“She’s hired someone without even consulting me,” he muttered into his palm. Sighing, he leaned back in his chair with a look of exasperation. “I made it extremely clear to her that I would retain control over the kitchen even with her recent involvement, but she still went over my head about this. I don’t know why I ever thought I could trust her to keep her word. That woman never has, and she never will.”
Suzaku drummed his fingers on the table nervously. Well… In C.C.’s defense, Lelouch had been taking forever. At the rate he was going at, he’d have never found another cook. And as far as he could tell, Alexei seemed like a nice guy. He’d been friendly, and he hadn’t noticed anything different about his order from when C.C. or Lelouch prepared it. But his best friend always had been sensitive about his restaurant, and with the combined effect of C.C. “meddling in his affairs” – as it had been so eloquently put – when he had shown up at for the private dinner party, he had done nothing but gripe, gripe, gripe.
“So… Are you going to fire him then?”
“I can’t fire him without probable cause. C.C. signed him on, and it’s stated in his contract, God damn that witch.”
Euphemia patted her brother’s hand sympathetically. “I’m sure C.C. has good reasons for signing him on in such a hurry. She has good judgment when it comes to cooks. And this way, you can have more time for yourself and for Leopold.”
The three adults turned from the light of the single lamp hanging over the table and to the doorway that led to the bedroom that the little boy was fast asleep in. Briefly Lelouch’s expression softened as he realized the truth in his sister’s words, but the resentment remained in the pit of his stomach, and eventually, he resumed his frowning. Suzaku tried to reason with him.
“Well, what do you even know about Alexei? You’ve only worked with him twice.”
“Oh, I’ve found out enough.” He spat out his name. “Apparently C.C. found him in some street-side snack shack when she went to Okinawa.”
The couple exchanged a look at his words. If that was the very first thing that came to mind when he thought of Alexei…
“Do you know how many awards Ambrosia‘s won since it’s opened? The reputation that we worked so hard to cultivate? And she just wants to throw all of that away for some…some nobody she picked up during vacation!”
As he sat there with his face buried in his hands, Suzaku discreetly inched his wine glass away from his friend as he deliberated over what to say next.
“But… Are you sure that’s why C.C. hired him?”
“Suzaku, I heard him call her Cera the other day.”
Oh…shit… So this was why Lelouch was in such a bad mood. It couldn’t have just been the new addition to the staff. There had to have been something more; if Alexei Aleksandrovich really hadn’t been up to his standards, then Lelouch would have had his probable cause and would have rid of him as he had done so before with so many cooks in the past. But he hadn’t even after a full two weeks had passed and a taste test from Lelouch’s notoriously sensitive palate, which could only mean that there was something else, a far deeper issue that had been drawing him to go beyond his usual period of complaint. As they sat there, Suzaku and Euphemia could only wonder how long he had been carrying this fear by himself. Since she had boarded that plane? Or maybe earlier than that, when they were signing the papers? Or when they were in the process of convincing themselves that they no longer loved the other…? Did Lelouch himself even know the answer?
“…Sometimes I wonder if I’d be better off just giving her my share of Ambrosia. Then I wouldn’t have to be reminded every day.”
But he never replied. Head down, he sat silently for some time before quietly asking, “Do you think it’s my fault? Because there must have been something that I did or said that told her that she didn’t feel the same way anymore. A trigger of some sort… There must have been.” He pitched forward, his words slurring into a sigh. “But what was it? What was the trigger?”
“…Lelouch, I… You’re a really great friend, and there’s no better brother than the one that Euphie and Nunnally have, and I know all of your employees like you. Not to mention how you’re such a great dad to Leopold. There’s a reason he won’t stop yelling for you until you’re by his side; because he just loves you that much, because you’re that special to him. Don’t worry about things like that; it’s all in the past. There’s no point in stressing over something like that.”
He sat sadly in the chair, and Euphemia reached for him. Squeezing his hand, she smiled gently at him. Blinking at her in the harsh lighting of the room, her brother stared at her in such a way that for a moment, she was reminded of the time when she had made the mistake of asking him where their father was and he had been unsure of the gentlest way to break her four-year-old heart. Her heart trembled at the uncanniness.
“Lelouch, why don’t you sleep over tonight? It’s late, you’re tired, and you’ve had a lot to drink. You can have the guest room.”
“…Yeah, maybe,” he mumbled. Suzaku stood to help him up but his brother-in-law shrugged him off. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
He nodded and stepped back but continued to watch him closely as he shuffled into the dark hallway. It wasn’t until he heard the door shut that Suzaku calmed. Reclaiming his seat, he glumly stared at the empty chair across from him, when he felt a cool hand on his nape. He looked up to his left and into the sad smile of his wife.
She nodded, and he sighed. Shaking his head, he clasped his hands together as she hugged him and kissed his head to comfort him and help soothe the gloom of his soul.
. . .
“…I’m going to have to be honest, I’m kind of surprised you married him.”
She looked up from her phone, slightly distracted by the spam of messages that had suddenly flashed on-screen. “Why is that?”
He shrugged. “He just doesn’t really seem like your type. Really uptight and all.”
She gave a light laugh. “He’s not always like that. You ought to see him when he’s with Leopold. He’s a whole other man then.”
“Yeah, but there was also a time before he was born, like when you two were dating.” He chuckled to himself. “It’s just funny to imagine. You don’t seem like his type, and he doesn’t seem like yours.”
“Well, you’re right because I’m not and he isn’t either. That’s why I’m sitting here instead of in bed with him.”
“Speaking of which… You going to invite me up?”
She smiled as the wistful light in her eyes faded into teasing. Leaning forward, she gave him a short, sweet kiss before pulling away and whispering, “Sorry, but tonight’s not your lucky night.”
“You’re going to have to one of these nights,” he joked. “These dinners aren’t cheap, you know.”
“Maybe a night when there’s more than just a wall separating us from my son.”
He nodded, and she gave him one last kiss on the cheek before opening the door to go up the steps leading to her apartment. Alexei watched from his car until she slipped inside and out of sight. Drumming his fingers on the wheel, he thought on the night that stretched out behind him, of picking her up, of sitting down with her at that high-end competitor and judging their dishes, laughing and joking at the expense of the other, nitpicking and pulling them apart until they found out even the most hidden and secret flavors, trading stories and past-experiences…
She may not say that they had gone on a date, but deep inside, Alexei knew that they had. To anyone else it would have been obvious: no one prepared so elaborately for market research. If it hadn’t been, she wouldn’t have kissed him. She wouldn’t have teased him about coming up with her. He had seen the proof in her eyes over the rim of her wine glass and had heard it in her laughter, and what could possibly be more honest than a man or woman drunk on emotion – the wine of the soul?