Reunion + Chapter 10 (cont)

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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.

"And?"

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."

"Seems so."

"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 eight 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?"

Duo nodded.

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.

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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's 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.

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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!"

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