“Have I told you how much I hate that you’re doing this?” Weiss asks. Blake pulls another shirt out of her closet—flannel, a green and blue plaid pattern that’s honestly kind of ugly—and wrinkles her nose at it for a moment before shrugging and tossing it onto the bed beside her open suitcase. It lands atop a pile of other, similar casual shirts that are waiting to be folded and packed.
“Repeatedly,” Blake says, glancing over her shoulder. Weiss is sitting on the edge of Blake’s bed, arms crossed and a scowl on her face. It’s an expression that, once upon a time, would’ve made Blake worry that she’d genuinely upset her friend. That was years ago, though, and Blake knows by now that mild aggravation is how Weiss shows love.
“I just want to make sure you know,” Weiss says. “You do know that this is insane, right?” Blake sighs. She glances through her closet one more time, finds nothing more worth packing, and closes the door. She turns around to lean against it, meeting Weiss’s gaze.
“It’s not that crazy,” she says. “It’s a lot of money, and—“
“A lot of money to get engaged to a stranger,” Weiss says.
“I’m not actually going to marry…whoever.” Blake waves a hand dismissively. The network had showed her a few headshots of some of the contestants when they’d finalized the list last week, but Blake has only seen five or six of the thirty people who are going to be trying to date her come next week. None of them had stood out to her.
“It’s a lot of money and good publicity, that’s all,” Blake says. “They offered me the job after that interview I did, okay? Was I supposed to say no to two hundred grand and a free international vacation?”
“When it involves having to get engaged to some idiot you’ve known for three months? Yes, absolutely you’re supposed to say no.” Blake rolls her eyes.
“It’s fine, Weiss,” she says. She’s tiring of the argument. They’ve been bickering about this since she got cast as the next bachelorette. “I’ll get to travel a lot, I’ll make enough money to stop relying on my parents, and it’ll make great publicity for my next book release. I write romance novels, going on the world’s most popular dating show is a great career move.” Weiss scowls harder, but doesn’t argue the point—because Blake is right, of course. She’d thought things through before she accepted the role.
“I just don’t think it’s actually about your career,” Weiss says. Blake frowns at her, not understanding. “You’re a little too okay with all of this, Blake. If it was only about your career, you would be more hesitant at the prospect of having to date a bunch of strangers.”
“It could be fun to get to know people,” Blake says, failing to sound convincing, even to herself.
“You hate people.” Weiss uncrosses her arms, leaning forward slightly. “I’m…concerned.” There’s genuine worry in her voice, and Blake sighs, unable to continue protesting when confronted with the rare sight of Weiss being so genuine. “It worries me to think that you might actually be trying to meet someone, and going about it in the worst way possible.”
“What makes you think that?” Blake asks.
“You haven’t dated since Adam.” Blake’s jaw clenches.
“I don’t want to talk about Adam,” she says. She steps away from the closet, walking over to the bed and picking up the first of the pile of shirts.
“I’m not asking you to,” Weiss says. “I’m just—it’s been a very long time, and you’ve seemed a bit lonely lately. That’s all.” Her voice goes soft at the end of the sentence, and Blake glances up to find love and worry on Weiss’s face. They hold each others’ gazes for a moment before Weiss clears her throat. “I don’t want you do something stupid on international television when you could’ve just downloaded Tinder,” she says. Blake smiles—there’s the Weiss she knows—and goes back to folding her shirt.
“I’m not going to do anything stupid,” she says. “I’m not looking to meet anyone, and if I was, I wouldn’t go after wannabe reality TV stars. But they’re going to fly me all over the world, Weiss, and pay me more than I made in four years of royalties off my last book.”
“When you put it like that, it sounds almost reasonable.”
“That’s because it is,” Blake says. “Now help me pack or get out of my apartment.”
“Just promise me you won’t actually marry someone you meet on reality television,” Weiss says, standing up from the bed and grabbing the next shirt from Blake’s pile. Blake rolls her eyes.
“I have standards, you know,” she says. “I promise.”
The minute Blake gets past Vale airport security and into the baggage claim, she spots the producer that’s here for her. It helps that the woman holding the sign that says Blake Belladonna on it stands out from the crowd. She’s both quite tall and incredibly attractive, with bright red hair and a smile that, even from a distance, sets Blake at ease. Blake makes her way over without much hassle. The airport isn’t too crowded at the moment, and she doesn’t have to worry about bumping into anyone with her wheeled bag.
“Hello!” the woman says the moment Blake is within a reasonable distance for conversation. “You must be Blake!” The smile doesn’t slip an inch, but it seems genuine, like the woman really is just excited to be in the airport on a Wednesday, so Blake manages a small smile back.
“That’s me,” she says, coming to a stop in front of the woman.
“Great!” The woman lowers the sign, tucking it under one arm. “I’m Pyrrha Nikos. I’m a producer with the show, and I’m basically going to be your shadow for the next three months. Any questions you have, anything you need, any time you want a break, I’ll be right there with you to help out. Sound good?”
“Sure,” Blake says. “I get breaks?” Pyrrha’s smile turns a bit mischievous.
“The cameras run 24/7,” she says. “But I know where the cameras aren’t.” Blake isn’t quite sure what to make of that, and it must show on her face, because Pyrrha keeps talking. “I’m on your side, Blake,” she says, settling back into a more serious tone. “Filming a show like this can be very demanding, physically and emotionally. It’s not officially in my job description, but I take care of whoever I get assigned to, and this season, it happens to be you.” Blake nods slowly.
“Okay.” She doesn’t love the idea of having a shadow, but she’d signed up for a complete lack of privacy for three months, and Pyrrha seems nice, at least. It could be worse.
“Okay,” Pyrrha echoes, nodding. “And I’m going to have to take your phone away now.” Blake’s hand goes to her pocket. She’d been told about this, of course; neither she nor any of the contestants are allowed access to the outside world during filming. No phones, no internet, no television. No news, unless something particularly world-altering happens and the producers see fit to inform them. Blake had signed a contract agreeing to all of it. It’s just a little different to be confronted with it in person.
“Right,” she says. “Could I just text everybody first? Say goodbye to my parents and everything?”
“Of course,” Pyrrha says, flashing that kind smile again. “Are your other bags tagged with your name? I can go get them from the baggage claim in the meantime.”
“Yeah, they are.” Blake recites a brief description of her other two suitcases, and then Pyrrha is walking away and Blake is unlocking her phone for the last time for the next three months. She sends a text to her parents, reminding them of the date that she’ll be on Menagerie—with two prospective fiancés, for them to meet her family before she makes a final decision. She refuses to think too much about that part. She texts Weiss, too, and her agent.
“All ready?” Pyrrha is back, carrying Blake’s suitcases. Carrying them, not rolling them, despite the fact that they both have wheels on the bottom. The weight doesn’t seem to bother her a bit.
“Ready,” Blake says, feeling anything but. This is all happening a bit fast for her. Despite her misgivings, she presses the power button on her phone, shutting it all the way off, and holds it out to Pyrrha. Pyrrha sets down one of the suitcases for a moment to slip Blake’s phone into her pocket, then picks it back up and sets off for the airport doors.
“Your phone will go in a safe in the mansion once we get there,” Pyrrha says as they walk. “It won’t come out again until we leave for the first international destination unless there’s an emergency. When we travel, it’ll go with our security team and be placed in the hotel safe at each place we stay. Sound good?”
“Sure,” Blake says. They step out through the sliding doors of the airport and onto the street. There are dozens of taxis and Ubers idling at the curb, waiting for travelers, but Blake’s gaze is drawn past those. At the end of the block, a limousine is parked. Its windows are practically opaque in the sunlight, its black paint job spotless.
“That’s our ride,” Pyrrha says, following Blake’s gaze. Blake shakes her head slowly at the ostentatiousness of it as she follows Pyrrha towards the limousine. The driver pops the trunk as they approach without getting out of the car, and Pyrrha quickly loads Blake’s bags in. Then they’re climbing into the back, onto bench seats that face each other, and Blake locates her seatbelt as Pyrrha taps on the partition between their section of the car and the driver. “We’re all set, Ren,” she says. There’s no audible acknowledgement from the driver, but Blake feels the car begin to pull away from the curb.
“How far is the mansion?” Blake asks, finally remembering how to manage more than single word answers.
“Depends on traffic,” Pyrrha says. “Shouldn’t be more than an hour at most.” She pauses. “Oh shoot, I forgot to ask if you needed to use the bathroom before we left.”
“I’m okay,” Blake says. Pyrrha gives her an embarrassed smile.
“I’m not used to picking people up at the airport,” she says. “I’ve only been assigned to contestants before, and those assignments happen after everyone gets to the mansion.”
“Really?” Blake says. “You seem so confident.”
“I’m doing my best,” Pyrrha says earnestly. “I put together a script for all of this last week.” Blake smiles. Pyrrha isn’t at all what she’d been expecting. She’d imagined reality TV producers as…sort of like comic book villains, or cartoon witches. Cackling middle-aged women pulling strings and pushing contestants to do increasingly stupid things for attention. But Pyrrha is nice, and genuine, and Blake finds herself relaxing a bit, some of the tension that had built up in her muscles on the plane ride fading away.
“What’s next on the script?” Blake asks.
“Well, I was planning to let you know that this car ride is the last time you won’t be on camera for three months,” Pyrrha says. “So if you want to scream a bit, now’s your chance. Ren and I won’t tell anybody.” Blake genuinely considers it for a moment, which is probably a bad sign.
“I don’t want to scream,” she decides. “Do you have any advice, though? About tonight, or just…the show in general?”
“For tonight?” Pyrrha says. “We’ll give you a list of everyone’s names before the rose ceremony, so don’t worry about trying to remember them all.” Blake hadn’t even thought of that, and she breathes a sigh of relief. “In general…just don’t overthink things. To be totally honest with you, most stars break up with their winners within weeks. You don’t actually have to make a lifetime commitment at the end of this, even if you have to pretend you are for the cameras.” Blake nods. She’d known this, of course. She’s been watching the show since she was a kid, and only three of the stars are still together with their winners. “But if something is working for you, go with it,” Pyrrha says. “This process really can work. It’s a one in a million chance, but if you do fall in love with someone here, don’t worry about the show or the cameras. Just do what feels right with them.”
“You really think that?” Blake asks. Pyrrha blinks at her, and she elaborates, “You think this can work?”
“Of course,” Pyrrha says. “Three months isn’t a long time to get to know someone, but some people are destined to be together. Don’t you agree?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, here’s hoping you get pleasantly surprised.” Pyrrha picks up a folder from the seat beside her that Blake hadn’t noticed before. “Now, I have some paperwork for you to fill out before we get to the mansion.”
“Are you ready for this?” Blake turns around at the voice and finds the host of the show, Coco Adel, descending the front steps of the mansion. She can’t help but be aware of the camera crew all around her, following Coco’s movements from multiple angles and filming Blake’s expression from several others.
“Not really,” Blake says, trying for a smile as Coco comes to a stop in front of her.
“No one ever is,” Coco says, returning Blake’s smile much more confidently. “Knowing that you’re going to meet the love of your life tonight? How does that feel?”
“It’s, um, definitely a lot,” Blake says. Coco is a little more genuine in person than she comes off as on TV, but she doesn’t radiate sincerity the way Pyrrha does. Her smile, though kind, is a little too manufactured to put Blake at ease.
“Well, I’ll be right over there if you need anything,” Coco says, gesturing off to the side, away from the path to the mansion door, where she’ll be off camera but less than a hundred feet away from Blake. “Your first suitor should be here in a minute or two.”
“Right,” Blake says. Coco reaches out, gives her shoulder a reassuring squeeze, and walks away. Blake is left standing…well, not alone, since there’s a camera crew all around her and Coco just off the path, but in a manufactured kind of loneliness. Nobody else is within view of the cameras, and no one is making a sound. When this shot plays on TV, Blake will appear to be waiting alone in the center of the path.
With that thought comes a wave of nervousness. Blake shifts her weight awkwardly and sticks her hands in her pockets. She’d opted for a suit and flats for tonight, though she has an incredible variety of formalwear with her thanks to Weiss’s packing efforts. It’s a chilly night, and Blake will have to stand out here meeting people for hours. She may have been living in Atlas for several years now, but she still isn’t used to weather any colder than the tropical heat back home in Menagerie, and the nights in Vale get cold, even in the summer. The suit had just made more practical sense than any of the dresses or heels in her suite upstairs, and she does look damn good in it.
Besides, pockets. Always a plus.
“Hands out of your pockets,” a camera guy calls from the side of the path. “Looks weird on camera.” Blake pulls her hands back out of her pockets with a practically inaudible sigh and crosses her arms instead. “No, not that either,” the same guy says. “Put ‘em behind your back or something.” Blake, feeling a bit like a grade schooler on picture day, laces her fingers together behind her back. She doesn’t have too long to feel disgruntled about it, because moments later, she picks up the sound of an engine approaching.
A limousine turns the corner and pulls to a stop next to the path.
Blake shoots a quick, panicked look at Coco, who smiles encouragingly, then over her shoulder at Pyrrha, who’s standing with the camera crew. Pyrrha gives her a little wave and gestures for her to turn around. Blake takes a deep breath and does so, facing the road just as the door of the limousine slides open.
A man climbs out. He’s blond, not too tall—probably only four or five inches taller than Blake, who isn’t exactly breaking any records—and wearing a suit without a tie, the first few buttons of his shirt undone. He grins the instant he makes eye contact with Blake, and Blake realizes that he’s actually quite handsome.
“Hey!” he says. He half-walks, half-jogs across the short distance between them. “I’m Sun.”
“Blake,” Blake says, extending a hand. Shit, is she supposed to shake his hand? Are they supposed to hug? She’s somehow forgotten every season premiere she’s ever seen of this damn show. Sun doesn’t question her; he just takes her hand and shakes it enthusiastically.
“You look amazing,” he says, squeezing her hand before releasing it. Like, seriously amazing. You’re gonna make some of the guys insecure.” Blake hadn’t thought of that, but it could be an unforeseen benefit of the suit. She knows what kind of people get cast on this show; at least a few of the men will be deeply perturbed by the idea of a woman failing to be traditionally feminine at all times, and she doesn’t want to waste any time on those types. This could be a great way to weed them out early.
“Not you, I hope?” Blake says, raising her eyebrows at Sun. He shakes his head vigorously.
“Absolutely not,” he says. “You look amazing. I’m just happy to be here.” That manages to drag a genuine smile out of Blake.
“I’ll see you inside, Sun,” she says, and he’s gone again, vanished up the path into the mansion. The limousine hasn’t returned with the next contestant yet, and Blake takes a moment to breathe, settling some of her nerves. He had been nice, genuine. If Sun is any indication, maybe Blake can get through the next three months. Maybe she can even have fun.
The next dozen contestants out of the limo dispel that notion entirely. There’s a particularly nervous blonde man named Jaune, who Blake doesn’t dislike but cannot imagine wanting to date, a man with electric blue hair who does finger guns at her and immediately kills any chance he could possibly have, and a slew of generically attractive people who offer her fake smiles and talk more to the cameras than they do to her. Blake finds herself getting bored.
“Hey.” It’s Pyrrha, coming up from behind her. Blake turns to look at her, her arms slipping out of where she’s holding them stiffly behind her back. Pyrrha is carrying a water bottle, which she offers to Blake with a smile. “So,” Pyrrha says as Blake drinks. “The next one is supposed to be a little shocking to you. I can’t tell you who it is, but…just a heads up, it’s someone you know.” A chill slips down Blake’s spine.
“Is it a man?” she asks. Pyrrha hesitates, brow creasing. “Please tell me,” Blake says. “It’s important.” They can’t possibly have brought Adam here. She has restraining orders against him in all four kingdoms and Menagerie; it would be illegal. It would also not be completely out of line with things she’s seen the show do in the past.
“Not a man,” Pyrrha says. “It isn’t anyone you don’t want to see, from what I’ve been told. Just surprising, that’s all.” She smiles sheepishly. “Maybe I shouldn’t have warned you.”
“No, I appreciate it.” Blake hands the water bottle back. “Thanks, Pyrrha.” Pyrrha smiles at her, and Blake hears the limousine motor in the distance.
“Back to your spot,” someone shouts from the camera crew, and Blake can’t repress an eye roll, even as she turns around and gets back into place. The limousine pulls to a stop by the curb, and Blake puts her hands behind her back again, straightening her shoulders. The limousine door pops open, and out steps—
“Ilia?” Blake says. Ilia climbs the rest of the way out of the vehicle, straightening up and meeting Blake’s gaze. She’s wearing a suit, too, with a subtle pattern to the dark fabric and a white shirt underneath.
“Hi,” Ilia says. She steps onto the path, and Blake automatically opens her arms for a hug even as her brain desperately tries to catch up to the situation. She hasn’t seen Ilia in months, not since last time she visited Menagerie, and now she’s…here? Competing on the show? The show about dating Blake?
“Ilia, what are you doing here?” Blake says as she steps back from the hug. “What’s—I don’t understand what’s happening right now.”
“I’m here to compete,” Ilia says, which Blake already knew, and which isn’t helping her comprehension of the situation at all.
“But I—you—“ Blake gestures vaguely between the two of them. “You like me?” Ilia’s jaw clenches slightly—nervousness. Ilia’s always been a terrible liar; Blake can read her emotions like a book.
“I figured it was worth a shot,” Ilia says. “We’re friends, we’re both hot. What more is there to it, right?”
“Ilia…” Blake shakes her head, still unable to quite process what’s happening right now.
“Besides, you could use a familiar face around here,” Ilia says. Her words seem…almost recited, like she’d planned what she would say on the drive over. “I’ve met some of the other contestants, and it’s a mess.” Blake can’t argue with that.
“We are going to have to talk about this,” she says. “I had no idea that you…had feelings for me.”
“Blake,” Ilia says. “Chill. It isn’t a big deal. I’m just here to see if it could be a big deal. That’s all.”
“We’re going to have a talk,” Blake says again, more firmly this time. Ilia smiles fondly at her, an expression that Blake has been seeing for years—and oh God, has it meant something this whole time?
“Okay,” Ilia says. “I’ll see you inside.” She starts to step past Blake, then pauses. She presses a quick kiss to Blake’s cheek and walks away before Blake can speak. Blake twists around to watch her walk up to the mansion, fully aware that she has a dumbstruck look on her face but unable to remove it.
Ilia has been one of her best friends since she was a kid. They’ve been in each others’ lives for two decades. Even when Blake was with Adam, he couldn’t pull her away from Ilia completely. And now Ilia wants to date her? She’d played it off, made it seem unimportant when Blake had asked, but Blake is supposed to get engaged at the end of this. Ilia can be impulsive, sure, but there’s impulse decisions and then there’s trying to get engaged to one’s best friend.
The limousine turns the corner again, and Blake is thrust back into introductions without a minute to dispel the daze that’s settled over her. She shakes hands and learns names without paying any attention to what she’s doing. She’s immensely, preemptively thankful for the list of names Pyrrha had promised her, because she’s already forgotten half the people here.
“Last one,” Pyrrha calls from her spot behind the camera crew, and Blake blinks in surprise. Somehow, she’s met twenty-nine people already. She’s been standing here for at least two hours, and the night is barely beginning. After this, she’ll have to talk to all of them, and then send half of them home. Pyrrha had warned her that they wouldn’t be done until past sunrise, but she’d thought that was an exaggeration. Apparently not.
The limousine motors sound, and the car pulls up to the curb. Blake straightens her posture one last time, facing forwards.
The limousine door opens, and Blake’s jaw drops.
It’s a woman who steps out. She’s tan, tall—taller than several of the men Blake has met tonight, even without heels—and her blonde hair falls to her waist in thick, wild waves. She’s wearing a simple purple dress, and as she gets closer, Blake realizes that it matches her eyes. She steps up in front of Blake, features slipping into an easy smile. Blake’s heart thumps in her chest.
“Hi,” the woman says.
“Hi,” Blake echoes. She makes a conscious effort to close her mouth, but she can’t stop staring. The woman is staring right back, deep purple eyes meeting Blake’s gaze without flinching. It feels—it feels intense, and Blake reaches out, unsure what she’s even reaching for. Not a handshake, or a hug; her hands hang uncertainly in the air between them for half a second before the woman catches them in her own. Her hands are warm, almost hot, and calloused where they touch Blake’s.
“I’m Yang,” she says, and Blake nods, because—well, she couldn’t possibly have expected that, but it feels right. Of course her name is Yang, of course her hands are steady and warm against Blake’s, of course she’s here; where else would she be?
“It’s nice to meet you,” Blake says, somehow managing to string words together. “You look beautiful.” Yang’s smile turns into a grin.
“You don’t look half bad yourself,” she says. “Very suave.” Blake feels herself blush, and is immensely thankful that, between her dark complexion and the fact that it’s night time, Yang probably can’t tell. Although the way her grip tightens on Yang’s hands at the words isn’t exactly keeping any secrets.
“Thank you,” Blake says, and she has another thought to voice but it escapes her completely. Yang just grins at her, and Blake’s mind empties out.
A quiet shuffling noise comes from the side of the path, and Blake suddenly remembers, for the first time since Yang stepped out of the limo, that she’s on camera. This is a show, and she needs to keep it moving. She takes a deep breath and smiles politely, trying to drag the intensity of her eye contact with Yang down a few notches.
“I’ll see you inside,” Blake says, squeezing Yang’s hands. Yang makes a face.
“You sure I can’t just steal you away right now?” she says. “I’m pretty sure I could take the limo driver in a fight.”
“You’re going to have to win the show first,” Blake says. “Then you can take me wherever you want.” She realizes as she says it that she’s mostly serious. Yang nods thoughtfully.
“Then I don’t have to steal a car,” she says. “Good thinking. I don’t need another felony on my record.” Blake stares at her until Yang clarifies, “Kidding. I think I have some unpaid parking tickets, though.” Blake shakes her head slowly.
“I’ll see you inside, Yang,” she says again, and this time, she reclaims her hands. The moment Yang’s fingertips slip away from her, Blake misses them.
“See you,” Yang repeats. She steps past Blake, close enough that their shoulders touch, and for a moment, Blake thinks she might pull the same cheek kiss move that Ilia had. Ilia had gotten away with it because they’ve been friends forever; if any of the other contestants had tried that, Blake probably would’ve told them to get back in the limo and go home. But if Yang tries it? Blake just might let her.
Yang doesn’t try it. She heads up the path towards the mansion, and this time, Blake doesn’t give a shit what the camera crew has to say. She shoves her hands in her pockets, trying to hold onto some of the warmth of Yang’s touch.
“That’s everyone, Blake.” It’s Coco, coming up from her spot off the path, and Blake shakes her head slightly, trying to remind herself again that she’s on camera. “How are you feeling?”
“A little overwhelmed,” Blake says honestly. “That was a lot.”
“It’s definitely a lot of people,” Coco says, and oh, right, Blake met other people tonight. “And it’s just the beginning. Ready to make some real connections?” Do I get a choice?
“Sure,” Blake says. Coco smiles at her.
“Let’s head inside then,” she says. “You have a toast to give.”
“Hey, Blake.” It’s Sun, emerging from the crowd of contestants with a grin on his face. “Can I steal you away for a bit?” Blake has barely lowered her glass from the obligatory toast she had stumbled through. Sun is assertive, Blake has to give him that.
“Okay,” she says. Sun’s smile widens, and he offers her his arm. Blake slips her hand around it a little awkwardly and follows him out of the room. Sun takes her down a hallway and into a room with a couch and a coffee table. A few cameramen follow them, though Pyrrha stays behind in the room with the rest of the contestants, talking to another producer. Blake does her best not to pay any of it any mind.
“So,” Sun says as he sits down on the couch. Blake settles in next to him, keeping a good few inches between their bodies. Sun makes no effort to bridge the gap; if he even notices it’s there, it doesn’t bother him. “Do you remember my name?” Blake rolls her eyes.
“Of course I do, Sun,” she says. Sun pumps his fist enthusiastically.
“Awesome, I made an impression,” he says. Blake suppresses the smile that tries to form.
“I remember you,” she says, then her eyes drop. “I don’t remember your shirt being that unbuttoned, though.” Sun glances down at himself, then back up at Blake, not a hint of shame on his face.
“I paid good money to be able to dress this slutty,” he says. “You’re lucky I’m still wearing a shirt.” Blake stares at him blankly, and Sun’s grin slips a bit. “That probably would’ve been funnier if you had context,” he says. “I’m trans.” The lightbulb goes off in Blake’s head, and she nods slowly.
“Top surgery,” she says, just to make sure she’s connected the dots right, and Sun grins.
“Yep,” he says. “Wanna see the scars?”
“You’re going to take your shirt off no matter what I say, aren’t you.”
“Yeah, probably,” Sun says. “Unless it makes you uncomfortable?” Blake shrugs. It might if Sun was pushy about it, or if he hadn’t asked. But as it is? This is definitely the least subtly she’s ever been flirted with, but Sun is respecting her physical space, and he had asked.
“Go crazy,” she says, and Sun starts rapidly unbuttoning his shirt. Blake’s eyebrows raise slightly when she realizes that he’d been hiding some impressive abs under there. Between the muscles, the easy smile, his strong jawline and genuine enthusiasm, he’s objectively very attractive, and Blake…Blake is not particularly interested.
Well, that’s fine. It’s not like she actually came here to meet the love of her life. She’ll keep Sun around, if only because he seems like fun, and who knows, maybe Blake will be able to develop an interest in him. She’s never dated thirty random strangers before; maybe it just takes some time.
“Those are scars,” Blake says, nodding in recognition as Sun pushes his shirt to the sides, revealing two thick white lines on the lower part of his chest. She isn’t sure what else to say. She doesn’t want to say anything rude, or overstep.
“Sure are,” Sun says. “And you’re cool with it? Dating a trans person?”
“Of course,” Blake says. “I’m not super familiar with the community, but I—“
“Can I cut in?” a voice interrupts. Blake looks up over her shoulder and finds a tall man with a cloyingly fake smile standing behind her, looking down at the two of them. Blake vaguely remembers him from his introduction—he had thrown a football at her; apparently he’d been an athlete in college—but she can’t recall his name. Calvin? Caden?
“We’re in the middle of a conversation,” Blake says after a moment. The man’s smile turns into a sneer as he glances at Sun.
“Yeah, I can see that,” he says mockingly. “Already got his shirt off, huh? Aren’t you moving a little fast? I thought you were classy.” Blake’s eyes narrow.
“You’re going home tonight,” she says. The man looks back at her, eyes widening.
“You’re going home tonight,” she repeats. “You can either walk away and enjoy the open bar for a few more hours before I send you home at the rose ceremony, or you can leave right now. Your choice.”
“What’s wrong with you?” the man says. “What’d I do?”
“Would one of you guys mind getting security for me?” Blake says, looking up at the camera crew.
“I’m going!” the man says, raising his hands defensively. “Crazy bitch.” Blake just about throws her glass at his retreating back for that, but she manages to restrain herself, and turns back to Sun instead. He’s staring at her with wide eyes, mouth slightly open.
“What?” Blake says. Sun shakes his head.
“That was so cool,” he says. “That was just—you really told him to fuck off, huh?” Blake can’t stop herself from glancing at the cameras. They’re not live—this footage won’t air for months—but it still seems strange to curse on TV.
“He was a jerk,” Blake says with a shrug. “And not very interesting. I didn’t remember his name.” Sun leans back against the couch, shirt still open.
“Blake,” he says. “You’re, like, the coolest person I’ve ever met.” Blake can’t suppress the smile this time, though she looks away to hide it. She will keep Sun around, she decides. He’s sweet.
“As much of a jerk as he was, though,” Blake says, “I do think I should go talk to everyone else. Can’t start playing favorites this early.”
“Aw, am I your favorite?” Sun says, putting a hand over his heart. Yang’s smiling face flashes in Blake’s mind.
“Don’t get cocky,” Blake says, standing from the couch. “It was nice talking with you, Sun.” She offers him a hand up, and Sun takes it, his touch not lingering any longer than it has to.
“I’ll see you at the rose ceremony,” he says, sticking his hands in his pockets and walking away down the hall, shirt still hanging open. Blake takes a moment in the room to collect herself, as she only has the cameramen for company.
“Hey, Blake.” It’s Pyrrha this time, not one of the contestants, coming down the hall. “How’s everything going?”
“Decently,” Blake says. “How many of them do I actually have to talk to tonight?”
“However many manage to pull you away,” Pyrrha says with a shrug. “The rose ceremony starts at five A.M.”
“Five—“ Blake goes to check her phone before remembering that she doesn’t have it. She glances at one of the clocks in the room instead. It’s a quarter past one.
“I can bring you coffee if you need it,” Pyrrha says.
“Tea,” Blake corrects automatically. “I think I’ll be okay.” She sighs. “Thanks, Pyrrha.”
“No problem,” Pyrrha says. “I should be by your side for the rest of the night, so if you change your mind, I’ve got you.” Blake starts to respond, but she’s interrupted by quiet footsteps in the hall. Pyrrha quickly moves to the side, out of the way, and reveals Jaune, who hovers awkwardly in the entrance to the room, eyes darting between Blake and Pyrrha.
“Uh, hi,” he says, looking more at Pyrrha than at Blake. “Sorry, is this a bad time?”
“No, it’s fine,” Blake says. She gestures at the couch. “Come sit.” She sits back down herself. Jaune crosses the room, looking around at each and every cameraman before he takes a seat. He puts even more space between himself and Blake than she had kept from Sun. He’s practically cuddling with the armrest.
“Hi,” he says again, actually looking at Blake this time—though he glances up at Pyrrha immediately afterwards, clearly confused by her presence. Blake hadn’t thought anyone could be more uncomfortable with being on TV than she is, but she’s clearly been outmatched.
“Just pretend I’m not here,” Pyrrha says, waving a hand at Jaune. “I’m crew, just here to help out Blake.” She smiles at him, and Jaune turns bright pink.
“Right,” he says, and finally turns to look at Blake. He’s clearly not focused on her, and maybe Blake should be offended by that, but she’s honestly just relieved that he’s more interested in Pyrrha than he is in her. He seems nice enough; this way, she can keep him around and send one of the ruder, shallower contestants home without worrying that he actually likes her.
Jaune stumbles his way through a conversation with Blake, then gets cut in on by a deeply uninteresting girl who claims to be an Instagram influencer, and who is also twenty-two. Blake decides after about thirty seconds that she’s sending the girl home tonight, though she doesn’t voice it aloud this time.
The rest of the night passes a lot like that. Blake has conversation after conversation with what she swears are the most boring people the network could’ve possibly cast. She makes a mental list of the ones she can stand and tries to remember their names for the rose ceremony. She tries to pull Ilia away repeatedly, desperately wanting a moment to talk about all of this, but other people keep getting in her way. Blake doesn’t actually have much agency in who she speaks to; whoever comes up to her first is pretty much who she’s stuck with.
Which is maybe why it’s four-thirty before Yang finds her.
Blake is taking a minute to herself—well, herself, Pyrrha, and three cameramen. She’s outside, in the small garden behind the mansion, taking deep breaths of the cold night air and actually enjoying the chill for once. It’s become boiling hot inside the mansion; too many bodies and too little space. Blake had abandoned her jacket hours ago, given it to Pyrrha to hang up somewhere and rolled up her shirt sleeves. Cold air is rolling over her forearms, drawing up goosebumps in its wake, and Blake is just closing her eyes for a moment when she hears footsteps behind her.
“Hey.” The voice is familiar to her, even after only hearing it once. She turns, and there’s Yang, standing a few yards away on the garden path.
“Hey,” Blake says, turning the rest of the way to face Yang and slipping her hands into her pockets. “You took your time.”
“Were you waiting for me?” Yang asks, smiling. Yes. Blake was. Blake is.
“Are you sure you’re going to measure up?” she says instead, avoiding Yang’s question with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. “Going last and all, I mean. At least half the people I talked to tonight had an introduction speech prepared.”
“No speeches,” Yang says. She takes a few steps closer, bringing them to a more natural conversation distance. “I—“
“Hey!” The voice comes from somewhere over Yang’s shoulder, and Yang turns to face its source, stepping a bit to the side to let Blake see, too. It’s the same man from earlier who had interrupted Blake and Sun, only he looks significantly drunker now.
“Can you get security?” Blake murmurs to Pyrrha. “I told him to leave earlier.” Pyrrha nods quickly, stepping off to the side and pressing a hand to her Bluetooth headset.
“Hey,” the man says, coming to a stop in front of them. Yang has put herself between him and Blake, crossing her arms over her chest. Blake steps up beside her and mirrors Yang’s pose. “You didn’t give me a fair chance,” the man says, pointing at Blake. “You didn’t let me talk to you.”
“You did talk,” Blake says. “And you were a dick.” The man shakes his head.
“Only ‘cause you were taking that guy’s clothes off,” he says. “That’s not allowed yet.” Blake flushes at the phrasing, the implications. The man steps closer, reaching for her arm. He never reaches her. Yang catches his wrist, her grip tight enough that her knuckles turn white.
“You’re drunk, dude,” Yang says. “And you’re already going home. Don’t get yourself arrested while you’re at it.” The man jerks his hand back, and Yang lets him go. He rubs at his wrist, glaring at her.
“Fuck you,” he says. Yang sighs, closes her eyes for a moment, and when she reopens them, they’re…intense. The look isn’t directed at Blake, but it’s forceful enough, even as an observer, that Blake’s mouth goes dry. She can only imagine how the man must feel beneath it.
“Leave,” Yang says. Her voice is low in both pitch and volume. The man takes a step back. Far up the path, at the mansion doors, Blake sees a few security officers approaching.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Blake says. Yang turns to look at her. For a moment, that intense gaze is fixed on Blake, and it weighs on her, heavy and inescapable. Then it’s gone, and Yang is blinking at her curiously. “No reason for us to be here while they deal with this,” Blake says, tipping her head at the man, who is watching the approaching security officers with a confused expression on his face.
“Sure,” Yang says. Without even thinking about it, Blake slips a hand into hers. Yang’s eyebrows raise slightly, but she laces her fingers through Blake’s and doesn’t comment on it. Blake tugs at her hand, and they start off, walking farther into the garden.
“Let’s find somewhere to sit,” Blake says as they turn a corner around a row of short trees, putting the scene on the path out of sight. “My feet hurt.” Yang smiles slightly.
“Imagine how all the girls in heels feel,” she says.
“I’d rather not,” Blake says, shuddering slightly. “My best friend didn’t think I should bother packing anything formal that wasn’t heels. I’m really, really glad I did.”
“Your best friend sounds like a crazy person,” Yang says, and Blake smiles fondly.
“She is that.” Something catches her eye. “Bench,” she says, nodding at a low stone bench a ways down the path. They make their way to it quickly, settling in side-by-side. The bench isn’t really meant for two, and Blake ends up pressed against Yang from thigh to shoulder. It doesn’t bother her. It feels…nice. Blake keeps their hands together, resting in Yang’s lap.
“I’m sorry you had to deal with that guy,” Yang says after a moment. Blake shrugs.
“He was just a jerk,” she says. “Not a big deal.”
“You seem a little shaken up, though.”
“Do I?” Blake takes stock of herself. Her breathing is a little elevated; her hand is starting to sweat in Yang’s—although that may have more to do with the fact that Yang’s entire body, everywhere it touches Blake’s, is straddling the line between warm and hot. Most telling, though, is the slightly shaky feeling throughout her entire body, the fact that she can’t quite take a steady breath.
“Yeah,” Yang says, and her voice now couldn’t be more different than it was when she told the man to leave. It’s gentle, unbearably so. “You sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine.” Blake’s next words are pulled out of her; she doesn’t mean to speak them. She can’t seem to filter herself around Yang. She’s used to saying a tenth of the things she thinks and only meaning half of what she says. But with Yang, she says anything, and it all comes out sincere. “It was just a little intense. You…were intense. That’s all.”
“Oh.” Yang’s hand loosens around Blake’s, like she’s trying to give her the space to let go. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“That’s not what I—“ Blake can’t even say that’s not what she means, because Yang does scare her. Not because of the way she had handled that man, or the way she had ever so briefly looked at Blake, but because—because— “You didn’t do anything wrong,” Blake says, tightening her grip on Yang’s hand. “You’re just—it feels like things matter, with you. Don’t you feel that?” Yang is silent for a long moment, and Blake wonders if she’s somehow come on too strong, despite the fact that Yang is here competing for a chance to marry her.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Yang says eventually. “It’s…weird.” Weird is one word for it. Blake would go with completely fucking insane or batshit stupid crazy herself.
“So, tell me about yourself, Yang…” Blake pauses. She doesn’t even know Yang’s last name.
“Xiao Long,” Yang provides.
“Yang Xiao Long,” Blake repeats. “You said no prepared introduction speeches, but I wanna hear your best improv. ”
“Alright,” Yang says. She takes a deep breath. “I’m from Patch, which is a small island off the coast up north. I grew up there and moved back after college. I’m a physical therapist. I have a younger sister, who’s basically my best friend. My favorite color is yellow.” She smiles at Blake. “How am I doing so far?”
“You sound like you’re at a speed dating event,” Blake says.
“And what is this show but glorified speed dating?” Blake shakes her head, looking away because Yang is grinning at her and it feels a bit like staring into the sun. “I like your tattoo,” Yang says after a moment.
“Thanks,” Blake says, looking down at her left forearm, where her rolled up sleeve has exposed the panther that curls across her skin. Yang’s left hand—the one that isn’t wrapped around Blake’s—comes up, and her fingertips hover over Blake’s skin hesitantly, silently asking permission. “You can touch,” Blake says, a little amused. “It’s not like it’s going to feel like anything to you.”
“Duh,” Yang says. They both know that it’s just an excuse to touch Blake, and Blake finds that she doesn’t mind. Yang traces the lines of the tattoo with careful fingertips, the contact comfortably firm. Her hand doesn’t leave the boundaries of the art, where she’d been given permission to touch. “Any meaning, or did you just show up and ask for something badass?” Yang asks.
“I got it for my dad,” Blake says, and again, it’s honesty pulled out of her by Yang’s…everything. “He has a pretty similar one that he got when I was born.”
“Huh.” Yang’s fingers stop moving, but they don’t leave her skin. “I guess you’re pretty close with your parents, then?”
“I am now. It was…complicated for awhile.” Blake sighs. “Sorry, this isn’t really first date conversation. I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”
“It’s all good,” Yang says, but Blake shakes her head.
“I want to have fun with you,” she says. “It’s the first night. We can do all the depressing shit later.” Yang shrugs.
“Whatever order you want,” she says. “We can go back to telling each other how hot we both are, that was fun.”
“Fishing for compliments?” Blake says. Yang grins at her, unashamed.
“Mostly looking for an excuse to compliment you,” she says. “Losing the jacket is really working for you.” Blake, who has been poorly flirted with by thirty different people tonight and is sick and tired of it, covers her face with her free hand to hide her smile.
“Flattery will get you nowhere, Yang,” she says, voice completely lacking conviction.
“Aw,” Yang says. “What will, then?” She finally lifts her hand from Blake’s forearm and wraps it around the back of her hand instead, cradling Blake’s hand in both of her own. “What’s the key to your heart, Blake Belladonna?”
“I…” Blake gets distracted for a moment by how dark Yang’s eyes look in the dim moonlight. She clears her throat. “I don’t know,” she says. “Your guess is as good as mine.” It sounds like a line, but it’s true. Blake has no idea what she’s looking for.
“Hmm.” Yang pauses for a moment. “Food?” Blake shrugs, makes a face that says eh without actually saying it. “That’s good, I’m not great at cooking. Uh…music? I’m not great at singing either, but I can totally serenade you—“
“Please don’t,” Blake says, cringing.
“No promises,” Yang says. “You’re a writer, what about words? Like, poetry or something?” Blake is shaking her head before Yang is even finished speaking. Words had been all Adam had. Smart, charismatic, deceptively kind, empty words.
“No poetry,” Blake says. “Unless you want revision notes on it.”
“Damn,” Yang says. “I’m just about of ideas. Guess I’ll have to just be myself, huh?”
“I wouldn’t recommend that, either,” Blake says. “I haven’t known you long, but you seem terrible.” Yang snorts.
“Uh huh,” she says. “That’s why you’re trying to crawl into my lap.” Blake blinks, looks down, realizes that she’s somehow slid even closer to Yang on the bench. Her shoulder is a bit behind Yang’s now, allowing her to press into Yang’s side. Blake could lean up a few inches and kiss Yang if she wanted to.
She kind of wants to.
Blake feels blood rush into her face. She pulls away, extricating her hand from both of Yang’s. She’s opening her mouth, readying an apology and an excuse about the chill in the night air—and really, it would only half be an excuse; Yang is like a space heater—when someone else speaks.
“Blake?” It’s Pyrrha. There are still other people here. Blake looks over towards the voice and finds Pyrrha standing with the camera crew. “Sorry to interrupt,” she says. “But it’s time for the rose ceremony. Yang needs to go get on set, and you need to make your decisions.”
“Okay then,” Yang says. She gives Blake another smile, this one a little nervous. “See you in a bit, I guess.”
“See you,” Blake echoes. Yang stands up slowly, starts to turn away, then pauses, looking back at Blake.
“I’ve had a really good time meeting you,” she says. “Um—good luck.” Blake nods, and Yang walks away before she can respond, back up the path to the mansion. The way Yang had spoken…does she think that Blake is going to eliminate her?
Should Blake eliminate her? She doesn’t really want to. Yang is the only person here that Blake feels a spark with. Not just a spark, a…a something, a weight to their interactions. But maybe that’s exactly why Blake should eliminate her. That weight is something real, and reality TV isn’t exactly the place to build a real connection. And even if it was, Blake isn’t here for that. She’s here for her career, for money and publicity. She isn’t lonely, no matter what Weiss thinks.
“Blake?” It’s Pyrrha again, and Blake shakes her head slightly, pulling herself out of her thoughts.
“Yeah,” Blake says. She stands from the bench. It’s cold out here now that Yang’s gone. “I’m ready.”
“Just follow me inside,” Pyrrha says. “You’re almost done for tonight.”
The rose ceremony is a lot less dramatic in person than it seems on TV. Blake marks down most of her choices on a list of names in another room, and Pyrrha tells her that she’ll get to step out and check that list every few names. The contestants stand in three rows on risers, carefully positioned so that no one is obscured by a taller person in front of them.
“Everyone.” It’s Coco, striding into the room and surveying the gathered contestants with a smile. Blake is suddenly aware that this exact moment is definitely going to be on TV, and she straightens her back slightly. “Blake,” Coco says, turning to face her. “How are you feeling? How was tonight?”
“It was really good,” Blake says. “Lots of tough decisions, but…I think I’m happy with my choices.” She hasn’t made all of them yet. She’s debating between keeping Yang or a brunette woman, a journalist a few years younger than Blake herself. She had been…nice. But Blake would have to check the list to remember her name.
It shouldn’t even be a question, but Blake can’t stop herself from asking it. She can’t decide if she wants to keep Yang here, risk…risk what? Blake doesn’t know.
“Sun.” The first rose is easy, at least. Sun grins at her and climbs down from his spot in the second row of risers, moving to stand in front of her. His shirt has been (mostly) rebuttoned for the occasion. “Will you accept this rose?”
“Absolutely,” Sun says. Blake smiles back at him and tucks the rose into his lapel. He doesn’t go for a hug or anything, just returns to his spot on the riser, and Blake reaches for the next rose on the table.
“Ilia.” This one is easy, too. Blake had never gotten the chance to speak with Ilia tonight. They need to sort things out between them, and besides…it’s nice, having her here. Blake is a little comforted by the presence of a familiar face. Ilia steps forward. She isn’t quite smiling, but Blake can see the happiness in her eyes clear as day. “Will you accept this rose?”
“Of course.” Ilia speaks quietly enough that Blake wonders if the mics pick up on it. Not her problem, though. She tucks the rose into Ilia’s jacket and smiles slightly before Ilia turns away.
“Jaune.” This one isn’t quite as simple as the first two. Blake has no interest in Jaune in any capacity, really, but he’d been nice enough, and his inability to form a coherent thought in Pyrrha’s presence had been entertaining. She can eliminate him later; tonight is less about who she wants here and more about who she doesn’t.
To that end…
“Neptune.” Blue-hair finger-guns man hops down from the risers, strolling up to Blake with a shit-eating grin. Blake doesn’t like him, either, but he’s bearable enough, and Blake had spotted him and Sun talking during the cocktail party earlier. They’d seemed like they got along well. Blake will keep him around for now, for Sun’s sake if nothing else.
“Okay, quick break then we’ll get back to it,” Coco says. A few of the contestants visibly slouch, knowing that this bit won’t be in the show.
“C’mon,” Pyrrha murmurs to Blake. They step out of the room, into a side hallway where a production assistant is holding Blake’s list of names. “Eleven more,” Pyrrha says, and Blake suppresses a deep sigh. It’s already nearly six. She wants to sleep.
The next five names go quickly. Blake doesn’t care about any of them. A few ask for a hug with their rose; Blake refuses each and every one. The camera crew readjusts, and Blake goes back out to the side hall, where Pyrrha offers her water and Blake memorizes the last of the names on the list. She still hasn’t made a decision about Yang.
And then, suddenly, she’s standing next to a podium with a single rose on it, and she still hasn’t made a decision.
Blake picks up the rose and spins the stem between her fingertips. It would be so easy to say a different name. It would take her a second to send Yang home. She wouldn’t feel that weight again. This whole thing would stay exactly how Blake planned it: a business venture. A three month world tour, a paycheck, and a breakup that she won’t even cry over, won’t feel a thing about. It would be—it would be safe.
Blake realizes, then, that she’s scared, and it makes her angry.
“Yang,” Blake says, tightening her grip on the rose. She hasn’t let fear make her decisions for her in years. She won’t start now.
Yang climbs down from the back row of the risers. She smiles as she approaches Blake, but her eyes are wide. When she comes to a stop in front of Blake, the breath she takes is a little bit shaky.
“You scared me,” Yang says quietly. Blake tries to smile and can’t manage it. You scare me. But that’s not true, exactly; Yang doesn’t scare her. Blake is only afraid of what the weight between them might mean.
“Sorry,” Blake says, matching Yang’s volume. “I didn’t mean to.” She has a role to play, so she clears her throat, raises her voice. “Will you accept this rose?”
“Of course,” Yang says. She takes the flower from Blake’s hands, their fingertips brushing together. Blake can’t stop herself. She raises her arms, holding them out for a hug. Yang doesn’t hesitate a moment before stepping into it.
Yang is warm, and she smells amazing. Blake’s hands brush against her hair where it falls down her back. Her arms are strong, and she holds Blake the same way she had touched her tattoo earlier: firmly enough to be comforting without clutching, without hurting, without digging her nails in.
It’s perfect, and Blake doesn’t know how much of it she can take.