( Chapter 12 )
Duo woke up.
For the first few moments, as he rubbed sleep out of his eyes and blinked them into focus, he couldn't work out why he felt headachy and still tired. His eyes and throat were sore, his nose felt raw... and then he remembered.
*Oh, hell,* he thought, collapsing back onto the futon. *I did... I told him... oh, hell. Everything. I cried on his shoulder like a baby. I can't believe I did that! He's gotta think I'm such a loser. Weak. 'Fei hates weakness...*
*How am I going to face him?*
Wufei almost tiptoed around the apartment as he finished yesterday's dishes and tidied up; half his attention was turned towards the bedroom, watching and listening for the first signs of Duo waking up.
*He didn't have anything to eat last night,* he finally thought, tossing the dishcloth onto the bench. *It's almost ten o'clock; I have to get some sort of breakfast into him, and he needs to take his medicine. Time to get him up...*
"Duo?" he said softly, pulling the door open. "Are you awake?"
There was no answer. The covers had been pulled into a heap on top of the futon, with Duo (presumably) curled up underneath. This was confirmed when Wufei got a little closer and saw one sock-clad foot poking out from the pile.
"Duo? Come on, time to wake up..." Kneeling by the tangle, Wufei carefully pulled the blankets away. As he'd thought, Duo was curled up into a tight ball, clutching his braid. From under his fringe of hair, one slightly bloodshot eye peered up and then blinked shut.
"Time for breakfast," Wufei said, resisting the urge to reach out and stroke his fingertips gently over the bruise on Duo's jaw, just now starting to turn green and brown at the edges. "Would you like it in bed, or out at the table? Your choice."
Duo didn't reply, but his eyes opened and he sat up, disentangling his legs from the blankets. He kept his head down, watching what he was doing, carefully not looking at the other boy.
*...We're back to not speaking, I see,* Wufei thought with a twinge of regret. *I suppose it's only to be expected; I think he bared everything to me last night, and no-one likes to be left that vulnerable and exposed.* "You don't need to hurry," he said aloud, rising to his feet. "Breakfast will be ready when you are, not before." *And you'll talk to me again when you're ready, too. I won't push.*
Locked in the bathroom, Duo washed his face with the coldest water he could get out of the tap, rinsing off tearstains and trying to hide the other signs that he'd been crying.
*It won't do any good, though. It's not like he doesn't know already. He's probably disgusted that I dumped all my problems on him like that. Too weak to handle my own shit... what if he doesn't want me to stay here any more? He said... he said he'd stay with me... but... what if he doesn't want to now?*
*I guess I'll find out soon enough.* He swallowed hard, and reached for the door.
Once again, Wufei found himself talking a lot to fill up Duo's silence. Duo was listening -- he shrugged a shoulder or nodded slightly at appropriate spots in the monologue -- but he kept his eyes firmly fixed on his bowl of apple-cinnamon oatmeal and didn't open his mouth except to put his spoon in.
Finally, Wufei stood to put his own bowl and spoon in the sink. "I'll just go tidy up in the bedroom; then it's up to you whether you want to go back to bed or settle down on the couch." He paused behind Duo's chair, one hand reaching out to tentatively stroke down the long braid. "Or... if you want to take a shower, I could help with your hair again," he said wistfully.
Blushing, he pulled his hand away and walked into the bedroom without waiting for an answer. *Idiot! Moron! What's he going to think about that?!*
Duo's eyes went wide as he felt the gentle touch on his hair; then it was gone, and so was Wufei.
*He... doesn't mind touching me?* he thought slowly, still looking down into his bowl. *He wants to help with my hair? And... he didn't sound angry or upset...*
*Maybe... maybe he's not disgusted? Maybe I didn't screw things up again?*
A little bit of the pain in Duo's chest eased as he relaxed slightly.
* * * * *
Quatre stalked down a corridor towards the meeting room, clutching a sheaf of printout so tightly that about a quarter of each page was pleated into a crushed mass.
Walking beside him, Trowa shot a quick glance sideways at his cold, angry expression and winced slightly as he looked away. *This may not be the best time to have this meeting. He really didn't take it well this morning when I finally got that search program to work... finding out that Duo tried to call us twenty-seven times...* Green eyes narrowed slightly. *Still, it's not as if Taarnby doesn't deserve this.*
Quatre's lip curled into a snarl as they turned a corner and he saw Taarnby and his lawyer walking towards them, but he controlled himself and forced a bland, calm expression onto his face. He didn't look down at the printed e-mails and phone messages in his hand, but lines from them flicked through his mind in quick succession.
*'Call me, okay? My number is...'*
*'...don't know if my e-mails are getting through, so...'*
*'...please ask either Mr Winner or Mr Barton...'*
*'...could you get Heero to call? I'll be at...'*
*'...please call me...'*
*'...please get in touch...'*
*'...please let me know...'*
Taarnby stepped up to him with a broad grin on his face, reaching forwards to shake hands. "Quatre! I'm Matt Taarnby. Nice to finally meet you! I don't know why you called this meeting, but--"
Ignoring the outstretched hand, Quatre walked straight past him into the meeting room.
"--I guess it's pretty... important..." Taarnby trailed off uncertainly, then recovered slightly. "You'd be Trowa, right? Trowa Barton? I--"
Trowa shot him an icy glare and followed Quatre, trailed silently by half a dozen of WEI's best corporate lawyers. One or two nodded politely to Taarnby's companion, but they all ignored Taarnby as if he wasn't there.
"Jeez," he muttered, "you'd think I had the plague or something--"
"Matt," his lawyer said in a tight voice, "I don't know what the hell is going on, but it's not good. Shut up and let me do the talking, okay?"
"All right, all right, no need to snap--"
"What did you do?"
"Nothing!" Taarnby spread his hands in an exaggerated gesture of innocence. "Come on, Jase, you've known me for years!"
"That's the problem," he said under his breath as he followed Taarnby into the room. "I've been acquainted with you for years, but I don't think I know you."
As they all settled into chairs around the long table, one of Quatre's lawyers handled the introductions. "Mr. Winner and Mr. Barton, of course. Mr. Taarnby. I believe some of my colleagues already know Mr. Taarnby's lawyer, Mr. MacAllister--"
As the introductions continued, Jase MacAllister nodded politely to each person, but most of his attention was on Quatre. *Damn. I think he's furious. What in God's name could Matt have done to affect him like this?! I've seen him negotiate before... no matter what, he keeps smiling and he's always polite. I don't know what it would take to make Winner be rude.*
Quatre's lawyer finished and looked expectantly at his boss.
"I called this meeting to inform you that as of now, the contract between Winner Enterprises Incorporated and Elite Secretarial Services is severed," Quatre said coldly. "There will be no termination payment. Some of the staff your company provided to us will be offered jobs within WEI's structure; the rest needn't bother to come in tomorrow. We--"
"Wha-- but-- hey! You can't do that!" Taarnby sputtered. "The contract says you can't do that!"
"One moment please," MacAllister said quickly, holding up a finger; then he turned to his client and lowered his voice. "What are you talking about? The contract I worked on with your father had no such clause."
"I wrote a new one," Taarnby muttered.
"I wrote a new one! It was no big deal--"
"You have no legal training, and-- never mind that now. Do you have a copy of that contract here so I can at least read it before I start trying to negotiate about it?"
Taarnby blinked. "I figured you'd bring all the paperwork and stuff."
"I can't bring something if I don't know it exists!" MacAllister hissed, then turned back towards the other end of the table, clearing his throat. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Winner, but I seem to be missing some of the information I need to properly advise my client. Do you, ah, happen to have a copy of the contract here so I can familiarise myself with its provisions before we proceed?"
One of Quatre's lawyers passed a disk to him, and MacAllister quickly slotted it into his laptop and started to read.
Two minutes later, he turned away from the screen and glared at his client. "Mister Taarnby," he growled slowly, "are you insane?!"
"This piece of shit," he waved contemptuously at the display, "isn't worth the electricity to put it up on screen. It's unenforceable. I don't know how you got it signed--"
"Your client," Quatre interrupted, "brought this contract to my sister Serena three days after my father died. She didn't read it." As MacAllister choked, he continued. "As you've noticed, it's unenforceable -- especially as Serena Winner has never held any position with WEI, much less one with the authority to sign contracts."
"Hey, she's your sister!" Taarnby protested. "She's a member of the family, that's good enough, right?"
"No. It's not," Quatre snapped. "Furthermore, even if you had a valid contract with us, the quality of the service your staff provides has dropped to almost zero in certain areas since you rewrote the standard operating procedures. There are thousands of messages that never reached anyone who could decide what to do about them--"
"Well, hey, no harm done, right? We'll just go back to the old SOPs, go back to the old contract, and everybody's happy, right?" Taarnby said nervously, glancing sideways at his lawyer. "C'mon, Jase, help me out here--"
"NO HARM DONE?!" Quatre flung his handful of papers straight at Taarnby's face. They fluttered down around him as he yelped and jumped, nearly sending his chair over backwards; MacAllister picked up a couple that fell into his lap.
"How dare you?!" Quatre hissed, glaring. "You have the unmitigated gall to sit there, after you took advantage of my sister's grief, after your idiotic blundering almost killed one of my friends, and tell me 'no harm done'?!"
"Kill?!" Taarnby squeaked. "Hey, no, wait--"
"Those are all messages from one of our best friends," Trowa said coldly. "Because the receptionists followed your SOPs, none of them actually reached us."
"Duo Maxwell almost died because he couldn't contact us." Quatre sat back in his chair, visibly forcing himself back under control.
Jase MacAllister carefully set the papers down on the table, ejected the disk, closed his laptop, and stood up to leave.
"Jase -- hey, Jase, where are you going? Come on, talk to them -- they can't blame me for this, right? Right? Jase!"
"Get yourself a new lawyer, Mr. Taarnby. If you can."
"No! No, wait, Jase -- MacAllister -- come on! We've got a contract!"
"Not any more, we don't. Your father was my first client, and I'm genuinely sorry to sever my relationship with the company he built, but I'll have nothing more to do with you. I'm a lawyer; I'm a corporate lawyer; I've been called a shark; but I am not a bottom feeder. Anyone who'd pull something like this--" he brandished the disk, "--I won't work for."
"I'll sue you!"
MacAllister laughed. "If you've got anything left after Mr. Winner's through with you, you're welcome to try. I wrote our contract. If I were you, I'd just be thankful Mr. Winner hasn't yet mentioned charging you with criminal negligence." He nodded politely towards Quatre and Trowa. "If you'll excuse me, gentlemen? I seem to have developed an urgent need to be elsewhere."
Quatre stood up. "We'll see you out, sir; I believe we can leave this with my staff." Trowa followed him silently.
"You can't blame me for what happened to your friend!" Taarnby protested desperately. "I mean, come on! I never knew he existed until you told me!"
"I know, Mr. Taarnby," Quatre said coldly as he headed for the door. "That's why I'm only going to ruin you."
Half an hour later, when Quatre and Trowa got home, the butler was waiting for them.
"--would have invited him for afternoon tea or something," Quatre was saying as he stepped out of the limo, "but I doubt I'd be a good host today."
"Maybe some other time," Trowa said, eyeing the front door of the mansion. "Quatre, is it a bad sign when Arif gets the door open before you even start up the steps?"
"Um... it could be..."
"Let's find out, then." Trowa stalked up the stairs.
"Master Quatre, Master Trowa, welcome home." Arif bowed. "You have a visitor. He was most insistent, and holds a Winner Enterprises identity card, so I allowed him to await your return in the west study. His name is Ninke Assink."
"Thank you Arif!" Quatre blurted out as he and Trowa almost ran inside.
Ninke was pacing along one wall of the study, gazing intently down at something in his hands, when Quatre opened the door; he looked up and stepped forwards, uncharacteristically hesitant. "Mr. Winner, Mr. Barton, good afternoon! I-- ah-- please excuse the intrusion, but--"
"That's quite all right, Ninke, really," Quatre interrupted. "Please, sit down. You have something for us?"
"Ah, yes, sir. Thank you." He didn't sit down, however; well over six feet tall and lanky, he towered over both of the ex-Gundam pilots. Long-fingered hands almost hid a small bundle from view as he held it out to Quatre. "We think we've found everything Duo Maxwell sent, sir. Six postcards and a package."
Quatre spun his desk chair around and sat down, handing the package to Trowa and picking up the first postcard. He blinked momentarily at the picture on the front -- a cartoon of an extremely fat man wearing a singlet, shorts and a hat with corks hanging from the rim, clutching a can of beer and frying a giant shrimp on a barbecue -- then turned it over and snorted softly. "Trust Duo to find a multiple-choice postcard," he muttered. "Trowa, listen to this. 'Good: morning / afternoon / evening / what time is it?' He's ticked the last one. 'I am: having a good time / being exposed to strange native customs / drunk.' It goes downhill from there."
"I rather liked that one," Ninke offered, then winced. "Er-- that is-- that's the first one he sent, sir, and it seems to be the happiest-- um--"
"Ninke," Trowa said calmly, "you regularly intercept memos that aren't being sent to offices on this planet, let alone your department, and you always know everything that's going on. We didn't expect you to pass up the chance to read the postcards." He pulled a sheet of paper and two small tissue-paper parcels out of the padded envelope.
"Er... yes, sir."
"You said 'happiest'...? Quatre asked quietly, looking at the other five postcards in his hand.
"Yes, Mr. Winner. The others... well, you'll see. Some of them just sound a bit strained, but the last one... it's pretty bad if you know what was going on." Ninke rubbed one hand through his short hair, looking upset.
"And you know, of course," Trowa said under his breath, holding up two thin silver bookmarks. One had a camel on top; the other had paired masks, Comedy and Tragedy. "'Hey guys'," he read from the note. "'I saw these and thought of you, no surprise there. Tro, if you don't wanna use yours for its intended purpose, you can always sharpen the end and throw it at people'..." He smirked slightly, looking at the envelope. "It's postmarked mid-June."
"So's the multiple-choice card," Quatre said quietly, not looking up. "These are sorted into chronological order, then?"
Quatre slid the bottom card out from under the stack and looked at it; then he lunged up out of his chair and headed for the vidphone.
"Quatre, what does it say?!"
Stabbing fiercely at the keyboard, Quatre didn't seem to hear the question.
"Quatre?" Trowa repeated.
"It says 'Wish I was there'," Ninke said sadly.
* * * * *
Wufei knocked on the bathroom door after hearing the water shut off. "Duo?" he called, trying not to sound harassed. "I left the laundry in the basement last night; I can't put clean sheets on the futon unless I go and get them. I'll only be a minute." *And of course I didn't remember until I went to put the dirty sheets in the hamper and it wasn't there,* he grumbled to himself.
"...okay," came quietly from the other side of the door.
Spirits absurdly raised -- *He's talking again! And he doesn't sound upset that I'm leaving for a moment!* -- Wufei found himself grinning broadly. "I'll be right back!" he said hastily, making for the door.
As he stepped out into the corridor, his shin collided with something and tipped it over. Scrambling for footing as the 'something' flipped under his sneakers, Wufei wound up against the opposite wall with a loud thump and a strangled yelp.
"'Fei? You okay?" Duo appeared in the doorway, wearing an oversized t-shirt and clutching a towel around his waist, eyes wide with worry.
"I'm fine, I just tripped over--" Wufei got his first look at what he'd stumbled over, and blinked. "--our laundry?"
As Wufei set the hamper back upright and started picking up the scattered towels, a piece of paper fluttered out; Duo picked it up, read it, and then wordlessly held it out.
You left in a bit of a hurry, and I noticed
you never came back for your washing; so, here
- Mrs. P.
"Mrs. P.?" Wufei raised an eyebrow. "I don't know a Mrs. P... 'P'-what?"
Duo shrugged. "I guess Mrs. P. knows you," he said quietly, and went back inside.
When Wufei emerged from the bedroom after putting away the last of the washing, Duo was sitting on the couch with the wet mass of his hair pulled forwards over one shoulder, beginning to work at the ends with his brush. The towel was lying on the couch beside him, having been replaced by a pair of sweat pants.
"Do you want me to help?" Wufei asked hopefully. When Duo looked up at him, 'do you mean it?' clear on his face, Wufei smiled slightly and held out his hand for the brush. "I'd like to," he said gently.
After a long moment, a small answering smile appeared on Duo's face, and he handed over the brush.
Long after Duo's hair was dry, Wufei continued to brush it; eventually, without quite noticing what he was doing, he put the brush down and just ran his fingers through the silky mass over and over. Part of his mind was very busy trying to point out that this was definitely showing something more than supportive friendship, and wasn't Wufei meant to be avoiding that? The rest of his mind, however, was completely entranced in the moment.
*I've wanted to do this for such a long time!*
Have you got a hair fetish?! the conscientious part of his mind screeched, figuratively jumping up and down.
Duo, meanwhile, was leaning sideways against the back of the sofa, swaying gently with each stroke through his hair. A bubble of happiness seemed to be forming within his mind.
*'Fei likes my hair...!*
*He wouldn't be doing this if he was mad at me. He might brush my hair 'cause I needed the help, but he wouldn't keep doing it like this. He'd do it as quickly as possible, then plait it and stop.*
*I haven't upset him. I haven't screwed up.*
*'Fei likes my hair!*
Closing his eyes and snuggling his cheek against the sofa cushions, Duo almost purred, quite content to stay exactly where he was for as long as Wufei was willing to keep going. The longer, the better.
Several minutes later, a quiet -bebebebebeep!- noise came from Wufei's desk. Jerked abruptly out of his blissful daze, Duo blinked and glanced in that direction. *What's that? It didn't sound like his computer... a pager?*
Wufei growled something uncomplimentary under his breath as he reluctantly let go of Duo's hair and stood up. "If Une thinks I'm going back to work one minute before my shift starts on Thursday -- if then -- she's got one hell of surprise coming..."
-bebebe*- The noise cut off as Wufei snatched the pager up and hit a button, glancing impatiently at the text display.
< < ANSWER YOUR DAMN PHONE! -Q > >
"Is it Une?" Duo asked timidly.
"No... it's Quatre," Wufei said in a puzzled voice, turning to look at his vidphone. Sure enough, the little red 'incoming call' light was flashing; the ringer was still turned off. "I'd better see what he wants; he said 'damn', so it's probably important.
Hitting a key to accept the call, Wufei raised an eyebrow as the screen cleared to show a crystal-clear view of... a wall. The absence of any visible caller was quickly explained as Quatre suddenly appeared at one side of the screen, stalked across at high speed, and vanished again. A couple of seconds later, he reappeared, repeating the manoeuvre in the opposite direction.
Appear. Stalk. Disappear.
"Quatre?" Wufei repeated, slightly louder this time.
Appear. Stalk. Disappear.
"Quatre, stop that! I feel like I'm at a tennis match!"
The blonde boy jerked to a halt, spinning to face the screen. < < Wufei! Finally! > >
"What's the prob--"
< < Is Duo asleep? Good, > > Quatre blurted out, steaming ahead without waiting for a reply. < < Sally said he needs it. Can you believe that jerk Taarnby? 'No harm done', my ass! He even feels slimy, he was so sure he could slide out of taking responsibility. If I'd had a gun I would've shot him instead of just throwing papers. Duo sent us bookmarks, and we never got them! Twenty-seven phone calls stuck in a bloody low priority file! They put all Duo's messages in low priority files! They put Duo in a low priority file! DUO MAXWELL IS NOT FUCKING LOW PRIORITY, DAMN IT! > >
Wufei's eyes widened as Quatre's voice slowly scaled up the octaves and he started to shake. Grabbing at a thick sheaf of papers on the desk beside him, Quatre brandished them at the screen.
< < Look at this! His SOPs! Everything's fucking low priority to him!> > He tossed them over his shoulder, grabbing at another set of papers as white sheets fluttered down behind him. < < Duo's e-mails! Low priority! > > They went over his shoulder too, adding to the blizzard of paperwork. < < Duo's phone messages! Low priority! > > Toss. < < Duo's postcards! > > He waved them in one hand, then slammed them back down on the desk. < < Thousands of messages from little old ladies and school kids and-- and-- everybody! Sitting in a fucking low priority electronic trash bin for eighteen months! Allah only knows what's in there, and then there's the physical files-- > >
< < One of those little old ladies sent you a package of homemade cookies, sir, > > an unfamiliar voice said. < < Six months ago, unfortunately. They were pretty green when we found them. > >
< < See? Everything's in there! > > Quatre yelled, pointing off towards whoever-that-was as if he'd proven some obscure point.
"Quatre... slow down," Wufei pleaded, shooting a quick glance sideways to where Duo was sitting on the sofa with his eyes the size of saucers. "Start again, and tell me things in sequence this time! You lost me somewhere around 'No harm done'."
As Wufei spoke, a tall lanky man with almost-white hair quietly walked into view behind Quatre, nodded politely, then bent down and started picking up the scattered papers.
< < That moron-- > > Quatre started, then squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath. <<Right. In sequence. I-- oh, this is Ninke Assink, by the way. My new special assistant. He found the postcards and bookmarks for us. > >
Ninke straightened up with a jerk, pale blue-grey eyes wide. < < Mr. Winner, I-- what-- > >
< < Ha, > > came Trowa's voice, sounding immensely satisfied. < < I told you, you needed one. > >
< < We'll discuss the details later, > > Quatre said, waving one hand vaguely in Ninke's direction as he turned back to the screen. < < Consider yourself promoted. I'll write up the usual paperwork as soon as I've finished explaining to Wufei. > >
This time, he started at the beginning.
As the story unfolded, Wufei found himself wanting to pace and rant, too. *It's people like that who make me wish 'criminal greed and stupidity' was a capital crime,* he thought, clenching his jaw angrily as he shot another quick sideways glance towards Duo. *I'm sure it would improve the gene pool. Taking advantage of a grieving woman's lack of business sense--!*
< < --and it felt so good when his lawyer left, and he finally realised he was in serious trouble, > > Quatre finished. < < I can't put all the blame on Taarnby, though. I'm just as much at fault. > >
< < Quatre-- > >
< < Trowa, no matter how busy I was I still should have realised how long it had been with no word from Duo! Whenever I thought about him, I just assumed he was having fun, and he'd call us if anything went wrong. He never had any trouble contacting us during the war, but I should have thought about what it meant when he couldn't just call me on Sandrock's com any more! I don't blame him for hating me! I'd hate me too, if our positions were reversed! > >
< < If anyone should have realised something was wrong, I-- > >
< < No, you were busy with-- > >
< < Damn it, Quatre, I'm not going to let you take all the blame for this! > > Trowa almost yelled.
Quatre 'hmph'ed. < < I'm not trying to take all the blame. I'm perfectly willing to share it with Taarnby! > >
< < But not me. > >
< < Damn right, not you. > >
< < Um, Mr. Winner? Mr. Barton? This probably isn't the best time to discuss that... > > Ninke interrupted nervously.
Quatre sighed, turning back to the screen. < < Anyway, Wufei, I just wanted to let you know what was going on over here. After meeting that shithead, and then finally getting the postcards -- especially that last one, Allah save us -- I needed to get all this off my chest. Keep us informed on how Duo's doing, all right? > >
"Ah... sure, Quatre," Wufei agreed, shooting another quick glance towards the boy in question.
Wufei stared at the blank screen for a moment before turning to look properly at Duo. *How is he taking that? Does he even believe it? It would be so easy for him to just reject it...*
Duo was sitting on the edge of the sofa, staring blankly at the opposite wall, with a single tear slowly making its way down his cheek.
end 'Reunion' chapter 12
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