chapter. xii : puzzled
"Li, take a look at this."
Syaoran tore his eyes away from the monitor in front of him, and glanced at the intercom speakers mounted on the wall beside his head. He sighed and pushed the round blue button beside the speakers.
"And what exactly am I supposed to be looking at?" he asked patiently.
"I'm sending it over to you right now," Sakura's voice replied. "And I'm heading back up from Processing with a few more interesting things."
"Alright, I'll make myself busy in the meantime," Syaoran answered, as he disconnected the intercom and glanced over at the monitor again.
Sure enough, a message from Field Commander Kinomoto Sakura had appeared in his inbox. He selected it, opened it and skimmed the brief text quickly.
Keiro Tsukiyune's complete follow-up report. Look at the will.
Raising his eyebrows fractionally, Syaoran clicked on the enclosed attachment and, as it opened, flipped through its contents critically.
It was a fairly comprehensive document, totaling almost two hundred pages in length. It included a detailed biography, known and suspected affiliates, and a long string of scanned documents. The will he found near the end of the large report, and he perused its contents thoroughly before he heard the door to the penthouse opening.
"Did you look at it?" Sakura called by way of greeting as she kicked off her shoes and made her way over to the couches with a thick folder in hand.
"I did," Syaoran answered, getting up and seating himself next to her. "Apparently, Tsukiyune left his entire fortune to someone called R. Vell."
"Does that mean anything to you?" Sakura asked.
"Not really." Syaoran shrugged. "That name isn't exactly familiar to me. Is it a relative or something? But I thought Tsukiyune didn't have any close family members…"
"That's just it though," Sakura pointed out. "I don't know if I imagined this or not…but do you remember him when he was talking about how he saw through our cover? When he was talking about how he was good with names and journalists and stuff?"
Syaoran thought long and hard, trying to recall that tense encounter with as much accuracy as he could. It wasn't easy. It was difficult to form memories of charged, highly stressful events, and even more difficult to form accurate ones. Still, he hadn't become a Field Commander for nothing.
"He mentioned a niece," he said suddenly, remembering Tsukiyune's words with stunning clarity. "He knew the names of all the journalists who covered his niece's wedding six years ago. You didn't imagine it, he – he definitely said that."
"So…" Sakura prompted, opening the folder quickly and skimming through its contents. "From Tsukiyune's mouth, we know that he had a niece. A niece who got married – you said six years ago?"
"I believe so," Syaoran acquiesced, trying to build on this train of thought. "And, more importantly, that her wedding was covered in the papers."
He met Sakura's eyes.
"Meaning that his niece's identity should be easily discoverable by looking up any one of those papers," he said slowly. "And as Tsukiyune's only known close relative, it would make sense that she would be the only name mentioned in his will."
"Correct," Sakura agreed. "Except…"
She pulled a printout of an article from a local newspaper six years ago.
"According to this, Tsukiyune's niece was an Ami Tanaka, who got married to a French scientist named Thierry Laroche."
"I remember a Laroche on the boat," Syaoran nodded in familiarity. "Could have been the same guy, or a relation…"
"Beside the point," Sakura dismissed Syaoran's musings abruptly. "What's important to note, however, is that neither Ami Tanaka, nor her husband Thierry Laroche, are mentioned anywhere on Tsukiyune's will. And neither of them are this R. Vell character. Isn't that odd?"
Syaoran mulled over Sakura's question for a moment.
"Well, that would depend on the state of their relationship," he proposed tentatively. "I suppose we can assume that they were on good terms six years ago, since Tsukiyune appears to have given Tanaka away at her wedding, and arranged most of the press to be present… Do we know if they fell out later on, though? If anything happened that would cause him to disinherit his niece and write her out of his will?"
"Well, there's no documentation that would support that," Sakura answered. "We tried to get our hands on older copies of Tsukiyune's will, to see if Tanaka had been on it at an earlier time and then removed in later versions. But…"
"No luck?" Syaoran guessed.
"Not really," Sakura admitted with a grimace. "So we tried an even more efficient tack. We got someone in Tech to get in touch with Tanaka and gain information that way."
"I suppose she was reading the papers?" Syaoran quipped wryly.
"You can say that. Tanaka sounded genuinely upset over her uncle's death, and even more genuinely surprised that her and her husband had been left nothing."
"Indicating no interruption in the state of their loving relationship," Syaoran muttered. "Well, at least not from Tanaka's end. Too bad her uncle was a two-faced liar. Did she have any insights as to who Tsukiyune's successor was?"
Sakura's mouth played into a grim smile.
"She did. And this is where things get interesting. Tanaka mentioned a colleague of her husband's, a Rhiannon Vell, who was reported to be very close to her uncle."
"Close?" Syaoran raised an eyebrow. "In what manner? A mistress, maybe?"
"That, we can only speculate upon," Sakura returned. "What manner of relationship did Keiro Tsukiyune have with Rhiannon Vell, that would cause him to bequeath his entire fortune to her instead of his own blood relative?"
"Must've been a special mistress," Syaoran commented dryly. "One that didn't try drugging him with his morning tea. Otherwise I'm sure your name would've been on that will too, Mizune Megumi."
He smirked at her, and she twisted her lips sardonically at him in return.
"So since you seem to have followed this entire trail of inquiry already," Syaoran said airily, "I'm sure you didn't just stop here. Tell me what you found out about Vell's background when you tried to look."
Sakura smiled modestly, before launching into a succinct version of her findings.
"Interestingly enough, we couldn't find very many conclusive leads. We tried searching for her in the public records but most of her files are misplaced or inaccessible. The only place we could really get any significant detail about her was by looking her up professionally."
"Hm," Syaoran thought aloud, frowning at Sakura's words. "When you're trying to do a background check on someone and you start running into dead ends like that, it usually means two things. One, your target's working under an alias that hasn't been fabricated completely. Or two –"
"Someone wants you to look in the direction your information trail leads you," Sakura completed. "I suppose that makes sense. I mean, Vell's professional career as a scientist probably isn't the most telling of whatever endeavors that endeared her to Tsukiyune so."
"You never know…" Syaoran trailed off. He glanced at Sakura. "Did you look at what kind of scientist she is? Is there anything unusual about the company she works for?"
"Processing hasn't had time to get me the full scoop yet, but from what I recall, she and Thierry Laroche are both senior scientists at some lab in Paris. Lalune Laboratories, it was called."
"Lalune?" Syaoran frowned. "Name mean anything to you?"
"Well, apart from the obvious and literal, la lune being the moon in French…nothing."
"What about the other people who worked at that lab?" Syaoran pressed. "So far we have a laboratory in France with two senior individuals with close ties to Tsukiyune. If we run background checks on everyone in that lab, what's the betting they all had something to do with him?"
"And maybe by him leaving his fortune to Vell, it'd be an insurance that all his fortune got invested into that lab?" Sakura continued on. "I don't really know what Vell's role in the company is, but if she had any responsibility with its finances, I'll bet she could facilitate sponsorship and the like."
"Which would beg the question…" Syaoran looked at Sakura seriously. "What is that lab working on, and why would one of Europe's biggest mafia heads leave his entire fortune into its development?"
Sakura chewed a corner of her lip, trying to imagine the possibilities.
"Do you think it's worth sending someone down to Paris to take a look at things?" she suggested. "I mean, if the Aconites are involved in developing some monster weapon or other threat…"
"We need more evidence though," Syaoran pointed out. "Right now all we have are two names, a will, and a boatload of speculation. Meiden and the others would never buy it. But nothing's stopping us from sending a couple of people from Retrieval over to scout out the area and give us some preliminary stats. Actually, that doesn't seem like a bad idea, come to think of it…"
"Okay so, we need a comprehensive review of Vell's role at Lalune, background checks on everyone who works with her, and a lowdown on everything that lab has been working on since day one, for a start," Sakura listed off the top of her head. "Getting a copy of the lab's inventory along with its publications would probably be more telling, too. Easier to see if they're hiding something."
"Right," Syaoran nodded his agreement, jotting Sakura's words down onto a notepad that had been lying on the coffee table in front of them. "For confidentiality purposes, I suggest we keep this assignment off the database for now. Since someone with access to it seems to have it in for you…"
"How's the search for that techie going anyway?" she asked. "The one who tampered with my file?"
"I don't want to talk about it," Syaoran muttered, casting a dark look at the computer terminal at which he had been sitting previously.
He nodded, pinching the bridge of his nose in exasperation.
"You could give it a rest for a bit," Sakura suggested. "Clear your mind off it with a new puzzle. As long as I'm not on the field, it's not like I'm in any danger anyway."
"I know but…" But I made a promise to myself to keep you safe, he finished in his head silently.
Sakura placed her hand over his and squeezed it gently.
"It'll all make sense in the end," she said reassuringly. "I'm sure it will."
"I wish it would make sense now though," Syaoran groaned. "Why is this individual so protected, and what would he or she gain out of messing with your family details? No one would have ever seen it if I hadn't been curious and checking things out on a whim."
Sakura shrugged, her face growing visibly upset at the thought of the tampered file.
"It's too cruel to be a joke," she replied in a hollow voice. "The story of how the Aconites butchered my family is almost legend. To even suggest that they're alive is just…torturous to imagine. Whoever edited that part of my file, they have a pretty sick sense of humour, that's for sure."
"And was apparently too busy to complete our cover properly," Syaoran added. "Seeing as that techie was also supposed to be supporting us on the London mission."
Sakura was quiet for a while before she spoke up.
"Do you think it's possible that the techie was the one who tipped Tsukiyune off about us?"
Syaoran exhaled slowly, running a hand through his disheveled hair as he so often did while contemplating things.
"It did cross my mind," he admitted, meeting her eyes with his serious ones. "I mean, this person botched our cover, and also has been recorded to have accessed your file at a strange time, suggesting that it wasn't done under orders but out of personal interest. Also bearing in mind that accessing another Associate's records in the database without proper authorization is strictly prohibited, and the fact that this techies records are completely sealed…it's all circumstantial but the evidence so far doesn't paint a pretty picture for this techie."
"And I was wondering…" Sakura continued hesitantly, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear absently. "This is probably a pretty big leap, and I don't expect you to go along with it, but…"
"Try me," Syaoran challenged softly. "I'm only a prick when I have to be."
She snorted in disbelief.
"Well…I don't know if you remember the last mission I did with the Association, before I quit?" she asked. "When I was supposed to protect a mother and her son from an Aconite hitman?"
"Kai and Mimi Miyamoto-Ishida from Hayashi Takiyama," Syaoran nodded, remembering that explosive mission well enough.
"Takiyama knew my real name before he even got to me," Sakura pointed out. "No one really believed me when I cried foul play, but it happened, and I was betrayed. I just wonder…was there a techie involved in that mission, last minute as it was? And if so, what if it's the same one who covered us in London? And if it is, what if that person blew my cover last time too?"
"That's a lot of ifs," Syaoran commented wryly.
"I didn't expect you to believe me," she said, attempting a tone of nonchalance. "It was just a thought…"
"Hey," Syaoran said quietly, reaching out to cup Sakura's face gently in one of his hands. "I'm on your side, remember? If there's anyone in the Association who has it in for you, it's only a matter of time before we find them."
She let out a small chuckle and closed her eyes, leaning into his touch.
"We do make quite the team, don't we?"
"That we do," Syaoran agreed, his mouth curving into a small smile. "Right from day one, I think."
"Perhaps you're remembering a different day one from the one I'm thinking of, then," Sakura quipped, her expression deadpan.
"Nonsense. I knew we would be a kickass combo from the moment you kicked my front door in."
"You did have to put up with quite a few of my temper tantrums," Sakura grinned, closing her hand around Syaoran's and bringing it into her lap. "But to be fair, you also got me back more than enough times to even the count."
"I was a pretty horrible training officer, wasn't I?"
"Yeah you were pretty awful," Sakura agreed blandly, without hesitation. She chuckled at the momentary look of indignation that crossed Syaoran's face, and shifted her weight so that she could lean against his shoulders.
"One could argue that as my only protégé ended up a Field Commander, I was actually a very good training officer," Syaoran pointed out, somewhat petulantly. His disappointment at Sakura's lack of confidence in his training skills didn't stop him from wrapping an arm about her shoulders, however.
"One could argue that I'm just a prodigy and was going to end up being one anyway," she retorted without emphasis.
"Well. Someone's cocky," Syaoran drawled, giving her an affectionate squeeze.
Sakura lifted her head to face him with a mischievous smirk.
"Well, I did learn from the best."
"Did you now?" Syaoran leaned in, touching his forehead to hers. "A moment ago I was awful and now I'm the best?"
"At being cocky, yeah."
"And that's my only redeeming factor? I'm just a cocky prick and that's it?"
Sakura's smirk turned into a grin.
"See, I only called you cocky. You admitted the part about being a prick all on your own."
"My mistake. I guess I'm too hard on myself."
"You wouldn't say you had it coming at all?" Sakura challenged.
"Nah." Syaoran shrugged off the banter effortlessly before closing the distance between them and touching his lips to hers slowly, yet deliberately.
"I could get used to this," Sakura murmured softly as they broke away at length.
There was a moment's silence. Then –
"Finally. Something we both agree on," Syaoran declared. Without a moment's further ado, he scooped her up in his arms effortlessly, stood up and made his way briskly to the bedroom.
"Mmf! What are you doing?" Sakura protested weakly as he deposited her onto the bed gently. She struggled to regain her composure, straightening herself on the edge of the bed.
Syaoran knelt before her, his expression playful.
"Giving you a chance to get used to this," he said simply.
Before she could say another word, he cupped her face in both his hands, leaned in close and kissed her hard.
The next day, Syaoran had a discreet but lengthy meeting with two agents from the Retrieval department. By the end of the day, the two of them had packed their essentials and boarded a plane bound to Paris.
They made their first debrief three weeks later.
"Jensson and Ritch, reporting for Commander Li."
"I hear you," Syaoran said, his voice registering on the giant equalizer onscreen in the Commanders' telecom room. "What's your status, Agents?"
"We are on site and secure for the moment," came the voice of Agent Jensson. "We have some updates about the items you assigned, plus some extras that you can do whatever with."
"I'm all ears. What did you find?"
"We dug up as much as we could find about Rhiannon Vell and her colleagues at Lalune," said Agent Ritch. "She oversees most of the projects in development, does a lot of paperwork related to that. Apart from filing claims and managing funds for each project, she doesn't have much else to do with the lab's finances."
"That's a shame," Syaoran commented. "What else did you find?"
"We looked into Thierry Laroche as well, but his portfolio is basically the same as Vell's," Ritch continued. "As a matter of fact, he reports to her."
"Hmm. Any tensions between the two?"
"None that's been reported in their professional evaluations over the last ten years, or commented on by their colleagues."
"Okay. Give me more. This lab they work at, what kind of lab is it? What do they do, how is it structured, who's in charge?"
"Lalune's a mid-sized lab contracted out to a bigger pharmaceutical company," said Jensson. "Private sector, obviously. But independently owned. They were fortunate enough to get a few patents out just as they were starting up, so they avoided getting bought out by the big pharmas. Instead, they bring in contracts for specialized projects from the industry kingpins and develop those in the laboratory's own premises, under the supervision of their own personnel. The contractors send their own people to conduct progress reports and evaluations, but it's a fairly stable establishment."
"So they work for the pharmas but have their own autonomy," Syaoran mused. "Lucky them. What kind of patents did they get out while they were a start-up? They must have been quite deep-pocketed to have accomplished that."
"I'm sending the files over to you as we speak," said Ritch. "They successfully patented a new type of anaesthetic, which is currently being used in hospitals all over France. Then they released a couple of cardiovascular drugs which were immensely well received in clinics as well."
"So what connection would an independent medical drug developer have with the Aconite mafia?"
"Besides the link between Vell and Laroche and Tsukiyune?" Syaoran could hear the shrug in Ritch's voice. "We're still trying to piece this together. We haven't found much in terms of Aconite connections with any of the other people who run Lalune, but we're still trying to sort out the real information trail from all the red herrings."
Syaoran's nerves went on alert.
"So there are red herrings?"
"We can find instances of tampered information in the public records," Ritch affirmed, her voice growing solemn. "But whether that was done intentionally, and for what purpose, we still don't know. For example, Dr. Moon, the scientist who founded and runs Lalune, has obvious signs of tampering in his files and records. So obvious that I'm wondering if someone else messed with his file in order to attract our attention to it, and distract us from something else."
"The Aconites could have planted a false trail that you could detect in the case that we discovered the connection between Tsukiyune and Vell and came looking, it's possible," Syaoran agreed. "Just keep looking and trust your instincts. If this Moon character is more than he seems, you'll find out soon enough. Hopefully before the Aconites pull a trigger on you."
"Speaking of the Aconites," Jensson spoke up. "We've been hearing rumours about a character of some notoriety in the French underworld circles. People only know him as 'Le Taureau'. Not sure if he's a cat burglar or Tsukiyune's right hand man, but everyone in the seedy underbelly of Paris snaps right to whenever they hear that name."
"Le Taureau?" Syaoran frowned. "Never heard of him. I'll ask Processing to do a summary analysis of all the files we have in Paris, see if he turns up in any of those. Is there any evidence of this Taureau having connections with anyone in Lalune? Vell or Laroche specifically?"
"We can't even find evidence that Le Taureau is a real person, let alone one with connections to Lalune," Jensson replied dryly. "Even people in the mafia here don't know shit about the guy."
"Well…stick to the assignment for now," Syaoran directed. "If this Taureau becomes important down the road, you can focus on him then. For now, consider him irrelevant until the folks in Processing gets back to you with useful information that can tie him to Lalune at all."
"Will do, Commander."
"You're doing well. Keep on looking and report back to me in one week."
And with that the line was disconnected.
Sakura was wrapping up a meeting with the administrators of the Academy when Syaoran paged her. She excused herself and made her way back to the Commander's penthouse.
"Debrief," came Syaoran's reply from the study.
She made a face, kicked off her shoes and made her way inside. She emptied the contents of her bag onto the coffee table and began to sort the pile of folders in a way that made some semblance of sense to her.
She heard the door to the study open, before Syaoran walked out of it, flounced onto the couch beside her and tossed another file in front of her.
"Another one?" she groaned. "I can barely keep track of all of these."
Syaoran let out a grimace of a smile.
"What did you imagine your new job to be like, if not paperwork and more paperwork?"
"I don't know," Sakura muttered, crossing her arms. "Commanding?"
"With Meiden the power-hungry bastard in charge? No way. We're just his drudges."
"Still?" Sakura complained. "Won't we ever be shot of him?"
"Technically, we are," Syaoran pointed out. "Sort of. As shot of him as we can get away with. Not like he's breathing down our necks right now."
"Oh hell no," Sakura shook her head vehemently. "I didn't just throw away my freedom and years of hard work to come back and be Meiden's bitch in this bureaucratic hellhole."
"He seems to feel that way too," Syaoran returned wryly. "So feel free to command whatever and whomever in his absence."
"So what's this?" Sakura waved the folder Syaoran had given her.
"A summary of the report Retrieval made to me from Paris today," Syaoran replied. "I sent two of their best and brightest down three weeks ago to take a look at the state of things and update me on anything strange going down at Lalune."
"Did they find anything?" Sakura asked, opening the file and skimming its contents quickly.
"Well, nothing tangible yet," Syaoran admitted, before launching into a succinct yet thorough summary of what Jensson and Ritch had told him.
Sakura's frown deepened.
"So there's no evidence of mafia ties at this laboratory beyond the link we dug up with Tsukiyune, but at the same time they know for a fact that certain members have had their records tampered with?"
"That seems to be the case," Syaoran affirmed. He had printed off a copy of the file for his own reference, and he flipped through it as though in an effort to make sense of it. "Especially in the case of the scientist who founded and currently runs the lab – I did a bit of my own research on him, it's in the Personnel section."
Sakura flipped to the marked section, and began to read from it.
"Dr. Eli Moon," she read out loud. "Twenty eight years old, born in Seoul, studied at Cambridge, moved to France after receiving dual chemistry and pharmacology degrees, worked for Sanofi-Aventis in Paris from 1998 to 2003, left with co-worker Rhiannon Vell to start up Lalune Laboratories which successfully patented Acosthetix and Tachynitax while simultaneously acquiring a development contract from Sanofi. Currently founder and president of Lalune laboratories. No known family members, engaged to emerging Parisian fashion scion, Madison Taylor."
She then glanced at an accompanying photograph of Moon, copied and printed off his laboratory website. Pictured was a youthful, intelligent-looking man, with clear pale skin, sleek navy hair and blue eyes almost hidden behind thin spectacles.
"Does it all check out?" she asked uncertainly.
"At face value, yes," Syaoran replied. "You can see photocopies of his records at Cambridge, and at Sanofi. Evangelline Ritch, one of the Retrieval scouts I sent down, sent over copies of the patents Lalune filed while they were starting up."
Sakura turned a couple of pages, before finding the photocopied drug patent records and scanning them carefully.
"This drug is basically a synthetically streamlined and less potent variant of the active ingredient in aconite poison," she said slowly, after examining the report several times over. "They just repurposed it to be used as an anaesthetic – and a heart rate depressant too, apparently."
"Aconite, huh?" Syaoran stirred at the name. "Coincidence, or a very literal calling card, do you think?"
"I wouldn't jump to any conclusions yet," Sakura answered, a troubled look crossing her face momentarily. "But it's somewhat unlikely that a chemist with only five years of industrial experience could have perfected the design of this drug independently. And suspicious that the natural variant happens to be associated – and share names with – the Aconite mafia."
"Supporting the notion of an existing link between Vell and the Aconite mafia, then," Syaoran concluded. "At least. We know that the Aconites have a bunch of superpoisons in their arsenal, most of them modified from the plant itself. It wouldn't require a giant leap of imagination to suggest that Vell may have acquired some drug development schematics from her colleagues in the underworld and worked off of those."
"It's a theory, but we can't know for sure," Sakura returned. "But for now I'd say this puts Vell in a position of somewhat more suspicion than before. I'm not a hundred percent convinced of this Moon character's innocence either. We need to follow the information trail, find out where they've been tampered, maybe cross-reference with other major events occurring in the mafia and see if there's any correlation? It's a possibility that this Eli Moon is someone of notoriety that we've missed."
"His fiancée is a fashion designer," Syaoran mused. "She's been getting more popular and has been in the public eye relatively frequently. Running a check on her could uncover some information on Moon as well."
"We could even send someone in to make contact with her and find out from her what, if anything, there could be to know about Moon," Sakura suggested. "Would your Retrieval agents be up to the task or would we need to send someone else in formally?"
"This should still be under the Retrieval portfolio," Syaoran replied. "If we send in a field agent on a formal mission, we have to authorize it, appropriately justify it in a report, ensure technical support and put it on the database. None of which we can, or want, to do at this point with the information we have."
"Right," Sakura nodded. An uneasy look crossed her face, however.
Syaoran didn't fail to notice it.
"What?" he asked her softly.
"Something about Moon's fiancée's name…" she started.
"Yes." Sakura struggled to put her thoughts into words. "Something about it just seems so familiar…but I can't for the life of me remember where I've heard it before."
Syaoran rested a hand on her shoulder reassuringly.
"Don't sweat it too much," he assured her. "You've been about everywhere in the world over the last few years, and before that you were involved in so many cases… If Madison Taylor is an important person for us to know of, you must have run into the name in some scenario in your experience. And if she's important, well, we'll figure it out sooner or later."
Sakura smiled wanly.
"Times like these I realize how much we still have to figure out before we get to the bottom of this."
"Makes you miss being a minion, doesn't it?" Syaoran remarked with a smirk. "Just getting all your necessary details handed to you and working off of that. Oh, those were the good old days."
"Yeah but cracking the situation is where all the fun is," Sakura retorted with a bit of a pout. "Being an independent for the last few years made me realize that. All the paperwork in this Association is just taking all the fun out of that. This would be so much easier if I could just slip on a disguise and figure things out for myself."
Syaoran lifted an eyebrow.
"You mean you don't think your fellow agents are capable enough to do your research for you?"
"I'm sure they're capable, I just have a hard time accepting other people's assessments unless I know I can trust their judgment," she replied. "After I left the Association I worked on my own for close to six years. I trust nothing but my own instincts."
"Well, that's not exactly how it works around here," Syaoran reminded her gently. "You're a Field Commander now. Your job is to evaluate, authorize and coordinate. You can't be running on the field to scope out every volatile situation just because you have trust issues."
"I know," Sakura groaned. "But…sometimes it's so hard to fight the urge. There are just so many incompetent people around these days."
"I used to think that when I first was promoted," Syaoran admitted. "But after a while you learn that no one's indispensible, everyone fucks up, and sad to say, none of it makes a difference. Makes you kind of cynical in the end."
"Well I suppose I'll fit right in, then," Sakura quipped in response.
"I doubt it," Syaoran answered, reaching out to tuck a wayward strand of Sakura's hair back behind her ear.
"I'm sure you do."
"You're such a wildcard," Syaoran commented, though there was an affectionate edge to his voice as he rested his arm about her shoulders. "And completely unpredictable. And you don't give a fuck about the rules."
"I know," she agreed dryly. "I've been out on my own too long. Who can only imagine what sort of shady underworld characters I've rubbed shoulders with in my time, and how much of them rubbed off on me?"
"Exactly. I'm sure you must have learned from the shadowiest of the shadowy, the unsavouriest of the unsavoury, the most nefarious of the nefarious underworld elite…" Syaoran trailed off, his mind suddenly racing ahead of him a mile a minute.
Sakura blinked when Syaoran suddenly stopped talking and became very still.
"Earth to Syaoran," she called, waving a hand in front of his face to grab his attention. "Is everything okay?"
"I just had a thought…" Syaoran mumbled to himself, before collecting himself and fixing his gaze on Sakura, as though seeing her for the first time. "This could be a bit of a stretch, but…during your lengthy stint in the underworld, did you ever hear about some guy called Le Taureau?"
There was a tentative pause. Then –
"Le Taureau?" Sakura repeated.
"Yeah. Erick Jensson from Retrieval mentioned him during the debrief, but didn't have very much to say about it. Have you ever heard of him?"
Syaoran stared at her, incredulous.
"Tsukiyune was always paranoid about the Bull. I never stopped hearing about him, actually."
Sakura frowned, trying to remember.
"The thing about the mafia is that everyone wants to kiss Hiirigawaza's ass," she explained at length. "Someone gets closer to his ass than you, your importance in the chain of command goes down, and so does your security and power. So when Tsukiyune got wind that the Bull was currying favour with Hiirigawaza –"
"So they know each other?"
"I have no idea whether they actually do or not," Sakura replied. "All I know is that Tsukiyune and his toadies would work themselves into a fit whenever someone mentioned the Bull."
"So Tsukiyune viewed him as a threat?"
"Because…" Sakura thought for a moment, chewing her lip. "You have to understand, Tsukiyune built an empire and he loved himself for it. He thought he deserved the world because of it, that he deserved to be Hiirigawaza's go-to guy without question, and that was basically all he wanted. He was addicted to the high life, to power and risk – I'm sure you could tell from your brief encounter with him. Anyway, then came rumours about Le Taureau, the Bull. Some obscure nobody with no fortune, no connections and no name – but the reputation he had quickly spread throughout the underworld, to the point where people cringed at the mere mention of the Bull's name. That's power you can't buy, and that hit a sore spot for Tsukiyune. Even with all his wealth and effort and connections, he could never achieve such a reputation, and he was worried that over time, he would lose everything he had to the Bull."
"Wow. What does this Bull guy do?"
Sakura shrugged again.
"I have no idea. Nobody knows. That's part of why he's so infamous. Nobody knows who he is, what he looks like, how old he is, nothing. Just that when he decides to stir the pot...mafia overlords have been ousted by him."
"So he's some stealthy super-overlord of the European mafia?" Syaoran was struggling to understand.
"No," Sakura shook her head. "That's part of why Tsukiyune, and so many other powerhouses hate him. He just decides to make one his target, makes a fool out of them, topples their reign, and instead of supplanting them, he just slinks back into the shadows and bides his time until he chooses his next target."
There was a long pause.
"Why?" Syaoran asked.
"No one knows," Sakura replied. "My personal guess is that he's just an arrogant bastard who enjoys fucking with people every now and then when he gets bored. I don't think he's in it for name or power or Hiirigawaza's blessing; I think outsmarting his target is all just a game to him."
"A professional mafia hustler? We should hire him to do our job for us."
Sakura rolled her eyes.
"Why should we hire him to do something that he's already doing for free? Especially when sooner or later, he would probably turn around and try to do the same to us?"
"Touché," Syaoran relented. "So…it would make no sense if the Bull was working in league with Vell and Laroche, if there's anything going on there?"
"The Bull works with no one," Sakura said with a set to her voice that brooked no room for argument. "No one he doesn't plan to double cross and humiliate down the road once he's done using them, anyway."
"But if we're trying to follow Tsukiyune's money trail, and the Bull is somehow involved…"
"Tsukiyune would never work with the Bull," Sakura stated flatly. "It goes against everything he would ever have done. The only way I see the Bull coming into this would be if he decided that he somehow wanted to swindle Vell of all of Tsukiyune's bequeathal."
"So that he could divert it back to the Aconites?" Syaoran suggested. "Cement his place by Hiirigawaza's side? Or maybe not. Topple Hiirigawaza and fry the biggest fish in the pond, leaving the rest of the mafia to crumble in on itself?"
"Your guess is as good as mine on this," Sakura shrugged, clearly wanting to drop the subject. "But whether or not we have common interests now, it would just not be worth our while to seek out and recruit the Bull, if that's what you're thinking of pulling off. We could never trust him, because he only works for himself. He doesn't do what he does for the same purposes that we do, he only does it because, in my opinion, he's selfish and serves only his ego. We could never offer him anything that he couldn't already get without our help, and even if we could, what he wants changes in a heartbeat. I would avoid him at all costs if I wanted a mission to go smoothly."
"So even if in some odd chance he was working with Vell…it would be a reason for her to be worried because he would eventually double cross her?" Syaoran ventured, testing a new theory. "Which would mean less work for us, right?"
"I don't know the Bull personally so I can't say for sure," Sakura repeated, her brow furrowing. "All I know of him is through hearsay and a lot of it is just exaggeration and skewed by inaccurate personal biases. From what I do understand of him though, he is incredibly shrewd, dangerous, and never allows himself to be seen unless it's part of a grand plan of his."
"Sounds like a less attractive version of me," Syaoran commented with a smirk.
"Believe me, he isn't," Sakura warned. "We got shown up by Tsukiyune in London and barely escaped by the skin of our teeth. Dancing with the Bull is a whole other playing field. He is completely unreachable, unpredictable, and without scruples. This is an individual we do not want to engage."
Disclaimer: CCS belongs to CLAMP, anyone you don't recognize is made up.
A/N: I have no words except that it literally took years for me to figure out how to write this in a way that would keep the narrative going. I'm still not satisfied with how this chapter turned out but I think it builds on the intrigues developed in previous chapters while still raising some more questions. I also realize that this chapter was pretty dialogue heavy but I felt that it was necessary to show how SxS work off information they receive, and how they formulate their theories and conclusions based on the information they know. And, more importantly, how those theories and conclusions change as they receive more information. An array of new characters were also brought up in this chapter and will probably be introduced in the near future. Of course, everyone reading probably knows who Eli Moon and Madison Taylor are... and I'm excited to finally be able to include them in the storyline. I also didn't intend to introduce the Bull character this early, but he was just stubborn that way.
Next Chapter: Because there will always be a next chapter...though I can never guarantee when. Some interesting revelations arise regarding the persons of interest in Paris, leading to some possible SxS time in the city of love?