Pre-Comment: I know, I know; I lower your expectations of me updating with any sort of regularity with every chapter. I may promise to do better from now on, but you and I both know that I won't actually. So allow me to shamelessly flirt with you for two seconds to make it all better.

Chapter Seventeen: Just for you, good looking! ;)


Chapter Seventeen: If It's Not Broken, Break It

In hindsight, it was probably the most irresponsible thing she had ever done in her entire life. But in her defence, Shirley would always say that she was young and deserved the right to exercise irresponsibility every now and then. Her dad would forgive her. Hopefully. She had been a model daughter and always tried her best to help him out with the company, knowing that she would one day inherit it. Instead of going shopping or talking about boys in cafes with her friends after school, she had made sure to try and attend his evening business meetings and help him with paperwork on top of school. And when she graduated high school, the next logical step was to join the company immediately. There was a lot to know about the Sakuradite industry and she wanted to make sure she could get as much guidance as she could before she was on her own. And while it wasn't a sure thing that she would inherit the company (Shirley had adamantly told her father she didn't want a hand-out) she was sure that she was the best runner-up to. If she was going to get somewhere, she wanted it to be on her own merits and earn the respect of those at the company. She wanted them to see her as someone who was capable and not just some spoiled brat looking to coast.

Her mother had always told her to take it easy, but when Shirley saw the pride swell in her father's eyes as a result of her efforts, she just knew all her hard work to help him out was worth it. The warm, bubbly feeling of self-worth she got when her father smiled approvingly at her when she delivered presentations made all her efforts worth it. Sakuradite was also the future—it was well on its way to powering just about every home in the world for a fraction of the cost of traditional electricity. Getting her feet wet in the industry now was a guarantee for her future.

So she had almost complete faith that both her parents would forgive this minor rebellion of hers—i.e. running away on a vacation with a man she had literally just met. And she had already reassured them that all was well and she hadn't been kidnapped by some psychopath hell-bent on revenge who was just using her as leverage in an elaborate plot. She told them that Mao was a kind, attentive, and sweet boy who thought the world of her.

Except not.

Because she had forgotten her phone back home.

Punishment was a certain event in the future.

All the messages and emails waiting for her when she got back made her frantic with worry. It stuffed her insides with a flurry of butterflies packed in so tightly they made her almost physically ill, crawling up her throat wanting to get out.

So when Mao exited the change room wearing the most ridiculous outfit, complete with a pair of red-rimmed sunglasses, she wasn't able to laugh like she was supposed to and merely gave him a strained smile. And then she felt worse knowing he had been trying all day to get her to cheer up and stop worrying. Instead of frowning and getting frustrated, adding to her burdens, Mao just smiled and walked up to her, petting her head.

"The company won't burn down without you. You're his daughter before you're his employee."

Shirley gave him an apologetic, but thankful, look. It was the same thing her father and mother said to her all too often. But she couldn't help but wonder if her father would view her as a rebellious daughter or an irresponsible employee begging for a pink slip after this was all over. This one act of rebellion could be the one that proved to her father that she wasn't worth taking up his mantle and that thought terrified her.

But there was still time before she would be missed at work. She had taken time off in order to watch Lelouch's house properly before pawning the responsibility off onto Suzaku's irritable assistant—who seemed to expect no less and was not at all pleased with the extra work being foisted upon her in his absence. So even though she had some time off, with the way their flights worked, she would still be missing a few days of work at least.

Not to mention she didn't really tell anybody she was here.

What if Mao turned out to be some psychopath and had really brought her here to murder her like so many other girls? But that girl they ran into, CC, had told him that he was a good guy. Well, those weren't her exact words, but Shirley read between the lines. And CC, she vaguely remembered, was a friend of Lelouch's. Although they had never been formally introduced, she remembered seeing them chatting together at the social event a few months ago, intended to introduce Lelouch as Suzaku's fiancé. They seemed close. And she trusted Suzaku, so she trusted Lelouch, so she trusted CC.

Unwilling to let Mao worry about her, she covered her hands with her face. "But I didn't tell them. I forgot my phone at home. They'll think I've been kidnapped or worse."

Peeking through her fingers at him, she saw the sympathetic look on his face. And then he brightened, grabbing her shoulders, looking ridiculously excited—like he had just thought of the best idea ever. "Then let's go call them! So they know you're not dead somewhere!"

Mao was nice, and she liked him a lot, but sometimes the things he said were, uh, borderline.

But his intentions were there!

And to Shirley that's all that mattered.

Letting the suggestion sink in for a while, Shirley conceded that it was a good idea. And if her parents wanted to yell at her over the phone, it would probably make her feel better. Worrying them was the last thing she thought of when taking this impulsive vacation.

With her anxieties alleviated at least a little, she was able to properly take in the outfit Mao had on and giggle at his silliness. "You look so ridiculous in that get-up!"

He folded his arms, looking dramatically affronted. "Well! I never!"

But she only giggled more at his antics and Mao eventually let go of the façade and grinned brightly at her. He tapped her playfully on the nose before disappearing back into the dressing room to change once again.

For all her misgivings and anxieties, Shirley knew she would never regret the decision, though. Mao was fun, playful, and clearly adored her. She had caught him staring at her a few times when they were shopping and he had bashfully looked away. Being around Mao was comfortable. Unlike the first time she met Lelouch (a time she had since blocked from memory considering how that turned out—i.e. engaged to Suzaku (a cause for a minor episode of depression considering the implications)), Mao was easy to be around and didn't fluster her.

When he exited the change room, they quickly left the clothing store. Mao had instantly begun chattering about something that came to mind and she just enjoyed listening to him. This back and forth was also a nice thing about being with Mao. When she liked to be talkative, he would listen, and vice versa. A lot of other guys often liked to shut her up or merely pretended to listen.

Shyly, while he was in the middle of talking about something, she slipped her hand into his and was pleasantly surprised when he just squeezed it, not even missing a beat in his story.

Butterflies of a different kind than earlier flew up in her stomach and she felt her face heat up slightly. But before she could become any more embarrassed by what was happening, she spotted a curious sight.

Was that…

"…but CC's like that, you know! She only scolds you for your own good. Ah~! Her scolding voice is—"

"Suzaku? Lelouch?"

ooo

For the first time in his life, Lelouch regretted being such a blatant, unrepentant, advantage-mongering liar. But only a little bit. It made him think carefully about the questions Suzaku was interrogating him with and the answers he should give. Most of the girls he had swindled could be conned well enough into not asking by dropping a few subtle hints that his history was nothing important. And a little tragic. And traumatic. And totally not worth asking about. And it would make kittens cry.

So let me hear more about you.

Suzaku was immune to such tactics. And he had already met Marianne, so the chance of him pleading silence was zero when considering just how much his mother doted on him so openly. So the answers he had given Suzaku were a blended mix of fabrication and creative truth-telling.

"Like I told you before, I was homeschooled. My family was always busy so I had a… private tutor," he said with a grimace, remembering unpleasant memories involving Schneizel and pie.

Don't ask.

"Oh?" Suzaku asked, eyebrows perking in interest. "There's more to this than you're letting on. Nobody mentions a private tutor with so much resentment."

Well shoot. Was it really that obvious?

Lelouch frowned at him, hoping he would catch the hint and let it go. He didn't like being interrogated and instead preferred being the interrogator. It was easier to manage and direct conversations that way. Awkward questions and awkward questions possibly about his brother had zero chance of coming up.

"Come on," Suzaku wheedled. "Was she older? Was she hot? Was it a guy? Did you have an unrequited crush on them?"

Oh how he wished Suzaku would just move onto other things right now.

Carefully gauging how damning it would be to tell Suzaku the truth, Lelouch hesitated. He looked nothing like Schneizel, due to some odd miracle of genetics (DNA tests don't lie), so it would probably be alright. (And for that matter really could only be recognized as his mother's son.) And he knew Schneizel never left the country for absolutely anything, so unless Suzaku went to Britannia for business, the chances of their meeting each other were slim. And even then Schneizel would probably pawn the obligation off to Gino—his eternally-loyal, ask-no-questions yes-man.

No, there'd probably be no ramifications later.

Hopefully.

"My tutor was my older brother," he said, deliberately leaving the name out.

Suzaku gave him an amused look. "Pfft. That's not nearly as bad. Here I was starting to think that you had been molested or something." And then his face stiffened and grew serious. "Wait, he didn't—"

Suzaku cut himself off at Lelouch's wide-eyed look of shock (at how on earth Suzaku's brain made such a far-fetched, ridiculous connection).

A look Lelouch would later defend was subject to interpretation—interpretation that erroneously led Suzaku to the conclusion he had obviously just come to. Later on, Lelouch would probably look back on this moment and wish he had decided to stop the hamster running furiously in that little wheel inside Suzaku's brain, but that time was not now.

Now was the time of advantage-taking.

And it looked like Suzaku had already come to his own conclusions regarding the matter and his mind wouldn't be swayed, so perhaps it was just best if he left it at that. Especially considering Suzaku would probably never meet Schneizel ever.

Sorry, Schneizel, he mentally apologized, you've become a child molester.

While Schneizel el Britannia had been the sole person responsible for many humiliating and downright wish-I-could've-crawled-in-a-hole-and-died-instead memories, his older brother never would've done something of the like probably running through Suzaku's head at this very moment. In fact, to say Schneizel merely doted on him would be an understatement. If Schneizel knew about Suzaku and how much he liked to touch Lelouch, it was guaranteed that a rack, a blowtorch, and several other torture instruments Lelouch couldn't name would be waiting for Suzaku in Britannia. All of it would be neatly arranged on racks lining a room in a basement three levels deep where no one would ever hear the screams. Or find the body.

After arriving there with a nondescript brown sack tied over his head.

So, in light of Suzaku's foregone conclusion, Lelouch figured that this could work to his advantage somewhat. Suzaku may have been Mr. Sexual Harassment, but he probably had enough of a conscience not to harass a victim.

And with that said—

Capitalism, ho!

Pulling a look of mortification and shame (the likes of which he had enough practice of in recent months thanks to you-know-who), Lelouch looked away, breaking eye contact with Suzaku. He trembled appropriately, dredging up long-suppressed memories of that Pie Incident to support his performance. He thought back to how there was—and then how he—but that never would've—

Oh God. Wrong Pandora's Box to open.

Suzaku's hand covering his snapped the box shut, bringing Lelouch back from reliving his childhood trauma. He looked into green eyes that looked torn between being pensive, being understanding, and being downright murderous.

"Lelouch… do you—"

"No. Not ever," he blurted, looking away again—really hoping Suzaku would drop the topic. Even though Schneizel wasn't here, it made him uncomfortable to essentially slander his family. Even if it was unintentionally. That and he really wasn't interested in having a heart-to-heart—with Suzaku of all people—over some non-existent childhood trauma.

No, his childhood traumas were entirely different.

And were to never, ever, ever, ever, ever be repeated or referred to.

When Lelouch chanced another glance at Suzaku, the look on his face was now one of such abject remorse he really wondered where it all came from. Pity he could understand. Remorse? What exactly did Suzaku have to regret? What about this situation—

Actually, it was probably better if he didn't know.

Except that Suzaku had stopped walking.

Damn.

Lelouch shifted awkwardly, keenly aware of how Suzaku's grip had tightened slightly around his hand. Whatever Suzaku was trying to convey was lost on him. He just wanted to get past this awkward moment in life to forget about it forever and move on to the coffee shop that had recently come in view. And, for the eleventh time, he wondered why they couldn't sit down at one of the other coffee shops they had passed by on the way to this one.

Knowing that avoiding the inevitable was impossible, Lelouch looked up at Suzaku with a raised eyebrow, prompting explanation.

"Lelouch, I—" He choked. This time he was the one to look away from Lelouch. "I'm sorry," he said brokenly. "I'm so, so, so sorry."

Sorry?

About what?

Lelouch glanced around quickly before looking back at Suzaku, who looked like he was having a meltdown and was on the verge of, God forbid, hugging him. Somehow, he got the feeling that this wasn't just sympathy for 'being molested' by Schneizel. Although his older brother's affections could be considered suffocating. "I, uh, forgive you," he said awkwardly, not really sure what he was forgiving.

Not really wanting to know.

Suzaku pursed his lips.

Sweet mercy, please don't cry. That would make this all more awkward than it already was. The way he was acting you'd think that Suzaku had been the one to tell him that he had been abused as a child and in need of emotional human support Lelouch would never be willing to give.

He offered a reassuring smile, giving a tug on Suzaku's hand. "Come on. The coffee shop is up there," he urged, not enjoying the curious stares they had begun receiving.

Composing himself, Suzaku heeded the urging and thankfully followed Lelouch's lead without any more fusses or awkward apologies.

Suzaku finally let go of his hand when they sat down at a table on the patio that was mercifully in the shade. The sun was working on a burn on his skin, he could feel it. By the time the server had come and taken their orders for a café au lait and cappuccino, it looked like Suzaku had worked through, or at least managed to fight down, whatever moral dilemma that had struck him.

"So," Suzaku started conversationally. "Do you have, uh, other siblings? Big family?" Like you have no idea. "From how much Marianne… um… well it makes you look like an only child."

Lelouch fought a sigh, telling himself he had come to terms with that a long time ago. But seriously, what was with the twenty questions? Suzaku had never been in such an interrogative mood before now. What was with this sudden desire to get to know him better that had come out of nowhere after a few solid months of being in this relationship? Was Suzaku seriously on to him or something?

And Lelouch, being Lelouch, was sure as hell not going to just tell Suzaku truthful details about himself to someone who will be supremely and royally pissed off at him in a few months' time. No, that made it easier to track him down. Lelouch wasn't even using his real surname—which would realistically probably only slow Suzaku down a bit, and maybe not at all depending on how much money was thrown at the desire to act upon inevitable violent intentions he would have towards him in the future.

"Just my parents and older brother," he said.

"O-Oh," Suzaku stuttered, looking away uncomfortably.

He had told all the girls before Suzaku that his parents were dead (often by assassination) so meeting them was impossible. And that he was an only child, so no siblings. It was cheaper than hiring actors. But for posterity he had picked a last name where Mister and Misses Lamperouge were already buried—in the event that the girls ever insisted on 'visiting' (it had only happened once). He honestly wanted to go with Kingsley, because it sounded noble and prestigious, but when he told CC she had just laughed. And laughed. And laughed.

So Lamperouge it was.

(Which earned a little smirk and a peculiar red lamp for a birthday present from her that year. But no complaints. No real ones, anyway.)

But if Suzaku were to ever meet the entirety of his family, along with Schneizel the child molester, Cornelia, Euphie, and—no. Such a thing could never happen.

Not to mention the small unimportant bit where they weren't supposed to exist.

Explaining that would be slightly difficult.

But it didn't look like Suzaku was about to ask, so he didn't have to get too creative.

Thank God.

"I'd like to meet them," Suzaku said with determination, looking up to meet Lelouch's eyes directly.

Gratitude retracted.

"I… uh…"

Suzaku gave him a sad look. "You don't want me to meet your family."

Lelouch bit his lip, thinking hard and fast about what to say. If his family ever met Suzaku, the chance of the boy ever leaving the house alive and unmaimed was high in the negative percentages and that was bad for his future incoming funds.

"You really don't, do you?" And then his eyes widened in revelation. "You were willing to break it off with me when you found out that your mom was coming to see you. That's what that was all about, wasn't it? I see it now."

Lelouch winced because it was true. He never wanted his family to find out about his, erm, choice of profession and had dropped girls faster than a hot potato if there was ever the chance of that happening. And in the event that they did ever find out about his, uh, work, he would've just denied it and kept on denying it.

"It's not like that," he said weakly.

Except it was totally like that.

"I'm guessing you just never told them about…" Suzaku waved his hand vaguely.

Because he wasn't so there was never anything to tell them about.

Lelouch bit his lip, realizing just how guilty he probably looked right now. It was also hard to decipher just what was going on in Suzaku's head right now, because Suzaku had been acting abnormal this entire vacation. And if you considered what normal typically was, this had to be a step up. Except it possibly meant that Suzaku was cheating on him.

Honestly, Lelouch was more offended than anything else.

Someone was cheating on him?

Lelouch would never be able to live it down.

(Not that there was anything about this situation that already didn't qualify for that.)

"What about Mao?" Suzaku asked, looking suddenly serious. "You guys used to, er, be together, right? What happened with that? Was it serious?"

Right.

That.

Lelouch suddenly wished that Mao were here so he could repay the man tenfold in bodily harm for all the trouble he had caused with that stunt.

"Um… He… we… uh…"

Suzaku's look darkened slightly at Lelouch's reluctance, hovering somewhere between murderer and serial killer.

"Suzaku! Lelouch!" someone called out to them.

Both of them turned their heads at the—

Well, well; speak of the devil.

Shirley and Mao approached them and Lelouch found himself regretting with all his being for making that wish earlier. It felt like he had some kind of malicious personal agent devoted to making his life miserable in every conceivable way.

Suzaku smiled charmingly. "Shirley! What a coincidence. And, Mao, I'm positive I remember you. Lelouch and I were just talking about you," he said enthusiastically. Way too enthusiastically. Way, way, way too enthusiastically.

Lelouch glanced at Suzaku.

Green eyes. Brimming with intense hatred and violent intent above the most charmingly fake smile he had ever seen.

Mao blinked in confusion as he was probably wondering for what reason his name had come up in conversation between the—

Eyes widened.

Lightbulb.

Mao began laughing nervously.

Lelouch fixed him with a glare. Yeah, you better be regretting this, he thought vindictively.

Shirley blinked curiously, looking between the two of them and then to Mao. "Why?" she asked naively. Lelouch couldn't help but wince.

But Suzaku's eyes never left Mao—as the poor boy began to sweat. "Oh, well I was just asking Lelouch about his previous relationship with Mao. They used to date, as I understand it."

Her eyebrows shot up and Lelouch wondered if it was too late to order that latte to go. She took a step back and looked from Mao—who looked like he no longer wanted to be there—and Lelouch—who shared the sentiment. And rather than the expected scandalized or upset look, Shirley just hummed thoughtfully. She nodded, looking back and forth between them appraisingly. "I think I can see it. Although it's hard to say who took the lead there… if I had to pick, it would be Mao."

Lelouch sputtered.

"Shirley…" Mao whined, giving her the puppy dog look.

"Right?" Suzaku just agreed, smiling, curbing any power That Look might've had with that hint of danger in his voice.

Lelouch shot him a glare. Bastard was doing this on purpose! Although, judging by how Suzaku's eyes were fixed on Mao like a bloodhound, his real goal was indicated by the thinly-veiled violent intent storming beneath the surface of calm, green eyes.

"So I was just asking Lelouch why they split up. I don't want to make the same mistakes after all."

Shirley nodded sagely. "Yes, yes. I understand. That's good thinking!" She turned expectantly to Mao, tilting her head curiously. "Well? Why didn't it work out?"

Lelouch took a quick glance around and realized that both Suzaku's and Shirley's eyes were on Mao, so he similarly followed suit.

Yes.

Why didn't it work out, Mao?

Because it never happened?

Because he was trying to ruin Lelouch's life for no apparent reason?

Because it never happened?

Because this was some plot to ruin this job?

Or was it because it never happened?

This was, quite possibly, a better retribution than anything Lelouch could've ever acted upon because CC probably would've never let him. For whatever reason, she doted on Mao like he was a puppy dog, and Mao did nothing to dissuade her of that notion. Instead he capitalized on it so hard he wondered if the guy was secretly a glutton for punishment, because CC's 'doting' was nothing like patting a dog on its head. If he had to describe the way she treated Mao most of the time, he'd have to say it was like putting that dog's favourite treat behind a glass wall just long enough for the dog to stop begging for it.

Except that Mao was different from a dog in that he never stopped begging for it.

And he really had no idea where CC picked Mao up from. He just appeared out of nowhere one day and never left. Lelouch hadn't been surprised by Mao sniffing out their whereabouts after leaving the flat in Britannia, and had long since gotten used to him. He just wished the big puppy had shown up at a better time. Such as never.

Mao cast a desperate glance his way and Lelouch pointedly sent him a flat look in return.

It was the closest thing to the middle finger Lelouch had ever given anybody.

But then Mao just grinned triumphantly, looking right at him.

"Because of the sex," he said bluntly, with all the weight of a ten ton hammer.

Lelouch's reaction was instant, choking on his own spit, unable to recover. The other two just stared at the man. Shirley slowly started to blush and fidget, unsure of what to say. Suzaku, on the other hand, just sat there smiling, as if Mao hadn't said anything at all.

And then his eyebrow twitched.

"Excuse me?" he asked.

Lelouch didn't want to look.

But Mao, dear blissfully stupid Mao, just smirked, lording over the bright red flush on Lelouch's face that was crawling slowly towards his ears and down his neck. "Or rather lack of!"

Horrified, Lelouch covered his face with both hands, wishing he had an extra set to cover his ears.

"Really," Suzaku said slowly

"Really really.'

Lelouch peeked through his fingers to see that Shirley's face was bright red, with both hands covering her mouth, looking red enough to match her hair quite nicely for once.

Suzaku looked thunderous.

"But you never forced him did you?" he asked, standing up.

Mao scoffed. "Not when it made me feel like a criminal every time he cried. So I dumped him."

Anger and humiliation burned like hot coals and a thought suddenly occurred to Lelouch on how he might enact a vindicating revenge on Mao after all.

So he fidgeted, his lower lip trembled, he looked at his hands, and, in the most pathetic, miserable, vulnerable voice he could muster, he whispered, "But, I loved you."

There was silence and then the sharp sound of a slap, snapping Lelouch's attention up at Mao, who was now sporting a fine red hand-print on his cheek. Shirley's hand was held stiffly in the air; her cheeks were slightly flushed, and anger burned in her green eyes. She looked righteously pissed off.

"We're done," she said with finality, before turning on her heel curtly and walking off.

Mao looked thunderstruck and his jaw fell open as his eyes widened hysterically. As he opened his mouth to say something to call her back, Suzaku tapped him on the shoulder, causing him to look back around at—

"We're not."

Oh yes.

This will hurt.

ooo

Kallen's eyebrows shot straight up into her hairline as she watched Suzaku unleash. The receiver—some Chinese guy—swayed on his feet for a second or two before falling flat on his back. And then she saw Suzaku turn to apologize to the waitress who had come to deliver their order before he ushered Lelouch to get up and leave. Once they had left, sporting two paper cups, she watched the poor girl contemplate what to do with the unconscious person on the store's patio.

Kallen whistled.

Suzaku wasn't exactly a pacifist, but she knew him to be the kind that would rather avoid any kind of physical violence, knowing he could really hurt someone if he wasn't careful. Whatever that guy said must've pushed his buttons hardcore for him to take a swing like that. And it wasn't one of those sissy punches that maybe left you concussed or dizzy either. It was one of the ones Suzaku learned from his martial arts training that really knew how to break the face of a guy.

And then Kallen sighed, turning to the mass of shivering green hair next to her. CC was curled up in a ball on the ground, holding her stomach, and gasping for air more than laughing at this point. Kallen couldn't understand the sick fascination this girl had for the suffering of others. While she had no doubt that the Chinese guy deserved the sledgehammer Suzaku expedited to his face, she still felt kind of sorry for him.

"Why are we spying on them again?" she felt the need to ask.

They had just about run into the two of them by accident, but CC had clamped a hand over her mouth and pulled her back just before she could call out to them. Seeing them together, holding hands, had instantly made her hopes rise for their situation, and she couldn't help the moment of pride knowing that she was probably the one responsible for that.

What with kicking Suzaku in the pants about it and all.

And all the sand on his face.

CC sighed, her fit of laughter having run its course. "Progress," she answered simply, sitting up immediately to peer through the clothing rack in the store they had hid in that was across the street from the coffee shop.

Kallen rolled her eyes.

CCs motivations were so beyond her. One minute she was playing home wrecker and the next she was cupid, checking up on her two latest arrow victims. And if CC hadn't come here with Suzaku or Lelouch, like she claimed, just what the heck was she doing here? When Kallen asked she had just vaguely waved her hand errantly, dismissing the topic before changing it to something else.

Sighing, fed up with all this spying and sneaking around, Kallen grabbed the spying girl by the wrist and tugged her away forcefully. "Come on, let's leave them alone. There are dress shops on the next street we haven't looked at yet."

CC whined. "But, Kally!" she pleaded, giving her the Kicked Puppy Look (all rights reserved).

Kallen grit her teeth, feeling her morals struggle for a brief moment, because deep down she, too, wanted to see the fruits of her labours. She shook her head, breaking eye contact. "No. We'll leave them be."

CC puffed her cheeks out, looking miserable, but allowed herself to be led away. On their way out, she briefly caught Suzaku's eye, and winked at him. He had looked startled for a moment before relaxing back into the conversation with Lelouch.

She smiled to herself. Felt like she had done a good deed.

ooo

It had never been Gino's modus operandi to question the orders Schneizel ever gave him. Instructions were given, and he made sure to follow them to the letter. His boss had bluntly told him that it was one of the qualities that allowed Gino to keep his job for so long, accented with so many raises and a grin that looked like it was saying something else. The other assistants apparently never made it longer than a month because they asked too many questions.

But Gino? He didn't particularly care—and he cared even less what that grin really meant at the time. And it didn't much matter to him if the guy particularly enjoyed sending mail from one post box or another—they all did the same thing so it was all the same to him. It also didn't matter to him why the first questions he was asked, whenever he returned to HQ in Britannia to give a report, were about Suzaku Kururugi's love life instead of his business report.

So it also didn't matter that Schneizel had wanted a particular painting, at this particular art gallery, at this particular time of the day. In fact, it had made him anxious when he hit heavy traffic on the way here, making him wonder if he would make it in time to buy the art piece.

Thankfully he managed to arrive with fifteen minutes to spare and decided to just admire the paintings until it was time to buy this particular one.

The image itself was a little too macabre for his taste, but to each their own, he reasoned. And it wasn't anything grotesque, but it did make him feel incredibly lonely, which made him think of Kallen, bringing a smile to his lips.

Kallen Stadtfeld was beautiful and everything he knew he wanted in a woman from the first right hook. It was love at first injury. He even loved the cheap shots she always took at his shins that felt like gravel trucks had run them over. (Okay, so he didn't really love them, because they really hurt—and he was no masochist, despite all the signs pointing to—but it was the thought that counted.) Though he would never call them cheap to her face because she just might break it.

Checking his watch, he felt accomplished as the second hand ticked down before calling the store owner over.

"I'll take this one, my good man."

The blonde man he assumed was the artist of the gallery glanced over his shoulder and positively beamed. He clasped his hands together in delight, standing next to Gino and turned to marvel at the painting himself.

"Yes! I remember this one. I painted it not too long ago."

"It's excellent, I love it," he complimented, politely. "If I could have it in—" he glanced at his watch, (one for the transaction, two and change for the small talk along with shipping details) "—the next four minutes, you'll make me a happy man."

The man looked positively embarrassed with the praise, but led Gino over to the till nonetheless. "I'll ring it up right now."

"What do you call it?" Gino asked conversationally, pulling out his company credit card.

The man sighed. "Immortal Goddess," he breathed. "The inspiration for her came unto me in a storm of love and passion!"

Gino glanced back at the painting again after giving the man the credit card.

A woman wrapped in a silken black dress was portrayed in the middle, with her green hair fanned out like flames towards the edge of the painting, looking like it was obliterating everything it touched. Burning, golden eyes stared down at him imperiously. The world around her was in ruin, but she reached for a bright light beaming down from the top, as if she were about to call divine retribution unto you. And he couldn't shake the feeling of familiarity the woman in the painting evoked, but, like everything in his job, didn't question it. If Gino had to call it something, he secretly decided that 'Hellfire' or 'Witch' was more accurate.

But he was going to keep that bit to himself.

"Here you are, good sir, your receipt and bill of authenticity. A Clovis original."

Gino turned away from the painting to smile at the man—Clovis most likely.

"Thank you. Please have it delivered to this address," he said, pulling out Schneizel's business card and placing it on the counter before turning away, pocketing the receipt and authenticity statement. Schneizel would need neither, but he'd keep them both anyway. Giving the painting another, final, cursory glance before stopping at the door to turn back and look at the artist again, he distinctly noticed the wide-eyed look the man was now giving him. "Schneizel sends his regards, by the way," he said with a slight nod.

The man's mouth dropped open but Gino turned away.

No questions, orders to the letter, and that's how Gino liked it.

And now back to the first and last love of his life, Kallen.

Hopefully she would miss him enough to give him time to convince her not to break his kneecaps for leaving on business in the first place.


Comment:

Aww, you guys. Pandering to my ego and saying you actually read all these things I write. How sweet. (I don't even care that you're probably just saying that.) But, gosh, that's so much pressure on me now to start putting witty, profound, and inspiring stuff here. So here goes! Be prepared! Be awed! Be inspired!

I like ducks.

Please R&R.

- Minute Maid

Beverage of Queens.

P.S. "Liar Liar" is being translated into German! If you speak German, check it out from the link in my profile! I'm moving up in the world and getting translated!