. In its place was a low-simmering anger that felt like it could sustain him to the end. He’d see this competition out, one way or another. 

“If it doesn’t,” Sakazaki whispered, “then there’s nothing anyone can do to save you.”

Takaba didn’t respond. He didn’t even really hear the words, not now that he’d caught sight of the man entering the bar. He was dressed in clothes almost identical to the ones Takaba was wearing. And his expression? Most generously it could be described as ‘forbidding’, and most realistically as ‘ready to snap some necks’.

“What?” Sakazaki said, twisting around on the stool to look over his shoulder, freezing when he saw the newcomer. Takaba had to give him credit, though: by the time Asami arrived at the bar and cast a bracing eye over the both of them, Sakazaki’s face had composed itself into its customary simper. “Good evening, Asami-san.” 

“Shouldn’t that be ‘good morning’?” Asami gestured the bartender over. “I’m surprised to find you here, Sakazaki-san. From the rumours going around, I expected you’d be found in the back rooms of the Crimson Lotus at this hour. Whiskey on the rocks, please,” he added to the bartender as the man finally delivered Sakazaki’s drink. 

“You must have misheard,” Sakazaki coughed, and Takaba watched, almost stunned as the man braced himself on the bar and pushed off the stool, dusting his smoking jacket of invisible motes. 

“I must have.”

“Well, we have an early start tomorrow, so I’ll be going to my room now. Goodnight, gentlemen.”

“Goodnight,” Takaba said, waving cheerfully. He didn’t even try to quell the bubble of schadenfreude rising up in his chest at the sight of Sakazaki scampering off with his tail tucked between his legs, and all just because Asami had turned up. That was basically the best superpower ever.

Takaba turned back to the bar and his hazy vision zeroed in on Sakazaki’s abandoned cocktail. But as soon as he reached out a hand, the drink vanished.

It took him a long moment to realise that its disappearance wasn’t the work of dark magic.

“Hey!” he squawked, batting ineffectually at Asami’s arm as the lawyer leaned over the bar and tipped Sakazaki’s drink unceremoniously down a drain on the other side. “That wasn’t yours!”

“I forgot, Takaba,” Asami said, a tightness about his mouth that made Takaba’s gut clench, “that you’re an expert on things that aren’t yours.”

“What’re you im…oh,” Takaba mumbled, looking down at the clothes he’d stol—borrowed temporarily! …From Asami’s wardrobe. “Look, I couldn’t find any of my stuff in the room when I woke up, and the last thing anyone needs is to see me walking around starkers on TV.” Not that he’d encountered any lurking cameramen on the way down from Asami’s room, but at this point he wouldn’t put it past the crew to have commandeered the hotel’s CCTV in the name of entertaining the masses.

Asami’s eyes glinted. “I’m not talking about the clothes.”

Takaba frowned, glancing around them—then stopped, because the room was suddenly one spinning blur. He adjusted his weight on the stool, his elbow connecting with something lying on the bar. Oh. The leather folio. The leather folio full of papers that had almost made him wake Asami up with a fist to the face. The papers that had sent him down here in search for the oblivion of liquor in the first place.

“You’re talking about this?” he lifted the folder, waving it in front of Asami’s face. He snapped a hand out to take it and frowned as Takaba only tightened his grip. “Because let me tell you, you don’t get to sit on your high horse and accuse me of stealing when you’re the giant, lying, scheming liar. That’s my life,” he said, shaking the folio until Asami relinquished it. Then he tried to cover his cowardly surrender by accepting the tumbler of whiskey as the bartender brought it over.

“We close after ten minutes,” the guy mumbled in stilted Japanese. “Okay?”

Asami waved him off and lifted the glass to his lips, locking eyes with Takaba as he slowly tipped it back. After a moment of drawn-out silence, it became clear that he wasn’t going to say anything. Fine.

“Why didn’t you show me that with the rest of photos? You said the PI’s report was the only thing Sudou or Sakazaki got access to, but then there’s that folder.” Takaba tried to mask his pain and frustration, knew he was failing. “If they saw that, then they know…”   

Everything. Absolutely everything.

Asami looked away, opening his mouth a little but saying nothing for several seconds. As though he were carefully choosing his words. Trying to figure out a way not to incite him, probably. Takaba gripped the edge of the folio until the leather cracked.

 “I didn’t lie to you. I was only faxed those papers this afternoon. And they were compiled by my employees—Sudou and his associates have no access to them.” 

Well, isn’t that just swell. Takaba rolled his eyes. Every painful morsel of his past gets dug up by Asami’s firm of brown-nosing lackeys instead of Sudou. What a relief. “Enjoy your reading?”

Asami took another swallow of whiskey, rolling the glass in his hand and watching the ice cubes clink together. “Not yet. You might recall, I rather had my hands full today.” And then the bastard smirked.

A rush of blood suffused Takaba’s face before he could help it, his mind flashing back to the room upstairs: Asami luring him in, taking off his clothes, going down on him…

He shook his head viciously, trying to dispel the memory. He was suddenly feeling way too sober.

“No one but the investigator has seen this, Takaba,” Asami said, swiping the folder off the bar while Takaba’s guard was down. “He won’t tell anyone.”

But who cared? It was already too late. “How could you,” Takaba choked out, desperate not to let his face crumple. “This isn’t…”

“I won’t read it,” Asami said, looking as solemn as Takaba had ever seen him. “If you ask me not to.”

Takaba looked up, and knew his eyes were blazing. “Prove it.”

 

***

 

The hotel’s roof looked like it hadn’t been disturbed by anyone for at least a decade. Thick layers of sooty grime caked the fissured cement and the detritus left behind: a broken deck chair, warped planters of dusty soil, the shrubs inside withered brown. The constant whine of scooter traffic persisted on the street below despite the hour. Although it was supposed to be winter, the night breeze was mild, and Takaba pushed the cuffs of the shirt up past his wrists.

He hiked up the sleeves the rest of the way as soon as Asami lit the fire.

“Where did you find that?” He walked over to where Asami was straightening from his crouch in front of a metal pail, a cigarette lighter in one hand and the empty leather pocket in the other. Its contents had already caught, the copy paper quickly blackening and curling in at the edges. Takaba watched it burn for a while and felt sweat prickle his brow from the waves of heat blown upwards by the wind.

“This is kind of overkill, you know.” 

Asami slipped the lighter back into his pocket and tucked the folio under his arm. 

“And I know you can just get another copy sent to you whenever you want.” 

“I won’t, if you tell me yourself.” 

Takaba groaned, turning away from the impromptu bonfire and walking to the edge of the roof, the better to look out over the block of cement that stood in for a guardrail. Not that it would have held anyone back for a second if they were really determined to jump. He closed his eyes when he heard Asami approach from behind. 

“That’s not even a real choice,” he mumbled, mostly to himself. Not that Asami gave a crap about something as mundane as being fair. It wasn’t in his job description. And for whatever cock-eyed reason, the man had decided his primary goal for the week was digging up dirt on Takaba. In that respect he was no better than Sudou or Sakazaki.

Wasn’t he?

“I was a pretty wild kid,” he said, as if that was news to anyone. His voice came out dull—but that was good, because if he just kept his eyes closed, and pretended no one was there to hear what he said, then he could imagine his words just dissolving, inconsequentially, into the air. “Always skipping school and running around with the other neighbourhood kids. Nothing too serious, just fighting and petty vandalism." 

“I saw your arrest record,” Asami said, startling Takaba by how close he’d snuck up on him. He was leaning against the low cement wall now, probably scuffing up the elbows of his immaculate suit. Which he’d gone ahead and buttoned himself into, just to come downstairs and collect Takaba from the bar. It was ridiculous.

“You don’t need to listen, then, do you? You can just trot back downstairs and get on with researching me.”

The furrowed skin between his eyebrows deepened slightly, but Asami was smart enough to shut up. Good boy, Takaba almost sneered. He turned away to look back down at the road instead.

“Anyway. My parents were pretty lenient. Especially my dad. He never cracked down on me too hard, even when I deserved it. I’d always overhear him telling my mother that if they could just find a way to redirect all my pent up energy, then I’d calm down. But I wasn’t interested in that, and he never did figure out a way before he died.”

Takaba waited for it, because it always came next. And sure enough—

“When did he pass away?” Asami asked, startlingly gentle. As though he was certain he could find just the right tone of voice to stop the question from cutting Takaba to ribbons inside.

“…You remember those political protests in Thailand a few years ago?”

“Early 2010.” Said thoughtfully, like it was just a little factoid for his firm’s trivia night.

“Yeah. My dad was a freelance photographer, but he worked a lot for Tokyo Shimbun. They sent him and another reporter over to Thailand to cover the street protests. They were all professionals, and experienced, so I guess that’s why they didn’t pull out even when things got violent.” He knuckled his eyes, letting his vision slip out of focus until the headlights on the street below became blurred streaks of yellow light. “So. You can probably guess what happened next.” 

Asami didn’t say anything. After a few minutes of tense silence, Takaba clamped his eyes shut again and tried to will down his rising anger. Why was it him who had to stand here, slowly flaying himself open? And for what? Just so Asami didn’t read Takaba’s file by himself. And it shouldn’t have, but the thought of Asami bent over the desk in the bedroom downstairs, sleeves rolled up and scanning the report like Takaba’s crimes were just those of another faceless client in one of his cases…that was worse.

“Was it an accident?”

Takaba opened his eyes and blinked until his vision cleared. Asami was still a hulking figure by his shoulder. Takaba didn’t dare meet his eyes. “They think so. The bullet went straight through, so they were never sure who fired it. No one took responsibility.”

The air shifted behind him, a passing heat: Asami lifting his hand, then hesitating to place it on the nape of his neck, maybe. But Takaba didn’t want that, not when he knew it’d be taken away as soon as he finished speaking. He rushed on, “I was the only one home when the newspaper called. They were trying to reach my mother to let her know before she found out from the news, but she was working.” The hint of warmth disappeared, but he felt a stupid pang anyway.

“You share an occupation.” 

Takaba sighed. “Not then we didn’t. I was still in high school. Well, I was supposed to graduate in a couple months. And even then I spent most of my time bored out of my mind and making trouble.” Asami grunted, pulling his cigarettes from his pocket. He lit one, and offered the packet to Takaba. He shook his head. “It was practically second nature.” 

“Terrorising Yokohama’s private citizens with your gang of scruffy friends?” 

“Yeah,” he murmured, almost smiling. “I was a little shit. I could barely cope with my high school girlfriend breaking up with me after three months, let alone…” He stopped before his voice could waver. He wouldn’t cry. Not in front of Asami, who already looked down on him enough.

For a while the only sound to rise above the persistent burr of scooters and taxis below them was Asami tipping his head back and exhaling smoke into the air. Takaba imagined it wreathing around the man’s head in a smoky corona, deafening him to Takaba’s words.

He whispered, “When the newspaper called and told me what’d happened to dad, they asked me call my mother as soon as she touched down. I can’t even remember what I said to them. I guess I was in shock. And then, the next thing I knew I was climbing up to one of the rich neighbourhoods we usually hung around. Yamate or somewhere. Me and a backpack full of beer and spray cans. I sat on the crest of the hill and looked down at the bay, and drank until I could barely walk.”

Asami snuffed out his cigarette on the cement. “And then?”

“I went to town on the wall of some rich person’s place, the kind that was more like a compound than a house. Tall walls, plenty of space to tag. I was so far gone I didn’t even bother to check for anyone nearby, or for security cameras.”

 “You were caught.” 

“By the police, yeah. But I don’t think I even listened to what they said before I…” Attacked them. Just like it always did, the flicker of memory, of fists and screaming incoherently, sent a hot wave of shame through him. “Just, uh, things got pretty muzzy. Then I was in the back of the squad car getting driven back to the city. And it wasn’t like it was the first time, but I wasn’t even afraid of what would happen to me. All I could do was stare out the window—at people. Streets, buildings, things I’d gone past every day of my life,” he swiped a hand across his running nose. “And I tried to make sense of it. That my dad would never see any of it ever again.”

Asami finally cut his eyes away from his contemplation of the road. “How long were you detained?”

“Forty-three days,” Takaba said, shrugging when he caught Asami’s blink of surprise. “Yeah, well, turned out the house I graffitied belonged to some local councilman or something. And he appreciated my art about as much as any politician. Especially on his private property.”

Takaba had never been told explicitly, of course, but it hadn’t taken him long to figure out that the councilman had pulled enough strings with the authorities to have him detained for the maximum period allowable under the law. He would have asked his legal aid lawyer whether the police could just do that, but the woman had only been in to see him once, that first night, when he’d still been too drunk to tie his own shoelaces. 

“The worst part was,” Takaba said, giving up on Asami replying any time this year, “they didn’t let me use the phone or write or receive any mail the whole time I was in there. Some stupid rule—” 

“Communications prohibitions are—” 

“—that they followed up by putting me in a cell by myself for over a month. It was basically solitary confinement, not that they called it that.”

Asami snorted. “You would have been allowed an hour of exercise every day.”

“Well, I wasn’t. I wasn’t,” Takaba insisted, when Asami looked like he’d argue the point by quoting some kind of dusty criminal code that he had complete, unwarranted faith in. “I told you already, the guy who owned the house was some bigshot with a grudge. I guess I disturbed his dinner weekly delivery champagne and hors d’oeuvres with my inconvenient grief or something. So the best thing to do was lock me up for the safety of the public. That’s justice, right?”

“You think he should have ignored the defacement of his home?”

“I think,” Takaba spat, whirling around and staring up into Asami’s face with the full measure of his fury, “he should have let the police follow procedure. I think he shouldn’t have bribed and cajoled them into cutting me off from the rest of the world. I think he should have given me a fucking chance to call my mother and let her know where I was and what had happened to my dad!” God, he was losing it. He turned away, scrubbing at his face quickly with the sleeve of the—of Asami’s—shirt. God, why did I follow him up here? 

His only solace was that Asami didn’t try to offer comfort. He was focusing so much energy into not breaking down that he was practically vibrating with the effort; one word, one falsely kind hand on his shoulder and he was sure he’d shatter. “I imagined it a thousand different ways.” 

“What did you imagine?” Asami said, and Takaba almost startled at the sound of the lighter flicking open. He’d never taken the man for a chain smoker.

“How she found out dad had been—had passed away. Whether someone at the airport told her when she landed, or if she saw it on the screen in the subway. Or if she had to come home to our empty house and listen to all the messages on the answering machine.” He’d pictured the look on her face, chalk-white, the trembling of her hands as she clutched the receiver. “And I’d just disappeared.” 

“Not intentionally.” Takaba frowned, risked a glance at his face. Asami looked back at him mildly, as if Takaba getting himself drunk and thrown in jail while his mother had to organise her husband’s repatriation was something reasonable and ordinary.

“She had to bury him by herself.” Saying the words was like coughing up a razorblade. But it was the truth, in all its raw shame, and couldn’t Asami see that? “I put myself in that cage, and I failed in my duty as her son. I failed my father. That’s…That’s something I’m going to have to live with for the rest of my life.”

Asami took a drag on the new cigarette. “What was her reaction, when you were finally released?” 

“She didn’t have one.” Even now, he could still picture perfectly the blank look of condemnation in her eyes when he’d rushed to the airline office straight from the detention centre, dressed in the musty, wrinkled clothes he’d been arrested in. “I’d rehearsed what I was going to tell her a hundred times, but when I got there…I realised how it was going to sound. It was bad enough that she thought I’d run away from my responsibilities, but knowing I’d been in jail the whole time?” He shrugged. “Anyway. It was too late to ask for forgiveness. I’ve tried to be a better son since then, but at some point you just have to accept that you’re not any good at it. I mean, I’m here, aren’t I?” 

Something flickered across Asami’s face, the strange shadow of a smile, as he turned and stubbed out his cigarette. “You are.”

 

***

 

Takaba had a feeling that the hotel didn’t usually provide room service to guests at 3am, but ten minutes and half a conversation in Chinese on the phone later, Asami somehow wrangled them the weirdest—and earliest—breakfast Takaba had had since that time his flight had been stranded in Cebu during typhoon season.

They ate in silence, Takaba sitting cross-legged on the bed with the plate of shrimp noodles resting on one knee and the duvet draped around his shoulders like puffy cape. Part of him was waiting, certain that any moment now Asami was going to look at him askance or say something slyly mocking about his near-breakdown on the roof. But as the silence dragged on, punctuated only by the occasional slam of a door in the hall outside, Takaba began to wonder if the man even remembered he was there at all. He was focused intently on the laptop at his desk, fine lines of tension around his eyes as he sat with one leg crossed over his knee. He’d barely touched his own plate.

“You know, I think these are instant.” He nodded down at his plate when Asami glanced in his direction. “I recognise the taste from the stuff we sometimes smuggle on board at work. It’s, uh, pretty easy to get sick of snacking on packaged peanuts and frozen pineapple cakes every day.”

Asami looked back at his screen without comment. Great. Takaba pouted, scraping the last of the gravy off his plate with the side of the fork and wondering if he was still too keyed up to get any sleep. Even standing up and walking the few metres into the bathroom to brush his teeth suddenly seemed like altogether too much effort, but that could have been the fatigue talking, the kind that had nothing to do sleep deprivation. 

“Was it guilt?”

Takaba, in the middle of reaching to put his dirty plate on the bedside table, froze. “Huh?”

“Your motivation for becoming a flight attendant. Did you imagine it as a way of making amends to your mother?”

Takaba set the plate down with exaggerated care before he spoke, trying to imitate the detached tone Asami had defaulted to, the blankly professional one he probably used when he was interviewing people. “No.” He flushed when Asami just raised an eyebrow. “I mean, my best friend had just graduated when he got a job with Headline Airlines. They were a new operation, so they were hiring pretty much anyone who applied.” The Even scum like me went unsaid.

“I assumed some form of nepotism was at work, given that your airline is a subsidiary of your mother’s.”

Takaba rolled his eyes. “Takato helped me get the job. Okassan didn’t even know I’d applied until after I started training. I ended up making things harder for her, in the end.” It certainly hadn’t been long before the rumours of her pulling strings on his behalf trickled down to the trainee dormitory. That had been a crappy week. “But I needed to the money to pay the fine for—you know. After I was released.”

Asami slowly folded down the screen of his laptop without breaking eye contact. “Your experience in solitary detention—it’s why you suffer from anxiety attacks in confined spaces.”

If Takaba tried to hold himself any more still than he already was, he’d probably crack in half. He didn’t know why he’d expected someone as sharp as Asami to miss that connection. “It’s usually fine,” he grumbled, finally looking away. “It has been fine, for years. It’s just, being here, in this completely stupid and fake situation, and trying to compete in front a bunch of people who don’t give a shit about anything, except getting a reaction from us that’ll play well on camera, for weeks and weeks…” He groaned. “I wasn’t supposed to make it this far.”

“I know,” Asami said, mouth quirking up at one corner. “Shinotake-san sees fit to remind me daily.”

“I was going to quit today.”

“But you won’t,” Asami said, standing in one fluid motion and walking towards the bed.

Takaba felt his face heat. “Damn right I won’t. I won’t give your boyfriend the satisfaction.”

Asami stopped at the side of the bed, still wearing that faintly mocking smile as he lifted a hand and cupped Takaba’s cheek. Takaba froze under the touch. “You still doubt me? Even after everything that happened between us last night. And this morning.”

“I don’t know what to think,” Takaba said, keeping his posture tense and refusing to melt into the heat of Asami’s palm despite his every instinct to give into it. The contrast between the warmth of that contact and the chill of the room creeping under the duvet speared gooseflesh down his back. “We don’t actually know each other, Asami.”

Asami’s smile faded. “You’ve never tried.”

Someone started banging on the door before he could reply. Takaba startled, shifting away from Asami’s hand and staring at the door as his pulse ratcheted up. Who the hell could it be this early in the morning? He glanced at his plate on the bedside table. “Room service?”

Asami let his hand fall back down to his side, and Takaba didn’t think he was imagining the flicker of anger he saw pass over the man’s face as he turned and went to the door. Takaba quickly pulled the duvet over his shoulders until he was all but cocooned inside. But what if it was someone from the crew? What if it was Sudou? His eyes slid over to the bathroom, but Asami was already answering the door, it was too late to dash inside—

“Asami-san!” Mitarai said, somehow managing to sound both groggy and pushy. “Matsuda called me an hour ago to say he saw you and Takaba-kun leaving the bar downstairs. But when we came up before you didn’t answer the door! Where were you? Is he in there with you now? This is perfect, we need to get something on camera to make it look like you’ll reject Sudou-san tomorrow— ”

Asami shut the door in Mitarai’s face. The knocking started back up immediately.

Takaba slowly unclenched his fists, letting Asami deal with the intrusion while he quickly stripped out of the man’s dress shirt and slacks, pulling up the topsheet to cover himself. (Even if Asami had seen the goods already—several times over, in fact—no, stop thinking about it, damn it, Takaba).

By the time Asami had sent Mitarai on his way, Takaba had turned himself into a duvet burrito, impervious to the man and any further attempts at grilling him about…things. Things he really didn’t want to talk about. He nobly resisted the temptation to stick his tongue out as Asami turned from the door and silently took in the sight of him wrapped up on the bed.

“There’s a spare blanket in the wardrobe,” Takaba informed him, before rolling over to face the window, which was easy now that he was cylindrical. He shut his eyes, and after a while heard the sounds of Asami moving about the room. Takaba didn’t think about it. He was done with everything, done with this day before it’d even really started.

Takaba was a few heartbeats away from actual sleep by the time the man slid into bed beside him, but Asami didn’t try anything. Or at least Takaba thought he didn’t—he was dead to the world a moment later.

 

***

 

He woke up later to a strong feeling of unease. Shit, had he overslept? Was he late for filming? But one blurry look at the window and the solid bank of darkness beneath the blind and it was clear dawn hadn’t even broken yet. Hell, he probably hadn’t even slept that long. But then why the hell was he suddenly awake?

He tried to move, and discovered he was still wrapped up chrysalis-tight in the duvet…and, worst of all, at some point during sleep, he’d managed to migrate into Asami’s arms. Even through several layers of down and fabric he could feel the heat of the man’s skin wrapped firmly around his back. He couldn’t see his face, but he could feel the man’s soft exhalation against the crown of his head. Whatever. It was fine. Takaba just had to get back to sleep, before Mitarai came back. Gradually, his body relaxed, and soon a warm wave of drowsiness was sweeping through him.

Then he heard it.

A scuffling sound in the darkness, the scrape of shoes against carpet. He watched as a shadow moved to the end of the bed, the sound of its breathing discordant beneath the drone of the AC unit. Someone was in the room. Takaba’s whole body went taut with fear, mind screeching at him to wake Asami now, even as his jaw clamped shut in terror. Shit.

The figure had stopped moving, but Takaba didn’t need a light to tell him it was watching them. He could just make out the silhouette—male, hair spiky and hands clenched at his sides. Sudou Shuu. Come to finish things now like a coward…But hell if cowardice couldn’t work when you were hit at your most vulnerable.

Takaba croaked, “Asami—”

It happened almost too quickly to process. The bedside lamp snapped on, dousing the bed in searing yellow. Beside him Asami had risen, and somewhere between one blink and the next there was a gun in his hand. He pointed it straight at the foot of the bed, at Sudou’s head. Takaba risked a look and felt his jaw drop. The broad-shouldered man standing there, watching them with wide, fear-stricken eyes was at once so familiar and so unbelievable that for a second Takaba was sure he was stuck in a nightmare. 

But the sound of Asami cocking the gun was very real. 

“Wait!” Takaba shrieked, grabbing the man’s hand and trying to catch his eye. The look he found there was chilling. “Please. That’s my friend!” 

Asami’s eyes cut to the foot of the bed, and though his stony expression didn’t so much as falter, he slowly lifted the gun to point at the ceiling. A moment later he re-engaged the safety. Oh, thank god. 

“Hama Takato.”

Takato crossed his arms, looking torn between wanting to punch Asami’s face, and pissing himself in fear. “Yeah,” he muttered. “Figured you’d remember.”