Fandom: Viewfinder (Finder no Hyouteki/Finder series) by Yamane Ayano
Warnings: N/A for this chapter.
N.B. Please see the Chapter Index for additional information about this story, including disclaimers, cover art, and the original prompt.
Summary: Corporate lawyer Asami Ryuichi is the latest “star” of reality TV show, Japan’s No.1 Handsome Confirmed Bachelor. Flight attendant Takaba Akihito is tricked into signing on as one of the twenty-five contestants. But can he survive five gruelling weeks of competitive dating in order to win Asami’s heart?
Takaba’s stomach, deprived of food since a long-ago 7-Eleven ham sandwich, rumbled in agreement. It was probably telling that the first time he’d ever agreed with Sudou Shuu about anything was this.
“Look happy!” Mitarai hissed, shouldering the doors all the way open and pushing Confirmed Bachelor’s remaining contestants inside the meeting room, which had been converted into a library complete with old-fashioned lamps, wingback chairs and a flatscreen TV displaying a pixellated gif of a roaring log fire. The video juddered every five seconds as it looped and the same bit of kindling collapsed in a crash of silent sparks.
“Please take a seat, boys,” called Sakazaki from an armchair beside Asami, adjusting a gold-rimmed monocle that only magnified his bloodshot eye. Fei Long swept over to the room’s settee immediately, leaving Takaba and Sudou to cram themselves onto the loveseat opposite.
“Welcome to Professor Sakazaki’s study,” their host purred, taking a swig of sherry from his glass that left several drops dribbling down the front of his glitzy waistcoat. “Thank you all for joining me here in my private sanctuary of books and booze for a little chat — and a special surprise.”
Takaba swallowed. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Sudou leaning forward expectantly. Apparently the singer had used his two days off filming to buff, pluck and sculpt himself until he looked as sinisterly tapered as a knife. Well, Takaba amended as he crossed his arms and slunk down in his seat, a knife in a cream suit and crocodile-skin loafers.
“But first!” Sakazaki paused and chuckled, trying for distraction as the monocle fell right out of his eye socket. “I trust your one-on-one dates with Asami-san were truly affairs to remember. As our viewers at home saw, the time you spent with our bachelor was a unique opportunity to uncover and unlock the secret parts of each other otherwise left hidden by propriety — and clothes. Which brings me to the topic of your special time together in the Ecstasy Suite! May I ask, Asami-san, if you were satisfied with these three young and luscious men…vying for your attention?”
At the word “three”, Fei Long snorted from his place on the settee. Though Takaba had heard Shinotake-sensei promise that his solo date with Asami would go ahead tomorrow after all, it looked as though he was currently in no mood to play pretend for the sake of the show’s chronology.
“The experience was…” Asami paused, pouring himself a glass of sherry from the decanter on the tea service to his left, “all told — rather wet.”
Takaba flushed, hugging himself tighter as his mind was instantly bombarded with memories of the pool in their shared hotel suite. Also, of him falling into it. Unless of course Asami was referring to something that had happened on his date with Sudou.
Maybe they went water skiing again, a nasty voice whispered in his mind.
Sakazaki laughed boisterously to cover his monocle popping free again. “Well, we’ll all have plenty of time to dish the dirt on everyone’s prowess in the bedroom later, I’m sure. But now, moving on to the purpose of tonight’s little gathering. As I’m sure you all know, this would usually be the time our beloved bachelor would retreat to a private place in order to make his decision. That is to say, which one of you will receive the Final Tulip. However, this season, something very unusual occurred! Didn’t it, Asami-san?”
“Yes,” Asami said, taking a sip from his glass and wincing at the taste.
“…What I’m sure Asami-san meant to say is that he recently approached me to discuss something unprecedented in the history of Japan’s No.1 Handsome Confirmed Bachelor! It seems that he is unable to decide on the recipient of the Final Tulip until he sees you all perform in a Final Challenge!”
In a rare show of unscripted unity, Takaba, Sudou and Fei Long all sighed simultaneously.
“No,” barked Shinotake-sensei, sitting forward in the director’s chair and glaring at them. “Gasp instead. Come on, gasp!”
Takaba obediently made a little noise of surprise, though he was the only one who bothered. Fei Long’s face looked stony enough to set solid, while Sudou just smiled. Creepy bastard.
“That’s right, boys, there is still one last opportunity to prove to Asami-san that you are the one truly deserving recipient of his sole remaining tulip! After all, the nature of this challenge shall reveal whether you are competent enough to publicly assist Asami-san, as his spouse, during his many charitable pursuits in the future. Are you ready to hear your brief?”
Without waiting for a reply, Sakazaki bent forward and pulled out something that had been hidden under his chair. It was a clock, stout and old-fashioned with a face full of Roman numerals and two little wooden doors beneath that seemed to threaten the imminent release of a spring-coiled cuckoo. “Thanks to the kind assistance of Kirishima Kei-san,” Takaba had to suppress his start of surprise when, as if summoned by his name, Glasses suddenly loomed behind Fei Long’s settee, “we have managed to organise a very special excursion to an underprivileged school here in Taipei city. They’re holding a fundraising talent show on their campus tomorrow evening. Guess who’s going to be providing the entertainment?”
Oh no, Takaba thought, brain instantly filled with visions of himself at the school, scores of rosy-cheeked middle schoolers all looking up at him in horror as he did star jumps…only to trip and go plunging off the stage in a way that caused a permanent and loud re-arrangement of bones.
“Judging by your faces,” Sakazaki went on with relish, “you are all resigned to your fate as performing monkeys for these delightful and ever-so-impoverished children! But don’t worry — Asami-san will also be participating in the talent show. Won’t you, Asami-san?” Asami returned Sakazaki’s smug expression with a look so devoid of emotion that Takaba thought his nerve would have curdled in their host’s place.
“Ahaha. Well. In any case, we would never be so cruel as to make you all do something in a setting so rife for potential humiliation without first giving you time to prepare. You will be allowed to choose your own routine. But choose wisely! The children and teachers will be voting for their favourite performer on the night, and whichever one of you receives the fewest votes….” Sakazaki grinned, “will have something most unfortunate happen to them.”
No singing, no dancing then, Takaba thought quickly, only half-watching as Sakazaki prised open the clock’s little wooden doors with visible effort. But what the heck am I actually good at — better than anyone else here? Never mind that it has to be something that will work on stage in front of all those little kids…oh god, I’m screwed.
“So please find a piece of paper and a pen, and write down a brief description of what you’d like to perform tomorrow night. But don’t tell anyone, it’s meant to be a surprise! Then just pop it inside my clock here, and — ”
“The doors are moving,” Fei Long interrupted, pointing one pointy-nailed finger at the clock resting on Sakazaki’s knees.
“Oh, silly me!” their host laughed. “Yes, they’re shutting, all right. You have thirty seconds to put your piece of paper inside the clock before the doors have finished closing, or you won’t get to choose what you do at the show. Though I suppose with all this chatting, you probably only have about twenty seconds left. Oops.”
What? Takaba’s mind screamed, as around him the others burst into action. In the blink of an eye, Fei Long had procured a packet of blotting paper and a stick of eyeliner from within one of his flowing sleeves. Uncapping the makeshift pen, he scribbled furiously on the thin sheaf of paper and all but leapt off his sofa to stuff it inside the chamber of the clock — whose doors were inching shut with every passing second. Before he could move back to his seat, though, Sudou struck: he snatched the eyeliner from Fei Long’s hand and rapidly scrawled something on the back of one of his DrakeEnema business cards.
“Chop-chop, Takaba,” Sakazaki called, patting the top of the clock as Sudou cast his paper inside it. “Don’t just sit there like a dumb mutt, or you’ll have to perform whatever we tell you. You don’t want to be the one who introduces the concept of a lap dance to the innocent little urchins tomorrow, do you?”
Even though Takaba’s mind was stuck in a screeching litany of Fuck fuck fuck, it still found time to focus on Asami rising out of his chair, ignoring Sakazaki’s startled “Oi!” as he stole one of the host’s cue cards to write on with the fountain pen from his suit’s breast pocket.
“Ten seconds, Takaba,” Sakazaki said, “and come on, we’re in a library. Of books. How hard can it be to find something to write on?”
Little did Sakazaki know that the mere suggestion he start defacing books was enough to send him right down memory lane, back to all the times his mother rapped his knuckles and yelled at him for ‘improving’ her magazines with crayons from the 100 yen store.
“Here,” Asami said, having magically appeared behind Takaba’s shoulder while he’d been locked in panicked recollection. Takaba took the proffered fountain pen and felt his eyes bug out as Asami dropped something into his lap. His writing surface was apparently going to be the lawyer’s blue pocket square.
“Three…” Sakazaki crooned. “Two…”
Takaba lurched out of his seat and leapt towards Sakazaki’s lap with his arms outstretched. Their host squawked and tried to rear back with the clock cuddled against his chest, but couldn’t avoid Takaba as he and jammed his middle finger into the narrowing gap. The doors stopped closing with a mechanical whine, stuck fast on either side.
“Ow,” Takaba moaned.
“What,” Sakazaki said, still frozen in his chair. From behind the camera, Shinotake-sensei barked a startled laugh.
“I call foul,” Sudou said, sitting primly on his seat with one leg crossed over the other. “Takaba-kun clearly didn’t meet the time limit aspect of this challenge, and now hopes to cheat his way out.”
“I believe Sakazaki-san’s words were ‘before the doors finish closing’,” Asami said, crouching down to retrieve the pocket square that had fallen when Takaba jumped off the loveseat. He held it out, flat on his palm, to Takaba. “And as you see, they remain open.”
Takaba decided he’d have time to stew over Asami’s motivation for helping him later — right then, all he cared about was getting his choice of talent show performance written down and inside the clock before the bloody thing snapped his finger off at the joint.
Asami’s palm wasn’t the best desk stand-in Takaba could have thought of, but beggars-in-extreme-pain couldn’t be choosers. He held the lawyer’s fountain pen awkwardly in his left hand and scrawled Mixing drinks from a height onto the man’s pocket square. It was a mess, but probably legible, given the quirk to Asami’s lips as the man read it upside down.
Pocket square safely shoved through the gap, Takaba wrenched his finger out of the clock and stuck it in his mouth, trying to suck the pain away.
“Charming,” said Sudou, barely waiting after Shinotake-sensei had called a break before he rose and went over to Mitarai, apparently to argue that Takaba should be disqualified from the competition.
Sakazaki just stared down at his lap. The clock’s doors were still open half an inch, apparently stuck from the force of Takaba’s intruding finger. “You broke the damn clock, Takaba.”
Takaba glanced at Asami and spoke around his throbbing finger. “Refer all complaints to my legal counsel.”
Dinner was a noisy affair. Between Shinotake-sensei and the producers trying to convince Glasses that it was time for him to go home, to the roving cameramen instructed to capture the contestants “chatting naturally” with each other over the meal, Takaba was all but fantasising about the compound they’d been imprisoned inside back in Tokyo. At least there he’d been able to escape to the roof when things became too much. Though thoughts of the roof inevitably led to thoughts of the house’s basement. And its secret resident.
Unable to help himself, Takaba risked a glance in Asami’s direction. As usual, the lawyer was keeping his distance from the contestants by dining at the director’s table, though by the look of things both Glasses and Shinotake-sensei were trying to recruit him to their side of the argument. (And judging by Glasses’ plainly wounded expression, Asami was all in favour of his re-hired employee jumping on the next plane back to Japan and doing something more useful than hovering around like an anxious vampire).
“He looks surprisingly delicious in casual wear, doesn’t he?” said a voice by Takaba’s ear.
Delicious. He shuddered. “I wasn’t looking at him.”
“At who?” Sudou laughed scornfully, settling down into the chair beside Takaba’s like they were old pals ready for a cozy catch up. “So tell me, Akihito-kun. What sort of performance will you be gracing us with at the school talent show?”
Takaba sighed. Reminding the little shit that they’d just participated in a secret ballot for a reason would probably be about as useful as telling him to go water-board himself in the hotel pond. “Have a guess.”
“That’s not fair,” Sudou bumped their shoulders. “I’d probably die of old age before I could think of anything you can do that might be construed as a talent.”
“What are you two whispering about?” Fei Long demanded, appearing in front of Takaba’s table and looking down at them both like they were conspiring against him. Takaba — and Sudou, as if that weren’t the most unlikely idea of a partnership in the history of reality television.
Sudou smiled. “Takaba had just promised to tell me all about his date with Asami-san. Especially the juicy bits.”
“Is that so?” Fei Long said faintly, eyes coming to rest on Takaba’s face until it took all of his concentration not to crack under the scrutiny.
“Um.” Takaba bit his lip, suppressing his first instinct, which was to scream No repeatedly before kicking Sudou in the crotch and fleeing the dining room forever.
“Go on,” Sudou nudged him, “don’t tell me you two didn’t get up to anything together! Now that would be a scandal.”
“Of course we did,” Takaba snapped, before his brain caught up with his mouth and decided to suffuse his face in burning heat, just to make his inner mortification completely obvious.
“Details, details,” cooed Sudou, slipping his arm through the crook of Takaba’s and squeezing it. “You can’t just leave us hanging like this.”
“A…a gentleman never tells,” Takaba warbled.
Sudou nodded. “No, a gentleman wouldn’t, that’s true.”
“I’m not sure I want to hear what sordid little sex games Takaba bullied Asami-san into,” Fei Long said, starting to look as though he regretted entering the conversation. “The last thing I need are those kinds of images sullying my time with him tomorrow.”
“I didn’t bully anyone into anything!” Takaba exclaimed, flinching at the way his voice carried through the room. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Asami turn to look over at their table, impassive but watchful. “We had a very nice night, and that’s all I’m going to say about it. Okay?”
Fei Long raised his eyebrows. “‘Nice’?”
“Well,” Sudou laughed, slipping his arm out of Takaba’s and patting his back just a little too hard. “With such a glowing review, it certainly doesn’t sound like you have anything to worry about when it comes to Liu-san’s time with Asami in the Ecstasy Suite tomorrow, eh, Takaba-kun?”
“Correct,” Takaba said, refusing to meet anyone’s eye as he went back to his pasta, now gone cold.
He really wasn’t concerned, of course. It was just that monitoring the situation was the responsible thing to do, and Takaba was nothing if not an adult dedicated to minding his own business. That his business overlapped with Fei Long’s in this particular instance was purely coincidental.
The main problem with watching someone from afar without their knowledge or consent was, Takaba soon discovered, having to always stay a few steps ahead. This necessitated getting out of bed and ready for the day long before your target, all the while mindful that they might suddenly wake up and ask inconvenient questions. Such as why you were showering and shaving at 4 in the morning.
But luck seemed to finally be on Takaba’s side: Fei Long didn’t stir from his inhumanly still hibernation in the time it took him to dress and go downstairs for breakfast. Really, experienced…people observers…probably forwent time-consuming tasks like eating, but a lifetime of believing in the magical restorative power of food made it impossible for Takaba to ignore the suffering of his belly. Even if the hotel’s current offerings were no more varied than rice, noodles and custom omelettes from a bar run by a chef who looked as though he’d stab you with his spatula if you asked for anything more original than extra chives.
I wonder if Asami gets up this early every day. Takaba glanced around at the only other denizens of the hotel dining room — resigned-looking businesspeople clutching their briefcases or staring glumly at their napkins. Or if he even bothers to eat anything before he goes about his busy days of buying suits and practising his poker face.
“Or maybe he’s like an incubus,” Takaba pondered aloud, “but instead of living on a diet of sex, he survives by mocking people then sucking up the waves of humiliation that come off them. Like photosynthesis, but for embarrassment.” Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a nearby salaryman shoot him a disturbed look.
“Too many Japanese people in this hotel,” Takaba mumbled into his omelette.
By the time he’d finished breakfast and made it outside to the lane adjacent to the hotel where Asami had picked him up for their date a few days ago, the sun was rising, the traffic was roaring, and Takaba realised there was a slight hitch in his brilliant plan to tag along on Fei Long’s date. Namely: transport. And how he didn’t currently have any.
Hanging around the hotel’s bar and listening to the producers drink themselves into a stupor last night hadn’t turned up any helpful info about where the day’s date was supposed to be filmed, which meant he’d have to wait until Asami, Fei Long and the crew set off from the hotel so he could follow behind them. It would be best if he could blend in with the rest of the traffic, but right now he had neither the know-how nor the money to hire a car or a motorscooter for the day.
“Something cheap and quick,” he ticked off on his fingers, moving out of the lane before someone from the hotel could come out and accuse him of loitering. “Something the crew won’t pay attention to. That I can pick up and drop off easily.”
Takaba stopped in his tracks.
Yellow and orange weren’t very furtive colours, particularly in combination. But Takaba had no other choice. Taipei city’s bicycle share program had a station set up a few streets away from the hotel, and for a small fee plus a deposit, he was able to rent an orange and canary-yellow bike for the day.
The only thing he hadn’t counted on when he rode back to the hotel, though, was that his new helmet left his face completely exposed — and recognisable — to certain people who would instantly notice him following behind them like a brightly coloured bloodhound.
“Takaba?” Mitarai frowned, stepping away from the limo idling in the hotel’s laneway. “The hell’re you doing here?”
Takaba broke roughly, coming to a screeching halt only a few feet short of the limo’s fender. He shot the alarmed driver a strained smile through the tinted windshield. “Uh. Just a morning ride. You know, taking in the sights of the city, enjoying time by myself. Thinking, uh, thoughts.”
“Yeah, right.” Mitarai gave him the once-over, an examination that left him staring at Takaba’s face, almost awed. “You look like a middle schooler. I mean, I know we all call you kun half the time, but you actually look like a little kid in that helmet.”
Takaba quickly pressed his lips together lest they burst into a pout without his conscious permission. “I had my coming of age celebration three years ago!”
“Well, whatever. Asami and His Magnificence are due out here any second, so scram. You should be practising your routine for tomorrow.” He punctuated this advice with some flurried hand-waves that took a moment to register in Takaba’s brain as Mitarai trying to mime mixing drinks.
“You looked inside the clock,” he accused, turning the bike’s handlebars around and preparing to ride back to the front of the hotel. Really, he was neither surprised nor angry that a creeping rat like Mitarai had taken a peek at Takaba’s routine for the talent show. No, what really made Takaba’s heart start pounding was the knowledge that Fei Long and Asami were only minutes away from leaving for the day and scuttling any attempts to tail them.
“And if I have?” Mitarai smirked, but Takaba wasn’t listening. He needed to run into the hotel and get something to cover up his face, pronto, or his plans to secretly third-wheel this date were over before they’d even begun.
When Takaba Akihito panicked, one of two possible things could happen. Either he’d come up with a completely innovative solution involving lateral thinking and gut instinct that would stunningly resolve all of his problems in one fell swoop, or…
And Takaba was beginning to think that sneaking into the hotel’s kitchen, stealing a bowl of cooked but tepid ramen noodles, dumping said noodles over his head before re-donning his helmet and then racing after Fei Long and Asami’s limo as it pulled out from the curb was not one of his best ideas. Certainly, trying to ride a pushbike in downtown traffic while bits of soggy dough flew into your eyes and mouth was a good way to almost become roadkill seven times before midday.
When the limo got stuck in an intersection that led directly onto a highway — a highway Takaba was pretty sure was a bike-free zone — Takaba had to quickly reconsider his means of pursuit. This meant dumping his borrowed bike next to a bunch of parked scooters on the sidewalk (he’d return for it, of course he would, everything would be fine) and hailing down the next cab.
He clambered in and smiled awkwardly at the driver as she stared at him, dumbfounded, in her rearview mirror. It was a shame he couldn’t speak enough Chinese to explain himself, though Takaba suspected it would have been difficult to describe the necessity of keeping one’s helmet on when it was the only thing kind of holding one’s noodle-wig in place. As it was he had enough trouble directing her to follow behind the limo, especially when it turned onto the elevated highway and drew ahead of Takaba’s taxi by a span of several cars.
“Crap.” Takaba slid forward on the edge of his seat and craned his neck around the empty front passenger headrest to see through the windshield. The driver batted his face away.
“Hao wei xian!” she chastised.
“Limo,” Takaba said, pointing at it desperately as traffic began moving again. “Follow. Limousine!” God, he hoped the Chinese word for that had come from English too. Unless the driver spoke English?
“Uh…” Takaba racked his brains for the right words, not for the first time cursing his flight attendant training and its lack of emphasis on any vocabulary beyond food, drink and proper aeroplane evacuation procedures. “Uh, English? Madam, you speak English? Pursue black car, please!”
“Zun ming,” the driver said, rolling her eyes and hitting the gas.
“Woah!” Takaba grabbed the front passenger seat just in time to avoid being smashed into the car door as the driver abruptly swerved into the next lane, increasing their speed until they’d almost pulled level with the limo. The windows of the other vehicle were too tinted to see through, but that didn’t mean Fei Long or Asami couldn’t look out and see him.
Takaba slunk down in his seat. “Doesn’t Taiwan have a speed limit?”
The driver didn’t reply, though she was looking pretty smug as she turned up the volume on her radio station of syrupy 80s power ballads.
“Fine, I can take a hint,” Takaba muttered, crossing his arms and blowing a clump of slimy noodles away from his mouth.
The rest of the drive flew by — almost literally, as the nauseous churning in Takaba’s stomach could attest.
Asami and Fei Long’s limousine had pulled off the freeway after half an hour, navigating a series of largely empty roads into a residential district of apartment buildings and featureless company headquarters. The whole place had an expensive, desolate feel to it, and Takaba couldn’t help but wonder what kind of date Confirmed Bachelor had dreamed up that could be staged here. Drag racing, maybe?
“Stop! Stop, please,” Takaba said, leaning over the front passenger seat and trying to grab the driver’s attention when he realised the limo was starting to slow down. Thanks to the almost non-existent traffic he’d probably be spotted by the show’s crew as soon as he got out of the cab. He’d have to hold back and wait for a couple minutes until they got ahead again.
“Yao bu yao ting?” the driver demanded, pointing at the limo as it turned left and headed up a long driveway, then under a brightly coloured sign full of kanji in a combination Takaba couldn’t parse. Though with all the pictures of cartoon golf balls and children’s smiling faces, he was starting to have his suspicions.
“OK,” Takaba said, making a cut-off gesture with his hand. He reached into his jacket for his wallet, opening it to discover a few scant pink bills that he quickly realised, when he glanced at the cab’s metre, wouldn’t even put a dent in his fare. Well, shit on a stick.
“Credit card OK?” Takaba asked in English, sliding out his Japanese debit card while silently praying that Takato had covered the rent for their apartment this month and that he wasn’t actually an accidental hobo. “Yes?”
The driver shot him a dirty look, but snapped the card out of his fingers after a few nerve-crumbling seconds of leaving him hanging.
“Shi-eh shi-eh,” Takaba smiled, trotting out the one phrase of Chinese he could reliably remember. She snorted and shooed him away.
Back outside and left in the dust of the departing taxi, Takaba made his way up the driveway on foot. The area in front of him was hung with a finely meshed net several storeys high, the kind they used in Japan to keep stray balls from shooting out of the rigid confines of inner city golf courses and baseball diamonds.
Let’s hope Fei Long doesn’t mind breaking a sweat, Takaba thought, unable to suppress the smile that rose to his lips at the thought of the salon owner having to do something as inelegant as swinging a club at a tiny white ball. Then again, the man was a martial artist with homicidally precise reflexes. Heck, if Takaba didn’t strongly suspect that golfing was a requirement of entry into Tokyo’s social elite, he’d suspect Asami would be the awkward one out there. Three piece suits, even tailored ones, weren’t exactly made with their owner’s range of motion in mind.
Well, it looked like he’d be finding out soon enough.
“Mini-golf?” Takaba gaped, staring at the parking lot/entrance fee attendant through the booth’s glass window. The young man stared back uncertainly, eyeing Takaba’s bike helmet and the tangled strands of congealed noodles fringing his face. After a tense moment, he reached under his desk and pulled out a sheet of laminated paper full of ungrammatical Japanese text explaining the park’s fees and rules. “They’re making Asami and Fei Long play mini-golf together?”
That practically made his and Asami’s stroll by the quasi-seaside look classy. But sure enough, when Takaba squinted through the park’s gates, past a fountain in the shape of a giant yellow conch, instead of the undulating green lawn of a professional golf course full of the leisure class and their caddies…there were a bunch of animal sculptures. The closest one appeared to be of a belly-flopping walrus with its tusked maw open just wide enough to allow a golf ball inside.
The park’s attended gabbled a long string of Chinese, jabbing the sheet of translated Japanese again. “Five hundred New Taiwan Dollars one person,” he added in English.
Takaba didn’t have to check to know he wasn’t carrying that much cash. And while he could try using his debit card again, he had a strong feeling that it wouldn’t work this time. Never mind that for all that the park seemed pretty big, its facilities hardly looked state of the art — the booth didn’t even seem to have a proper cash register.
A thought struck him.
“Television,” Takaba slowly said in English, trying to mime hoisting a camera over his shoulder and filming. When the attendant only stared at him blankly, he pointed inside the park. “Japanese television.” He pointed at himself, then again inside the park, begging with his eyes for the guy to understand. I’m with that crew you already let inside, and they totally paid for my ticket, yes, yes they did. “Uh, group ticket. Me. Television people.”
A look of understanding slowly dawned across the attendant’s face, and he nodded quickly. “OK. Group ticket, two hundred dollars.”
Takaba sighed. It just figured that he’d be bankrupted by an overseas mini-golf park.
Finally inside, it didn’t take him long to discover that Asami, Fei Long and the crew hadn’t made it far. They’d chosen a knoll covered in plastic turf beside a miniature rotating windmill for Sakazaki to make the date’s introductory speech, but this close to the entrance there weren’t enough things to hide his approach. He couldn’t hear a word that was being said or see more than the indistinct outline of Asami standing beside Fei Long, either. What if they suddenly started sending each other heated glances, or began stroking their golf clubs meaningfully between rounds? (Did golf even have rounds?)
Takaba had to get closer.
He skulked around the park’s perimeter for a while, waiting until a family with a portly father and three scampering children wandered past. Sidling up behind them, he used the group as a moving shield on his way towards the windmill. It worked perfectly up until the moment the mother glanced his way and her eyes widened, taking in his disguise and ignoring Takaba’s charming smile in favour of grabbing her youngest’s hand and fleeing.
“I’m not a creep!” Takaba hissed at her, but then the father turned around and fixed him with a look smouldering enough to flambé his helmet. Then it was Takaba who was the one fleeing.
By the time he found a fake European castle for cover and could observe the date’s proceedings from behind a shabbily-painted battlement, Sakazaki was already wrapping up his talk. Fei Long had his hands on his hips, regarding the scene around him with violent impatience. If it were Takaba, he wouldn’t be about to give the guy a club.
“Now remember gentlemen, while there’s nothing more jolly than a bit of friendly rivalry, the winner of today’s game will be receiving a very, very special surprise.” Sakazaki grinned crookedly. “So be careful where you swing, and to the victor go the spoils!”
Neither Asami nor Fei Long replied, but as Takaba surreptitiously followed them from hole to hole and hazard to hazard over the next few hours, it was clear that both men had taken the advice to heart. Hell, if Takaba hadn’t already gone through his own version of what Confirmed Bachelor considered a romantic date, then looking at Fei Long and Asami now, he never would have guessed that this was meant to be an opportunity to bond. Or relax, for that matter. Every calculated swing of their clubs, every grim glance and ferocious pencil mark on their score cards, seemed designed to intimidate each other.
It was mini-golf to the death.
I’m afraid for the guy who loses, Takaba thought, peeking over a static wooden ocean wave painted blue and white to resemble foam. They were at the last stage of the match, a devilishly tricky enclosure dominated by a pond full of stagnant water. Takaba supposed, what with the plastic polar bears screwed onto platforms raised above the ‘sea’, it was supposed to resemble the arctic. The hole itself was inside a dome that might have been an igloo.
Asami stepped up to the tee and raised his club, judging the distance with his eye and carefully aiming. The silence was absolute as the camera rolled, and even Sakazaki had put away his phone and watched on as the lawyer finally swung.
Takaba bit his lip, watching the little white ball as it shot over the pond and landed, judging by the sound, on a chunk of ‘ice’ he’d briefly glimpsed before, the one that sloped down to the igloo.
Crap, can’t see. Still crouching, Takaba edged around the periphery of the pond, making sure to keep hidden behind the fence of ‘waves’ — right until he’d circled around to the back of the pool and the waves abruptly ended. Which would have been just great, if he could see anything from here but the igloo’s flaking behind, ringed by a patch of stagnant water filled with leaves and discarded candy wrappers. He guessed not many of the park’s patrons had reason to skulk back here, and that apparently included the cleaners.
“Hole in one!” Sakazaki called, and Takaba risked a quick peek behind the last remaining slat of the fence. He caught sight of Asami at a distance, standing straight and august as he jotted down his score. Fei Long stepped up just behind him, raising his club and preparing to aim. Or possibly bash the lawyer’s skull in, whichever was more expedient.
“It’s Liu-san’s turn now,” Takaba heard Sakazaki call out, then strained to hear the rest as the wind picked up and whipped the host’s voice away. Takaba had been keeping a close enough eye on the game, though, to know that unless Fei Long could match Asami with another hole in one, he’d lose everything.
Takaba dug his fingers into the overgrown turf and resisted the urge to look around the fence again, growing frustrated when he couldn’t pick up any more voices, let alone the sound of the ball either making it to the igloo or plonking ignominiously into the water. He was officially fed up with this vantage point. But could he risk leaving the safe barrier of the fence long enough to creep around the other side of pool?
Takaba was saved from making a decision when Sakazaki spoke again, this time in frustration. “Try again.”
A deeper voice replied, but Takaba couldn’t hear what Asami was saying. Damn it.
“Of course it’s rigged!” Sakazaki suddenly cried. “We only have a special surprise prepared for Liu-san, so he better damn win it. Hear that, Your Majesty? Stop glaring at me and start again. I don’t think that polar bear can stand to lose another ear.”
Well, if seeing the conclusion of the mini-golf death match wasn’t enough incentive for Takaba to come out into the open to get a better view, then seeing Fei Long fail miserably at hitting a tiny white ball sure was. Besides, he seriously doubted any of the crew’s attention would be fixed on the far side of the pond when Fei Long was apparently struggling to get the ball even as far as the igloo.
Takaba gathered his nerve and scuttled around the back of the pool until he reached the other side where the wave-fence started up again. Some of the painted panels were chipped or missing, and it was through one of the larger gaps that Takaba finally got a good angle on what was happening. He’d barely had time to sit on his haunches when Fei Long at last managed to hit his ball so that it landed on the faux ice floe, before gently rolling inside the igloo and into the hole — or close enough for the cameras.
“Finally,” Sakazaki groaned, before snapping back into his enthusiastic host persona. “Congratulations, Liu-san! You are the winner of our friendly little mini-golf game. And as such, will receive a special surprise! Are you ready?”
“Oh, quite ready,” Fei Long said, crossing his arms and raising his eyebrow like he expected someone to appear carrying nothing more exciting than a bouquet or a fuzzy plush golf ball.
“Then turn around,” Sakazaki smirked, making a swirling motion with his index finger. Fei Long paused, tense, before turning reluctantly on his heel.
Oh, this is going to be good. Takaba pushed his helmet through the gap in the fence until the wood scraped against its sides, desperate not to miss anything. But for a few long seconds, nothing happened. Until suddenly it did: out of the corner of his field of vision, a man appeared and, without invitation, stepped smoothly into the loosely gathered circle of Fei Long, Sakazaki and Asami.
For one crazy moment Takaba thought the newcomer actually was Asami — or at least a doppelganger.
He had dark, slick-backed hair and was wearing an expensive suit, but the more Takaba squinted, the more the resemblance between the men ended there. This stranger had a mole, and wore a slimy, nasty expression that would have looked alien on the precisely maintained landscape of Asami’s face.
“Fei Long,” the man said in an accented voice, and opened his arms out. For…a hug?
If anyone was expecting a touching reunion, though, they were rudely disappointed. Fei Long seemed frozen in place for a protracted and intensely uncomfortably moment, before suddenly lunging forward, grabbing fistfuls of the stranger’s jacket and shoving him backwards. He screamed something incoherent, and the man responded in a rough and furious voice. Fei Long aimed a kick at the man’s head but was instantly blocked by the stranger’s arm in a motion so fluid it looked automated.
Asami and Sakazaki were already backing away even as one of the cameraman surged forward, getting an elbow in the lens for his trouble. The parry of fists and kicks continued in the confined space even as the men shouted at each other in what had to be Cantonese. Takaba watched, helpless to do anything but gape in awe and fascination as Fei Long unleashed his fury on the stranger, even as the man gave back as good as he got.
Takaba frowned, failing to see the humour in the situation, but then his brain caught up with his instinctive distaste and he realised — that sound had been way too close. Takaba looked around, stunned to see another person not two metres away crouching in the shadow of a gorse bush beside the fence. He was dressed entirely in black, and his face was obscured by a ski mask. Just like…
“You!” Takaba hissed, hardly realising he’d spoken aloud until the man behind the bush turned to examine him. “You’re the one who locked me in that jail cell on my date!”
Part of Takaba must have been expecting the stranger to flee as soon as he was noticed, which was why a dart of fear pierced his chest when the man slowly unfurled from his crouch and started towards him instead. Takaba reared back, fumbling over legs stiffened from so much crouching. He fell on his arse, scrabbling on the ground to find leverage to push himself up.
The man in the mask was too quick. He grabbed Takaba under the arms with a strength that belied the slender frame beneath the dark clothes, wrenching Takaba up and slamming him face-first into the fence. The wood splintered under the blunt force of his bike helmet, a broken ramen noodle sucked up his nostril as Takaba gasped in shock. He coughed convulsively, too distracted to fight the man off as he grabbed Takaba around the waist this time, hoisting him up — and over the damaged fence.
Takaba hit the water belly first, putrid water filling his mouth and punching down his throat before he could close his mouth. His brain flashed back to that night in the hotel, the blurred memory of drowning in hot water and champagne before Asami fished him out, laid him out on the ground like an ailing fish.
Not deep, Takaba’s inner voice screeched, and he forced his flailing arms to search for the bottom of the pool so he could push himself up. It’s too shallow to drown here.
Except that wasn’t true, and the water already sloshing around inside Takaba was keeping him on the edge of total panic. If he swallowed more —
Someone grabbed the back of his shirt and yanked him out of the pool. The man in the ski mask, come to finish him off. Takaba struck out with his arms, trying to twist in the stranger’s grip, but only managed to catch his arm in the fence’s splintered wood. He cried out from the pain and began coughing again, helpless as the man grabbed him around the waist with one arm, hoisting him up onto his hip and holding him there like Takaba was a barrel. A barrel that needed to be transported at very high speed away from the pool.
Takaba hung under the man’s arm like a limp scrap, catching juddering glimpses of grass and stone and shiny black shoes large enough for a sasquatch. It took way too long before Takaba regained enough composure to realise that no way, no freaking way did the man in the ski mask have enough strength to bear his entire weight with one arm and jog out of the park at the same time.
So it was only half a surprise, when his rescuer dumped him on his arse on the pockmarked asphalt of the parking lot and Takaba looked up, to see a familiar blond giant looking down at him.
“Hey, Suoh,” Takaba wheezed, letting his head hang over the ground in case his stomach felt like suddenly rejecting all the disgusting pool water he’d just ingested. “Fancy…” he broke off as his abdominal muscles spasmed. “…Seeing you here.”
Asami’s bodyguard didn’t reply, but left Takaba where he was half-sitting, half-sprawled on the tarmac long enough to cross the car park and bring around a scooter that didn’t look like it’d fit two skinny people on it, let alone Suoh by himself. He hoped it had good suspension.
“We’re going back to the city now,” the man rumbled, in a I am in no mood to brook argument from an inconvenient brat like you voice.
“What happened back there?” Takaba said, bring up trembling hands to undo the clasp of his helmet. A bowl’s worth of newly sodden noodles fell into his lap. “Did you see that guy in the ski mask? It was the same man as the one who locked me in that old cell in Tamsui, right?”
Suoh grunted and produced a key, fitting it into the scooter’s ignition.
“You did see him, right? And what about the others? Did Asami notice anything?” Please, please let him have been too busy watching Fei Long’s fistfight with the dude with the beauty spot.
Suoh pinched Takaba’s ear lobe, hard, effectively breaking him out of his reverie. “Up,” the giant growled.
Takaba sighed, creaking to his feet and wincing at the feel of his soaked, slimy jeans sliding down his thighs. “Fine, don’t offer me a hand. It’s not like someone just tried to murder me again.”
Suoh ignored him, sitting astride the scooter and revving its engine in a clear signal to hurry the hell up and climb on.
“Hey,” Takaba said, awkwardly settling on what was left of the seat behind the giant — all half an inch of it. “You’re not going to tell Asami I was here today. Right?”
The bodyguard didn’t reply, but the tight set of his shoulders told Takaba that Suoh choosing not to report everything to his boss was about as likely to happen as his suddenly developing a delightful, charming personality. Or any personality at all.