Over Coffee + Part Five (cont)

"Not Alex! You didn't!"

"He very kindly offered to give you a lift. I don't know what your problem with him is," Hilde continued. From their tones this was a long running argument.

"Yeah, that's cause he's never tried to grab your ass," Duo complained, catching sight of me. "Nice towel, Quatre."

Hilde squealed. "I knew there was a reason you asked Quatre to move in with you!"

Blushing, I ran into my room to get clothes. Coming back, I found the conversation hadn't changed much.

"Alex is a lovely man. I don't know what you have against him."

"How about the fact that he's a overly-aggressive sleezeball who plays wargames in his spare time and enjoys hurting people?"

"Duo! You're not still on about that! Alex was showing Mueller the karate hold and you volunteered to help him demonstrate. And he apologised afterwards--"

"He knew it hurt and he liked that," Duo insisted. "I had bruises for a week--"

"Well, don't volunteer to help him with any more martial arts demonstrations then," Hilde snapped. "I honestly don't know what you have about Alex and Mueller. You've never forgiven Alex for that and he's trying so hard to be friends with you--"

"Fine," Duo said. "I'll go with Alex. But I want your pepper spray."

"Fine," Hilde said, giving it to him. "But you're being ridiculous." She looked at her watch. "I have to go now, I need to start getting ready."

"What do you want to eat, Q?" Duo asked, pulling saucepans out of the cupboard. "Stirfry sound good? Or Mexican? I think we have some tortillas left."

I'd learned that anything Duo cooked was good. He was qualified to help out in the kitchen to the extent that if necessary he could cover for a sick cook.

Duo left me in charge of stirring the stir fry while he got changed for the party. I dutifully chased vegetables around the pan, loosing a fair few in the process.

"Gently, Quatre," Duo corrected coming up behind me. "Like this. Well, I think this is ready. How's the rice?"

The rice was a sticky congealing mass.

"Sorry," I said.

"Rice is tricky," Duo told me. "Don't worry about it."

As we ate I studied Duo. He was wearing a red shirt with a black pattern over top, and the same pair of trousers he'd worn when we'd gone clubbing with Wufei. This time he had his hair neatly plaited.It might have been just me but he didn't seem very happy.

"Something wrong, Q?"

"I was wondering if everything was okay. You don't seem very enthusiastic about your party tonight and, well... "

"Hilde's mad at me. I hate when we fight. She's more like family than a friend, you know, the little sister I never had," Duo sighed. "And then Alex isn't exactly one of my most favourite people either. Still, Walker's okay. He just acquired a lot of weird friends in military academy."

There was a knock at the door just then. Alex had arrived to pick Duo up.

I didn't like him. He filled the entire corner he stood in as he waited for Duo to finish his meal and grab his things. Maybe it was the bad press he'd received, maybe it was the way he leered at me when Duo introduced us... but I was willing to believe Duo's earlier description of Alex entirely.

"Have a good time!" I called as they left. I wanted to say 'be careful' but I couldn't say that with Alex around.

"See you Quatre!" Duo called back. "And keep your hands to yourself--"

I didn't think that was directed at me--which didn't make me feel better.

With a sigh I returned to finishing my meal and the dishes. After that I tried to find something to do. There was nothing on TV that interested me. I felt bad about delaying the cleaning so I went back to the cafe and finished cleaning the fridge--making sure to leave the door open this time. After that finished I settled down with a book on the sofa. Even then I didn't feel settled.

It wasn't until I tried to go to sleep that I realised what I was doing. I got up to check on every little sound. Eventually I gave up and sat in the kitchen to wait for Duo to get back, knowing I would not be able to relax until I saw him home safely.

Eventually, the door clicked open.

I groggily raised my head. I'd fallen asleep on the sofa, and it took me a few moments to orientate myself.

"Thanks very much for the ride home and everything," Duo said from the kitchen. "I really appreciate it... are you sure I can't offer you coffee?"

The voice that replied was warm and pleasant--and definetely not Alex's. "I'm sorry but I really do need to get away. Some other time maybe?"

"Count on it," Duo purred.

"Goodnight, then. It was a pleasure to meet you, Duo."

"The pleasure was mine," my friend answered. "Drive safely."

I waited until I heard the front door close before pushing the kitchen door open. Duo was still facing the door, a wistful look on his face. He started guiltily as I came in.

"Quatre, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to wake you up."

"You didn't," I told him."I was worried about you and Alex so--"

"You decided to wait up for me? That's so sweet. Remind me to make you coffee cheesecake tomorrow," Duo ruffled my hair.

"So how was the party?" I asked, trying not to blush.

"Great. I caught up with a lot of Uni friends I haven't seen since classes finished. I was having a really good time in fact, despite Alex breathing down my neck the entire time. He was even worse than usual, had heard about me and Heero breaking up and decided that since I was single I must be desperate--" Duo shuddered. "I sincerely hope I am never that desperate. Anyway, to cut a long story short he got drunk and then, well, let's leave it at overly tactile. I didn't really want to ruin Walker's party by making a fuss, but I wasn't going to put up with Alex either. I thought if I could get him outside, I could get rid of him without making a row, but I hadn't counted on Mueller being there to protect his buddy's honour. He threw me into a rose bush. That wasn't much fun, I can assure you." Duo sighed, showing me a scratch across his wrist. "Lucky I decided to wear a long sleeved shirt, huh?"

"Lucky you weren't seriously hurt!" I told him. "What were you thinking, going out by yourself! You're not exactly the biggest person and the world--and if Alex knew martial arts--"

"On looking back it might not have been the smartest thing I ever did," Duo conceeded. "But at that moment I was more concerned with not getting Walker's house wrecked."

"So what happened?" I asked. "How come you're not, uh--"

"Pushing up roses?" Duo asked wryly. "That would be Otto."

"Otto?" I questioned.

"My knight in shining armour, the exceedingly classy guy who dropped me home, the same guy who put Mueller in a head lock and convinced him he should take Alex inside to deal with the pepper spray. That Otto."

"Oh," I said.

"He has the most gorgeous German accent I've ever heard--" Duo sighed happily. "Still, don't suppose I'll ever run into him again."

"Too bad," I said. "He sounded nice."

For some reason I didn't feel very sincere when I said that.

The phone rang then.

"Who the hell rings at this time of night?" Duo grumbled as he ran for the lounge. "Heero," he said, snatching up the phone, "if this is you--" he blinked, doing a classic double take. "Old man? Where are you?"

I grinned, sitting back to listen to Duo and Howard's conversation. I managed to gather that Howard was still in Mexico, although he'd joined up with a group of travellers doing a bike tour of the more remote temples.

"Sounds pretty cool--and you're learning the local cooking? Seriously? Avacado? I'll have to try that some time--what do you mean, Rose can show me? Who is this Rose? Darlian--she's a widow? A very lovely lady--why do I not like the sound of that? You're thinking of doing what? You're kidding! I mean, how long have you known her--well, age? Relatives? Financial situation?" Duo choked. "If she's got that much money, why'd she want to marry you?"

My turn to choke. Even though I'd been on the receving end of Duo's brutal honesty before, he'd never been quite that blunt.

"If you must know, I think you're both equally crazy," Duo said. "I hope she says yes, old man. No, still single. But Quat's been keeping me company--no, not that way! Geez, someone is frisky! What have they been feeding you? Yeah? Well, get the recipe--uh-huh, I will. Take care of yourself. And tell your girlfriend she's welcome to you--I didn't want to be financing your retirement anyway. Yeah, I know. Love you too." Duo chuckled as he hung up. "Man, can you believe that? Howard wants to get married."

"I gathered," I said. "Uh, Duo, why are you so upset?"

"Upset? I'm startled that's all--I mean, I never expected him to be falling in love at his age--oh, you mean the phonecall. That's just what we do, Quatre. He expects me to hassle him. If I told him I was sincerely happy for him, he'd be wanting to fly back here to take my temperature."

"Are you sure?" I asked doubtfully.

"Yeah--well, I'm mostly happy for him," Duo conceeded. "I'm going to have to meet this Rose person. It's so weird--the thought of Howard getting married again." Duo sat down on the sofa, thoughtfully. "All my life it's been just him and me. Sure he had a couple of girlfriends, but they never lasted long--he never even considered marrying any of them. My gran was a once in a lifetime match, he said. And now--" He shook his head. "I guess I just feel as if everyone I know is getting hitched. Hilde, Howard, Wufei and Sally are definetely long term and you've got your handsome zookeeper--"

I hugged Duo."Don't be silly. You'll find someone, and until you do, you have all of us. You're not alone."

"I know, I think I just needed to have someone tell me that," Duo hugged me back. "Thanks Quatre, for waiting up for me and... everything."

+

I soon discovered that no matter how placid the cafe seemed on the outside, in the kitchen things were always hectic.

"Desserts table six!"

"Mains are go for table nine!"

"What happened to the french toast?"

"Quatre, where are those vegetables?"

I fretted. No matter how fast I tried to cut those carrots up, they always seemed to be running out. "They're coming!"

"Easy!" A hand caught mine suddenly. It was Duo. "You don't want to lose a finger, Quat."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I'll be more careful."

Duo studied me carefully. "Lloyd, can you get one of the waiters to take over the veggies? Quatre doesn't look so well."

As I protested, Duo pulled me out the back into the tiny open-air terrace that was attached to the cafe. Terracotta tiles and sunflower and lemon plants in large pots adorned the terrace, while a couple of comfortable wicker chairs were set in the shade, next to a bathtub planted with herbs used in the kitchen. It was a quiet, restful place, ideal to recuperate from the noise and heat of the kitchen. Duo made sure I was sitting down before fetching a glass of water for me.

"I'm fine, really," I said. "You don't need to make a fuss over me."

In answer Duo held up my hand, already sporting three bandages. "To quote Howard, you're not operating at a hundred percent, Quatre. What's the matter? Are you feeling sick?"

I sighed, sipping the water he'd brought for me. "I'm just a little tired, that's all. I haven't slept well for a while now and I kind of feel like everything is overwhelming me--I'm just working myself into a state over nothing, that's all."

"Well, what's at the root of this?" Duo asked, taking the chair beside me. "I have my break now, so you can tell me all about it."

Duo was wonderfully patient with all my insecurities and fears, even when they were little things. I knew I could trust him to listen and understand. "Its just, well, I haven't seen Trowa all week. Not since the picnic. I've called him a couple of times, but he doesn't seem very interested in talking to me, and I don't know why and I have no idea what's going on!"

"Easy there, Q. It's okay. Now, he doesn't seem interested in talking to you? What gives you that impression?"

"He just doesn't seem all the way there when we're on the phone. And he usually has some reason to end the call--" I scrubbed at my eyes, feeling like a baby. "It's nothing, I just wish he'd come round--"

"This is odd," Duo said. "You say that Catherine was delighted to see you -- so why would Trowa have a problem with that? Unless--"

"What?" I asked.

"You're not going to like this."

I didn't. The idea of Trowa having a problem with commitment was enough to ensure that I almost lost several more body parts that afternoon. After I broke a plate the head cook ordered me out of the kitchen, telling me to swap jobs with one of the waiters. Luckily Lloyd had a crush on the second cook, a very pretty Asian girl, and he didn't mind taking my job. Waiting tables was enough of a diversion that I managed to put Trowa's odd behavior out of my mind until the cafe closed.

"So what should I do?"

"Nothing. Trowa is obviously afraid that you're going to try and tie him down. For the next week you will not phone him, drop by for a visit, send flowers, talk to his sister--nothing!"

"But--"

"You know, it probably won't hurt if you didn't talk to him when he called either."

A whole week of moping around at home, waiting for Trowa to ring but knowing I couldn't talk to him even if he did--I shuddered. "So what should I do instead?"

"Go out, do what young people our age do, Quatre!" Duo whapped me with a dishtowel. "We haven't been clubbing for ages."

"I don't feel like that sort of stuff," I said, shrugging. "Not without Trowa."

"You definetely need to get out of the house--I know!" Duo dashed into the office, returning shortly afterwards with a brochure. "Take a look at this!"

"Delicious Desserts--a week long course run by the School of Cooking, the Polytechnic. The instructor, fresh from Paris, will guide you through a selection of cooking techniques and presentation secrets. Ideal for those involved in catering or casual chefs--" I read. "Why are you giving me this?"

"Quatre Winner, living proof that everything they say about blonds is true."

It was Duo's turn to get whapped. "Well?"

"I was thinking of going and letting you try running the cafe while I did," Duo said. "But it would be much better if you came too. After all, anyone running a cafe should know how to cook."

"You still want me to be your business manager?" We hadn't talked about this since getting out of the fridge.

"I would have told you if I'd changed my mind. Have you thought about it?"

"Not really," I said. "I've had other things on my mind."

Duo patted my shoulder. "Trowa's a fool."

I smiled half-heartedly. If that was true, then why did I feel foolish?

+

Duo managed to talk me into taking the cooking course. Pouring over recipe books, wondering aloud whether we'd be making mousse and cheesecakes, he coaxed me into accompanying him to the Polytech for our first lesson.We were not the youngest people there, a fact that gave me some confidence. Duo and I chatted to the chefs in training while we waited for our teacher to arrive.

As Duo and Sylvia, a pleasant girl, debated the merits of waffles over crepes, I looked around our classroom with some trepidation. I hadn't been in many kitchens before--somehow they'd never found their way into my education. The shining pots and the clean bench surfaces were rather daunting...

"Hello everyone." Our instructor entered the class room already clad in neat white apron. He looked like the sort of person who would be happier over a campfire than an oven, actually, broad shouldered and tanned and a friendly air. He smiled around at us all. "Welcome to the course. I hope we'll have fun working together. I'm Otto, your instructor. Please feel free to ask if you are unsure about anything. Find yourself a workspace and I'll come around and take the roll."

Duo and I chose benches next to each other.

"Is that your Otto?" I asked, studying the instructor as he chatted with Sylvia.

"He's hardly 'my' Otto," Duo said with what could have been a blush. "But yes, he's the one who rescued me."

"Hello again Duo," Otto said, walking over to us. "I've been wondering whether or not it was you since I was given the role--after all, Duo is rather an unusual name isn't it?"

"My mother was an artist," Duo shrugged. "I suppose I'm just lucky I didn't end up being called Vegas or D'Artagnon or something like that... I'm told she was considering those."

"An artist?" Otto smiled. "That's funny--I've often thought you looked like something out of a painting." He put a hand out to touch Duo's hair gently. "Old Master's may be... " he turned to me with a bright smile. "And you are?"

"Quatre Winner," I said, watching as he crossed my name off the list.

"Pleased to meet you," Otto replied. "Do you have any cooking experience?"

"Not exactly," I said.

"Well don't worry about it. I'm here to help, so if there's anything you need help with don't hesitate to ask me."

As Otto moved on to the next student, Duo nudged me.

"Is it just me or was he flirting with me?"

"No, he was flirting with you," I said.

"Oh." Duo sounded pleased.

I eyed my friend. This had to be good, right? If Duo was even considering this, then it had to mean he was no longer thinking of Heero--

Though why that should leave me feeling so uncertain, I had no idea.

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