( Chapter 10 )
Wufei gingerly extricated himself from Duo's sleeping hold for the second morning in a row and staggered off for a shower, rubbing blearily at his eyes. Normally, Monday mornings weren't a problem for him, but today was definitely an exception.
*At least I didn't have to hum all night, this time,* he thought, turning the cold tap up in an attempt to shock himself awake. * He slept quite peacefully when he wasn't coughing. I kept dozing off and jerking myself awake so I wouldn't sleep in. If he'd woken up and found me in bed with him...*
*I'm not really happy about sneaking out before he wakes up. It feels so much like... like what I did at Quatre's party. But... I don't know how he'd react if he did wake up in bed with me. I don't know how he feels about me now. He seems to trust me, but is that because he doesn't think he can trust anyone else? He might react very badly. And if he didn't react badly, I'd never be sure whether it was because he felt pressured to do whatever I wanted. What if he thought I was his only option, or if he thought he had to pay me back for looking after him?*
*No. Until he's better, and he's not so dependent on me, I'm not letting him know. Let him think the nightmares are just dispersing on their own.*
*Didn't I have this 'discussion' with myself yesterday? Why am I going over this again?*
*Gods, I've got to get some sleep...*
"Heero, you've got to get some sleep!"
"I'm fine." -takatakatakatakataka-
"Oh really?" Relena leaned over the desk, but Heero obstinately refused to meet her eyes. "You haven't eaten anything in thirty-six hours, either. Even for you, that's pushing it!"
She sighed, pushing herself back upright, and watched him for a minute, then continued on in a softer voice. "Even if you do find something that you and Trowa missed... what will you do about it? Duo's been found. You can't change what happened."
"I want to know." -takatakatakataka-
"But it won't accomplish anything..."
"I want to know! Everything!"
The typing stopped. Heero stared down at the keyboard, fists clenched.
"Then wait until Duo is better and willing to talk and ask him."
His shoulders started to shake, and she slowly walked around the desk to his side.
"I know you want to be doing something," she whispered, "but this isn't going to help... and if something else comes up, maybe something regarding Duo, you'll be in no shape to handle it. Why don't you get something to eat, get some sleep...? And then, if you want to do something, you could help me and Georg go through the message and call archives on my ex-secretary's computer. I want to know exactly what she said to Duo, and vice versa."
There was a half-choked attempt at a snort. "Is that going to accomplish anything more than what I've been doing?"
Relena's lips thinned into a humourless smile. "Since Ms. Reynard is attempting to sue me for wrongful dismissal and defamation of character, yes. I can win the case with just the recording of the call I made from Quatre's shuttle, but I want to do more than just win. I want to counter sue for damages on Duo's behalf, and I want to make sure that woman's employment prospects are gone."
"This is bullshit!"
Trowa blinked at hearing that in Quatre's voice and backed up a few steps until he was opposite the door he had just passed. Pushing it open, he peered into the study.
Quatre was paging through a handful of printouts, shaking his head. "Iria, who negotiated this contract? It's crap! The requirements are loosely written, there aren't any specified standards we can hold them to, there's no provision for performance reviews, and the only penalty for breach of contract applies to us! They can get up and walk out at any time they want to without ever giving us notice, but if we want out to change secretarial agencies, we still have to pay them the full value of the services they don't provide - and this contract goes to AC 216! Nobody signs twenty year contracts for clerical services!"
< < Quatre, I honestly don't know who's responsible for this. > > Iria said from the vidphone, looking harassed. < < I've never been involved in the day to day running of Winner Enterprises or contract negotiations, just general policy formulation and Research and Development. > >
"I know, Iria; your own work takes up plenty of your time. I'm sorry I snapped." Quatre rubbed his hand over his face. "This is just a printout of the text; all it's got at the end is 'signed by a representative of WEI and a representative of Elite Secretarial Services Inc'. I need to see a copy of the signed document to find out who's responsible."
< < Ah... it's a twenty year contract, ending in 216? > > Iria asked tentatively. < < That means it was signed last year. When last year? If it was while Father was alive, there has to be something fishy about it. He would never have agreed to terms like that. > >
Quatre flicked quickly back to the end of the document, and then sighed. "Nope. March 15th. That's... wait... three days after Father died? Who would have been signing contracts then?"
Iria's eyes widened. < < Serena. > >
"Serena?!" Quatre's voice almost squeaked. "Serena's never had anything to do with WEI! She doesn't even have shares! The closest she ever got to the family business was keeping house for Father!"
< < Yes, which means she was right there and available after he died. All the rest of us were scattered from here to L5; it took several days for us to calm down the panic Father's death caused, tidy up our own affairs, and get back for the memorial service. The will wasn't sorted out until the 25th; nobody but Serena would be stupid enough to sign anything before then! > >
"Ohhh... we'd better find out if she signed anything else!"
< < Well, since she's never been an official representative of WEI, the contract's not binding. The only way they would get any sort of breach-of-contract ruling against us would be if they convinced a judge that they entered into the contract in good faith. > >
"And with terms like these," Quatre waved the papers, "nobody in their right minds would ever believe it. Thanks, Iria. Could you contact Serena and check the original of this contract, please? Make sure it was her, and find out what else she did..."
< < Sure, little brother. I'll be seeing you. And get some sleep! You look like you've been on a caffeine binge again. > >
"Er... yeah. Just a little."
Iria snorted. < < It's never 'just a little' with you, Quatre. Everything you do is all or nothing: caffeine, fighting work, love... Which reminds me - Say 'hi' to that nice European boy for me. > > *Click*
Trowa pushed the door open further and strolled in. "If she'd stayed on the line a little longer, she could have said 'hi' to me in person. How are you today, Quatre? I thought you were still asleep."
"Oh, Trowa, um... I'm fine. I was just, ah..." Quatre looked embarrassed. "Well, I still want to find out how all this happened, so..."
Trowa blinked calmly at him. "Since you seem to be going about it logically instead of wearing a hole in the carpet and giving yourself an ulcer, I'm not going to argue. What can I do to help?"
Quatre smiled in relief. "Well, I've asked for a copy of all the standard operating procedures that Elite Secretarial Services give their personnel, to be e-mailed to me; obviously, there'll be different ones for people in different positions, so I'm expecting a lot of stuff to sort through. I'd appreciate some help. We can concentrate on reception and secretarial staff, which will cut it down." He frowned. "Elite has apparently been supplying all of the receptionists and secretaries at WEI and a lot of the lower-level clerical staff for the past three years or so. Except for my father's personal secretary and she retired after he died. Duo's messages have to have gone to somebody supplied by them, but... well, I can't imagine why they'd deliberately work to keep him from contacting us, but I also can't imagine how all this could be a mistake! All of Relena's personal messages went through that one woman, but my messages at WEI come through whichever receptionist takes the call or screens the e-mail. They can't all be incompetent!"
Trowa frowned slightly. "If Elite has been working with WEI for three years, and this contract was signed last year, it has to be at least the second one. What was the first contract like, and was it actually due for a renewal in March?"
Quatre blinked. "I hadn't thought of that..."
Fifteen minutes later, they had some answers.
"The first contract was for two years, and the terms were much more normal," Quatre said, pushing back from his desk and rubbing at his eyes. "It was approved by my father and signed by him and the former head of Elite. He died a year later, six months before my father."
"So, when your sister signed the new contract, the old one still had six months left to run?"
"Yes... and I've found notes indicating that my father was not planning to renew it. He was concerned by a drop in Elite's standards since the first CEO died and his son took over. It looks like this guy - Matt Taarnby - took advantage of the confusion caused by Father's death to try and lock WEI into his new contract."
"That fits with what your sister says." At Quatre's confused look, Trowa gestured at the computer. "Iria called while you were going over that. Apparently, 'that nice Mr. Taarnby' came to Serena with the contract all ready for signatures and kindly explained that if she wanted business to continue as usual at WEI 'in this time of trouble', all she had to do was sign on the dotted line. Since Elite was already working with WEI, she thought there was no point in actually reading the contract first."
Quatre moaned and dropped his head into his hands. "That's Serena, all right. Did Iria happen to mention if she signed anything else back then?"
"Serena doesn't think she signed any other contracts, but can't remember for sure. Iria's got people checking. Now, since those procedures you asked for have arrived, why don't you just forward all this to your lawyers and let them get to work on it?"
"Great idea. Give me fifteen minutes to write a cover note."
Quatre smirked. "Finding the proper wording will take a little while. Which do you prefer for the closing sentence...'take this jerk to the cleaners' or 'drive him naked into the financial desert'?"
"I like 'drive him naked into the financial desert' personally. Perhaps you could add something about bleeding feet and stony paths; that seems to be traditional in Arabic maledictions."
Since Quatre was developing a headache from peering at the computer screen but refused to take a break once the message to WEI's lawyers had been sent, Trowa printed out the different sets of S.O.P.s. Both boys took a handful of the resulting stack of papers and settled down on the sofa.
[[Five minutes later]]
"What the...?" Quatre muttered. Trowa raised an inquiring eyebrow, and Quatre pointed at something on his paper. "Here, see? When a receptionist takes a call on one of the public access lines - the ones listed in the phone books - and doesn't recognize the caller, they're supposed to 'generate an electronic Record of Conversation and file it in the Low Priority Message folder'. What's this Low Priority Message folder? I've never heard of it."
Trowa blinked. "I was just about to ask you about the 'Low Priority Message physical file'. That's where clerical staff is supposed to file any 'unsolicited paper communications'. Letters, in other words."
"I wonder if there's one for e-mails..." Quatre's voice trailed off, and he started flicking quickly through his stack of pages, skim-reading; then he muttered an oath and dumped them on the floor, heading back to the computer. A quick keyword search brought up dozens of mentions of 'low priority messages' on the S.O.P.s.
"So much for saving your headache," Trowa muttered, moving to lean on the back of Quatre's chair. "What have you got?"
Quatre didn't answer until he had finished scanning the search results; then he leaned back in his chair, hands pressed to his face. "I think I know what happened," he said, his voice muffled.
The blonde boy sighed, letting his hands drop limply into his lap. "There are all sort of things that are supposed to be put in various 'low priority message' folders or files. Letters from the public that aren't complaints or from a major firm, records of phone calls from people the receptionists have never heard of, e-mails from private individuals... What I can't find in here is anyone who's responsible for going through those folders and deciding what to do with those messages!"
Trowa's eyes narrowed slightly. "So... they dump them in these folders and they just sit there."
"And that's where Duo's messages are."
"I'd say so, yes." Quatre pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut. "Duo never had to call WEI during the war; I wasn't there, after all. So he doesn't know any of the private com codes, and none of the receptionists know him. Same with e-mails. Duo's messages to us have just been falling into an electronic black hole... along with Allah knows what else!"
"And this has been happening for three years?!"
"Oh, no," Quatre chirped, suddenly falsely bright and cheerful. "Only for about the last eighteen months. That nice Mr. Taarnby redesigned the S.O.P.s a couple of months after Serena signed his contract."
"Want to bet he was able to cut the number of staff he provided to WEI?"
"I don't bet against sure things," Quatre grumbled. "Once they weren't having to think about what to do with most of the messages they got, of course he could provide the same level of service with fewer people. I don't think I like 'nice Mr. Taarnby'!"
"Think of the satisfaction you'll get out of telling him that his nice little fiddle has just ruined his company," Trowa purred softly into his ear, sliding his arms around Quatre's shoulders in a comforting hug. "Now... do we go trawling through the 'electronic black hole' for Duo's messages?"
"Of course!" Blue eyes blinked up at him. "Why wouldn't we?"
The taller boy grimaced. "It's just going to upset you."
"I'm already upset, Trowa. If we don't look, I'll just wonder."
Trowa sighed, nuzzling briefly into Quatre's hair. "True."
Quatre turned back to the keyboard and keyed in a new search.
Trowa watched for a moment, then turned away to the vidphone. "If we're going to do this," he muttered as he keyed in a code, "we might as well go all the way... Hello, Ninke."
< < WEI, Ninke Assink spea... Mr. Barton! How can I help you? > >
"Do you have any idea what and where the 'Low Priority Message physical files' are?"
< < The... what, sir? > > The white-blonde haired man looked puzzled.
"I didn't think you knew about them, Ninke. If you had, you would've made sure something was done about them." Trowa sighed. "The clerical staff WEI hired from Elite Secretarial Services apparently keeps files for 'low priority messages'. Anything they can't immediately work out how to handle goes into one of those files and rots."
< < Ah. I see... Does this have anything to do with Mr. Winner's memo to the liaison staff last week? I, ah, wasn't on the distribution list but... > >
Trowa nodded. "We're looking for any messages Duo Maxwell sent us. If you saw the memo, you know the time period we're interested in. Get your hands on a copy of Elite's S.O.P.s if you need more info on the 'low priority' files. We'll handle the electronic archives; you grab as many of the clerical staff as you need and go for the paper files."
Ninke nodded. < < Will do, Mr. Barton. I'll inform you as soon as we find anything. > > *Click*
"I keep expecting him to say 'ryoukai'," Trowa muttered. "Or at least the Dutch equivalent."
Wufei peered cautiously into the bedroom. "Oh, good, you're awake. I have to go downstairs and do some laundry... is that okay?"
Duo sat up, struggling to hide the flash of panic he felt hearing the words 'I have to go' from Wufei's mouth. "Laundry?"
"Yes, we don't have any clean sheets or towels." Wufei walked over to the wardrobe and pulled a hamper out from under the bottom shelf, scowling at it. "I should have done a load last week... The laundry room is in the basement. It should only take me about forty minutes to get this washed and put it into the dryers, and then I'll be back. Will you be okay that long?"
Duo pushed the covers back and swung his legs off the futon.
"No! Duo, no, I'm not taking you with me this time." Wufei struggled to sound firm. "You really do need to rest and the laundry room is not a good place for you right now! It's noisy, and the ventilation isn't the best; it's always full of steam and fifteen different types of soap and fabric softener. You'd take one breath and start coughing." That thought stiffened his resolve and he was able to meet Duo's eyes steadily. "No, Duo. I promise, I'll be back as soon as possible. You are staying here."
Duo stood up unsteadily and walked out to the couch, trailing a blanket behind him. "I'll wait," he said quietly.
Wufei sagged, sighing in relief. "Do you want anything before I go?" he said gently, following Duo out and tucking the blanket around him after he sat down. "Something to drink?"
"...No. Thank you." *I want you not to go!*
"Okay. I won't be long. Are you warm enough?"
Wufei grabbed the hamper and walked to the door, glancing into the kitchen and scowling as he passed it. "I'll do those when I get back," he muttered.
Duo sat tensely, watching from under his bangs as Wufei stepped into a pair of sneakers and reached for the door. *He isn't leaving,* he thought, fingers clenched on the end of his braid. *He said he isn't leaving. He hasn't put on his coat, he isn't leaving the building! He'll come back...* He flinched as the door closed, then drew in a shaky breath.
*He isn't leaving.*
*He's coming back.*
Duo sat in silence for a few minutes, huddled into the blanket; then he carefully disentangled himself from it and stood up.
*I can do that before he comes back, at least.*
Wufei took the stairs back to his apartment two at a time. *I was lucky there was a washing machine vacant,* he thought, scowling to himself, *and even luckier that many of the women living here prefer to hang their clothes out on the balconies instead of using the dryers. I usually do my washing at night; I should have realised it would be busier at this time of day!* The scowl deepened. *Washing at night also means less people try to start conversations with me. How many of those women were watching out their windows Saturday night when I brought Duo home? If I have to hear one more question about my 'long-haired friend'...*
*At least I'm not late!*
A crash of breaking glass came from the kitchen as he opened the front door.
"Duo?! Are you all right?!"
Duo looked over his shoulder at him, eyes wide and frightened, as he skidded to a halt in the kitchen doorway. Wufei blinked in confusion as he took in the scene. The braided boy was leaning heavily on the kitchen bench in front of the filled sink, next to a dishrack full of clean plates.
"Duo... what are you doing?"
"I broke a glass," Duo said in a tiny voice. "I'm sorry."
"I'm not worried about the glass," Wufei insisted. "Are you all right? You're supposed to be resting, not doing housework!"
"I'm nearly finished," Duo said, turning back to the sink.
"That's not the point! You don't have to- you're bleeding!" Wufei exclaimed, grabbing Duo's shaking hands in his. He sighed in relief as he examined the cuts. "It's nothing serious. Here, run it under cold water..." he turned on the tap and pushed the cut hand gently under the stream. "I'll get the first aid kit."
"I'm sorry." Duo said quietly as Wufei turned away; the Chinese boy paused, looking back.
"You've got nothing to be sorry for, Duo."
Duo sat silently, head bowed, as Wufei carefully bandaged the worst cut; it was shallow, but too long for just a band-aid to cover it.
"Why were you doing the dishes?"
"...I'm sorry about the glass."
Wufei bit back an exasperated sigh. "Duo, I'm honestly not upset about the glass. I bought a dozen of them from a supermarket when I moved in here, and I've already broken two myself; they're cheap, mass-produced things, towards which I have no sentimental feelings. And even if it had been handmade crystal, I still wouldn't give a damn! I was worried because you were hurt, and because I had no idea what you were doing up."
When Duo didn't respond, still looking down at his hands, Wufei continued.
"You don't have to do the dishes, Duo. You don't have to do anything except rest and get better."
"...I'm not a bum," Duo whispered. "I don't want handouts."
Wufei's eyes widened. *I may kill that woman yet...* He squelched that thought immediately, forcing down his anger, holding it for later. *I will find an opportunity to do something about her- find, hell, I'll make one. But not now.* he thought determinedly. *I can't be angry now, or Duo will think I'm angry at him.*
He reached out gently and lifted Duo's chin, waiting until Duo raised his eyes to look at him.
"You're not a bum, Duo," he said earnestly, trying to show the truth of what he was saying with his eyes. "You never were. And this isn't a handout. You're my friend, and you'd do the same for me."
Duo blinked, holding back tears. "Friend?" he said shakily. "You're still my friend? I didn't think I had any left... I thought I'd made you all hate me."
"No!" Wufei insisted, reaching out for him instinctively. "I never hated you, and I never will. Nobody hates you, Duo!"
Duo started to sob, tears spilling down his cheeks as he crumpled against Wufei's chest. "B-but I screwed up. I got it wrong and I m-made you mad at me, and I ran away... and then the others, I-I must have done something wrong. I didn't realise, but I must have screwed up with them, too... What did I do, Wufei?"
"It wasn't your fault!" Wufei held the sobbing boy gently, stroking his hair as he tried desperately to explain. "It was my fault. I wasn't mad at you... I was...scared." He swallowed. "I was afraid that I'd made you hate me... so I ran away. I should never have left you like that; I screwed up, not you. Never you... And the others... I don't know what happened, but they were so worried when we realised you hadn't been in touch with anyone. I'm sure they didn't mean to cut you off..."
"B-but I must have done something to deserve what happened..."
Wufei's arm tightened around Duo. "Tell me what happened," he whispered.
"How much stuff is in here?!"
Trowa blinked at the computer screen as Quatre scrolled through the 'Low Priority Messages:Phone' folder. Screen after screen of file titles zoomed past.
"That's a lot of phone messages," he commented.
"I know," Quatre muttered. "They could have put more information in the titles. 'Record of Conversation' and a date time stamp does not help when you're looking for a name."
"So run a keyword search."
"I tried. It didn't work. Look," Quatre said, stopping the scrolling and clicking on a title to open a file, "it's an electronic form, not a normal text or word processing document, and it's not set up to allow keyword searches."
"Well, that's useful. I can see that a lot of thought was devoted to helping people retrieve this information."
"Guess who designed the form."
"That nice Mr. Taarnby," Trowa chirped, voice dripping sarcasm. "He negotiates contracts, writes S.O.P.s, and designs databases! He is so talented..." He rolled his one visible eye.
"This isn't a database," Quatre sniffed. "It's the electronic equivalent of a trash bin."
"Like I said, he's talented," Trowa said, dryly. "He's re-invented the circular file, updated for the electronic age. I'll try to work out some way to hack the keyword search into the forms; you work on the 'e-mails' folder. At least they still have their original subject lines and 'senders' addresses to search by."
"And if that's not enough, I can run a keyword search," Quatre said, smiling wryly.
Trowa snorted and sat down in front of another terminal.
Twenty minutes later, Trowa had decided that 'That Nice Mr. Taarnby' probably qualified for the title of 'idiot savant'. He sat back in his chair and raised an eyebrow; his latest attempt to write a program that would reliably search Taarnby's form not only hadn't worked, it had also crashed his computer.
*This is ridiculous,* he thought, hitting the 'reset' button. *If this was an OZ database, I'd be in by now, and they tried to keep people out. Taarnby just doesn't care whether or not people can get in... hm. I wonder... would it have been good or bad for us if Taarnby had been working for OZ during the war? We would have had a hard time getting to their data, but so would they!*
"Oh... Oh, no..."
"Quatre? What's wrong?"
The blonde boy was staring wide eyed at his screen, one hand pressed over his mouth. Trowa stood quickly and moved to his side.
Quatre shakily pointed at the screen, eyes never leaving it. "I only found one message from Duo's old e-mail address," he whispered, "s-so I was looking for other addresses... then I searched by 'Shinigami', and I found that one... and I-I looked for other messages from the same address, and... Trowa, look!"
end 'Reunion' chapter 10
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