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BACHELOR AU—ALI & CLARK

ValVal
in General edited March 2016
It had all started out as something so silly and abstract. A joke. Well, maybe not a joke as much as something mildly exciting to do on a random Saturday afternoon. But even though she’d laughed about it with her friends, she’d also secretly been hoping she’d get picked. And not because she was desperate for a husband (she wasn’t). But because Ali always got chosen.

Ali always won.

Clad in high waisted shorts, a drapey tank, and her low-top Chucks, she intermittently stood and sat in line for what felt like decades, the cheap cushioned seats making her ass sore as she tried not to roll her eyes at every squeaky comment around her. The waiting area in the community center was teeming with women, their teeth whitened, blowouts fresh. The room smelled faintly of desperation, and everyone was fighting over wall outlets.

Speaking of which, her iPhone battery was at a paltry 21% by the time she’d finished filling out her questionnaire and it was her turn to get her headshot taken. The polaroid was clipped to her application with the words “Ali, 21, Waitress” Sharpied in tired, hasty scrawl underneath her smiling face. The production assistant had balked at her request to be professionally identified as “Thief,” simply because if she ever got on the show she thought it’d be hilarious (and sort of true!) to see underneath her name every time she was on screen.

No one who worked in television had a sense of humor.

The rest of the afternoon was sort of a blur. Ali didn’t lack for confidence, and couldn’t even remember all of what she’d said in her interview because it was all so inconsequential to her. If she didn’t get chosen, she’d probably have stewed about it for a few weeks simply because of her competitive nature, but she wouldn’t have mourned the experience. She’d simply find something else to do for the next few months that could hold her interest until she became bored of that, too. Ironic, really, that the woman who couldn’t be tied down was entertaining the idea of going on a show that, if won, tended to end in a marriage proposal.
She was simultaneously in disbelief and not surprised when she found out she’d been chosen.

She knew that, in person, she was the entire package, but what she’d been worried about was how she looked on paper. She was a college dropout with a boring-sounding job (only because her real moneymaking job wasn’t technically legal!), and she was a little younger than the average contestant. Against those odds, however, some casting director had pored over her interview video and application and had deemed her worthy, out of a pool of how many? Ten thousand? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? Well. Probably not millions.

But still!

She didn’t have a lot of time to tie up loose ends before it was time to head down to L.A. Her audition in Seattle had been one of the final locations for the hunt, and she’d had to beg her dad to let her use his credit card for eight new dresses. She had been prepared to pout, but it hadn’t really been necessary, because her parents had been sort of awed and star stuck that their daughter was going to be on TV. They were even going to host viewing parties for their rural Tennessee friends to attend, a thought which both slightly embarrassed and excited her. She loved the way her friends had all become mildly obsessed with the idea that Ali was going on The Bachelor. Even Julia, who hated shit like this on principle, was telling everyone who would listen, although Ali guessed that it was less pride for her friend and more the giddy excitement of her vague proximity to fame.

To her delight, she at least had the evening to prepare to meet the new bachelor the following day. A hotel had been booked near-ish to the mansion so that the girls didn’t have to emerge, rumpled, from a plane and then step immediately into the arms of their possible future husband. The night before her drive to the mansion, her sleep was fitful, to her annoyance, and she’d had to resort to popping half an Excedrin PM.
She didn’t want to admit she was nervous. But she was nervous.

The next evening, she plucked her eyebrows carefully in the hotel bathroom, shaving her legs, armpits, and vagina to within an inch of her life. She smoothly applied her most expensive-smelling lotion, and spent about 45 minutes trying to get her winged eyeliner just right. Once she’d slipped on her navy blue minidress and checked her reflection from every angle, it was time for her to climb into her own personal limo, where she and her driver would make their way through Calabasas to meet the man who the show’s producers would tell her nothing about. She picked at an invisible piece of lint on her knee, staring out the window at the L.A. lights that winked in the distance.

She didn’t know if she’d be the first or last woman he’d meet, or somewhere in the middle. She didn’t like all this uncertainty, but pretended to be unfazed. If she didn’t even end up liking the guy, at least she didn’t want to come off screechy and tense on camera. At the very least, this opportunity would give her slight fame and the possibility of free shit because of her celebrity status once it was over. At best, maybe she’d be the next Bachelorette and have two dozen men fighting over her. It was a win/win!

Finally, she noted the limo’s blinker was on, vaguely registered the driver’s, “We’re here,” and sat bolt upright, cursing herself for her sudden nerves. She hadn’t done anything gimmicky to make her first impression. They were supposed to give out a rose for that, but Ali had her tits. That was first impression enough. She didn’t need some squirrel mask or super soaker or whatever the fuck these desperate women who got sent home on the first night resorted to.

The limo came to a stop. Steeling herself, she took a deep breath, released it, and reached for the limo door with numb fingers.

She stepped out of the car, leveling her gaze at the besuited man standing underneath an arbor lit with twinkle lights.

And muttered, “fuck,” under her breath.
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  • She knew that he was going to be handsome. He was the actual fucking Bachelor, for God's sake. Of course he was going to be attractive. She just hadn't expected to have such a visceral, immediate reaction upon seeing him. From the distance, she could tell that his curly brown hair was just a touch too long. His crooked smirk was cocky, but inviting. He was tall, but not extremely so. His expression was open, and he seemed happy to see her, his little pointed canines bared. Again, she couldn’t quite be certain exactly how many women he’d already greeted tonight, but given the happy glint in his eye, she felt like the only one.

    She realized she was grinning, too.

    The clack of her heels was so loud on the walkway. He released his wrist and held his hands slightly out to greet her as she neared him. Her cheeks nearly hurt. She kept smiling even wider. She hated how the presence of a man she didn’t even know caused her to feel suddenly shy. The happy image of figuratively pummeling two dozen women in order to claim a prize she wasn’t even sure she wanted had vanished from her mind once she saw him. With just a glance, she felt pure, unequivocal joy. She just wanted to be near him.

    His hands were rough when he grabbed hers.

    “Hello,” he said, his voice husky. He had an accent—the word was about two syllables too long. “I’m Clark. It’s good to meet you.” His smile almost seemed to have a wink embedded into it, even though she felt winks were altogether cheesy. Something about him was just so playful and open.

    “Hey,” she found herself saying. “I’m Ali. It’s so good to finally meet you.” Tennessee manners found her, for whatever reason. He bent to kiss her cheek, and her arms wrapped around his neck. His suit felt expensive to the touch, and he smelled so freshly bathed, she wanted to lean in and smell his hair. Suddenly, she remembered she was supposed to be making some sort of first impression. This wasn’t just a man she had met at a party. She was competing against a lot of other women tonight, and if she got sent home on the first evening, she’d have felt humiliated. “You’re very handsome, Clark,” she said, mimicking his cocky grin with her own as she pulled slightly away from him. “You might even be as cute as I am,” she said bravely, and was rewarded by his abrupt laugh.

    Good. At least the bachelor had a sense of humor.

    “Maybe,” he said, and gave her hand a slight squeeze before letting it go. It felt private. Conspiratorial. She loved it.

    She dipped her chin just a bit, the haughty grin not leaving her face. “See you inside, then,” she said before gracefully walking past him, under the second stone arch and into the waiting den of other women, fingers curled around wine glasses, cackling, their heads bent back in excitement and buzzed giddiness.

    Quickly, she counted. She was the eighteenth woman to arrive. That made her feel incredibly annoyed. She reached for a glass of white wine. The women reached for her jovially, asking her name, her profession. They didn’t really care, she knew. They were just sizing up their competition. She introduced herself by name only, not caring to elaborate on her profession. Tamara, 26, had long, wavy red hair and was a civil litigator (and had incredibly fake breasts). Christina, a tiny 23 year-old real estate agent seemed shy, but was laughably gorgeous. Ali had forgotten about this part—the fact that she was going to be forced to make nice with these women, and felt a small tremor of panic. She was an expert at men (or so she thought). She was much less enthused about entertaining a slew of try-hards who were all, incidentally, trying to trap the very same man she’d just discovered she was unfortunately incredibly attracted to.

    Gradually, the remaining women arrived, and Ali weighed her own attractiveness against theirs. She easily had four of them beat, but Alexandria, the exotic-looking investment banker, and Tyra, the tall, dark-skinned beauty with the Nigerian accent, she wasn’t quite sure about.

    She hated this, actually.

    Ali loved a challenge, but the competition had never quite been this direct. They were literally fighting over the same man, and they all had to make an impression on him tonight. Six women were going home, and she could be one of them.

    She wouldn’t be.

    She watched, jealous, as other women selfishly grabbed Clark, her wine glass feeling warm and hard in her fingers as she clenched. She didn’t know Clark, but the fact that she was losing attention to him unnerved her, and after watching Alexandria throw her head back and laugh a little too forcefully, she decided she must take matters into her own hands.

    Pursing her lips, she topped off her wine glass and made her way over to the little alcove where Alexandria had nestled herself next to Clark. “Hi. Can I have a minute?” she asked cheerily, and the other woman’s nostrils flared, annoyed.

    Clark appeared happy to see her.

    He said his goodbyes to the other woman, as this was a customary way for a feminine hopeful to be ousted from his attentions, and Ali settled herself next to him on the cushioned seat, the slight chill in the air rising goosebumps on her very exposed legs.

    “You came back,” he murmured, and the fact that she’d left him wanting more gave her a great feeling of satisfaction. She bit at her lower lip, but tried to make it look sultry rather than nervous. “I felt like you needed more time to know me,” she said, her tone mischievous. He had a glass of his own—whiskey, it looked like—and he raised it to her. She toasted her glass to his lightly before taking a small sip. His gaze felt so heavy.

    He had so many women to choose from. She was but a blip on his radar, she reminded herself.

    “I don’t even know a thing about you,” she finally said. “You’re from. Where… England? New Zealand?” she teased. A small snort left him. “What an insult. Nah. Australia,” he answered jovially, taking a small sip of his own drink. “Moved here, started working in construction. My old boss passed away, rest his soul, and left the business to me.” Well, that explained how such a simple-seeming guy like Clark had landed himself the role of the Bachelor, she guessed. Dumb luck leading into wealth.

    She set down her glass and casually tossed her carefully coiffed hair over her bare shoulder. Brazenly, she touched his knee lightly. She tried to forget there were multiple cameras trained upon them, while simultaneously she worried about making sure she was angled toward favorable lighting. He grinned, slipping a hand over hers, almost conspiratorial in its subtlety. “I don’t know anything about you, either,” he reminded her, however, there was no malice in his tone. She sighed, half rolling her eyes in slightly dramatic fashion. She was going for blasé. “You will,” she said confidently, and he laughed yet again.

    “Probably,” he said.

    She was getting a rose tonight, whether she had to physically fight someone for it or not.

    But she wouldn't have to.
  • "Ali—she's gorgeous," his smiling Australian face would say in the clip that would air months later. His first little sound bite about her. "She's got this cocky little confidence about her," he'd continue with a small, fond laugh, his hand rubbing over his beard. "I like that."

    ~~~

    "Tennessee, originally," she answered, "but I live in Washington state now." She had bedded men with much fewer words than she'd given Clark tonight, but she supposed this bit was necessary. The small talk where you learned all the boring shit about one another that didn't ultimately matter. "I'm waiting tables right now," she added quickly, trying to gloss over this fact, "you know, until something better comes along."

    She gave him a small, mischievous smile but had to hold back a laugh at her next thought:

    Something better like you becoming my Sugar Daddy.

    To her delight, he didn't purse his lips or give her a reproving look for not completely having her life together at the tender age of 21. He looked a good bit older. Maybe not quite 30, but close to it. He had the beginnings of sun damage on his tanned, lovely face—which made sense, considering he worked outside. She loved that he wasn't some clean-shaven investment banker or something terrible like that. And, of course, she loved that a blue collar man could be rich.

    "Excuse me!" interjected a cheerful voice behind her. She turned to see a girl whose name she couldn't remember, a petite blonde with an atrocious gel manicure. Seriously? This was who was about to oust her from her rightful place next to Clark? "Hi, yeah, sorry," the voice said, and Ali felt her legs uncrossing, her body moving to stand as if guided by some divine hand. Relenting. She looked down at Clark, and although he was still smiling, she saw an apology in his eyes. Whatever. Liar. He was loving this. Women fighting over him like oddly civilized cats. Plotting how they'd steal him away from every other girl. At every turn, a woman was trying to impress him.

    "See you later," he said, quietly enough so that only she could hear.

    Well, that made her feel a little better.

    Walking back to where the other girls had congregated, she felt dejected. Had she even had five minutes with him? Was it going to be like this the whole time? This felt so cheap and shitty. She wasn't used to being booted out of a conversation with a man by another woman. At least in real life she could throw her drink on the other girl. Here, if she did that, she'd quickly be dubbed The Crazy One and be doomed to have unflattering editing for the rest of the season.

    Ali may actually be a little bit crazy, but she wasn't going to allow them to give her that label.

    During a conversation with a couple of the other women that she was only half paying attention to, Ali made a small, bitter joke about wanting more alone time with Clark, and Brittany, who'd just opened up her own real estate firm, or something, laughed shittily. "Good luck with that," she said dismissively, and Ali felt offended, as if this were some personal affront against her and not just a statement on the nature of the show. Seeing Ali's look, Brittany elaborated. "I just mean, it's gonna be like this for a while." Ali felt chastened, and stupid for not having done more research, watching more episodes. She should have come here with a better strategy than just "I have tits."

    (Let the record state, it was still a good strategy.)

    She should've known better. Well, she knew now.

    "I mean, I guess we'll get to sleep with him pretty soon, right?" she joked, feeling pitiful and wishing for another glass of wine. Brittany gave her a sorrowful but smug look. Ali officially hated Brittany. The woman shook her head, her too-large forehead shining. "That doesn't happen until the fantasy suite. If you get that lucky, that is." Brittany sipped her wine. "After the hometown visits. Once it gets narrowed down to three, then you might get to go to the fantasy suite with him. I think that's like, a month and a half, two months from now?"

    TWO MONTHS?

    Ali felt a bit feint.

    Later, Clark was brought in to mingle with all the girls, and there were a few pathetic bids for his attention. A single red rose sat on a rectangular tray on a glass coffee table nearby, and even though she had admittedly only seen a few episodes of this show here and there, she knew that was the first impression rose.

    Having now officially spent much more time away from Clark than with him, she was feeling slightly chastened and mopey. If she couldn't use sex as a weapon, she couldn't feel as confident that she would emerge the victor—the rightful owner of Clark's heart, and penis. Her smile was a bit wan, but at least it was present, and she managed to get a couple of words in during their group conversation. When the host—an older man with a boyishly handsome face, whom Ali had taken an immediate liking to—announced that it was time for Clark to give out the first impression rose, Ali felt her body go hot from her hairline to her toenails.

    Clark reached for the rose, taking it in his work-roughened fingers, and held it while he spoke. Ali heard snippets of words, his Australian accent thick and nasally, but still, unfortunately, highly appealing—"the woman that really made an impression on me"—"wish I could give one of these to each of you." She prepared to step forward and accept her rose, but Clark's gaze did not fall on her. "Perla," he said.

    Her heart fell out of her body. It landed somewhere near a potted plant.

    "Will you accept this first impression rose?" he asked the incredibly clean-looking Asian woman with a Master's Degree from Cornell.

    She wanted to cry. She wanted to scream. If she couldn't win everything, all the time, at every turn—if she couldn't get all the points, be the best at everything, what was even the point of doing any of this?

    And even worse, why did this hurt so much?
  • Of course he's got an Asian fetish, she thought to herself bitterly. How fucking original. Wine glass still in hand, she crossed her arms and sucked at her teeth.

    She might've been getting slightly tipsy.

    Perla wrapped her thin Korean arms around Clark's neck after accepting her rose with an "Of course, Clark" and the rest of the women tried not to look too disappointed. Ali did note that Brittany's expression was particularly foul, and at least kept that image as a silent solace to herself. "Ladies, enjoy the rest of your evening," said Chris, the host, before slipping away again.

    Yeah, easy for you to say, you fuck.

    She felt so embarrassed. Couldn't he see that she was the only woman worth keeping around? How could she be expected to show him how great she was if she only got three and a half minutes alone with him at a time?

    Well, fuck it. She was going all in. She would ride all the rides. Show him every amazing thing about her in as little time as possible. If she made it past tonight, she would make it a point to constantly be doing yoga in her sports bra around the mansion. Show him how bendy she was.

    Brittany stole Clark away for a few secluded minutes, and Ali tried not to aggressively vomit all over the Mexican tile at her feet.

    At the rose ceremony that night, they were arranged in formation like some sort of deranged dance team. Every woman was equidistant from every other woman, and there was Perla over in the corner, smiling serenely with her rose. A pile of roses sat on the table—seventeen, to be exact—and the room was silent as they awaited Clark's arrival. She felt so robbed. She needed more time with him, that was all! It was unfair to expect her to convince Clark of her worth in just a few minutes. Minutes which she'd spent playing hard to get. Had she been too coy? Was Clark not up to the challenge? Well, if he wasn't, then she didn't want him, anyway!

    He stepped into the room alongside the host. God, he was cute. "Good evening, ladies," he greeted Australianly. A variety of returned greetings filled the room, all their voices high and giddy and filled with nervous energy. Ali had kept it simple with a "Hi," which he likely didn't hear anyway.

    He gave some sort of canned speech that'd probably just been fed to him by a producer, and Ali barely listened. She stared with great intensity at the pile of roses on the table before him, her vision blurring and focusing, blurring again. Each of those roses represented a woman who was staying tonight. A woman she'd have to compete with for Clark's affections. A woman he might eventually kiss, or fuck, or love. Or marry. Maybe all of the above.

    Why was she already jealous of this woman? Of these women? She'd only just met Clark.

    The winner of the competition stood in this very room, and the thought both thrilled and terrified her.

    "Alexandria," he said first, extending a rose for her. Ali felt sick as the woman pushed past her, triumphant, her heels clicking over the hardwood floor. "Will you accept this rose?" he asked, and the words had barely left his mouth before she responded with a confident "Absolutely." She took the rose from his grasp eagerly before hugging him, the embrace brief but tight.

    Alexandria returned to her spot, grinning like a jackass, and Clark reached for another rose.

    "Emily," he said.

    Someone was throwing darts at her chest. They had to be.

    "Brittany."

    Hopefully, they didn't have much usable footage on her. She couldn't bear to see herself on TV months from now, her singular episode because she hadn't impressed Clark enough for him to spend one shitty little rose on her. Humiliating. Disgusting. She couldn't go home so quickly and face her friends, her family.

    "Kristin."

    Fuck him. Fuck him so fucking much.

    "Maya."

    It wasn't so bad. Maybe no one would even remember this in a few months. She could pretend it'd never happened. Me? Oh, no, I never got rejected by the bachelor. You're thinking of someone else! Someone who isn't me, with saggier breasts.

    "Ali."

    She let out a breath. It was more than a breath, though. It was nearly a yelp. A couple of girls burst into quiet giggles. She ignored them as best she could, covering her mouth to keep it from gaping open and willing her legs to move forward and accept the rose that Clark was holding out for her.

    When he looked at her, there was no one else in the room. No Chris Harrison. No Alexandria. No Perla. No girl whose name she couldn't remember whose breath smelled vaguely of onions. It was just the two of them.

    "Will you accept this rose?" he asked. She liked the way he said rose. But only when he said it to her.

    "Yes," she said breathlessly, nodding and taking it from him, a bit more forcefully than she'd meant.

    She did manage to compose herself enough to make the hug extra breasty. You know, just to let him know. He smelled like flannel shirts and axe handles and beard shavings—all the manliest shit in the entire world.

    Somehow, she made it back into Rockette formation, and she couldn't stop smiling for the rest of the rose ceremony. She didn't hear any of the other names being called, but when Chris announced it was time to hand out the final rose, Ali glanced around, looking at the rest of the girls who stood there, hands empty. One of the girls she'd spoken with earlier, Meagan, wore a worried crease between her brows. Sadly, Ali willed him to pick her, because against all odds, she'd been one of the girls Ali actually sort of liked.

    "Audrey," Clark said after a long pause.

    Poor Meagan.

    Ali managed a small, sympathetic wave to her would-be friend, who returned a sad smile before trudging over to give Clark a goodbye hug after the rest of the rejected girls said their goodbyes. He did truly look sorry for having to send these six women home. Clark was human, at least. Or either very good at faking. Still, Ali took a private sadistic pleasure in her rose. She got the best-looking one, honestly.

    Suck it, everyone.
  • Despite the fact that she'd had maybe five minutes total with Clark that night, including their meeting and the brief conversation at the cocktail party, the evening had dragged on forever. There was a lot of sitting around, a lot of waiting. Clark hadn't even been there the entire time, much of it was producers urging them to talk about certain topics for the cameras (mostly Clark). They probably wanted a lot of footage to choose from for the first episode. Ali had tried to keep her best side facing the cameras, always making sure to give good face. She was aware that, having watched many reality shows followed by the post-show cast interviews, literally anything she said could be used against her, and maybe even edited to be completely misleading or taken out of context. If they did that to her, it was pretty much out of her power (since she'd essentially signed a waiver that said they were totally allowed to do that), but Ali was determined to portray herself as the completely normal but mysterious and devastatingly gorgeous woman that she was.

    That night, she and the rest of the girls moved their belongings into the mansion, and she had to end up sharing a room with two other girls—Kristin had asked her and another girl, Bailey, if they wanted to room together and she'd said, sure, why not? Having cleaned herself up and moisturized properly before bed, she found herself wanting to call her mom, which was something she almost never felt like doing. Maybe it was the fact that they'd taken all the contestants' phones away from them for the duration of their stay, or maybe it was the fact that she didn't feel like such a big fish in a small pond here. She needed reassurance from her mom, okay? She wanted to be told she was the prettiest and smartest and most capable, and she knew she could get that from her mom.

    Another half of an Excedrin PM was in order. She only needed a half because she was so petite and delicate.

    That night, she dreamed of Clark, her hands rubbing sunscreen over his warm, bare shoulders. There were sun spots here, too, in her dream. Clark was laughing about something. Ali was laughing, too. Then they worked out a math problem together using graph paper and glitter gel pens, because this was a dream, and dreams didn't make any damned sense. She awoke the next morning feeling slightly aroused by the Pythagorean Theorem.

    She was a bit unnerved that he was already working his way into her dreams. She chalked it up to the utter bizarre nature of the experience, and tried to Do Ali for the next few hours to keep herself distracted and centered. They had a day to themselves before the first group date. There was no gym on the property, so Kristin had the bright idea of running up and down the hill outside for some exercise. She, Ali, and Perla all filled up water bottles and ran sprints, legs burning, temples sweating, and laughed good-naturedly when Perla tripped over her shoelace and face planted in the thick grass. She wasn't hurt, so they weren't laughing AT her. To her dismay, Ali found that Perla was actually a pretty cool person, and she couldn't decide whether or not that made her feel better or worse about her getting the first impression rose. She'd had it in her mind that she was going to have to take this girl down, but it turned out she actually liked her. This experience was already so obtuse (thinking about angles again!) and confusing.

    Later, the girls were all called together into the living room and Brittany, 26, Real Estate Agent, Giant Forehead, waved around an envelope. She pulled out a card and began reading, eyebrows lifted high. "Ladies," she began theatrically, "for your first group date tomorrow, everyone will participate, and Clark can't wait to see you in action." Meanly, Ali realized that Brittany wasn't very good at reading things aloud and was trying to overcompensate by being a bit loud and overly animated. "Can you make this eight man scrum?" A chorus of giggles erupted throughout the room, but everyone was looking at each other in confusion. There had definitely been some double entendre there, but what did any of those words mean? Finally, someone asked, "What? Is that? Are those real words?" Ali and some of the other girls laughed. "This is when we need Google," Perla said, lamenting the fact that they had no phones or internet access. The rest of the card told them to dress comfortably in workout clothes tomorrow, because they'd be moving a lot, and Ali sort of wished she hadn't run that hill today.
  • ValVal
    edited March 2016
    The next morning, everyone donned their tightest but most presentable workout gear (naturally), using curling wands on their high ponytails and using setting spray over their meticulously applied makeup. Ali put on extra deodorant and made sure to use her perfume rollerball on her neck, the backs of her knees, and on the insides of her elbows. They were all driven to some random sports stadium about a half hour away, where they were directed inside with the cameras to find their host and Clark inside. Clark was holding something that looked vaguely like a football, and wearing some sort of sports uniform with the number 8 emblazoned on it.

    Oh. OH!

    They got it now.

    Sort of.

    "You girls look all cute and sporty," Clark complimented, pressing his fingers against the ball. Obviously, Chris was going to let him take the directional lead on this one. "Well, your clue yesterday was all a reference to this," he gestured at his adorable uniform. His thighs looked godlike in those short shorts. "I used to play rugby back in Australia, and we thought it'd be a good idea for you girls to sorta dip your toes into one of my homeland's favorite pastimes."

    Clark gave them a quick overview of the sport, accompanied by a short video on an iPad that Chris pulled out. The semantics weren't all that important, really. They were meant to make fools of themselves, Ali knew this. They were divided into two teams, and Ali's team got tiny green tank tops to pull on over their clothes, and the other team got orange ones. Before the game, Clark coached each team briefly, and at one point, he put his warm hand on Ali's shoulder, making her nearly shudder with delight.

    They pulled some of the girls to the side as the others warmed up—stretching, hydrating, that sort of thing—and Ali was one of them. "This game is so mine," she said into the camera with a confident grin, ignoring the fact that this was a team sport.

    She had missed her terrifying jock calling in high school in favor of being a popular, rich cheerleader.

    Clark was tossing the ball around with some of the other girls, and after her interview, Ali inserted herself into the semicircle. "I played soccer in high school," Brittany Fivehead was saying, "so this should come really naturally to me." God, she was so stupid. Had she even seen the video? "It's a little like it, yeah," Clark said, ever the good-natured and easygoing Australian Ali was finding him to be. There was something so approachable about him, but she could tell something was keeping him guarded. She knew he was sort of limited on the types of things he could say. He was the star of the show, and he had an image the producers wanted him to keep up. It made many of the previous bachelors before seem unfortunately generic, but Clark was able to inject his personality into conversations. "It's mostly throwing, though." Yeah, Brittany—what the fuck were you thinking? Ali caught a pass from Clark, and smiled, their eyes meeting briefly. His gaze may have flicked over her body, too. She was almost certain she'd caught him doing it, and it gave her such a brief thrill.

    They would be playing an abbreviated (and, she could tell, dumbed down) version of the game, they were told. Whichever team scored the most points in twenty minutes would get to continue on the group date with Clark, and the other nine girls would be sent back to the mansion to pout and drink. They learned what the "eight man" and "scrum" things had meant—that one was Clark's rugby position when he used to play, and that the other was some sort of play, or something? Ali heard Clark jokingly tell Chris at one point that he'd probably been too skinny to play the eight man, but his coach had let him anyway. Chris obviously had no idea what the fuck Clark was talking about, but laughed anyway, just as charmed by Clark as the women, apparently.

    The game was pandemonium. Some of the girls were impressively athletic, weaving in and out of defenses, but others were already wheezing and asking for water after just a couple of plays. Ali was aggressive, yelling for whoever on her team had the ball at the time to pass it to her, and elbowing her way through the sea of green tank tops around her. At one point, she had three girls guarding her.

    Ali was crushing it. She was a pro. She heard Clark cheer on by name once, hands cupped around his mouth. She'd heard him call other girls' names, too. Her team was up two to one, and her adrenaline was pumping. "Here! I'm open!" she called out to her teammate Kristin, her words a near guttural growl of intensity. She wasn't just going to help her team win to continue this date with Clark. She was going to be the damned MVP.

    The ball flew toward her in slow motion—Kristin wasn't incredibly coordinated, so the throw was a bit of a sloppy one, the ball flipping end over end rather than spiraling like a football, but Ali's vision was honed in onto it. She was not missing this ball. She reached out, the ball kissing her fingers, and she gripped it like grim death, pressing it to her chest as she ran, legs pumping, chest heaving.

    Defenders fell away from her peripheral vision like dead flies from a bug zapper as she thundered past them. She heard Clark's manly Australian cheers as she entered the end zone (or whatever it was called). Raising the ball above her head, she bellowed, "WITNESS ME!"

    The whistle sounded.
  • "Ali's pretty intense," Clark would say to the cameras later with a small laugh and his trademark crooked grin, looking impressed while he said it. "I really like her so far," he continued, "I wanna make sure she's here for me, though, and not just to win."

    ~~~

    Truly, Ali was competitive, and yes, she was here for the experience and possible ensuing fame. She wasn't ready to get married at 21. But given the nature of the show—trying to win over a highly eligible bachelor—it meant that the spoils for winning were REALLY nice—Clark was quite the piece of ass. None of these proposals ended up being real. Probably 95% of the couples didn't end up staying together. She wanted to have fun! She told herself while showering later (they sent the winning team home to clean up before the rest of their date) that her hurt and disappointment at not getting the first impression rose, and then not being the first name called at the rose ceremony later, was only a combination of nerves and the fact that she hated to lose. She would have some fun with Clark, for certain, but there was no way that marriage was her number one priority for coming on this show. It wasn't even in the top fifteen reasons to be here.

    It was a group date at the pool so everyone wore bathing suits and cover-ups that left as little to the imagination as possible. Why not go ahead and be as slutty as possible right off the bat? Honestly, it was Ali's M.O., so she was fully on board. Clark had been checking her out in her workout gear earlier, so she wanted to make sure he kept staring. She wore a turquoise triangle top bikini with a top that tied in the back, with a tiny little pair of cheeky bottoms.

    Did she mention that she had great tits? Maybe just a time or two? Well. She did.

    It was dusk by the time they were told to come outside to the mansion's pool (the losers from earlier had been carted away somewhere, and honestly, Ali loved how their somewhat shitty treatment seemed like a punishment for losing at rugby. It only made her victory sweeter!), and as usual, the bar cart was fully stocked. The producers loved it when everyone got as drunk as possible because that's when the best drama happened. Ali was young and excited enough to partake in the free alcohol, but smart enough not to get drunk and make a fool of herself. Not on the second night, anyway.

    Clark was already in the pool, his hairy chest wet, the curls on his head slicked back. He looked like he'd already been swimming. "Hey, girls," he greeted happily. A couple girls abandoned their drinks and started jumping in to join him, wanting to be the first to swim over to him and press their wet bodies against his. Maybe eke out a little alone time. It was both better and worse with half as many women. Ali slipped in gracefully, glass of Chardonnay in hand without messing up her hair. Alexandria and Bailey instantly pressed themselves against Clark on either side, breasts hoisted skyward as they angled their backs to look up at him. Ali knew better than this. If you were the first person to talk to him, you were the first person he was going to forget.

    The mini pool party was sort of nice for a while. The girls got to ask him questions, things about his family, his job. He had a little sister, Millie, who was a teenager and whom he obviously loved very much. That got a few "awws" from the women. He'd worked in construction since he was fifteen, so, thirteen years now. Which put him at the age of 28. Admittedly, he had no degrees, but he seemed to enjoy his work immensely, and work hard for the company he'd inherited. After a few minutes more of chitchat, Bailey slid her fingers into Clark's, asking if she could borrow him for a few minutes.

    She liked Bailey alright, but this process was so idiotic.

    Kristin paddled over to her, water sloshing, and stood up in the shallow end beside her. "My little assist got you some attention today," she said, and Ali laughed. "I'd have gotten attention anyway," she teased, because Kristin was cool and they could joke like that. There was no jealousy there between them. Not yet, anyway. Kristin laid her elbows on the edge of the pool and shook her head slightly to the side, releasing some water from her ear. "So, what do you think of Clark?" she asked Ali. "In love yet?" she teased. Vaguely, Ali registered a mobile camera lowering behind them, a boom mic descending over their conversation. Ali ran her tongue over her teeth, choosing her words carefully. "He's cute. Seems like a lot of fun." From her vantage point, she could see where Bailey and Clark had hoisted themselves up onto the edge of the pool, sitting on the side of the deep end. Bailey leaned in toward him, and while Clark was smiling, his overall demeanor was a bit of an enigma. He seemed so stifled sometimes. There were rules he had to follow, and Ali hoped he was a rule-breaker.

    Kristin liked Clark, she revealed, but didn't think those feelings were reciprocated, she told Ali, her tone slightly dejected. "Oh, I'm sure he likes you," Ali assured her, though she wasn't sure why. "He doesn't get much time with anybody. It's hard to really tell in like, five minutes, you know?" Kristin nodded, reaching for a nearby glass of wine.

    After a few more one-on-ones that weren't quiet one-one-ones (considering everyone could pretty much see everything that went on, even though they couldn't hear anyone else's conversations with Clark because of the distance), Ali decide it was her turn. She set her empty glass down at the edge of the pool, and made her way through the warm water to steal Clark away from Brittany. Really, that was all she wanted in life at the moment. To best that woman. Ignoring her sour look, Ali grabbed Clark's hand and dragged him to a farther corner of the deep end, legs kicking to stay afloat. They pulled themselves out of the water to rest their asses at the edge of the pool, and Ali noted with satisfaction that Clark had definitely watched the pleasing cascade of water over her breasts as she emerged from the pool. "That was quite a match today," Clark began, seeming impressed with her rugby prowess. Ali grinned, shrugging with mock humility. "I'm a natural at your sport," she said cheerily, a mischievous smirk playing on her lips. "Give me something a little more challenging next time," she added. A small chuckle left him, and he leaned in to talk closely against her ear. "Actually," he murmured, water dripping down his abdomen, "you kinda broke the rules a little bit," he admitted. Ali made a shocked noise. "No, I didn't. How?" she asked. Her tone was half flirtatious, but also half outraged! His teeth tugged at his lower lip, amusement in his eyes. "You were offside. But no one else knew any better, and I didn't mention it to our makeshift referee." He was referring to Chris, the show's host. He sat back a bit, toes drifting through the water. "I helped you cheat a little bit," he said. "So, you know, be glad." Ali scoffed good naturedly, shoving at his wet shoulder. "I didn't need your help," she insisted, but sat back a bit and smiled. "But thank you for it." Clark had broken the rules to help her win! Surely that had to mean he wanted to spend more time with her. He leaned forward, fingers curled around the edge of the pool. His hair was starting to dry a bit, the hair at the crown of his head beginning to lighten first. "I kinda wondered, Al," he said, and her heart fluttered. He'd already given her a nickname! "If you really cared about me, or if you just wanted to win."
  • Ali felt herself growing hot, feeling chastened and embarrassed at Clark's unexpected words. She averted her gaze from his, but she could see the dip in his shoulders as he let out a small, frustrated sigh. "I'm sorry. That came out wrong," he admitted. Clark didn't seem like the type of man to get flustered when talking to a woman, so it was odd to hear this from him. He put a wet hand on her shoulder, reassuring her. "I know it's still really early in all this, I wasn't trying to make this too serious all of a sudden. I picked a really shitty way to ask that." Suddenly, a producer appeared from behind a bush or something and bent to whisper something to Clark. "Sorry," he said to the producer, who then slipped away. These producers weirdly reminded her of the secret service, and she might have laughed if the situation had been a little less awkward.

    "Apparently, I've been saying too many dirty words," Clark said. "They have to edit those out, and it becomes a problem, I guess." They did both laugh a little at that, but Ali's was reserved, still hesitant. "You just seemed really into the game, and I couldn't tell if it was because you just wanted to win, or if you wanted to spend more time with me, I guess is what I'm wondering." Ali sighed a bit, meeting his eyes again. "Clark, I don't really know you yet, but I do get a feeling about you when we're together," she admitted candidly, sort of hating that she'd slipped up and called them a "we." Maybe he didn't notice. "I do wanna know you better. Yeah, I was excited about winning. I like to win." She smirked. "But the fact that winning meant I got to spend more time with you—it just made it that much better." It sounded like some cheesy line that she'd rehearsed, but it was the truth! She didn't know Clark, but she wanted to. She felt comfortable around him, and their mutual attraction was palpable.

    "I like that answer," Clark said, his expression impish as he narrowed his eyes. "I almost believed it." Ali scoffed and narrowed her eyes right back, leaning in close to him, their noses nearly touching. She looked into the clear blue of his eyes. "Are you calling me a liar, Clark?" she teased, and felt the temperature go up a few degrees between them. "I might be," he flirted back, raising a brow. She knew he was only teasing her—Clark was the type of man who knew full well that every woman here wanted him, even if they didn't. Their wet legs were touching. She wondered if he'd kissed anyone yet. She hadn't seen him kiss anyone yet, but that didn't mean it hadn't happened. Were they going to kiss now?

    This was the wrong venue for Clark, she realized. He wasn't the type of squeaky-clean specimen who looked good on a package of men's hair dye. He would look unnatural in the promotional photos for the show. His brand of flirting—the hooded gaze he was giving her now, the promise of something filthy underneath his seemingly harmless words. Clark was a little Australian slut.

    And she wanted him.

    Just when she felt like he might've been about to lean forward and kiss her, a cheerful voice interrupted them. "Clark?" it asked.

    Did this part get any better? It didn't seem like it would. This time she'd had even less time with him than before!

    Clark looked disappointed, but Ali tried to exude an air of indifference before Clark finally tore his gaze away from hers to look up at Lauren, a 25 year-old party planner with a brunette pixie cut and legs for miles. "Sorry," she said to Ali, not meaning it. "Can I steal you away for a bit?" she asked Clark, extending a hand to him in order to pull him up. "Yeah, sure," he said, plastering on what Ali now recognized as his camera-ready grin. He was rarely not smiling when the cameras were on him, and she knew he'd probably been instructed to look happy. Clark pulled himself up, then released Lauren's hand, and Ali stood as well. She turned, heading back toward the other end of the pool, not looking back to see if Clark was watching her or not.
  • The next day, one of the girls was to have her first one-on-one date with Clark, and then there'd be another cocktail party that night immediately preceding the rose ceremony. Ali'd had four cups of coffee that morning, her leg jiggling on the sofa as she and some of the other girls sat around the living room awaiting the message that would tell them who got to go on the date with Clark.

    Hearing the girls talking about the things they'd talked about with Clark in the brief alone time they'd all had with him, Ali began to feel a bit paranoid. They actually knew things about him—things like the fact that his parents were still married, that he hated cats, and that, laughably, he was afraid of birds. Despite the fact that Ali had chuckled at that, she found herself feeling jealous that he'd shared these things with these girls. Ali barely knew anything about him at all. She'd merely flirted with him the way she flirted with all men. She didn't need to know the minute details of his everyday life, so it shouldn't have bothered her in the slightest that he'd told these unimportant things to these other girls.

    It didn't bother her.

    And it really shouldn't have gotten on her nerves that Lauren got the first one-on-one date with him. There were eighteen girls left in the house, and only one man. Of course he couldn't spend a lot of time with Ali. She felt almost positive she was getting rose tonight purely for the obvious physical attraction between them, so she wasn't as worried as she'd been for the first rose ceremony, but she found herself incredibly bored and irritated during the few hours that Lauren was gone with Clark, despite the fact that some of the other girls had made shitty microwaved s'mores and were talking about things like blowjobs (Carly had never given one!), their high school days (Alexandria had been prom queen), and funny anecdotes (Kristin had been sunbathing at her parents' house one day, decided just to pee in the yard because she was too lazy to go all the way inside, and midstream, her dog ran in between her legs and got urinated on). The stories had been amusing, but Ali was distracted. She kept thinking of the ways the muscles in Clark's forearms had flexed when he'd hugged Lauren as they all watched from the window when he picked her up for their date. He'd been wearing a red T-shirt, and the color looked amazing on him, his eyes sparkling as he smiled at Lauren.

    Why had he picked her for his first date? He'd seemed slightly annoyed when she'd interrupted his brief alone time with Ali the night before. What had changed in the five minutes he'd spent with her after leaving Ali's company? The more time that passed before Lauren was returned to the mansion, the more irritated and suspicious Ali became. Had Lauren badmouthed Ali, shifting his perception of her? Or had Lauren just been overall more impressive than Ali? Maybe her typical hard-to-get tactics didn't work for this type of competition. Much like Clark seemed to be a little too rough around the edges for his role as The Bachelor, perhaps her usual brand of flirting didn't fit this format. She'd have to be a little more aggressive, she supposed. But what if that ruined the mystery? God, this was so confusing! She never had to think about shit like this. She just attracted men, and her wily charms intrigued them until she became bored with them. This was an altogether different animal.

    When Lauren finally returned, the girls who'd loitered around the living room swarmed near the door, wanting to hear everything about the date.

    Lauren had a rose in her fingers, and her lips wore a seemingly permanent grin. "Augh, she's got a fucking rose," groaned Carly, and some of the other girls expressed their irritation, too.

    This was fine.

    "They rented us a boat out on Marina del Rey, and Clark drove us out to this little island where they had a picnic lunch set out for us, with all these fruits and olives and little sandwiches, and wine," gushed Lauren when pressed for details. Now that she mentioned it, her short hair did look mussed, and Ali hoped to god it was from the wind on the boat and not some astronomically filthy grope session with Clark. Some of the girls made jealous yet appreciative noises as she went on. "We didn't really eat much, though..." Lauren added, trailing off at the end of her sentence.

    Of course, Ali would learn later that no one ate anything on these dates, not ever, and that Lauren was being fucking misleading, but at this moment, all she could think of was Clark's hand up Lauren's shirt. Lauren had a flat chest. There was nothing to feel!

    Lauren pressed her red rose to her pink lips. "He's a pretty damn good kisser," she murmured, a faraway look in her eyes, and some of the other girls made aggravated noises.

    Ali was fine with this. Totally fine. (Eye twitch.) He was probably going to kiss most of these girls before all of this was over with. She'd just have to be the best kisser, and she knew that part wouldn't be a challenge.
  • Lauren was understandably smug for the rest of the afternoon, so Ali naturally avoided her at all costs. It should've been Ali on that boat with Clark earlier that day! It should've been Ali not eating olives and watching the wind whip Clark's T-shirt tight against his body when he drove the boat out to their own secluded island. It should've been Ali kissing him, and it should've been Ali making a joke about Clark "easing it in" when he docked the boat.

    But it wasn't. It hadn't been, and she was going to have to deal with it. There were going to be more of these dates, and she was going to have to sit through more hours wondering if Clark was kissing another girl, offering her a rose. Talking with another girl about his fear of birds while she gently went down on him.

    She just had to get through tonight with her rose and maybe she'd get one of the individual dates tomorrow. There were going to be two.

    Her dress for that night was short and black, fitted at the chest but flowy everywhere else, the bodice accentuated with a deep V and a subtle amount of beading detail. Her makeup was flawless, and she slid a delicate pair of dangling earrings into her earlobes. "You look hot," Carly said, impressed as she walked by, pair of heels in hand. "I know," Ali replied dreamily, admiring her reflection.

    Ali immediately reached for a glass of white wine at the cocktail party, and given that half the girls hadn't had much time at all with Clark since the last rose ceremony (given that they were rugby losers and were punished very fairly, in Ali's humble opinion), there was a mad dash for at least nine of the girls to hijack him for the first part of the evening. "I mean, I guess it's fair," Kristin conceded. Ali shrugged, watching from a distance as Brittany placed a flirtatious hand on Clark's arm. In the corner, Lauren wielded her rose like a weapon.

    More wine.

    Kristin talked, but Ali barely listened. By her third glass of wine, she remembered that she'd barely had anything to eat that day. She also realized she'd been staring at Clark nearly the whole night, watching him react to what the other women were saying, feeling increasingly bitter at his every smile or laugh. She watched as Maya began to steal him from Emily, leading them to a more secluded spot at the back of the property that Ali could no longer follow with her eyes.

    "Fuck fair," she said, and ignored Kristin's raised eyebrows as she walked past her.

    Maya's expression was one of shock and irritation, but she conceded defeat when Ali asked, "Hey, can we have a minute?" She stepped away, dumbfounded and shooting daggers at Ali with her eyes.

    Maya was weak.

    Ali couldn't read Clark's expression, but that wasn't important right now. What was important was spending more time with him. "Hey," she said cheerily. "Hey..." he returned hesitantly, watching and waiting for her to speak again. "I heard you had a fun day today," someone said. Maybe it was Ali, but it seemed like someone else speaking the words. Clark's face was guarded. "It was a good day," Clark said after a moment, and even though he was trying to be diplomatic, in this tipsy moment Ali felt like this was the shittiest thing that he could have said. "Awesome!" Ali said, sarcasm dripping in her tone. "That's really nice for you. Amazing!"

    Clark's neutral expression shifted into something less pleasant. "Are you okay, Ali?" he asked, and she hated how he was being so formal with her, calling her by her whole name again. Well, Alison was her whole name, but he didn't know that. She wanted to be Al again. She wanted Clark to pick her first, over every other girl, every time. "I'm wonderful, Clark. I'm the most wonderful girl here," she said. A laugh left him, but it wasn't like the other laughs she'd seen from him tonight, with the other girls. This one felt mocking. It could've been the alcohol, but how was she to know? Clark must have taken slight pity on her, because his expression softened. "Look, it's okay. Try not to worry, alright? Everyone else is in the same boat. There are a lot of girls, and I can't spend a lot of time with anyone just yet." Now it was Ali's turn to laugh shittily. "No, only one of us got to be in a boat with you today."

    It'd have been funny if this whole scenario weren't so damn awful.

    Suddenly, the realization hit her that she was being irrational and crazy. Shame overcame her, and she averted her gaze. "I'm sorry, Clark. I'm sorry," she said. He reached for her, but she was already walking away. She was too embarrassed to face him again.

    She'd just given up all hope of a rose tonight. She wouldn't ever see him again after tonight, and he'd end up marrying Brittany in Bora Bora while she wore a hideous dress. Her veil wouldn't be big enough to cover her giant forehead, and they'd start working on their 2.5 kids immediately on their honeymoon, having hot animal sex constantly.

    Ali couldn't talk to anyone else until the rose ceremony. She went to the bathroom, willing herself not to cry (she still didn't want to mess up her makeup for the cameras), and a producer had knocked softly on the door when it was time for her to make her way to the ceremony.

    She didn't know if Clark looked at her at all when he started handing out roses, because she couldn't bring herself to meet his eye. Four girls weren't getting roses tonight, and that would bring the total down to 14. Lauren had one of them, and at some point in the cocktail party Alexandria had apparently earned one, too. That meant twelve roses were on the table before Clark.

    He started calling out names, and she barely heard him. She stood still, gaze pointed at the floor as girls stepped past her to happily accept their roses. Perla. Brittany. Maya.

    None of the names he called were hers.

    Numbly, she registered Chris Harrison's voice when he announced it was time for the final rose of the evening. The seconds that passed felt like years. Decades, even.

    "Ali," his Australian voice said softly.
  • She at least knew what the final rose meant. At best, it meant that someone controversial was going home instead of you, and at worst (which, this was), it meant that you were the controversial one. Ali knew she was going to be getting the crazy edit based on her drunken outburst at Clark earlier. She would be labeled the villain of the show, and all the most unflattering footage of her would be peppered into each episode from here on out. She would be hilarious comedic relief fodder for the viewers. Look at this unhinged woman! the narrative would communicate. Will Clark continue to keep her crazy ass around, or will she be sent packing back to the mental hospital she'd escaped from? Come back next week to find out!

    Again, it felt like someone else's legs that carried her forward. Clark asked if she would accept the rose, and she nodded, taking it timidly from his hand. "Yes," she whispered. His arms wrapped around her and hers around him, and she murmured a tiny "thank you" against the lapel of his suit. She felt an infinitesimal squeeze of his hands on her waist, and when she reluctantly pulled away to end the hug, he was smiling softly at her.

    No-Blowjob Carly was among one of the girls who was going home, and Ali was even too depressed to revel in the irony of that. Ali and Kristin's roommate Bailey had been another unfortunate cut from the competition.

    The girls had all heard what happened. At least, part of it. Maya had stormed back over to the group and told them what Ali had pulled, and then the rest of them watched as Ali stormed off, making a beeline for the bathroom. Seeing her face and body language, they had deduced that her conversation with Clark hadn't gone particularly well. She didn't tell anyone what was said, of course, and they probably had imagined multiple scenarios. Had Clark gotten angry at her for her poorly-timed interruption, which had admittedly been a dick move? Had Ali said something particularly cringeworthy and then stormed away, embarrassed?

    Yeah, that much had happened. It probably wasn't too difficult for the rest of them to figure out, actually. They were probably disappointed Ali hadn't gone home. That night, when the girls were getting ready for bed, it was just Ali and Kristin in their room, Bailey's belongings gone and her bed made as if she'd never been there at all. "What happened?" Kristin asked, and Ali shook her head. "I don't really wanna talk about it right now," she said, her voice weak, grateful there were no cameras around to capture her feeling vulnerable.

    So, the next day, she graciously and quietly accepted the fact that she was once again snubbed for both individual dates, losing a helicopter ride over the San Fernando Valley to Perla, and a date to see stand up comedy at the Laugh Factory followed by dinner at Chateau Marmont to Alexandria.

    If she just had more time with him, she could explain herself. Apologize. Show him that the person she'd revealed to him the previous night wasn't like her at all (even though she totally was).

    Both girls had happily accepted roses from Clark. Perla refused to kiss and tell, but Alexandria didn't mind sharing that she and Clark had totally made out.

    This was fine. This was so fine it was almost ridiculous.

    Their group date the next day was cheesy—the girls got mani/pedis with Clark—this was the studio's attempt at a heteronormativity joke. Hey, look at this hirsute, aging man, getting his toes done with the girls! How hilarious.

    He didn't get any polish, on either his hands or feet, and Ali found herself slightly disappointed at that.

    After that, they had all shopped at Whole Foods together, each girl responsible for picking out a handful of ingredients based on a recipe they'd been given, and all cooked a meal together back at the mansion. Clark wasn't completely inept in the kitchen—he at least knew how to turn the stove on and how to stir sauteeing vegetables—but Ali did make sure to take time to show him the proper way to hold a chef's knife.

    That probably didn't help her crazy image, actually. The cameras had probably zoomed in extra close on Ali's hand on the knife, adding in some horror movie sounds in post-production.

    Whatever. Clark had loved her tip. "You won't get a callus this way," she'd told him gently, and he seemed genuinely appreciative. She could see himself taking special care to hold the knife the way she'd instructed each time a girl handed him a new vegetable to slice.

    Her interactions with Clark that day had been few and benign. She had stood out quite enough two nights before, and was working to repair her image by presenting herself as a calm and beautiful individual.

    The next day, Clark had come by the mansion to visit the girls briefly, looking adorable in his rolled jeans and a casual button-down shirt. He told the girls how much he'd enjoyed their group date the previous day, thanking them for helping him prepare the lovely meal, and reminding them that there would be no cocktail party that night. They were walking straight into a rose ceremony in a few hours.

    Aside from Perla and Alexandria, none of the girls had gotten much time with Clark, but as more and more women were eliminated as the competition progressed, each girl's individual time with Clark would increase, and the amount of women sent home at each rose ceremony would decrease. Tonight it would be three, the next ceremony would have two girls packing, and after that, it would only be one, unless someone was eliminated by Clark on a date or chose to leave herself.

    Just a few nights ago, there had been twenty-four of them, and after tonight, there'd be just eleven left. There had been so many, and now it actually felt like the herd was narrowing quickly.

    That night, Ali received her rose dead center in the order—sixth—and decided she had skated by this evening. Kristin received the final rose, and Ali was fearful that her roommate's days on the show were numbered.

    The next morning, Emily read the latest card aloud, the girls yawning and braless in the early hour, bedhead and dragon breath galore.

    Ali got her one on one.

    "Thank fucking god!" she said with a relieved sigh, falling back against the couch cushions, and some of the girls giggled.

    It was time to show Clark the true Ali. And it was time to kiss those Australian lips.
  • "Ali's definitely sorta crazy," Clark had admitted to the cameras in his pre-date interview. "And to be honest, I kind of love that."

    ~~~

    A few of the girls—especially the ones who hadn't had one-on-one dates with Clark yet—seemed annoyed that Ali had been awarded the fourth individual date, but they were each personally invited to slob on Ali's gigantic knob.

    There were also other dates with Clark the day after hers—a two on one, and a group date, but who the fuck cared? Ali hummed to herself as she got ready, threading a thin braid into her carefully waved hair. The note had said to dress casually, adding that parts of the date would be indoors and parts would be outdoors, and she wore some cutoff shorts, one of her signature flowy hippie tops, and sandals. She was so excited—she finally got to be alone with Clark for HOURS, not just fragments of minutes. And she had the opportunity to get the first rose, which was something that hadn't even come close to happening yet. Clark got to choose who he took on one-on-one dates, and this time, he had chosen her. Despite what'd happened the week before, Clark was still interested in her, and she felt euphoric.

    Rather than having him pick her up, she was driven to Hollywood in one of the remaining limos, a thrill of anticipation and happiness thrumming through her as she watched palm trees roll past her window. They rolled up to the curb where Clark stood, and her grin was wide as she could see him through her window, looking boyish and playful and happy as he reached for her door handle. She bounded out of the car and into his arms, pulling him into a tight hug, and he wrapped his arms around her, lifting her off the pavement for a moment, her short legs dangling in the air. When he set her down again, she kept her hands on his arms, not ready to let go. Never ready to let go. This was the happiest she'd been in a week. Even with the camera crew and the staring tourists all around them, everything was Clark. There was only Ali and Clark.

    "Hey, Al," he greeted, and she was so overjoyed they were back to the nickname. "You excited about our date?" he asked, as if that was even a legitimate question. "I'm so glad to see you," she said, which was both an answer to his question and not an answer. She didn't care. She wasn't even worried if her words made her look desperate. It was just how she felt, and she was rewarded with a genuine smile as he slid his fingers into hers. They started walking.

    "So, first thing we're gonna do," he started, and she watched his Adam's apple bob as he spoke, "is get a tattoo." He glanced down at her to gauge her response, a playful smile making his lips twitch. "Oh my god!" she said with excitement. Clark appeared on the verge of laughter as he went on. "Yeah, apparently the one on my arm is a little outdated, and it's time for me to get something a little nicer." Ali laughed, sliding her free hand over the wrist of the hand that clasped hers, wanting to be closer. Yes, his tribal arm tat was awful. The girls had teased him good-naturedly about it. He stopped walking, and so did she, confused.

    "Were you really about to agree to that?" he asked dubiously, amusement lighting up his face. Ali shrugged a shoulder. "I mean, why not?" she said. "You mean we're not getting tattoos?" she asked, brows furrowed, a bit disappointed. Clark laughed, shaking his head. "Yeah. Well, no, but yeah. We're gonna get some fake ones. Temporary ones." He jutted his chin in the direction of the tattoo parlor ahead of them. "Thought it'd be funny to get each other's names, just for the hell of it, y'know?" he said. Ali giggled. "I love that idea," she admitted. All the other girls were going to be so jealous. Maybe she'd pretend it was real, just to freak them all out later. "I think you should get my name as big as possible on your ass, Clark," she teased as they stepped across the store's threshold, the door shutting smoothly behind them. "You've got choices, I mean. You can do Al, or Ali, or my whole name, which is Alison. Actually, my real whole name is Alison Anabel Abel. If you feel like being super verbose." Clark made a small snort. "That's your whole name? That's pretty adorable," he said. A meaty man greeted them at the counter, ink covering both his arms and snaking up through the collar of his shirt. He greeted them happily, and they did the same to him. "So, you're gonna get his name, and you're gonna get hers?" he asked, addressing each of them. They nodded. "Yeah, I'm gonna get Clark right here," she said, lifting her shirt slightly and indicating the area beneath her navel but above the waistband of her shorts, off to the side, just over her hipbone.

    Clark grinned. "Yeah, I think I'm gonna get Ali as a lower back tattoo," he said, and Ali giggled again. Ali didn't like the term "tramp stamp" and was glad he hadn't used it, but still felt it was kind of hilarious he was going with such a feminine tattoo placement. "You've already got a tattoo, don't you?" he asked her as their tattoo artists began setting up their stations. A binder was laid out with different styles of fonts, and they pointed to their choices. "Yeah," she said, "over my ribs. See?" she asked, pulling up her shirt to show a flat, freckled tummy. She watched Clark's eyes as his gaze skated over her flesh. He touched her navel playfully before she let her shirt fall back down over her tummy. He was such a relentless little flirt. She loved these small touches, and glances, which felt like their own little terms of endearment.

    They had their own little language already, she felt.

    "You've got cute freckles," he said, and she thanked him. "Y'know," he started with a small laugh, "in Australia we call freckles, well... never mind. I'll tell you later." His grin was mercurial, and she shoved playfully at his shoulder. "Tell me now!" she demanded, and he shook his head. "Nah. Later." She mock huffed. "Fine. Later."

    He was set up on his stomach, and she on her back, in adjacent angled stations that looked sort of like the things you sat on when you went to the gynecologist. She pulled up her shirt, tucking it into the underwire of her bra, and he took his shirt off completely. He faced her, grinning as their respective tattoo artists got started on their fake ink. "I'm gonna tell everybody this is real," she said to Clark, revealing her evil plan. "If I just act really nonchalant about it and don't give them any other details, I bet they'll start to believe me." Clark laughed. Ali really was an excellent liar, so it wasn't that far-fetched to think she could get away with her scheme.
  • There was still the matter of talking about That Thing that'd happened between them a few days ago, of course. Ali could tell, despite their easy flirtation, that Clark was thinking about it, too—his glances weren't without that infinitesimal nonverbal communication—but this wasn't the time to discuss it. They needed to be more alone, despite the fact that they'd never truly be alone. Not with all these cameras and mics and producers lurking in the shadows. Right now, things between them required frivolity.

    The start of this date was so silly and stupid, but she was grateful that Clark had wanted this with her. They weren't making any sort of real commitment to each other, not that she even wanted to, but they were marking each other, in a way. It was oddly comforting and endearing, watching Clark lie there as a skinny, balding man drew in swooping script over his lower back.

    "You know, I'm kinda disappointed you didn't get your fingernails or toenails painted the other day," she teased. "I think your fingernails would look really good with a nice pearlescent pink. Maybe lavender for your toes, since it's a spring color." Clark looked at his short, stubby fingernails as if considering her suggestion. "I've had 'em painted before," he confided, and her eyebrows went up. Ali was fairly certain Clark wasn't the type to enjoy having his nails painted interesting colors, even though it was perfectly fine for men to do so! "Really," she said rather than asked, surprised. He smiled fondly. "My little sister," he explained, and Ali made a small noise of appreciative understanding. "Yeah, she's put makeup on me, too. Everything, really. When my hair was a bit longer she used to plait it. Put clips and shit like that in it." He pointed to his scalp, then gestured toward her. "I like your little plait, there in your hair," he said, and she touched it, having nearly forgotten it was there. "Thank you," she said, smiling. "I bet yours looked better, though," she teased, and he let out a small, snorty laugh. "There's photographic evidence of it somewhere at my parents' house." Ali flipped her hair over her shoulder. "Maybe I'll get to see it someday," she said, and a corner of his mouth lifted. "Maybe so."

    When their faux tats were finished, they admired each other's new "ink," Ali laughing at how garish her name on Clark's lower back was. Hers, at least, looked a little bit normal. They were told to apply lemon juice to their skin every day if they wanted their tattoos to last longer. "I'll be by tonight to help you put your lemon juice on," Ali joked. "You're gonna wanna make that last."

    He put his arm around her shoulder as they made their way to her limo, which was parked on the curb half a block down. It was a short ten minute drive to their next location, Runyon Canyon, where they would go on a leisurely hike followed by lunch overlooking Hollywood, and she and Clark sat close together in the limo. They were both avoiding talking about what'd happened before the second rose ceremony. Ali would've loved to be happy to forget it'd ever happened, but it was gnawing at her. She wanted assurance that he wasn't mad at her, even though he was acting perfectly fine with her today. It still felt like something was wedged between them, and she wanted that barrier gone so the could be comfortable and themselves. Her hand on his knee, she leaned against him, enjoying the warm feeling of him beside her. She guessed it was time to rip the Band-Aid off so they could hopefully enjoy the rest of their afternoon. She hoped she wouldn't regret bringing this up. "Clark?" she asked quietly, not looking him in the eye. "Yeah?" he asked, and she could feel the vibration of his voice against her temple, which was pressed gently against his neck. She pulled away to look up at him. "Are we okay?" she asked, feeling a bit like a foolish teenager. He paused before he spoke, and for a moment, she feared the worst, even though up until this point their interactions had been easy and pleasant.

    Clark liked to avoid things—hard things, she realized.

    "Yeah. We're okay," he said, but his small smile was a different sort of one than she'd become used to in this short period of knowing him. His arm, which had been resting on the seat behind her, came around her in a soft embrace, reassuring her. "This isn't easy," he admitted. "Not for anybody. God, it's about the farthest fuckin' thing from normal there is," and she was a bit surprised to hear that he felt this way. She still didn't know his reasons for coming on the show. He didn't seem like a fame whore, and he didn't seem like a person who needed to find dates this way, either. "I mean yeah, you caught me off guard, but," and then she heard the smile return to his voice. "It's cute that you're jealous." She felt her face grow hot with embarrassment, and she experienced a hint of annoyance that he apparently enjoyed seeing her suffer, but she felt endeared to him, and relieved that he wasn't still mad at her. She wanted to reach up and press her lips to his, but this wasn't the place. Not in the car. Her hand splayed over his belly affectionately. With the easy way that they touched each other, it felt like they'd known each other much longer than a week. "Well, good. I was so worried you were gonna send me home that night, Clark," she added, once again hating to sound vulnerable, but she wanted him to know how much it'd hurt her, getting that final rose. Clark shifted a bit uncomfortably in his seat, and glanced over at the cameraman who had his camera pointed at their faces. "Can I tell you a little secret?" he whispered against her ear, and she nodded. "That wasn't my choice," he continued. "The producers... they made me do that. I get to pick who stays, but not what order you're called in." She felt simultaneously excited that Clark was confiding in her (the cameraman was giving him a dirty, warning look), and irritated that she would be played like that for some drama. "Okay, well. Don't ever do that again," she said, and he let out a small laugh, because they both knew it couldn't be helped, apparently. She'd just try to stay out of drama and focus on Clark so the producers wouldn't continue to target her for better ratings, or whatever. Suddenly, she pinched his tummy—not hard, but the suddenness of it was enough to cause Clark to yelp. "Shit, what was that for?" he asked, laughing. Ali smirked. "That was for getting off on my jealousy," she said.

    She hoped he'd learned his lesson.
  • ValVal
    edited March 2016
    Ali changed out of her sandals and into a pair of sneakers before the hike. Luckily, she was dressed comfortably enough, her clothing loose and breathable, and the slight breeze would keep them cool. They were each handed a cold bottle of water by the production team, and they started their ascent up the hill. Ali took a small dig at his age, asking him if he'd be able to keep up, but by the time they started to near their destination, Ali was starting to feel tired, and honestly? She just wanted to ride around on Clark's back. So he carried her the last few hundred yards to their picnic site, her arms wrapped around his neck, her front pressed to his back, his hands gripping her thighs. His hair smelled like sunshine and sweat, and she noticed the tips of his ears had begun to turn pink.

    Shit. She should have remembered to put on sunscreen.

    Their picnic lunch was set out before them with a bottle of wine, but before they sat, a makeup artist came over to touch up Ali's foundation and lipstick while a producer told her they weren't actually allowed to eat the food because of "chewing noises" on camera. That they could drink the wine, but the rest was just for show.

    Lauren was such a fucking little liar! Acting like they were too busy sucking face to eat. They literally weren't allowed!

    Ali hoped the producers would at least let her stop at a Qdoba on the way back to the mansion.

    The view of LA wasn't exactly the most picturesque vista on the planet, but there was something relaxing about how quiet and secluded it felt, looking down at the city from their vantage point. Ali sat cross-legged on their blanket, reaching for her glass of wine. Clark lay on his side, propping himself up on an elbow and facing her. Ali looked down at him and tugged gently at one of his curls before letting it spring back into place. "It's nice up here," she said serenely, and he glanced over his shoulder before looking back up at her. "Yeah, it is," he agreed, then reached for his wine as well.

    A rose sat on an oval dish at the corner of their big, comfy picnic blanket.

    They both became aware of it at the same time. "No pressure or anything," Ali said, and they both laughed a little. "You might even get the first one this time," Clark replied, referencing her earlier dismay about being given the very last rose in the second rose ceremony. "I might?" Ali teased. "You need a little more convincing?" Clark smirked, setting down his wine glass and pushing himself up on his hands.

    She felt her face go hot, and a bit like she'd left her stomach somewhere back in the limo. She loved this feeling—right before your first kiss with someone—the anticipation, the excitement, the lust.

    "Convince me," he said, smirking, and she felt his breath on her lips. His hand went to the back of her neck, and instinctively her fingers closed lightly over his wrist, their eyes closing as he leaned in.

    His lips against hers were soft, and wet, and his facial hair tickled her skin. When his tongue parted her lips, his mouth tasted crisp and cool from the wine. His kiss was firm, yet yielding. Clark kissed the way he spoke, with a playful confidence, and she found herself letting her hand slide down his forearm, and he drew his body even closer to hers, deepening the kiss.

    Each time his lips left hers and it felt like he was going to pull away, he surprised her with more, as if he couldn't get enough of her lips.

    When they finally separated from each other, she felt dizzy, and the way they smiled at each other was oddly shy, their expressions softer. Clark reached past her for the rose and she felt a giddy thrill go through her whole body. He held the rose between them, cocking an eyebrow, and started to say, "Ali, will you—" but she interrupted him with an abrupt and emphatic "Yes," snatching it from his grasp, and he laughed. He slipped his arms loosely around her torso, half lying on the blanket beside her, his face resting against her side in a position of lazy comfort, and she pressed her rose to her lips (which were slightly raw from his coarse facial hair) to smell it. "Well if that was all I had to do to get the first rose, I should've just kissed you the first night," she said, and was rewarded by Clark's gentle laughter, muffled against her clothing.
  • When she was with Clark, she didn't think of all the other girls he'd been kissing. She was so completely, thoroughly focused on him and his lips, his arms, his chest. Her muscles felt tired but good from the hike, and they took turns giving each other amateur massages. She had rubbed his shoulders, feeling satisfied when she saw his eyes flutter shut and make a contented groan. He'd rubbed her calves, which had somehow managed to feel intensely erotic despite its relative innocence. After they finished their wine, the hike back down had been easier in comparison, and the sun had started to dip in the sky, painting the sky a vibrant purple-y orange. They had one more stop on their date, and even though Ali was excited to see what it would be, she felt said that their date was over half over, and that it had to end so seemingly soon.

    They rode back into Hollywood, and were let out in front of a cute indoor/outdoor bar and restaurant with a hybrid rustic and modern feel, outdoor lights twinkling over a deep brown wooden arboretum. The place was rented out for just the two of them, the small dance floor cleared away of tables and dimly lit. A girl-fronted indie band was playing a mellow, dreamy tune on stage, and Clark reached for Ali's hand as they made their way toward it. This wasn't exactly the type of music Ali tended to enjoy best, but she appreciated the romanticism of it all. She turned to him, wrapping her arms around his neck, and he held her close while they swayed, so slowly they were hardly moving at all, making a tight, languid circle on the dance floor. Ali pressed a soft kiss to his lips before asking if he knew the name of the band that was playing. He shook his head. "Nah," he admitted. "I don't really listen to much music." Ali's eyes had widened at this confession, disbelieving. "How does a person not like music?" she teased. "I didn't say I didn't like it, I just don't keep up with it," he clarified, smirking. Her fingernails grazed over the hair on the back of his neck, which gave him a sudden glazed expression. Apparently, he enjoyed having his head scratched, like a puppy. That realization made her reach up to give him another small, soft kiss. "Well, I'll just have to get you up to date," she decided. "I'll make you a mix tape, like they used to do in the nineties," she joked, grinning.

    He said that it was a good thing his truck still had a tape deck in it, and they had smiled, and kissed some more, ignoring the cameras, forgetting that all of this was about to come to an end very soon. She felt so secure in his arms, like his embrace was a promise he wouldn't let go.

    But he did let go, eventually. They both did. It was time for their date to end, and reluctantly, they had to make their way back to the limo. "I'll drop you off at the mansion," he said, and she was grateful at least to have another twenty minutes or so with him. On the ride back, he let her drape her legs over him, sitting perpendicular to him on the bench seat, and she wrapped her arms around his torso. They held each other like that for a few miles, and were quiet. Affectionately, she placed a small kiss against his neck, and while she had merely meant it as a sign of affection, something shifted between them with the press of her lips to his neck, the skin firm and unshaven. Something rippled through her, a sudden intense need, and she could tell by the way Clark was looking at her, the way his body had stilled with her kiss, that he felt it, too.

    Their mouths met hungrily then, lips parted and tongues colliding fervently, chests pressed together. She sat up, straddling his lap then, and he had slid his hands over her backside. Her hands went to the sides of his face and they kissed in earnest, as if suddenly realizing their time together was about to be taken away from them. She could feel how much he wanted her, could tell it by more than just his kiss, and she knew he had to be able to tell, too, just how badly she wanted him back. Too soon, of course, the limo slid to a halt in the driveway of the mansion, and they both let out twin frustrated sighs, then laughed about it. "Ugh," she groaned, and Clark let out a humorless laugh. "Yeah. Ugh," he agreed. Begrudgingly, she climbed off his lap and readjusted her top, which had shifted out of place in the midst of their amorous relations. She reached for her sandals, and looked back at him before reaching for the door. "I really had a good time today," she said, smiling the dazed and drunken sort of smile that you couldn't help but wear after someone had kissed you like that. He leaned over and gave her one more kiss, this one chaste, but not without tenderness. "Me too," he said. "See you later, Al."

    She stepped out of the limo feeling euphoric that it had happened, yet sad that it was over.
  • ValVal
    edited March 2016
    When she walked back into the mansion, lips tender and hair mussed, rose and sandals in hand, several of the girls were waiting, slightly anxious, for her arrival. They sat perched and alert in the living area, as she'd done before when the other girls came home from their dates, waiting to find out of they'd be saying goodbye to one of the girls. She could see their physical reactions when they noticed the red rose in her hands as she made her way up the stairs. Some looked pissed, some looked weirdly proud. A part of her wanted to gloat—to declare their date such a rousing success that the other girls should just pack their shit and go home immediately—but a surprising part of her wanted to keep everything that'd happened today guarded and protected. Just for her and Clark. In a few months from now, it'd be all over prime time TV anyway, whether she ended up winning or not, so for now, she enjoyed having these happy memories for herself and herself alone. She was beginning to understand why Perla was being mum about her individual date. She didn't want to share her personal version of Clark with anyone else.

    "So you got a rose," Emily said, eyebrows raised. "Yep," Ali said, her lips smacking slightly, smugly in emphasis at the end of the word. She twirled it in her fingers and pressed it, again, to her nose for emphasis, lips curling into a smile. "I'm gonna head to bed, though," she said, exaggerating a yawn. She could wait to reveal her tattoo until tomorrow. She could really drag this out for maximum jealousy results.

    But when she awoke the next morning, she felt suddenly sad that she couldn't check her phone for a text from Clark, couldn't casually wait five hours to respond to him. She couldn't call her friends or mom or anyone and talk about how great the previous day had been. Today, he was going on a date with (she quickly did the math in her head) seven more girls—the two-on-one date and the group date afterward. Kristin and Emily had been chosen for the two-on-one, and she wished Kristin luck, even though she guiltily didn't want to wish any of the girls luck with Clark, not even the one she felt closest to in the house.

    This experience was doing strange things to her. Ali was a feminist, and her female friendships mattered to her, but when they were competing so openly and directly against one another, she found herself wishing sabotage upon the others, and while most of the others probably deserved it, Kristin didn't, and Ali felt like pure shit when Kristin returned to the mansion later without a rose. Clark had eliminated her on the date, and Emily had received a rose and was able to stay.

    Ali hugged Kristin, feeling guilty and sad, and while Kristin had seemed disappointed, she hadn't cried or become upset. "I don't think we really meshed," she admitted. "It felt really forced when I was with him, and we were always interrupting each other. You know how when you start talking and then they start talking, then you're both quiet for a few awkward moments and then you do it all over again, but it's not cute, it's just kind of weird and annoying?" Kristin had asked her as Ali had helped her fold her clothes, getting ready to leave the mansion. It was the least she could do. Ali nodded. "Yeah," she said, because she knew exactly what Kristin meant.

    Her bedroom was hers alone now, and it'd happened so quickly. Seeing those two dozen other women on the first night had felt so daunting—so endless. Now, it seemed, they were dropping like flies. The emptiness she felt from the sudden absence of Clark had grown further after Kristin had left, and by the time all the girls had returned home from the group date later that night, laughing and giddy—none of them with roses but none of them having been asked to leave, either—Ali had felt even more disconnected and uncertain than ever. Almost certainly Clark had kissed Emily on that two-on-one, and it was possible he'd kissed even more girls tonight. Ali was probably a distant memory to him, even though it'd been less than 24 hours since he'd seen her. She was still one of many, despite the dwindling number of them, and she felt increasingly foolish that she'd allowed herself to become excited about their possible future after their date.

    She got ready for the next night's rose ceremony in her now empty bedroom. She kept touching and smelling her rose just to remind herself that she'd been picked first, to give herself some sort of reassurance, but she'd been handling it so much that a petal fell off and onto the white wooden vanity. "Damnit," she cursed softly to herself, and plugged her curling wand into the outlet so she could at least try to take control over her hair, if nothing else.

    At the cocktail party that night, Ali unfortunately hadn't had much time with Clark. Just a couple minutes of small talk, given that the other girls who'd had no time with Clark since the last ceremony were looming nearby, waiting to steal Clark away from her, since she'd had the only one-on-one date. He had been sweet, and kind, but had said nothing to reassure her, nothing to indicate that she was the frontrunner, or that she had nothing to worry about. He was cordial, maybe even slightly distant, and when they parted, she felt even less confident than before.

    At the rose ceremony, at least, she got to breathe relatively easily. She and Emily each already had a rose, so she didn't have to stand there and worry whether or not her name would be called next. Maybe she was ungrateful for thinking it, but oddly, she felt robbed of the experience of being able to walk up to Clark in front of the other girls to accept a rose, hugging him gratefully. She hadn't gotten to kiss him tonight, and wasn't sure when she'd have the next opportunity. As the roses were handed out, Ali found herself becoming irrationally jealous of these girls whose names were being called, who were feeling the renewed confidences that being handed a rose afforded them.

    Maybe receiving the first rose wasn't as great as she'd originally thought. It meant it'd be even longer until the next time he offered her one. If he even did. Maybe he'd changed his mind about her now that he'd been around these other girls. Maybe her newness had already worn off—he had so many other girls to keep his attention.

    The energy back at the mansion was one of relief for many of them, but once again, Ali went to bed early, and despite the fact that everything had gone favorably for her—swimmingly, even—over the past few days, she wept silently into her pillow, hating what this competition was doing to her. Causing her to doubt herself, making her question everything.

    Even when she was the best, she somehow still felt the worst.
  • It was ridiculous for her to be feeling so sad. It'd only been a few days since she'd been truly alone with Clark (even then, the cameras and producers had been there), but he'd spent time with other girls since then, and she no longer felt like number one in his mind. This whole process was ridiculous—like Clark had said, nothing about it was fucking normal—but she'd originally only come on this show to be on TV! To do something fun with her life. She was young, she didn't have to know what she wanted to be when she grew up yet, and she could play around. She hadn't actually expected to really want to be with him. Did she want to be with him? She barely knew him.

    This was what Ali knew:
    1. Clark was really, really cute.
    2. Clark had money.
    3. Number two really didn't matter to her,
    4. Which was confusing.
    5. She liked kissing Clark an extraordinary amount.
    6. She didn't like it when other girls spent time with Clark.
    7. This competition ended in a marriage proposal, if everything went the way it was supposed to.
    8. Ali wasn't ready for marriage.
    9. She wanted to date Clark.

    So you could see where her feelings would be a bit discombobulated, yes?

    Without her phone or iPad anything to read, she had lots of time to think. WAY too much time to think. The rational, sane part of her knew it was crazy to hope that she could be with Clark in any sort of normal way. To think that went against the entire premise of this show. Wouldn't it have been so much nicer if she'd met Clark at a bar, like normal people did? Wouldn't it be ideal to date him casually and NOT have to live in a house with other women he was tongueing on a semi-regular basis? Not to even know these potential women existed?

    This wasn't a very helpful line of thinking, however, because it couldn't be that way. If she and Clark ever ended up on the other side of this as a couple, they'd be engaged, and very much in the public eye. She didn't even know why Clark even wanted to get engaged to a woman he'd just met. It just didn't match the person she'd been getting to know over the past couple of weeks.

    This, and the fact that he kept choosing foul people like Brittany and Lauren week after week reiterated the fact that she didn't know him at all. How could he like Ali at the same time as women like them? It just didn't make sense. She couldn't trust her instincts about him because there were these other facts she couldn't ignore.

    Luckily, everyone was going to have a change of scenery next week, the next leg of the show occurring in sunny Hawaii, and she could distract herself with the task of re-packing all her clothes and belongings, with the mundanities of air travel—going through airport security, stowing her carry-on luggage in the overhead.

    It was just too bad that Ali was an insufferably whiny traveler.

    The airplane seats were uncomfortable, and the small space made her antsy. The change in altitude made her ears pop and gave her a headache. She was bored. God, flying was so fucking boring! And why did people suddenly have to cough so much when they were in the air? And why didn't any of the girls want to talk to her on the flight?

    One of life's true mysteries.

    In their new hotel, she was going to go back to having a roommate for the next few days, so she ended up bunking with Perla. Their hotel was insanely gorgeous, a huge tiled deck sprawling out over lush vegetation and onto the beach, the water impossibly blue. Ali had been to Hawaii once on a family vacation before, but she'd been young, and unable to appreciate it the way she did now. On their first full day in Hawaii, she was excited to pull on a kelly green bikini (and show off her tattoo some more), apply a liberal amount of sunscreen, don huge sunglasses and head down to the pool for some Vitamin D.

    Most of the other girls had the same idea, and a pretty, petite cocktail waitress brought them drinks (hey, maybe Ali could hit on her when Clark was around and make him jealous! Or more likely, get herself eliminated). Ali indulged herself with whatever the hotel bar's signature cocktail was (it had lots of vowels in it), which contained rum and was pink and garnished with a fresh Hibiscus and really, that was all that mattered.

    Ali was just thinking about how their waitress had actually reminded her of a girl she'd slept with about a year and a half ago, her drink's straw haphazardly making its way to her mouth as she zoned out in thought, when she heard Alexandria and Emily squeal. "We've got a surprise visitor!" Alex had said happily at the same time as Emily's, "It's Clark! Look!" They hadn't been expecting a visit from him, so Ali sat up, watching the camera crew with, sure enough, Clark and Chris walking up the beach toward them. Clark looked handsome and sun-kissed in a T-shirt and shorts, and Ali set down her drink. She hadn't anticipated Clark even being around today, and hadn't done a thorough shave of everything like she usually did. She started to take off her sunglasses, but realized she wasn't even wearing any eyeliner, and decided against it. Ali was almost exclusively confident in her appearance, but she did like to feel prepared and that she looked her best. She didn't enjoy being caught off guard.

    Speaking of which, she hated how her heart had sped up when she'd spotted him. She thought she could ignore these weird emotions for a day, settling into the Hawaiian life without any feelings or drama. But she wasn't angry or irritated that he was here. It was quite the opposite, actually.

    The girls all perked up in their lounge chairs around the pool as the small caravan of men got closer to them. Ali took a quick sip of her drink for confidence before setting it down. "Hi, ladies! Welcome to Hawaii!" Chris Harrison said in that airbrushed white boy way he had of delivering every sentence. Clark was smirking and scanning over all the barely covered bodies of the women, then spoke after a moment.

    Ali arched her back a bit, but tried to appear mostly unaffected by his presence.

    Clark explained that over the next week, there would be three more individual dates, one for each of the girls who hadn't yet gone on a date (which meant Audrey, Maya, and the dreaded Brittany would finally get some prolonged alone time with Clark). After that, the rest of the girls (Ali, Lauren, Perla, Emily and Alexandria) would do their own group "speed date" with Clark, the details of which would be revealed to them shortly before the date. They would be in Hawaii for about a week, during which all these events would transpire agonizingly slowly.

    AND NOW FOR THE LEADERBOARD.

    image
  • Waiting for the other girls to return from their dates was agonizing, especially since they were becoming increasingly extravagant. Maya's scuba-diving date, followed by a candlelit (fake) dinner on the beach while fire dancers performed for Maya and Clark made Ali's hiking date seem so cheap in comparison. At the time, it'd been so cute and playful and, to her, special. Now it just felt like a Walmart Great Value Brand date. She knew Clark probably didn't have a lot of say in what happened on the dates, but it didn't make her feel any less cheated.

    After what Ali had pulled before the second rose ceremony, Maya had kept her distance, and Ali felt a dull, buzzing hostility emanating from Maya whenever they were around each other. The beautiful 24 year-old mixed race Pharmaceutical Sales Rep from Grand Rapids, Michigan was no friend of Ali's, and gave the younger woman an especially smug glance when she returned from her date, rose in hand.

    "I don't think she'll make it into the top three," Perla confided, and it seemed like a statement meant to mollify not only Ali, but herself as well. Ali was warming to Perla, but still considered her one of her biggest competitors and was wary of getting too friendly. Perla was always one of the first names called at every rose ceremony, and her relationship with Clark (Ali hated to think of him as being in relationships with these other women in addition to herself, but how else could you really describe this?) seemed to be on more stable ground than her own relationship with Clark. She tried not to look at Perla's full, pink lips and imagine Clark's mouth pressing against them. But there was something so genuine about her that, frustratingly enough, it was hard not to like her.

    And while there was a part of Ali who loved the validation of Perla's shit-talking, Ali didn't hate Maya. Not the way she hated Brittany. Maya represented Ali's brief but rapid descent into madness, and made her feel shame more than hatred toward the woman. Plus, what she'd pulled had absolutely been a dick move, even though she would never admit this aloud. "I'm not really worried about her as much as I'm concerned about Brittany," Ali replied, dipping her nail polish brush before sweeping a neat swatch of color over her big toenail. "I'm concerned with how she's managed to be near the top every week with no discernible personality traits." Perla giggled, and Ali smirked, pleased with herself.

    The next day, Audrey came home in quiet tears. No rose. As relieved as Ali was to have one less obstacle in her way, it pained her to see the girl, red-faced and embarrassed, disappear into her hotel room, hair curtaining her face out of shame. Audrey would leave without talking to any of the other girls, and later, Ali would find out that it was more the bizarre experience that'd cracked Audrey—being away from her family, guilt for leaving her dog behind, the fact that she'd quit her job to do this—more than the hurt she'd experienced from being rejected by Clark. Of course, there'd been that, too, but Audrey had been the unfortunate victim of this franchise. She wasn't made for this sort of thing.

    Not that any of them were.

    Well, maybe Brittany was. On their fourth day in Hawaii, Brittany returned to the hotel, triumphant, with a rose of her own. She had been asked to stay, despite being an awful fucking human. Ali wanted to kick off her sandal and throw it at Brittany's head. She had a large enough target. When Brittany started talking about her date, Ali walked out of the room, refusing to listen.

    This was probably how Maya felt about her.

    The "speed dating" event for the rest of the women wouldn't work exactly like traditional speed dating, considering there was only one man for five women. They would each take a turn with him—only five minutes each—and they had a list of rapid fire topics they were supposed to talk about. Each girl was set up in a different conference room with her own table and her own jar filled with folded up topics, the point of the date being to learn more about each other in a short amount of time, and Ali sincerely hoped the cheesiness was tongue in cheek. Ali was fourth in line, so she had to wait an inordinate amount of time for her mini-date with Clark so that each shot could be properly set up. Apparently, they weren't working with their full amount of film equipment and were having to move some of the lights and cameras around. When Clark walked into the room wearing a lightweight button-down and slate grey shorts, she couldn't help the big grin that spread across her lips. He was grinning back. She stood to embrace him, and he hugged her tight. When they pulled away from each other, he bent to give her a greeting kiss before releasing her arms and going to sit down at the small square table across from her.

    Ali was caught off guard staring across the table at him when suddenly one of the producers said, "You've got five minutes. The clock starts now. Go!" So, they were really serious about the "speed" aspect of this date, weren't they? Not counting all that time they'd spent leisurely moving around camera equipment, of course. Ali sat up, suddenly alert, and reached for a slip of paper from the jar. She unfolded it and read it. "Do you like the city or the country?" she asked, and Clark pressed his lips together. "Tough question. Ah..." He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling in thought. "There's no time to think!" Ali chastised. "We only have five minutes!"

    "Oh! Right. Ah... city," he decided. "Me too," she responded, smiling. "Next question." She reached, again, for a slip of paper. "You're not gonna let me pull one out?" he teased, apparently still amused by her competitive pushiness.

    Oh, she'd let him pull something out, all right.

    "What's something you would change about yourself?" she asked. Clark rubbed at his chin, and Ali raised her brows, expectant and already nearly reaching for the next slip of paper. "If I could be a couple years younger, I would," Clark said after a moment of thought. "I don't like getting older."

    "Hm," Ali said. "Interesting." She smiled again, this one mischievous. "I wouldn't change anything about myself." Clark laughed, but to her surprise, went into the jar just before she did and pulled out a question, trying to best her, obviously. She huffed, and Clark smirked, reading the question aloud. "Do you speak any other languages?" he asked, looking slightly disappointed at the question. Ali slumped her shoulders a bit, sorta sad that she couldn't impress him with this one. "No," she admitted. "You?" He shook his head. "Nah."
  • Ali quickly reached for the next question. What's your idea of a perfect first date? it read. Seriously? Why were these questions so fucking boring?

    She got an idea.

    Pretending to carefully read what was on the card, she asked, "Do you wanna leave and have sex somewhere for before the rest of our five minutes is up?" she asked, unable to mimic his singular eyebrow raise. Clark let out an abrupt laugh. "Does it really say that?" he asked, reaching for the slip of paper, and was quickly able to see that it didn't. He gave her a salacious look. "I'm gonna need more than five minutes," he assured her, and although she was disappointed he wasn't going to say fuck it and leave the date with her (likely they'd be marched right back into the room for breaking the rules, anyway), she was grateful to know that Clark wasn't just interested in quickies.

    He reached for another slip of paper, and she leaned forward, excited now, being able to see in his blue eyes that he wasn't going to ask what was actually printed on his paper. "What's your favorite position?" he asked. Out of the corner of her eye, Ali could see one of the producers begin to move toward them, but the other producer stopped him, grabbing his arm softly and holding up the other hand. He leaned in, likely telling the other to let them misbehave, see what happened, it might be good television. This is what Ali imagined he was saying, anyway, and thank god for that little deviant, honestly.

    "Reverse cowgirl," Ali answered happily, always having that answer at the ready. Clark's grin grew. "Doggy style," Clark said, and Ali leaned even further forward, loving to hear Clark talk about sex. It'd been weeks since she'd last seen a dick, and she was slowly dying inside. Her foot touched his underneath the table, and he leaned in closer, too. Ali grabbed another slip of paper, ignoring its contents. "Do you sleep naked?" she asked, her voice low. Clark's lip twitched. "After sex I do," he answered, and Ali nearly imploded at the thought of a naked Clark, post-sex. "Do you?" he asked. "Every night," she lied without hesitation. It didn't escape Ali's notice that Clark glanced down over her chest before lifting his gaze back to her eyes.

    God, he was such a man. She loved it.

    Clark reached for another piece of paper, thinking for a moment. "Are you—"

    A buzzer sounded. Five minutes already? What'd he been about to ask??!?

    "Time's up," said the more feckless of the producers, and both Clark and Ali sighed in frustration. "To be continued," Ali said as they stood together, slipping their arms around each other again in farewell. "Definitely," he whispered into her ear.
  • This was so stupid, she realized the next night. Rifling through her jewelry as she attempted to accessorize her rose ceremony outfit, it dawned on her how fucking absurd this was. She had essentially been flirting with Clark for almost a month, hadn't yet slept with him, and was openly competing against six other girls for the chance to MARRY him.

    She had never tried this hard for dick before. She felt suddenly so foolish.

    Ali had allowed this blind lust to let herself think she was falling for someone. Of course she was going to be thirsty as hell if she was denied the very thing that was the best part of knowing any man! She huffed, unhooking a bracelet from her wrist and letting it clatter to the dresser.

    She had come here to drink, have fun, look hot, and be on TV, and now here she was actually playing the game for reasons other than to say she was the winner? Actually being earnest about this shit? If she lost, now it'd be humiliating because she'd actually tried.

    And if she lost, she'd lose Clark, too.

    Clark was looking for a wife, not some playful flirtation. Well, he probably wanted the playful flirtation, too, but he had to know Ali wasn't wife material. She was just something fun to occupy his time until he was ready to get serious about the competition. Until he was ready to get down on one knee and ask Perla or Brittany or Alexandria to be his wife, and forget all about the few weeks he and Ali had spent together.

    It was possible this competition was making her bipolar.

    And it was also possible that the anger, doubt, frustration, and sadness all came after she'd been with Clark, then not been with Clark. Being around him made something ripple in her psyche, and then after he left, it was like she had a Clark hangover. Like homeostasis was trying to bring everything clattering down after she'd been so acutely euphoric.

    She didn't even know if she wanted a rose tonight. Well, of course she did, she always wanted a rose, but would it make this any easier, if she had one more week with Clark, then had to worry about being rejected all over again? Wasn't it best for him just to send her on her way now before her feelings became even stronger?

    She just didn't know how to feel.

    The only thing that made her feel in control in this entire competition was that she could leave. While that wasn't really the ideal scenario—she didn't want to appear weak—the possibility did give her a small comfort. She probably wouldn't do it tonight, but she knew it was a card she could play, and she was good at coming up with excuses (or, rather, lies). She could fabricate some reason to leave that made her look the least pathetic, and probably somehow noble.

    Needless to say, her feelings toward the whole experience when she and the rest of the girls arrived at that night's cocktail party were lukewarm, and when women began stealing Clark away (as they'd done, ad nauseam, every week before), she found herself quiet and a bit chastened. While she did imbibe, she only sipped at a singular glass of wine as other girls chatted animatedly with Clark, clad in another expensive suit and looking just as handsome as ever. She talked to Perla for a few minutes, speculating about their next possible location, but Perla was giddy and enthusiastic, the same way she was during every cocktail party, and was making the rounds with the other girls, feeding off other positive energy.

    She sat, alone, legs crossed and examining the back of her hand (had she gotten even more freckles in Hawaii?) when she felt a gentle, manly hand on her shoulder. She started, glancing up, but smelled Clark before she even met his blue gaze. "Al," he said softly, "you got a minute?" Dumbfounded, her lips parted. It unnerved her that he had an effect on her. It confused her that he was approaching her on his own accord, because it seemed to be a thing that happened so rarely. Usually, the girls were clamoring for his attention—The Bachelor rarely sought anyone out at a cocktail party. On shaky legs, she stood, taking his hand as she heard herself say, "Yeah, okay."

    They didn't walk far, seating themselves on an uncomfortable concrete bench. She folded her fingers in her lap, unsure as to what he wanted from her. Maybe he wanted to send her home. If so, she should've taken her chance tonight and removed herself willingly. She wished she didn't want to stay. In her peripheral vision, she could see his eyebrow rise, and the way he leaned in slightly, trying to gauge her facial expression. He seemed uncharacteristically unsure of himself for once, fidgeting slightly in his seat. "Is everything okay, Al?" he asked. Before she could formulate an answer, he went on. "You seem like you're not really here. Did something happen with the other girls?"

    While his assumption was off-base, his concern for her was something new—something she hadn't known that he'd possessed. A small, humorless laugh left her, and it held no energy. "No, nothing with the girls," she said. He took her hand and slid it to his knee, his hand clasped over hers in a gesture meant to comfort. "So, something with me, then?" he asked with a little ironic laugh of his own. She shook her head. "Well, maybe," she said, quickly changing her mind, then changing it back again. "I don't know. I think it's just this whole experience." A frustrated sigh. She decided to be brutally honest, and maybe the truth would set her free, or something. "I don't know what I'm doing here. It was fun at first, but now it's just. I don't know. I like you. This is like, a really bizarre way to get to know a person." Clark's hand squeezed hers. "I know. It is," he agreed, which didn't really help anything. "Are you... having doubts?" he asked tentatively, like he didn't want to know the answer, but had to ask. "Yeah," she admitted, because the brutal honesty thing was making her feel the most sure of herself she'd felt during this whole experience. Instantly, however, she felt sorry because there did appear to be hurt on Clark's face that he was trying to disguise.

    She just couldn't win for losing.

    "You weren't thinking of leaving, were you?" he asked. It was the way he asked it—the way his question was phrased, and the slightly vulnerable tone in which he delivered it. Maybe if he'd said, "So, are you gonna leave?" she'd have said yes. Maybe if his tone had been cold, or distant, she'd have said her goodbyes. But he hadn't. "I was thinking of it," she said softly, but before he could pull away, she quickly added, "but now I'm not." He gave her a small, boyish smile before leaning in to give her a soft kiss. This kiss was like none of the others before it. There was no playfulness or urgency. Just gentle affection and reassurance. "I want you here," he said after a moment. "I'd hate it if you left. We can talk about shit that's not sex, if you want. I'm capable of that, you know," he teased, nudging her shoulder gently with his own. She smiled. "Okay," she said quietly. "I'll be here as long as you keep picking me." She sort of hated herself for it.

    That night, he called her name second.

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Origami
Origami is the Japanese word for paper folding. ORI means to fold and KAMI means paper and involves the creation of paper forms usually entirely by folding.

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