Author: girl_starfish
Rating: pg13
Pairings: (4+various--it takes time to find the perfect pilot, you know?) 5+S, past 1+2.
Category: Romance, Drama, AU.
Warnings: Iria being mean, non-conventional pairings. Unhappy Heero warning.
Author Notes: This was supposed to be the last part, but it mutated on me again. I'm sorry, and hope I haven't confused anyone.

Over Coffee + Part Four

It appeared Iria had been listening to me. Dorothy had long blonde hair, which I would certainly have found attractive if it had not been for three traits--her habitual mocking tone of voice, her arrogance, and her eyebrows. They were weird, and I caught myself staring at them during tea more than once, trying to work out whether she styled them or they just pointed like that naturally.

Unfortunately my sisters interpreted this as me gazing lovingly into her eyes and began drawing up wedding plans. I managed to dissuade them from booking the venue until Dorothy and I had 'got to know each other a little better.' Which meant never.

"Remember, Quatre, you promised you'd make an effort--a week," Iria urged me. "Give her a week."

I sighed and endured.

Dorothy did have some good points, I realised. She was highly intelligent and could converse amusingly. What I'd taken to be a mocking tone turned out to be a cynicism that she extended to everything including herself. It meshed well with my usually optimistic outlook, we were never short of things to discuss.

It could have been an interesting relationship--if I'd been at all attracted to her.

I'd chosen lunch at Howard's for our final date. I found myself feeling somewhat nervous as we arrived--this was the first time I'd seen Duo since--

I'm not sure what I expected. Whatever it was, it wasn't that Dorothy and I would share a superb meal, and have a highly interesting discussion of the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics. Duo served us and his usual smile was back. That was both cause for concern and a relief--

I blinked as Duo served us our coffees, a folded scrap of paper resting on the rim of my saucer. I picked it up, sliding it beneath the table out of Dorothy's sight. I nodded as she remarked upon the quality of her latte, smiling as I read the note.

What were you on? it read. And where can I get some?

I looked up to where Duo was serving another table. He was back to his old self, all right. With a sigh I folded the note into my pocket. "I've enjoyed this week," I told Dorothy. "It's been good getting to know you better. Unfortunately, I--"

"Stop right there," Dorothy said. "You don't have to explain."

"I don't?" I said, surprised.

"Please. It's obvious--let me guess, your sisters bullied you into this?"

"Iria," I said bemused. "But how--?"

"Honestly. You want me to tell you how many times I've caught you checking out the waiters at the restaurants we've been in? And what about your shirts? And your music?"

"There's nothing wrong with my music--"

Dorothy smirked. "I will refrain from commenting since I want us to part on good terms. I like you Quatre--there aren't too many people I can say that about. But I could never marry you. No offence."

"None taken," I assured her.

"Good," she said. "And before I go, one more thing?" She leaned in close to my ear. "I suggest your sisters do a little bit more research before they arrange dates for you. It might help if they set you up with a girl who wasn't a lesbian." She smirked at my expression and left.

I laughed so much that Duo came over to see if I was choking.

"What's so funny?" he asked me.

If anything, he laughed harder than I did.

"Your poor sisters," he said finally, wiping tears away from his face. "Can you believe it--of all the girls they could pick--"

Howard came over and thumped the table. "I don't pay you to chat with the customers," he said. "Get to work."

As Duo began gathering the plates from my table, I asked "Is something wrong? Howard doesn't usually sound so gruff--"

"Hilde's got the flu, and one of our other waiters quit really suddenly. We're running at half staff," Duo explained, suddenly every inch the professional waiter as he balanced plates.

"Can I help?" I asked.

"Don't you have work?"

"Iria gave me the afternoon off when she heard I was taking Dorothy out for lunch. I don't have anything else to do--"

"Well, you'll have to ask Howard, but I don't think he'll say no," Duo said, leading me into the kitchen.

Howard was busy at the sink. He didn't say no.

Waiting tables was a far cry from my desk job, but I discovered I liked the variety. Although by the end of the afternoon my feet ached from all the standing, and my arms were stiff, it had been nice having face to face contact with people. There was also the added bonus of getting to eat the dishes that didn't quite turn out right.

"Oof!" I said, stretching with relief as we finished. "I never knew something so simple could make me feel so stiff!"

"Try doing it daily," Duo said dryly. "Well, what are you standing around for? We've still got to sweep up!"

I finished the last of the dishes as Duo swept.

"You seem happier today," I commented to Duo. "Are things going well with Heero?"

Duo laughed. "You could say that--we got back together, but I realised that nothing had changed--He hadn't chosen between us. He might have been with me, but Relena was very much in his mind the entire time--in the end, I got so fed up I made the decision for him-- by tossing him out."

I gasped. "You dumped him?"

"Didn't think I could? I didn't either--" Duo shook his head. "It's strange... without him... but I feel free--"

"Well done," I said.

"Thank-you," he smiled. "By the way, I've decided on a change of residence. I've moved out of my old flat and am staying with the old guy until I can find a place."

Howard appeared then. "A bit less of the old guy if you don't mind," he sniffed at Duo, trying to appear offended. "Well, if you two lads are done, what do you say to me treating you to tea?"

"Thank-you," I said gratefully.

"Free food!" Duo cheered.

Howard rolled his eyes and sighed. "Get in the car before I change my mind."

I'd never met my grandparents. I watched enthralled as Howard and Duo chatted and bickered, acting more like old friends than grandfather and grandchild--And okay, I have to admit that I was jealous too--I didn't have that close a relationship with any of my family, not my father and definitely not my sisters--

"I have to head away now," Duo said, standing. "I have a lot of reading to do for my lecture tomorrow."

Howard nodded. "Don't study too hard."

"I should go too," I said, looking at my watch. "Thanks very much for tea, Mr. Maxwell--"

"Just call me Howard," he said. "Before you go--I should pay you for the work you did this afternoon."

I gasped at the amount he handed me. I wasn't sure how much waiters got paid--but I knew it couldn't be this much. "I can't accept this-- it's too much."

"Kid," Howard told me. "I owe you a lot. You've been good to my grandson--helped through a rough time. For that I'm grateful--I don't think this is too much."

"It is--really--I didn't help Duo to get something out of it--" I protested--I couldn't accept this from Howard when I knew they were having a tough time with the café.

"Let me thank-you some other way then," Howard laughed. "I bet you wouldn't say no to free coffee whenever you visit."

"I certainly wouldn't," I agreed.

"That's it then," Howard shook my hand and gave me half of the bills he'd handed me before. "Don't try and argue out of this one--you've earned that."

This time I accepted--I don't think Howard would have let me do otherwise.

"Say," he said, as I prepared to leave. "You wouldn't be interested in doing a job for me, would you? I'd like to get these records put in order--I don't think it would be a hard job for anyone who knows anything about economics, but maths was never my strong point, so--" he shrugged. "I'm thinking of retiring soon, so I want to leave the place in order."

I gasped. "Retiring? But--"

"I want to travel, see the world before this old body gets to worn out."

"But--Howard's--"

"Oh, Howard's will be fine. Duo will see to that. I'm leaving the place to him." Howard winked at me roguishly. "But not a word to him about this, mind--I'm going to tell him when he graduates, and not before then."

"That's still a couple of weeks away," I said as flicked through the pages. "I'll come over in evenings and weekends--I should be able to finish this for you, easily."

"Thank-you, Quatre," Howard slapped me on the back. "You're a good kid. Pity you and Duo didn't get together instead of that Heero character--"

I choked. "You mean you don't mind that Duo likes guys?"

"Not really. Should I?"

"My family act like I'm a disgrace to them--I thought--there had to be something wrong with me--"

Howard patted my shoulder sympathetically. "Family's not just about blood ties, kid. Family is those that love and accept you."

Like I hadn't heard that before, I thought as I headed back home. Honestly, I'd seen that family cliché peddled on at least a dozen sitcoms. Real life families just didn't work that way.

+

I sighed as I ran my fingers through my hair. I'd spent the last ten minutes trying to concentrate on the spreadsheet in front of me-to no avail-it might just as well have been written in hieroglyphics for all I could make of it. Honestly, did they not teach people how to write legibly anymore? And this guy was the CEO of his company- unbelievable! It was no wonder their accounts were in such a mess.

There was a hesitant knock on my door.

"Come in!" I called, straightening and trying to look as though I was working busily. "Can I help-Duo?"

"Hey," my friend grinned. "How are you, Quat?"

"Good," I said, a little bemused. "What are you doing here? Not meaning to be rude or anything, but I didn't even know you knew where I worked."

"I asked Wufei," Duo said, sliding into the other chair. "And when he managed to pry himself away from staring into Sally's eyes, he told me."

I snickered. "I can't imagine Wufei staring into anyone's eyes."

"Yeah, it's pretty unbelievable. But they're happy."

"You never answered my question-what are you doing here?" I asked again. "Not that I don't enjoy chatting but I do have an important assignment--"

"You haven't been to the cafe in over a week, and I rang your secretary, who told me you've been missing lunch breaks right and left. So--" Duo held up a bag. "I took the liberty of bringing you lunch."

I couldn't argue with that.

I thanked Duo profusely, as I ate the smoked salmon bagel. "This is just what I needed-but you shouldn't have gone to so much trouble--"

"Not at all, Q! Howard told me you'd been helping him with the accounts. This is just my way of saying 'thanks.' The old guy has put his life into the cafe-I can't thank you enough."

I flushed, and hurriedly changed the subject. "I still can't get over the fact that Wufei's dating a girl. I mean-I was sure he was gay--"

"According to Sally he's always been bi, just repressed it. See, his family is pretty much ruled by his mother, and he has three older sisters who pretty much told him what to do his entire life-and when he wound up working in the family business, his only line of rebellion was his sexuality. Of course it wasn't a conscious decision, but--" Duo shrugged. "At least, that's Sally's reasoning and you have to admit she's got something of a bias."

"And how does Wufei feel about this?"

"Sally told his mother she had control issues and recommended a good therapist. She hasn't been invited to any more family dinners, but I think Wufei was impressed."

I laughed. "Do you think Sally could talk to some of my sisters? They still blame me for not falling in love with Dorothy."

There was a sharp rap at the door and Iria entered crisply.

"Excuse me, sir," she said, with a pointed glance at Duo's feet, resting on my desk. "But I have some urgent matters to discuss with my brother."

"Sure," Duo said, taking the fruit salad out of his bag and putting it on my desk. "Can't forget this, can I, Q?"

"I get dessert too?" I cheered. "Thanks Duo-you're really out to spoil me, aren't you?"

"Well, you deserve it," He grinned. "Oh, before I forget-are you doing anything this Saturday?"

"Not really."

"Come to the cafe at about lunch time. I can't tell you why, but I promise it will be good."

"Sure," I replied, mystified. "See you Duo."

Iria frowned as the door shut. "I never thought I'd see you behaving so inappropriately, Quatre. Does the family reputation mean nothing to you?"

"Huh?" I said, staring at her utterly bewildered.

"It is one thing to indulge in unsavoury affairs. It is quite another to bring them into the work place. I expected better from you," Iria continued, her voice cold.

"I don't believe this," I exclaimed. "Iria, Duo is a friend. He brought me lunch-that's all."

"He was flirting with you-he called you by a pet name. Furthermore, he is not the sort of person a Winner should associate with."

It was hard to reign in my temper. I managed a cold response. "Duo is one of the best people I know. He's kind and generous and caring of other people. I won't have you insult him in my presence."

"And I won't have you bring down our family reputation," Iria hissed. "You will not disgrace us in front of our clients by bringing your disgusting little affairs into the office."

"Anya brings her boyfriends here all the time and you've never told her off for it. But then this isn't about propriety is it? You're trying to punish me for being gay," I shot back.

"Don't try and twist the issue! Get back to work, and if I hear of anything like this happening again--" Iria stalked out of my office, leaving the threat hanging.

I glanced down at the notes in front of me. If they'd been hard to decipher before, there was no way I was going to be able to read them now with the argument still running through my head. Only one thing to do.

I packed up my briefcase and left. Anya, Rishanti, and Lila were clustered round Anya's desk, whispering furiously. They glared at me as I passed. I ignored them.

"Leaving so early, little brother?" Lila called after me, as I left. "I hope you're not feeling unwell."

I didn't answer.

How could my own family treat me like this? Sure, I'd known they weren't thrilled when I told them I was homosexual, but I thought they'd managed to accept it-I threw my briefcase in the back of my car. I needed to escape--

For my ninth birthday my father took me to the zoo. It was just him and me-no sisters to demand attention. It was one of the few times my father had spent time with me alone-taking care of thirty children isn't easy, and I was the youngest-by the time I'd come along, the novelty of having kids had well and truly worn off. The business took up most of his time-we children were mostly raised by a succession of nannies and tutors. So this birthday stood out in my mind.

I was in awe of my father-in my mind he was this impossibly perfect figure, tall, wise, strong-I was rather worried about giving him a bad opinion of me, and had determined to be on my best behaviour. To my surprise my father had arrived to pick me up wearing not a suit, but jeans and a jumper. He'd left the bodyguards at home-wanted us to have a day out like a regular father and son. I was allowed to run and shout and get dirty and spill things and eat more chips than was good for me-it was one of the few times in my life I felt unconditionally accepted.

It was the zoo, then, that I went to now.

I walked up and down for ages, watching the happy families also visiting the zoo as much as the animals themselves. Eventually I settled with an ice-cream in front of the antelope enclosure-a wide field, painstakingly landscaped to resemble the animals natural environment.

I watched gloomily as two tiny antelopes followed anxiously after their mother who was watching cautiously the keeper bringing in fresh fodder. It sucked. Even antelopes had nicer family than me.

I frowned. For some reason the keeper looked familiar-I caught my breath as he straightened, displaying a very familiar brown fringe--

Surely not--

Only one way to find out.

I watched until he left the enclosure and then set off to intercept him.

I had to hastily dodge and weave past pedestrians and school children to catch up-a crowd of senior citizens on a tour suddenly crowded the path and I was forced to stand to one side as they passed. By the time they'd moved on-he was gone.

I could have cried, or kicked something. I probably would have, if a quiet voice behind me hadn't observed:

"Looks like third time is the charm, after all."

I spun around, hardly daring to believe my ears. "It is you!"

He smiled his enigmatic, beautiful smile, and if possible, I would have fallen in love with him all over again at that moment.

"You're not running away from me this time!" I told him.

"I wouldn't dream of it," he said. "Three times-this has to be fate."

And then to the considerable amusement of the watching crowd of school children, he kissed me rather thoroughly.

+

[cont]