A/N: Ok wow it's been so long since I last posted a chapter, I lost counts of the number of months. Come to think of it, I think I said the same thing in my last update too… This isn't looking too good for me, is it? For anyone who hasn't lost interest in this story yet, I'm definitely still alive.
As usual, a great big thank you and virtual group hug to:
xAsClicheAsItCanBe, Antrxx, Digi Yo, Vigatus, Squit Ayumin (are you one of those who likes to root for the villains? :p), To Love Is To Destroy, Skye-Excalibur (your comment made me laugh haha), Tamer of the Zero Unit (no worries, typing with a mobile is a pain!), TaioraWarrior (biggest plot twist on the SITE? Wow it's incredibly flattering, ty!), Melodisz, HERBIVORE MUNCH (sorry I couldn't keep our bargain, I'm sure you must've updated 10+ times by now), Taiorafan (thank you and your English is great!), LKTaiguinmon97, Ang9, kabuteriman, berrylicious (glad you liked it :))
Disclaimer: If I owned Digimon, I would've retired long before my career even started. So no, I don't own it.
Chapter 10 – Mirage
"Lift your eyes up a little bit and turn your head to the right, Sumiko."
"Yes just like that, perfect! Now place your right hand on your hip and give me a fierce pose."
Flash. Flash. Flash.
Lying on a Cleopatra chair and clad in an oversized burgundy silk blouse matched with geometrical-print pants, Catherine followed the instructions as the photographer snapped pictures of her furiously from every angle he could reach.
"Excellent, now smize (1) with those gorgeous blue eyes of yours," he directed, kneeling on one knee to get a closer focus on the model's face.
The brunette lowered her chin and gazed upward to the camera through her makeup-heavy extended lashes. As the blinding flashes went off, she shifted her poses by tilting her head in different directions and repositioning her body effortlessly without any pause intervals.
"Stunning, absolutely fabulous! You're a real natural, Sumiko," the photographer praised after taking his last shot. "Alright I think that's enough for this outfit, everybody let's take a break for 15 minutes," he announced, turning to the rest of the crew.
"Finally," Catherine whined as she lifted herself up from the divan. As slender as her legs were, she couldn't wait to take off these torturously uncomfortable pants. They were so tight that she could barely bend her knees without feeling the rough material pulling against her skin.
Limping her way to the changing room, she grabbed a bottle of water on her way and headed towards her usual seat. She reached for her cellphone inside her indigo envelope clutch, glided her finger across the screen to unlock it and was disappointed by the lack of new alerts.
No word from Aries yet.
It had been almost one full day since she asked him to leak new information to Tai's friend, news that would undoubtedly stir curiosity. Surely there would be some reaction by now, especially knowing Izzy's inquisitive nature? It was impossible that he wouldn't ask Ares for additional information. This unresponsiveness was not what she predicted and she didn't like the idea of losing the upper hand to her opponents.
"Hey gorgeous," a voice greeted in the doorway, diverting her attention away from her device.
Locking her phone instantly by reflex to hide the content, she looked up and her guard relaxed upon seeing the intruder. "Michael! What brings you here?"
"Why do you always sound so surprised to see me, Catherine? I'm just here to visit my beautiful friend," he said as he winked at another passing model in a skimpy outfit, staring openly at her long legs as she walked away. The only response elicited in return was the French rolling her eyes at his shameless behavior.
She poked his chest with her index finger to snap him out of his daydream. "Hang out with me, you say? More like to gawk creepily at girls you'll never get, you pig. And I told you not to call me Catherine while we're in Japan, don't want to blow my cover remember?" She got up and made her way to the changing booths.
"Oh right, I'm supposed to call you by your stage name now," he trailed behind her nonchalantly. "What is it again? Susuko? Fujiko?"
"For the hundredth time, it's Sumiko," she corrected in annoyance and shut the curtain closed. "It's not even that hard to remember."
"Toh-may-toh, toh-mah-toh, they all sound the same to me," he shrugged and leaned against the mirrored wall behind him, shoving his hands inside his pockets. "So Sukiko, who's that hot leggy model who just passed by? Any chance you can introduce me to her?"
Ignoring his intentional mispronunciation, she stuck her head outside the drape and raised an eyebrow. "Seriously, Michael? You're in la-la-land if you think you have a shot with her. De-lu-sion-al," she sang and made a circling motion of her index finger next to her head, a smirk gracing her lips. "Hand me that white dress over there will you?"
He grabbed the fluffy dress she was pointing at and passed it along. "I'd kindly like to point out that a certain French model, who strangely bears a striking resemblance to you, used to date me."
She took the fabric from his hand and closed the curtain once more. "I was a stupid and naive teenager back then. If I could relive that age, I wouldn't think twice before rejecting you."
"And get a major downgrade from me to Kamiya? I don't get you," he said half-jokingly, shaking his head even though she couldn't see him. "Your taste in men digresses as you age."
"Right, because any girl in her right mind would pass on the chance to date an international athlete who happens to be famous, rich, nice and not to mention incredibly hot," she pulled the thick straps over her shoulders and stepped out of the booth. "Zip my dress for me?"
He obeyed and stepped behind her, dragging the golden zipper along her smooth back. "I don't see what's so supposedly hot about him," he emphasized dramatically.
She smiled at his obvious jealousy. "Have you not seen that man? Like you don't know."
"No, actually I don't. I'm not gay so I don't check out other guys. This just proves how superficial women are," he concluded. "Only going for looks, not bothering to see past the cover. And people say men are shallow, oh the injustice."
"Says the guy who hits on models! You're such a hypocrite. Besides, you know very well the real reason why I'm marrying Tai," she stated and turned around to face the mirror. The American saw through his peripheral vision that her playful expression had suddenly turned solemn.
He did know the real reason. In fact, he was the only person who knew about Catherine's plan to avenge her father's innocence. Not even Catherine's mother knew why her daughter moved to Japan without any notice. Ares the hacker may have guessed bits and pieces of her intention, but his knowledge was limited to the extent of whatever information was given and available to him.
"To be honest, I didn't expect my plan to go so smoothly," Catherine said lowly, flattening out the creases of the fabric clung to her waist. "But this is all happening thanks to Tai. When I told him I'd expose Haruhiko Takenouchi's crime and make his daughter an accessory if he didn't marry me, he didn't put up any resistance at all. He willingly took the bait."
Michael couldn't believe Tai complied to Catherine's outrageous demand either. He wanted to comment on her fiancé's gullibility but decided now wasn't the best time to interrupt.
"Who would have expected the great leader of the original DigiDestineds to turn out to be so easy to con? Who would have guessed that he's nothing but an idiot who falls for all the lies I told him, just for the sake of protecting his best friend from knowing the truth about her father. I still can't believe he would sacrifice his own happiness for her without the blink of an eye, as if his own life meant nothing to him," she chuckled humorlessly. "What a fool."
Michael maintained his silence. He knew she wanted him to voice out encouraging support, to appease her camouflaged guilt conscience, but he couldn't. He had no right to judge Tai when he too would go to the ends of the earth for his best friend.
"To have someone love her so blindly and selflessly, she's really lucky. One would think that unconditional love like that only exists in fairy tales. It's almost envious," the French carried on, her eyes slowly glazing over, gradually sinking into her inner thoughts. "Which is why I won't let her have her happy ending."
The American turned his head sideway and looked at her. "Catherine..." A sorrowful plea escaped his lips.
"I've planned this for far too long. For the last five years of my life, I learned Japanese, I spent all my savings to relocate to a foreign country, I changed the way I look... I..." her voice began to quiver slightly. However, she regained her composure, refused to crumble under her momentary state of vulnerability. "I did all this to get to where I am today. I want every single one of the Takenouchis to taste the emptiness we suffered, to atone for the injustice that tore my family apart. Reclaiming my father's innocence isn't enough. No, I want each one of his carefree family member to relinquish their happiness."
She paused briefly before resuming her resolution with finality. "I will take away everything they have," she stated, her cold blue orbs piercing directly into his, reflecting nothing but pure contempt.
Michael shifted his gaze away from her to his shoes, unable to behold the intensity of her stare. The rawness of such overwhelming disdain almost made him shudder, even though it was meant for another man. It pained him to see that the person behind this angel's mask was slowly sinking into the shadows with each passing day. The once innocent, cheery golden girl was now tainted by an obstinate obsession to ruin the Takenouchis. Her scheme wasn't without reason and she had every right to be furious, but she was taking things too far.
"Will you stay on my side and support me till the very end of this, Michael?" She asked quietly, the tenderness of her voice contrasted with her destructive goals.
Every fiber of conscience in his being beseeched him to talk some senses back into her before things were too far gone, but his treacherous mouth wouldn't comply. He simply didn't have the heart to deny her because like Tai, he would also cling on to that invisible thread of hope instead of letting her go completely.
"You know I'll always be there for you," he muttered just as softly.
At times he didn't know whether having Catherine in his life was a blessing or a curse.
Kari looked up from the pile of ungraded assignments on her kitchen table as her two friends pushed through her apartment door.
"Kari, did we not tell you to start locking your door?"Davis scolded with the doorknob still clutched in his hand. "One of these days instead of seeing us walking in, you'll find a burglar in a nylon stocking mask burst into your place. When that happens I don't want to be the one to tell you 'I told you so'."
"Yes dad," the girl replied light-heartedly despite detecting her friend's foul mood. Having been friends with Davis for a decade, she discovered his unique habit of lecturing others whenever something bothered him. Before he had the chance to continue reprimanding her, she quickly changed the subject. "So what were you two up to?"
TK comfortably plopped down in the nearest chair. "We went to eat sushi at Mimi's restaurant, and smooth guy over here called her a 'pink mop flipped upside down'. Can you believe it?"
"Oh Davis," Kari shook her head and laughed. "That is so you. Mimi must've been furious. I'm surprised you even made it back alive."
The pair looked at Davis and awaited his typical wordy protest, but it never came. He merely grumbled in response and roughly removed his sneakers, unintentionally kicking the neatly arranged shoe rack in the way, sending a few shoes tumbling down onto the wooden floor.
Startled, Kari turned her focus to TK and raised her eyebrows. She had seen a grumpy Davis countless times before, but she had rarely, if ever, seen a quiet Davis. On his worst day he would probably still be far more chatty than average people on their best day.
"Why the long face, Davis? Did Mimi ask you to pay for your own meal for once?" The younger Kamiya ventured a wild guess at the cause of his irritability.
"No," came the spiky-haired boy's terse reply as he forcefully stuffed a pair of sandals back into their original position.
TK sighed knowingly. "Is this about Willis? Are you still mad that we lost him in the crowd?"
"Of course I am! I can't believe we lost sight of him in the middle of the street!" Davis hit his left palm with his right fist. "If it wasn't because of that group of high school kids in front of the arcade store who blocked our way, I would've caught up to him. What the hell were those kids doing there in the middle of the day anyway, didn't they have class?"
Kari blanched at the mention her accomplice's name. TK wasn't referring to the same Willis... was he? "Who's Willis?" She asked cautiously, putting on the best poker face she could muster.
"An ex-boyfriend of Jun's," TK replied in a low voice and stole a nervous glance at Davis.
"I'll tell you who Willis is! He's a cheating, lying, good-for-nothing asshole who deserves to get punched in the face," Davis ranted through gritted teeth and took the other seat next to Kari. "He two-timed Jun the entire time that he was with her and after she found out about his infidelity, he even had the dignity to ditch her for one of his hoes. He dumped her without even the slightest shred of guilt or remorse, as if she didn't mean anything to him at all, like some disposable toy. I swear, if I ever see that blond prick again I'll make sure to wipe that smile off his pretty face with my fist."
Kari gulped. The mention of his hair color just confirmed her dreaded suspicion – definitely the same Willis. Other than Matt and TK, there really weren't that many natural blonds in Japan, let alone blonds with 'Willis' as their surname. A sudden wave of panic surged through her as she felt mouth went dry and her heart rate escalated. The old saying about living in a small world couldn't be more reflective of her thoughts.
"How did Jun find out that he was cheating on her?" TK asked.
"She checked his personal email one day and found that he had tons of love notes from at least a dozen different girls. Not just random confession emails, but all messages saying stuff like 'let's have another date', 'can't wait to see you again' and 'I miss you so bad'. When she confronted him about it, that's when he dumped her."
"That's awful… poor Jun," Kari empathized in spite of her efforts to remain calm. The revelation made her question whether Willis' services were as dependable as she believed them to be. Leaving personal passwords around was not only untactful, but downright stupid.
"Anyway, let's not talk about that bastard anymore. My mood shouldn't be spoiled by someone as unworthy as him," Davis spat and shifted in his seat. "He better prays that I won't run into him again because next time, he definitely won't be able to escape right through the crowd again."
"Yeah, better luck next time, Mr. Poirot," TK agreed.
"Who?" Davis squinted his eyes.
"Hercule Poirot, the detective from Agatha Christie's books," Kari explained. When she noted no changes on his blank expression, she elaborated, "You know, the detective with a thick moustache, created by the famous British author known as the Queen of Crime?"
Davis continued to stare at her in utter confusion as more gibberish poured out of her mouth. "Agenda who? And what crime? Why are we speaking in code language all of a sudden?"
"Unbelievable..." TK muttered and buried his face in his palm, shaking his head. He knew Davis wasn't the sharpest crayon in the box and had zero interest in classic literature, but they had just studied Agatha Christie in their English elective class. "Seriously Davis, do you ever read?"
"What kind of question is that? Of course I do, I read all the time. Probably more than you do anyway," the other boy snapped, pretending to be insulted by the accusation. He made a mental note to look up that Agenda person later.
"Porn magazines don't count, Davis," the blond pointed out.
Davis blushed scarlet while his two friends watched him with amusement. A little too much amusement for his taste. He opened his mouth, closed it and opened it again. "I, what – don't porn...crazy!"
"What's that?" Kari asked deviously, deliberately taunting his incoherent stuttering.
"I'm offended, really, I am," Davis grunted and crossed his arms in indignation. "And for your information, I'm not as perverted as you think."
"Not as perverted? So you admit that you're still a pervert to some degree?" TK snickered. "I bet you a million Yen that if I go into your room right now, I can find a stack of Playboys under your bed. Oh, and there's probably a few stashed in your bathroom as well, right under the sink."
The flush on Davis' face deepened as his wordless, moronic mouth movements from a few seconds ago returned. He eyes alternated between glaring holes through the blond's skull and stealing humiliated glances at the object of his affection, who had a hand over her mouth and was giggling away. He would need to redeem himself later.
"It's perfectly normal for a young man your age to have needs, Davis. Don't feel embarrassed," Kari patted his arm, biting down on her bottom lip in an effort to restrain herself from further humiliating him.
Davis fumed while TK struggled not to double over.
"Strike two, TJ," Davis barked and formed a peace sign with his left hand. He spitefully remembered the first offence being his mortifying karaoke song choice. "One more strike and you're a dead man!"
Izzy banged his fists against the wooden door repeatedly, each knock louder than the previous. He tried reaching the blond through cell phone to no avail, despite the dozen of voicemails he had left.
"Matt, I know you're in there, open the door!" He yelled over his knocking. "Come on already, did you die in there?"
After three more persistent bangs the door finally cracked open, revealing a drowsy blond. His usually perfectly coiffed hair was astray, sticking out in different directions. The Bearer of Friendship covered his mouth with his right hand in an attempt to stifle his yawn, then lifted his half-closed lids to focus on the shorter man who intruded his soundless sleep.
"Jesus Christ Izzy, do you know what time it is? It's friggin' three o'clock in the morning," Matt complained grumpily, squinting reflexively at the corridor's bright lighting. "You're lucky that my neighbors haven't called the police yet."
"I'm not sure what time zone you follow but it's only eight," Izzy lifted his long sleeve to show his wrist watch. "Nice try trying to get rid of me."
The blond brushed back some of his loose bangs. "... It was a long day at work, I probably fell asleep right after I got back."
"Hm, that explains why you didn't pick up any of my calls. Anyway, I came to see you because we have an emergency."
Matt raised an eyebrow suspiciously. "If your emergency is computer or technology-related again, like last time when you tried saving that weird virus from my computer, I'm going back to sleep. I refuse pulling another all-nighter again because of some stupid malware."
Izzy inwardly gasped. Weird? Stupid? It was mind-boggling how some people fail to appreciate the beauty and brilliance of viruses. He raised an index finger to explain, "For your information, that virus was one of a kind! I was hunting for it for ages to study the programming behind it so when you told me you caught it by accident, of course I had to save –"
"Goodnight Izzy," Matt didn't wait to hear the rest of the sentence before placing his hand back on the doorknob to shut it close.
"WAIT!" Izzy blocked the closing door with his forearm. "It's about Catherine, my source just sent me new info on her. And now that we're partners in crime, I want to share my findings with you."
At the mention of the French's name, Matt's interest instantly increased tenfold. "This better be good," he loosened his grip on the handle and let his friend walk in.
The pair took seats at opposite ends of the sofa. Izzy unzipped his messenger bag and handed the blond a stapled document. "I got these documents a few hours ago. Take a look at the highlighted parts."
"What's this? Evidence that she's a blacklisted fleeing suspect of a murder case or something?"
"If only it was that simple. If that's that case we would just report her to the cops and all of this mess would end right here, right now."
The hint of exhaustion in the hacker's voice did not go unnoticed. "…Then what did she do?"
"She didn't do anything. Her father did," Izzy responded by cocking his head towards the folder. "See for yourself."
"Finally, all set and done," Tai rejoiced as he pressed his laptop screen down. "I thought I was going insane just looking at all these different wedding cake designs and china patterns. Floral or geometric china? Limoges porcelain or earthenware? I can feel my masculinity dwindling with every passing minute."
Sora sniggered and continued browsing on her own mini Vaio netbook in search of prospective French wedding venues. "Limoges? Earthenware? I'm surprised you even know those terms."
"I didn't thirty minutes ago," he admitted. "See what this is doing to me? That's exactly what I mean, it's absolutely embarrassing. I might as well start molding pottery while listening to Unchained Melody."
Sora stared at him wide-eyed, judging his reference to the movie that represented the epitome of femininity. Her lips slowly curved into a smirk, daring him to turn that mental image he had just conjured in her head into reality. "I'd give anything in the world to see that."
"Anything, huh? I'll keep that in mind Takenouchi," his expression mirrored her own, taking her up on her challenge.
"Pf whatever, as if you'll ever go anywhere near a potter's wheel. Knowing you, you'd rather join a yoga class than soil your pretty little hands in wet clay."
He grinned and raised a shaking index finger. "Never say never. If throwing clay would get you to do anything, I'm tempted to reconsider."
The redhead shook her head and rolled her eyes.
"Anyway, I'm so glad we don't have to touch any of this stuff for the rest of the week because I swear, I'll shoot myself if I have to look at another brochure." Tai flung a pink pamphlet across the table and grimaced, as if he just touched something vile.
"I hate to disappoint you but we still have to book the rehearsal dinner venue and arrange transportation to go to France," she reminded him. Lifting the notepad next to the mouse, she began reading the list of tasks that remained outstanding on their to-do-list. "Not to mention we also have to follow-up on guests who didn't RSVP yet, pick a caterer, hire a photographer, choose a wedding cake and flower arrangement, schedule your photo shoot, book a hotel in France for the guests..."
"Are you serious?" He asked exasperatedly, flabbergasted by her endless laundry list. When she nodded, he dropped his arms on the table and buried his face in them, followed by a long moan of exasperation. "What a bunch of stupid traditions! The groom is not supposed to be stuck with all these boring tasks!"
'That's what you get for marrying a useless, fame-digging pretty face,' Sora thought to herself. If he was already complaining now, she wondered if he ever second guessed his decision to settle down. "So where is Sumiko anyway? Why isn't she helping you out?"
"She's out with a friend today, said she went to a café or something after work," came his muffled response underneath his mass of brown hair.
Sora couldn't comprehend how anyone in their normal of state of mind would willingly want to be in the presence of such an irritating human being, let alone befriending her. She also didn't understand how a supposedly feverish bride-to-be would want as little involvement as possible in planning the most important day of her life. But to prevent another rift to further detriment their already turbulent friendship as of lately, she decided to save the opinion to herself. "Oh," she answered instead.
"She should be back soon, she texted me earlier saying that she would be back around eight," he mumbled lazily without budging, still relishing the temporary serenity.
"Great, can't wait to see bridezilla again," she thought out loud without realizing. Upon hearing her own voice, she squeezed her eyes and cringed at her own mistake, horrified by the obvious hint of mockery in her tone.
So much for trying to act polite.
Tai raised his head from the table and looked at her. "You still don't like her, do you?"
"Who does?" She blurted out truthfully before she could stop herself. Damn it, what was wrong with her today? It was as if someone slipped her an honesty pill, causing her mouth to develop a separate mind of its own. "Wait, I didn't mean it like that, the words came out all wrong..."
Noticing the sudden pink blush of embarrassment on her cheeks, he lifted himself up from the table and offered a small smile. "It's ok, you're just being honest," he reasoned, his voice unexpectedly calm and void of displeasure.
If Tai was angry, his handsome features did nothing to betray his inner feelings. His tolerance of her less-than-friendly attitude towards his fiancée almost made her feel guilty. Almost. "That was really crass of me. I shouldn't have called her bridezilla."
He shook his head to dismiss her somewhat apology. "Don't be. I'll admit it, when I first met Sumiko, I didn't like her either."
Sora's eyebrows shot up in surprise. She always assumed that he fell in love with the model at first sight because despite her dislike for Catherine, she had to acknowledge that woman's unearthly good looks. "Really? What did she do?"
He shrugged. "Nothing, from the way she dressed I just assumed she was some rich, spoiled brat with a shallow personality."
"Right," she snorted, not buying a single word he said. "I'm sure that's exactly what you thought."
"Don't tell her that though."
The pair eventually recovered from the distraction and returned to their initial assignment. They both came to the conclusion that faster they try to wrap things up, the quicker they can rid themselves of these mundane responsibilities that neither were particularly fond of. With their new congruent mindsets, their productivity level reached its peak as the next forty-five minutes flew by.
"After picking a caterer we should call it a night," Sora proposed. She slumped back against the backrest of her chair and rubbed the bridge of her nose. "My brain is fried."
Leaning against his palm, Tai flipped through a random catalogue, inspecting different wedding menus. Professional pictures of impeccably plated Kombu, Datemaki and sushi cakes filled the pages. They all looked equally scrumptious and at this point, he really didn't care which menu to pick anymore.
Half-lidded, his index finger went through the monotonous motion of turning the pages until a sudden flash of color caught his attention. He paused and simply stared at it.
A tray of assorted gourmet cookies.
For some reason, a distant memory suddenly resurfaced. He brushed over the picture longingly. "You know, you never gave me those cookies you promised."
The odd statement startled Sora and she blinked at him in confusion. "What cookies?"
"The ones you promised from Matt's concert," he answered quietly.
She frowned in puzzlement and gazed down at the page he stopped at. "Huh? Matt's concert? You mean back in high school when he was with the Teenage Wolves?"
"I'm lost, what are you talking about?"
"Never mind, it's stupid. Just forget about what I said." He chuckled awkwardly and scratched the back of his neck. A small part of him couldn't help but feel disappointed.
"No, tell me! When and why did I promise you cookies? ...Did we make a bet and I lost?"
"Just drop it, it was a long time ago. I don't know why I even brought it up."
He couldn't comprehend what came over him. What did he possibly hope to gain by mentioning a promise that was made years ago? Come to think of it, promise was a big word. Sora probably said it out of a guilty need to comfort him as it obviously bore no significant attachment to her. He couldn't honestly expect her to recall something that happened nearly a decade ago.
Tell you what, I'll make some special ones for you.
He remembered that day clear as a picture. Every word uttered, every grin faked, every sense of betrayal felt. Every figment of that memory was imprinted in his mind and like a broken record, it refused to fade away. How could he forget?
It was the day he experienced his first real heartbreak.
They were both sixteen back then. It was Christmas and in spirit of the holidays that represented hope and joy, he foolishly believed that maybe that year, it was finally their year. Everybody always said it was a matter of time before they decide to take the leap, hence the possibility of being rejected never occurred to him. His confidence was further fueled by the hairpin incident. Her overreaction was clearly an indication that she liked him.
Or so he thought.
But he had obviously misread her intentions and so did every other person who misled him, for she ended up in the arms of his other best friend.
Thinking back, he was immature and irrational for believing in a fantasy that would never materialize. Like a mirage, no matter how close their friendship had gotten over the years, her heart had always been out of his reach.
He continued staring ruefully at the picture, completely unaware of the growing concern and confusion etched into Sora's face. It was unfortunate because he meant every word of it.
I'll be waiting.
Her soft hand had found its way to squeeze his anxiously. He slowly looked up into her sienna eyes. "I…"
The sound of the doorbell suddenly reverberated through the apartment. Tai reluctantly broke the contact and pushed his seat back. "I'll get it."
Maybe it wasn't meant to be.
While waiting for the blond to finish reading the material, the prodigy fired up his laptop to resume a work-related assignment, which had been grossly neglected due to the unexpected distraction from Ares' supplementary findings. The hacker's latest discovery ended up hindering his concentration for… pretty much the entire work day. He sighed inwardly. If he didn't finish the report by the following morning, all hell would break lose again and causing another scene in the office was the last thing he wanted.
After ten minutes of occasional paper rustling and steady typing, the prodigy felt a pair of cerulean eyes snapped up.
"So, what do you think?" Izzy initiated, eager to hear his friend's perspective. Knowing Matt's tendency of being finicky at times, perhaps he identified crucial details that he may have missed himself.
If Izzy thought their little detective work was thrilling, Matt most certainly did not share the same enthusiasm after skimming through the report. Having spent the last fifteen minutes reading about Vaillancourt past work experience, absolutely nothing unusual jumped to his attention, let alone information that would call for an urgent meeting. It wasn't like the man was a former spy who received a burn notice, or worked for the mob. But then again, Izzy's definition of "emergency" varied significantly from most normal people.
"So let me get this straight – you woke me up in the middle of the night just to tell me that Catherine's dad worked part-time at a not-for-profit organization?"
"First of all, it's not the 'middle of the night', it's only a quarter past eight," Immune to the other man's scowl, Izzy responded matter-of-factly and lifted his wrist watch once more. Matt was such a drama queen sometimes. "Second of all, it's not just some random organization. It's one that is giving us a major hint of her potential motive."
"…What could working for the France-Japan Research Institute possibly tell us?" Matt failed to see what could possibly be deciphered from this fact alone.
The corner of Izzy's mouth twitched up slightly. "Well, do you recall anyone else working for the same institute?"
"Come to think of it, the name of the entity does sound familiar. Hey, isn't that the place where Sora's dad does his researches…" He trailed off slowly. Putting the pieces together, enlightenment dawned on him. "…when he's not working at the university… Are you trying to say that there's a connection between those two?"
Izzy nodded. "There's a possibility, yes. Now, before you ask, I know the institute has over two hundred employees and a handful of regional offices scattered across France and Japan. Thus, the chances of those two knowing each other are slim under normal circumstances. But unfortunately for us, this whole situation has been anything but normal up until now. If you look at the paragraph I highlighted on page twenty-three, Vaillancourt was the manager of the IT branch in Paris."
The blond flipped to the page referenced. "Yeah, he was. And it says here that all IT operations are centralized at the headquarters in Paris."
"Of course, that doesn't mean that the regional offices don't have any IT staff at all," Izzy explained. "If my understanding is correct, this just means that when it comes to major operations like implementing a new system, the IT team in Paris would test it out first before allowing the rest of the regional offices to transition. With that being said, because Vaillantcourt's functions required him to communicate on a regular basis with the other branches, he and Mr. Takenouchi are probably acquainted."
Matt brushed a hand through his hand, trying to visualize Izzy's thought process. "So where does that lead us?"
"Good question," Izzy replied and reached into his bag. "There's actually one more document that I didn't show you yet. It's quite long, nearly a hundred pages, so I figured I should just brief you on it."
Matt lifted the stapled stack of paper and read the title out loud. "France-Japan Research Institute, plaintif, vs. François Vaillancourt, defendant. His court case? You should have given me this to read instead of that boring resumé! This is much more pertinent," he complained.
"Yeah well you didn't look awake enough to read a court case," the shorter boy mused.
The blond only huffed petulantly in response.
"So, back to our topic. After reading the court case, I realized that Ares made a mistake in his last report. Notice that the title doesn't read "PWSee vs. François Vaillancourt", but rather "France-Japan Research Institute vs. François Vaillancourt". Anyway, that was probably just a small, insignificant typo. To summarize, this case basically says that Vaillancourt defrauded a hundred ninety-five thousand Euros from the institute. That translates to roughly twenty-five million Yen."
"Holy shit!" Matt gasped in shock. "He sure was greedy, wasn't he? He could've been more subtle and aim for smaller amounts."
"Ah, but see, this is where it gets interesting. Personal gain wasn't his motivation. He pleaded not guilty and claimed that he needed the money urgently to help out a friend in a desperate financial situation. He said his friend promised to return the money within a week's time, which of course, never happened. Vaillancourt vowed that he had no malicious intention of misappropriating the institute's funds."
Matt snorted derisively. "Yeah right… only naïve idiots would risk going to jail for their friends. Even morons wouldn't fall for a lie like that."
"That's ironic coming from the Bearer of the Crest of Friendship," Izzy remarked objectively.
"Oh, shut up. There are boundaries between friendship and stupidity," Matt refuted although taking no offense in the remark. "Who was that friend, assuming he wasn't imaginary?"
"Vaillancourt refused to disclose a name. Regardless of how hard the defending lawyer pressed, he insisted on being tight-lipped. With all evidence pointing to him and the absence of a witness testifying for him, it's not hard to predict the outcome of the trial."
"I don't know, his alibi sounds awfully unpersuasive. It's no wonder that the court ruled against him," Matt said. "Do you believe him?"
"I honestly don't know what to think anymore," Izzy confessed. "On one hand, there appears to be absolutely no evidence in favor of Vaillancourt's story. On the other hand, if he's innocent, this would explain a lot of Catherine's erratic behavior."
Both men thought of the same possibility of who that friend could be, but neither wanted to be the first one to actually say it.
Disheartened, Matt exhaled in exasperation before slumping to a state of hopelessness. "Despite having all this new information, we're officially back to square one - we still know nothing."
Izzy leaned his head back against the couch and pondered. What should they do now? "Maybe it's time to talk to Catherine, like we initially planned before getting this report," he proposed.
Matt remained silent and contemplated their complex situation. Izzy's suggestion was a bold move. Not only would they have to reveal that they were up to something, but considering Catherine's stealth, it was unlikely that they would succeed in extracting anything from her at all. There was no other way.
It was time to talk to Tai.
(1) According to Tyra Banks on America's Next Top Model, 'smize' means 'smile with your eyes'.
So there it is, I hope the last part sheds some light on the whole mysterious thing. I figured maybe it's time to start explaining stuff instead of throwing more curve balls, haha. I hope it wasn't too boring or technical. Honestly I don't even know if it made sense. If I got some IT or legal terms/concepts wrong, someone please feel free to correct me. It's not my field of study so my knowledge is limited to Law and Order and Suits (and maybe occasionally CSI). And I swear I don't watch as much TV as I sound like!
Thanks again for reading!