8-18-2006

Title: Life Goes On (Sequel to 'Life...Really')
Pairings: Eventual 1x2, 3XR, 4XD, 5XS
Warnings: Neko-fic, AU, angst., sap, possible lime
BY: SkyLark
Parts - Prologue -10/?
Plot Bunny Assistance From: Eos and Tora
Archives: http://www.gundam-wing-diaries.150m.com/gw/SkyLark/gwSkyLark.htm and http://www.mizunoamy.bravepages.com/skylark/skylarkfics.html

 

Prologue:

"And so explains the importance of the cross examination," Duo concluded his presentation, lowering the pointer in his hand from the nearly covered chalkboard that he had been using. Mentally, he sighed deeply at completing his assignment.

Scanning the room, he gazed to the faces of his peers and their various expressions. With a wide smile, the grey-haired professor sitting at the back of the classroom rose to his feet. "Excellent work, Mister Maxwell," he nodded firmly. "You certainly used your time to prepare for your assignment wisely."

His odd, long nose scrunched along with his brow as he gazed over the other students and commented, "I wish that I could say the same for all of you." The few students sitting in the class had different reactions from lowering their heads to rolling their eyes.

Duo just smiled in relief at receiving acclaim from his professor. Behind him, his cat tail swished to-and-fro with an air of happiness. He quietly made his way back to his seat as the classmate beside him sneered quietly, "Teacher's pet." The young man's friends around him laughed and snickered at the comment.

Quickly turned around to face the band of frat boys, the professor glared, "Unlike Mister Maxwell, Mister Barrett, you certainly have no reason to find humor in this room. If you actually did your assignments, you would not be likely to fail my class, as you are now."

Lowering his head, the blonde boy readjusted his cap and muttered, "Yes, Professor G." Around him, his fraternity brothers all frowned deeply and lowered their own gazes in the hopes of not being called out.

With a grateful nod, Duo grinned to the old man. Nodding back to his cat-eared student, the grey-haired man checked his watch. As he moved to the front of the class, he announced, "That will be all for today, class. We will complete the remainder of the presentations on Thursday."

A low rumble of murmuring amongst the students began as they collected their books, backpacks and other belongings before rising from their desks. Duo managed to catch some glares from the `frat boys,' a term Heero helped him understand, before they made their way out of the room. Sighing sadly to himself, the neko's ears drooped a bit and he followed after his classmates.

"Don't let them get to you, Mister Maxwell," Professor G called to his pupil from his own desk by the blackboard. Looking up from stowing away his books, the long-nosed man grinned, "There will be more like them when you're off on your own when you're finished your studies. Better for you to not allow it to bother you now so it will come easy later."

Nodding firmly, Duo brightened once more and smiled, "I'll try. Thanks, Professor." That said, he turned on his heels and headed outside with his tail swinging. Chuckling deeply to himself, the old man shook his head in amusement and finished clearing his desk.

Out in the hallway of the large facility, the braided teenager was soon greeted by a familiar face. As she walked past with several law professors, Dorothy met his gaze and grinned to the handful of her staff, "I'll be with you in just a moment." As the small band of teachers continued on, the blonde director made her way to her braided friend. "How are you, Duo?" she asked in the friendly voice that she only used for those she was closest to.

With a proud smile, Duo answered, "Professor G was pretty happy with my presentation. I've been working really hard on that one these last few weeks."

"I know that you have been," Dorothy chuckled deeply. "Excellent work. I know how difficult that old man can be to please. No doubt that Heero will be very happy to hear that all of the effort you put in paid off." She raised a long eyebrow, "The last time I spoke to him a couple of nights ago, I believe that he was more nervous than you were."

Rubbing the back of his neck shyly, Duo blushed, "Yea, well, he was worried that I was overworking myself. I just wanted to do well." His ears twitching to the right at a small sound from the end of the hall, he turned his violet eyes to see the same band of fraternity boys watching them. At the head of the group was the blonde young man that loved the name calling. His arms crossed, he made a puckering gesture with his mouth while his friends laughed.

Dorothy turned her own head to see what had caught her friend's attention. At the sight of her most challenging students, she gave them a warning glare that brought a fear in their eyes and sent them running with the blond in the lead. Sighing deeply, the law director shook her head, "There are a few in every class." Looking back to her friend, she grinned reassuringly, "Don't let Solo and his mindless sheep get to you. If they do give you any trouble, however, you know all you have to do is tell me."

The relief and appreciation evident in his eyes, Duo smiled sincerely, "I know. Thank you, Dorothy." He tilted his braided head and asked, "Will you and Trowa be able to meet up with us next week during the break?"

At that, the blonde young woman laughed, "Wouldn't miss it for the world. After spending Thanksgiving with our families, it'll be nice to spend it with our second `family.'" With quick glance in the direction that her staff had gone in, she stated, "I best get on with this meeting. Good seeing you, Duo, and congratulations on your presentation. I look forward to hearing the details from Professor G."

"Thanks," Duo replied. "See you later, Dorothy." Turning in the opposite direction, he ran down the hall in his excitement to tell his lover how his day went.

* * * * * *

Lightly humming to himself, Heero made a few more paintbrush strokes to the canvas before stepping back. Smiling as he appraised his work, he told himself quietly, "There." Carefully lowering the easel speckled with different shades of paint along with his brush, he took another moment to examine the detail of his project.

The blues, greens and violets that he had used were dark at the top of the five-foot canvas then brightened into almost white by the bottom. Etched along the waterfall of color were abstract lines of multiple shades that at a first glance seemed very chaotic and lacked any definition.

At the sound of the apartment door opening, Heero turned just in time to catch the force pouncing at him. With a small, `oof,' he landed on his back atop the sofa that he was knocked into. Laughing as he stretched out on the cushions, the Japanese teenager grinned up at the beaming face just above his own, its owner straddling him. "Hi, baby," he greeted quietly, cupping his lover's cheek.

Purring deeply, Duo's already smile only grew as he closed his eyes and nuzzled his face into the touch. Quickly closing the distance between their faces, he took Heero's lips into a fierce kiss. When he pulled back, they were both breathless and his tail was swishing lazily. Looking over the many paints that were splattered on the prone boy's arms and `work clothes,' the braided law student chuckled deeply, "Looks like you've been busy."

"A bit," Heero smirked, folding his arms behind his head. "How did your presentation go?" he asked while reaching up to gently run his hands through the chestnut hair just behind his partner's right cat ear.

With another rumble of purring, Duo practically bounced as he exclaimed, "Great! Professor G even gave me a compliment on it for the whole class to hear! He almost never does that!"

Heero couldn't help but sigh in relief at that, though he was not at all surprised that all of the work that his lover had put into the project would pay off. Duo certainly had spent many a long day preparing himself. Wrapping his arms tightly around the thin waist over him, he pulled the neko close and grinned widely, "That's great, Duo! I'm proud of you." He leaned up to kiss the braided young man soundly to convey even further how sincere he was.

Only pulling back when the need for air called once more, Duo hummed quietly and lowered himself fully atop Heero. Peering to the canvas at the center of the living room, he quickly propped himself back up and shouted in surprise, "You finished it!" Quicker than a blink, he practically jumped from the couch for a closer look at the painting.

Softly chuckling to himself in amusement, Heero rose to his own feet and stood beside his cat-tailed lover. From the corner of his eye, he could see the puzzled look on the neko's face as he tried to make out the odd lines that seemed to make no sense. "Don't try so hard to find what's there," he urged softly. "That's the trick. If you look too hard, it won't make any sense."

Taking the advice given, Duo blinked his violet eyes and just took in the painting without trying to find the logic in it. Almost as soon as he eased his concentration, he gasped sharply at seeing what moments ago was not there. When looked on unfocused, the lines brought out the image of a small, French street café that overlooked the Eiffel Tower just across the river that ran between them. The many colors of the lines served to bring out the shade of each object outlined.

Unable to breath, Duo whispered, "It's amazing, Heero. So that's why you've been bringing home books that show tourist sites on France." Beside him, the Japanese boy nodded with a proud grin. Turning to face him, the braided youth smiled, "I'm sure Lady Une will be very impressed with this when you turn it in next week."

"I hope so," Heero sighed deeply. "She has been pretty happy with my progression so far." The pair stood in silence for a moment, appraising the artwork before them. Slowly raising his arm to wrap it around his best friend's thin waist, the Japanese student pulled him close against him and breathed, "Thank you."

Frowning in confusion, Duo met his cobalt gaze and asked, "For what?"

With a deep breath, Heero answered, "Because of you, I get to do what I love. I never would have had the courage to tell my mother that I enjoyed art enough to study it and pursue it. So, thank you." He leaned in for a chase kiss and rubbed the top of his partner's braided head.

Duo smiled from ear-to-ear with small tears in his eyes. Unable to find his voice, he just threw his arms tightly around Heero. As they held each other, he purred lightly in his roommate's ear. Pulling back, the unruly-haired teenager grinned, "Now that we both finished our big assignments before next week's break, we should go out to dinner to celebrate."

"Sounds great to me, so long as we can come back here for dessert later," Duo commented in a husky voice. He smirked mischievously and tugged at the elastic waistband of the spotted work shorts. "After this last busy week, I'm pretty hungry."

His own voice purring, Heero smiled, "Oh, I'm sure that might be in the cards." Another breathtaking kiss later and he looked down at himself, commenting, "I better go and get cleaned up, first." Raising an eyebrow, he offered, "We could always go for an appetizer if you want to join me in the shower."

Pulling on his lover's hand, Duo shouted, "Well, let's go!" Heero laughed as he was led into their bedroom, their clothing already falling away to pool on the floor.

* * * * * *

As the last of the conditioner was massaged from his head, Duo leaned back until his neck rested against Heero's shoulder. Purring loudly with his ears down to keep as much water from running in as possible, he sighed, "Feels nice, `Ro."

Chuckling deeply, Heero kissed the smaller boy's shoulder. Lightly pushing him further under the spray of warm water, he helped with the last of the rinsing. "So did anything else happen in class today?" he inquired.

Slightly tensing at that, Duo's shoulders sagged. Looking over his shoulder, he frowned and shrugged, "Solo and his gang were being their usual selves. It was just the usual name calling stuff."

His hands stopping from rubbing the neko's shoulders, Heero stiffened at the mention of the law student that seemed to love tormenting him. Turning the smaller teenager, he pulled him into a tight hug as the water continued to spray on them. "I'm sorry, Duo," he whispered. "I wish that everyone could accept you so that you didn't have to go through that."

Lightly pulling back so their eyes met, Duo gave a small grin and replied, "It's all right, Heero. I can take the name calling. At least Solo and the others that say things don't mean me any physical harm, unlike Muller." Just the thought of the brute made him shudder.

A small smile of his own tugging his lips at that, Heero nodded, "Very true." He ran a hand through long, damp chestnut bangs and said, "I just wish that everyone could see you the way that I do." Biting his lip, Duo blushed and grinned shyly before kissing him lightly in appreciation.

"We better get out of her and dressed for dinner before we skip dinner and move on to that dessert," the cat-eared teen suggested with a deep chuckle. Nodding at that, Heero kissed him softly once more before lowering his arms to open the shower door. Quickly turning off the water, Duo followed his lover out.

Braiding his hair a short time later, the neko asked, "So where will we be eating out?"

Heero pulled a light blue T-shirt on and replied, "How about that new Italian place that opened up last week? Everyone I know that's been there said the food is great."

Tail swaying excitedly behind him, Duo beamed, "All right." Tying the end of his braid with a black tie, he jumped to his feet from the edge of the bed to pull his blue jeans over his hips. He turned around and announced, "I'm going to have to call Mom and Dad afterwards to tell them the good news. I'm sure they'll…" His words tailed off when the room suddenly started spinning.

Gasping sharply, the braided youth grasped out to the dresser to steady himself on his shaking legs. "Duo!" he managed to hear Heero call out just as his best friend reached his side to help him up.

"Heero," Duo panted through the pain in his head, his vision going blurry. "What's happening to m-" He never managed to finish his question when blackness took him, the cry of his name from his lover the only thing seeing him off.

 

Part 1:

Heero paced anxiously in the hospital waiting room. Duo was still unconscious when he'd rushed him to the ER. What with living in their own apartment more than three hours out of their hometown, he did not want to wait for Sally to arrive to check on his braided lover. However, he did contact her as soon as the neko was taken in to be examined. She was the only person that he trusted when it came to Duo's health, but this was something that needed to be looked into right away.

A 'Nurse Judy,' revealed by her nametag, stepped into the room with a concerned frown on her face. "Mister Yuy," she began, worrying her hands before her blue-splattered scrubs. Swallowing hard, Heero nodded firmly for her to continue. "Someone from within alerted the media of Mister's Maxwell bring admitted. There are several reporters and cameramen outside."

"Damn it," Heero hissed through his clenched teeth. "When will they learn to just leave him the hell alone?" It had been almost two years since the trial with the Supreme Justices whom declared that Duo be treated the same as any human being. But, that did not mean that he had the same freedoms when it came to the press. Being the only neko in existence, the violet-eyed boy had become quite the interest story. No doubt hearing that he was rushed to the ER was something they found important enough to stick their noses in.

The heavy-set nurse lowered her brown eyes and said quietly, "We're still trying to find out who leaked the information. I am very sorry for the inconvenience."

Forcing a smile for her sake, Heero reassured her, "It's not your fault. Thank you for warning me. My mother is on the way, so she'll be able to handle them." The blonde nurse brightened at that, smiling a bit and nodding her own head before quickly leaving the room.

Alone again, Heero sighed deeply to himself and sunk into one of the plush chairs. After all of the precautions he had made to be sure that they weren't seen. 'Oh well,' he thought to himself. After calling Sally, he contacted his mother along with Zechs and Noin immediately after with the news of Duo's collapse. Knowing that his parents were on the way put him at ease with the issue with the press. His mother always did have a way with them.

* * * * * *

His head hurt.

Even before he opened his eyes, it was the first thing that Duo noticed as he clawed his way back to the world of the living. Blinking his violet eyes open, he winced at how bright the white walls around him were with the florescent lighting. When he finally managed to gaze around the room after the rush of pain, he gasped nervously at finding himself in a strange bed and strange room filled with different pieces of equipment. Some of those machines he recognized from the lab where Dekim enslaved and tortured him.

Crying out, Duo frantically tried to remove the drip needle from his right inner elbow while moving from the bed. Surprised at how weak he was, he found removing the medical tape more challenging than it should have been. Desperate, he used the long nails of his left hand to start scratching away the material. Ignoring the pain and blood from his efforts, he was only one strip away when the front door opened.

The tall, ginger-haired doctor that entered gasped sharply at the sight of the neko scratching his arm. "Mister Maxwell," he cried, "Stop!" Running forward, he quickly gripped the frightened boy's arms and held them down, forcing him back into the bed.

"Let me go!" Duo sobbed through tears that ran down his face. "Please! Don't hurt me anymore!" His brown ears lowered sadly in his weak attempt to wiggle himself free from the tight grip on him. He whimpered, "I don't want to die."

His own eyes widening at the plea, the whit-coated doctor stiffened. Behind him, the door flew open once more as Nurse Judy's voice filled the air, yelling, "Mister Yuy, you can't just come in here without being told-!"

Any further protest was stopped when the Japanese teen pushed the doctor aside so that he could sit beside the frantic patient. Cupping the damp, heart-shaped face in his hands, Heero urged, "Duo, it's all right. It's me, Heero."

Instantly, recognition filled those wide and shimmering violet eyes. In little more than a breath, Duo whispered, "Heero?" When the unruly-haired boy nodded, he all but collapsed against him, clutching onto the front of his shirt desperately as he whispered through his sobs, "Heero! Oh, Heero, I was so scared." Even his brown tail moved to wrap tightly around his lover's arm as his bleeding arm stained the front of the other youth's shirt.

Rocking the smaller boy as he held on tightly, Heero soothed, "Shhh. It's all right now, love. I'm here." He didn't care that there were others around. His best friend needed him there and he was going to give him whatever comfort he could.

Silently cursing himself for not thinking ahead that Duo would panic at waking alone in such a room, Heero kissed the top of his love's braided head while fighting his own tears. "You don't need to be afraid now," he promised softly, his voice cracking, "I swear I won't let anything hurt you."

Taken aback at how quickly his patient had broken from his terrified state, the doctor straightened and readjusted his white coat and turned to the nurse at is side. "Nurse Judy," he addressed calmly, "Please get some swabs and disposable stitches so that I may tend to Mister Maxwell's arm."

Quickly nodding, the blonde woman replied, "Yes, Doctor." That said, she all but ran from the room to see about carry out her orders.

Drawing a deep breath, the ginger-haired man turned to the pair sitting on the bed cleared his throat. When both young men looked up at him, he removed a small cloth from his pocket and smiled, "Sorry to interrupt, but I do need to inspect that wound."

Only then aware of the blood seeping into his shirt when he looked down, Heero gasped, "Gods, Duo." Gently taking the shaking neko's arm into his hands, he turned it to reveal the deep scratches in the pale skin of the inner elbow. Paling at the sight, the art student fought back the tears that threatened to fill his eyes once more. Quietly, the doctor pulled up a chair to work in.

With a small whimper, Duo's ears drooped as he buried his head back into his lover's shoulder. "I'm sorry," he whispered brokenly. "I- I thought they caught me again." Looking up from his efforts in cleaning the deep lines, the doctor frowned deeply at the scared boy. Carefully, he removed the needle for the drip for a better inspection.

"Hush," Heero managed, lightly rocking him again while rubbing his good arm for warmth. "No need to be sorry. We just want to take care of you." He could feel the braided head nod against his shoulder.

Nodding, the doctor straightened while holding the reddening cloth against his patient's arm for pressure. The nurse reappeared with the stitching equipment. "Nothing vital was damaged, so that's a good thing," the tall man thought aloud. Quickly taking up the needle and dissolvable stitches, he dismissed 'Nurse Judy' and went to his work.

All the while, Heero continued to hold the trembling boy in his arms, whispering reassurances. Still coming out of his shock, Duo never felt the stitching process. Satisfied that the gashes were properly closed where needed, the doctor placed a large, square padding over the lines and taped it in place.

Slowly looking over to the tall man, Heero sighed deeply, "Duo's never been in a hospital room before. He's only been treated by our friend, Sally Po. And the rooms similar to this that he has been in have been less than pleasant for him. I never gave it a thought that he might panic like this."

"I see," the doctor grinned. "Well, no real harm done." Straightening himself, he rose from the chair and asked, "Is this Sally on her way here? I do have several questions and if she knows of Mister Maxwell's medical history, she would be more apt to help me find out the reason for his collapse."

Heero nodded, "She should be here in the hour. And thank you, Doctor..."

"Kushrenada, but you may simply call me Treize," the tall man smiled. Focusing on the smaller teenager that peered at him through long chestnut bangs, he stated, "The good news is that I can't find anything from the tests we've run suggesting that anything serious is wrong. Other than some minor dehydration and possible stress exertion, I can't find the reason to your collapse."

Gently pulling away from his partner to brush his bangs back, Heero frowned deeply, "These last couple weeks, he has been pushing himself pretty hard to get your last projects done before the break. He's worked into the early morning most days and skipped a few meals that he tried to cover up." Duo blushed and lowered his head, only for his chin to be caught in his lover's hand and lifted. "I'm not mad, Duo," he said softly. "I'm just worried."

Nodding, Treize thought aloud, "That certainly would explain a collapse. One only passes out when the body is sending off a warning that in some way it needs attention. That attention could mean anything from emergency medical to something as simple as rest. I've no reason to believe that this case is one of a grave nature. However, I would like to compare notes with Miss Po when she arrives just to make sure."

The relief flooding him, Heero held onto Duo once more and sighed deeply. "Thank you, Doc- Treize," he corrected himself with a small grin, "That certainly is good to hear."

Swallowing hard, Duo finally raised his head to meet the friendly eyes watching him and said quietly, "Sorry for how I acted back there."

With a deep chuckle, Treize gently patted the boy's shoulder and reassured him, "No need for apologies, young man. It's quite all right. I will take my leave to give you both some privacy while we wait for Miss Po." At that, he turned and slipped from the room.

Once they were alone once more, Heero allowed a few tears that he'd been holding back to fall as he held up the injured arm. Lightly kissing the skin just below the taped bandage, he whispered, "I'm so sorry. I should have thought better than to have you wake up alone in here."

Shaking his braided head, Duo replied, "Don't be sorry. You couldn't have known. And you were just taking care of me by bringing me here." He blushed, "I'm the one who cut my arm up by reacting so badly. But, it's all right now."

Unable to keep himself from smiling, Heero nodded, "Of course. It's over now, so we just move on." Lightly cupping the side of the neko's face, he asked, "How are you feeling? Gods, you scared the life out of me back at the apartment."

Purring and leaning into the touch, Duo answered, "I feel fine now. Like I just had a good nap." He straightened to gaze around the room for a clock and asked, "How long had I been out?"

"Over two hours," Heero responded. "If the doctor hasn't found anything wrong, then I doubt Sally will be able to either. And I was right in pestering you to take it easier these last couple weeks." he finished with a raised eyebrow.

Duo pouted, "But I want to do well in my classes. And I love learning, you know that."

The Japanese teen chuckled deeply at that. When it came to his partner, everyone knew that the cat-eared teenager was a sponge when it came to learning new things. He never could get enough.

Gently kissing the smaller boys forehead, Heero urged gently, "Well, just lie down and try to get some more rest. Our parents and Sally will be here soon and I'll stay right here for when you wake up again."

Yawning widely, Duo sighed, "'K." Despite how much better he felt after sleeping for a short bit, he did have to admit to himself that he was still quite tired. Slowly easing himself back to lie down on the mattress, he watched as Heero took the chair beside the bed.

Heero reached up to lightly hold onto his love's hand. Squeezing it, he whispered, "I love you, Duo. Rest now."

Another wide yawn and Duo's tail returned to wrap lightly around his lover's arm. "Love you, too," he muttered as his eyes drifted closed. Before long, his breathing evened and came out in a soft rumble of purring.

Resting his head on the side of the bed, Heero watched the neko sleep peacefully until the sound of his peaceful breathing lulled him away. As they slept, their hands remained joined and Duo's tail stayed wrapped around his charge's arm.

* * * * * *

"Damned vultures," Danielle hissed as Trent pulled their car into the hospital drop-off point by the front doors. Her cobalt eyes glaring at the many reporters and cameramen lined up just outside the building, she shook her head, "They have to get their noses into everything."

In the back seat, Noin, Zechs and Sally wearily peered out of the tinted windows to the mob that awaited them. Biting her lip, the retired maid frowned deeply, "I was hoping that we wouldn't have to deal with them at a time like this. I just want to make sure that Duo's all right." Her husband wrapped a supportive arm around her shoulder and pulled her close to his side.

Danielle peered over her shoulder and smirked, "You won't have to deal with them. I'll take care of it." Looking over to her own husband at the wheel, she asked, "Please drop me off here, hon."

Trent peered out of the corner of his eye and grinned, "Be good." Slowing the car, he brought it to a stop just outside the main doors and right in the middle of the crowd rushing close to see who was arriving.

A red eyebrow raised over a cobalt eye as Danielle smiled, "Of course." Opening her door, she stepped out amid a lightning storm of flashing bulbs. Several voices groaned deeply at seeing the infamous owner of the most prominent law firm in space. Closing the door after her just before the car pulled ahead to the parking area, the young woman grinned from ear-to-ear, "Why if it isn't my favorite group of busybodies. Where's the fire?"

Snorting without any humor on her face, the reporter closest to her held her microphone close to the red-head's mouth. "What do you know of Duo Maxwell's condition? We were advised that he was rushed here unconscious by your son."

That opened the door to a whirlwind of further questioning from the other press representatives that pressed forward to get their own microphones close. "Is there a chance that

At least a dozen video cameras flashed their lights in the retired lawyer's direction while their owners focused their lenses. Nodding, Danielle announced, "It is true that my son brought Mister Maxwell here for medical attention. I do not know the nature for his collapse, nor would I share that information with you if I did. This is a personal matter and it will stay that way."

A glare fixed on her face, she brushed back a few thick red ringlets and folded her arms. "Otherwise I will find a way to see that your networks are sued for the undue stress that your presence has caused him and his family," she warned. "Every one of you knows that I have studied the law down to the very last letter and I will make it happen."

"So," Danielle smiled sweetly, folding her arms behind her back. "Any further questions?" The wide-eyed mob before her broke from their tense shock and quickly moved out while muttering to themselves and each other of other news leads to follow up.

Once the area was cleared, the redhead smirked and shook her head in amusement, "I've still got it."

 

Part 2:

Sally went over the reports and test results for the third time since her arrival and swift escort into Doctor Khushrenada's office. Shaking her head, she sat back in the chair opposite of the tall man behind the desk and sighed deeply, "According to these findings, I have to agree that Duo's collapse was from nothing more than dehydration and exhaustion." Lowering the papers in her hands onto the flat surface, she frowned deeply.

Raising a ginger eyebrow, Treize replied, "But you don't believe it to be that simple. Your past assistance in Mister Maxwell's care would give you the advantage to diagnose him properly. What is it that has you doubting what you're seeing?"

"If you knew Duo the way I know him," the braided young woman began with a smile, "you would know that despite how much he may 'push himself', he always has energy to spare. He has the endurance of a ten year old on a sugar rush. A slight case of dehydration wouldn't be enough to make him collapse as he had." Her frown returning, she stated, "Yet, there is nothing showing any signs that anything something else is wrong and so I have no choice but to agree with your conclusion."

With a small smile, Treize shrugged, "Everyone has the ability to force themselves beyond their limits. I doubt that Mister Maxwell would be any different. Despite his physical differences, his chemical makeup is exact to any normal human like you or I. He's an incredible creature."

At that, Sally felt her own lips tug up in a small grin. "That he is," she nodded. "And I am certain that you would rather refer to him as Duo and not Mister Maxwell."

The tall man chuckled deeply, "I'll keep that in mind." He folded his hands and frowned in thought before stating, "I was quite taken aback at how Duo reacted to waking in that hospital room alone." Sally shuddered at the thought of her friend cutting up his own arm in desperation to free himself. When she had been advised of the incident by Treize, he skin crawled.

Slightly tilting his head, Treize asked, "Might I ask why he was pleading to me that he didn't want to die? To be quite honest, I did not follow his trial and I only have a vague idea of his ordeal with what little Heero suggested. Seeing as how I am also looking to be of the best assistance to his care..."

For a moment, Sally debated over sharing her friend's past with the man she had only man moments ago. In the end, she knew that she would not always be readily available to help Duo as she had been now that he was away at college. From what she could tell of the handsome doctor, she certainly didn't have a reason to doubt that he was sincere in his wish to look after the neko.

And in the end, the more allies that Duo had, the better.

Taking a deep breath, the braided young woman began, "The soul purpose of Duo's existence was to use him as a test for what would become a weapon of war. While his makeup is no different from ours, his endurance against a number of toxins and other internal system failures far surpasses that of any normal human. Being the first successful creation, he was put through a battery of tests that nearly killed him-"

* * * * * *

A slight creek from the door as it opened stirred Heero from his brief rest. Sitting up, he smiled at the face peering carefully into the room. Lightly kissing the hand in his own, the Japanese boy whispered, "Duo, look who's here."

Sighing softly as he turned his head towards his lover, the braided, cat-eared boy blinked his violet eyes open. Slowly turning his head towards the door, those eyes widened and filled with tears as he whispered, "Mom."

Noin bit her lip and stepped into the private quarters with Zechs close behind. The blonde man's concerned eyes fell on their son as he entered. "Dad," Duo smiled. Quickly, his adoptive parents moved to the bed just as Heero moved back to give them some space.

Fighting her own tears, the retired maid sat at the edge of the bed and wrapped her arms tightly around her son just as he clutched onto her. Lightly kissing the side of his face, she told him, "We've been so worried about you."

From where he stood at the other side of the bed, Zechs smiled lovingly down on the boy peering up at him. Reaching down to rest his hand on his boy's braided head, he said softly, "Good to see you, son." he bent over to gently kiss the neko's head.

With a small sob, Duo breathed, "I love you guys so much." Back by the wall, Heero fought his own tears as he watched the heart-warming scene.

The door opened once more for Danielle and Trent to hurry in, the worry etched on their faces. Sighing in relief, Heero smiled, "Mom." Meeting her in the middle of the room, he hugged her tightly as she pulled him close. He grinned at the blonde man approaching and nodded, "Trent." The two young men exchanged a firm handshake of respect.

Pulling back, Danielle advised her son, "We would have been in here sooner, but I had to handle a few pests while Trent snuck Sally inside to meet with whoever has been looking over Duo." Heero chuckled deeply, knowing exactly what 'pests' his mother was referring to. He never did have a doubt that she would be able to handle those damned reporters.

After their reunion with the Japanese teenager, Danielle and Trent moved to greet the cat-tailed boy at the bed. Tightly hugging Duo, the redhead chuckled deeply at the sound of the neko purring in her ear. Just as she pulled back, the door opened once more as Dorothy ran into the scene. "I came as soon as I saw the report on the news," she panted heavily. Her eyes scanning from her pupil to Heero, she asked, "What happened?"

Behind the blonde law director, Sally and Treize entered as the braided young woman answered, "Exertion and dehydration." All eyes fell on the two newest visitors and she shrugged, "Nothing more than just overdoing it." With a friendly smile at her friend on the bed, she told him, "I'm sorry, Duo, but we're going to have to order that you get lots of sleep and do very little to stress yourself for the remainder of the week and next week at the very least. Which means that you'll have to take an early leave from your classes."

Determination etched on her face, Dorothy nodded firmly, "Done." She turned back to the still-reeling patient and reassured him, "I'll meet with your professors first thing in the morning to inform them that you are exempt from the remainder of your classes and any assignments that they give before the break."

Violet specks widening, Duo sputtered, "B-but I don't want to miss that much class time. That's five full days that I'll be away. This is just my first semester!" Tail and ears drooping, he looked from one face to another with pleading eyes and a small pout.

Chuckling deeply, Zechs rubbed the top of his braided head and told him softly, "Doctor's orders, son. If they want you to get rest, then you need to listen. You don't want another blackout episode, do you?"

Instantly recalling the unsteady feeling that he had before losing consciousness, Duo shuddered. He finally sighed deeply, "No." His shoulders slumped in defeat at knowing that he didn't have an ally in the room. In the end, he had to admit that he was still quite tired.

With a smile on his own face, Heero reassured him, "You know you're well ahead of any of your professors' lessons. Besides, you don't have any more projects or assignments that are due before we head home for Thanksgiving."

"Yea, I know," Duo admitted, his head lowered. Noin shook her head in amusement before pulling him into a tight embrace while kissing his cheek.

Clearing her throat, Sally announced, "I have also been discussing several things with Doctor Khushrenada. He is in the middle of making arrangements that should Duo need any further, emergency medical care, he will be the one to look after him."

The tall man nodded firmly, "So as to have a familiar face here." At that, both Duo and Heero brightened a bit, smiling their appreciation and acceptance of the offer. In the short time that they had known Treize, he certainly seemed like someone they could trust as a friend in a town that was still very new to them.

Smirking to his patient, the ginger-haired doctor commented, "Seeing as how I now understand what caused your episode this morning, I will be sure that Heero be close should you ever wake up in one of these rooms again."

Trent quickly gazed to the bandage that no one had addressed and asked in concern, "Is that what happened to your arm?"

Duo blushed and nodded, "Yea. I woke up alone in here and kind of panicked. I just wanted to get out of here so badly that I didn't even know that I was hurting myself." Both Zechs and Noin gathered closer to their son in support.

From his place at the foot of the bed, Heero bit his lip in recalling the scene that he walked into when he heard his best friend screaming out. The sight of the blood running down his arm and the frantic look in those violet eyes shook him to the core. Just knowing how terrified and desperate the neko must have been to hurt himself with his....

Nails.

His cobalt eyes widening, Heero felt his breath hitch in his throat. In his worry over his lover, he never really thought over how he managed to cut himself so. Looking to his lover's hands as they remained folded in the smaller boy's lap, he stiffened. At the tip of those long finders were long, pointed nails-the left colored with spots of blood.

Swallowing hard, the Japanese youth blinked in shock at the sight. Duo never had nails like that before. Heero knew that he certainly would have noticed them before. Not wanting to disturb the tranquility in the room, or his partner's happiness at being reunited with his family, the young artist remained quiet but stored the issue for a discussion with Sally later.

"Heero," Danielle frowned in concern as she placed a hand on his shoulder. "Are you all right? You look upset over something."

Quickly recovering from his stunned state, Heero smiled to her, "I'm fine. I've just had a few too many scares today, I suppose." His red-haired mother nodded, but her own cobalt eyes showed that she was not entirely convinced.

Much to the unruly-haired teen's relief, Treize broke in as he stepped forward and announced, "Duo, you're free to leave here as soon as you wish. If you have any further spells, please don't hesitate to contact me directly. When possible, I will stop by your apartment to see if a visit here is necessary." That said, he reached into his white coat pocket to remove a card that he handed over.

Tail swinging and ears perked, Duo accepted the business card with a wide smile. There was an understanding in the nice man's eyes that he found very reassuring. Obviously, Sally had filled him in on his past if he was willing to take whatever steps needed to see that he was comfortable. "Thank you, Treize," he smiled sincerely up to the tall man. "I really do appreciate all of your help."

Winking, the ginger-haired doctor grinned, "My pleasure." He turned to hand over another card to Heero before shaking his hand firmly. "I also wrote my residence and cell phone numbers there if you cannot reach me here."

Taken aback at how kind the doctor was, Heero nodded, "Thank you, Treize." A smirk tugged his lips as he commented, "No offense, but I hope that we won't have to be in contact with you too often. If I have more scares like what happened today, I'll be the one in the hospital bed."

With a loud, full laugh, Treize replied, "No offense taken." Gently patting the young man's shoulder, he said quietly, "Take care." As he turned to leave after a round of handshakes and words of appreciation from Noin, Zechs, Danielle and Trent, the ginger-haired man and Sally shared a warm smile and a quiet exchange of farewells.

Quickly turning so that his legs hung from the side of the bed, Duo kicked them up and down as he smiled, "Well, I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm ready to get out of here."

Chuckling deeply, Heero walked around Noin to brush back his partner's bangs and kiss his forehead. "Just take it easy, love. I'll go get your clothes."

By the time the Japanese teen had returned, Dorothy and Heero's cell phones were both filled with worried messages from Trowa, Relena, Quatre and Wufei after they had seen the brief announcement about Duo's arrival at the hospital. Once those calls were handled and their friends were finally convinced that all was fine, arrangements were made for the travelers to stay at one of the near hotels for the evening.

* * * * * *

In the early evening the following night, Duo sighed deeply as he sagged into the couch he'd been sitting in for the better part of the day. Remote in hand, he continued to flick through the channels that had nothing really appealing at the moment. Under Heero's strict orders to rest while he was away or be forced to return home so Noin and Zechs could keep their eye on him, the neko was not about to call the bluff.

Being confined to bed was one thing. Being confined to bed away from Heero was something that he wouldn't be able to handle.

When the door to their apartment finally opened, Duo sat up and turned his hope-filled eyes to the entrance. At Heero's entrance, his clumped cat ears perked and his limp tail swayed excitedly as he greeted, "Hey! How was class?"

Carefully handling the large paper bag in his hands, Heero kicked his foot back to close the door while he smiled, "Just fine." Heading over to the couch, he bent down to kiss his lover's lips soundly before smirking, "You seem happy to see me."

"Of course I am," Duo grinned back, "Seeing anything other than these four walls and television is a treat."

Heero gave him a mock pout and huffed, "I'm hurt." The braided teenager just laughed that broke his 'hurt' partner's act when he joined in. Bending down once more, the Japanese student kissed his love once more and asked, "How are you feeling?"

Shrugging, the neko answered, "Fine." His nose scrunched up as he sniffed the air when the wonderful aromas from the bag reached him. Pushing himself up to kneel on the couch, he pressed his nose closer to the bag. "What's in there?" he inquired with the innocent curiosity of a child.

A small smirk tugging his lips, Heero replied, "Dinner from Gratzies, that Italian place we were going to visit last night. I got some of your favorites." Opening the bag, he held up a large, styrofoam container as he winked, "And dessert for later."

Duo rose from the couch practically glowing as he threw his arms around the other boy. "Thank you!" he cried excitedly. When he pulled back, he purred, "You always take such good care of me."

"And I am honored to do so," the Japanese student whispered before kissing his lover one last time. Gesturing to the kitchen, he suggested, "Let's eat before this gets cold."

Looping his own arm through one of Heero's Duo smiled from ear-to-ear as he was led into the small dining room with all of his problems long forgotten.

 

Part 3:

Removing her glasses, Lady Une stepped a bit closer to the painting before her. Brown eyes wide with awe, she whispered, "Brilliant." Back at her private office's desk, Heero mentally breathed a deep sigh of relief. Like all of his works, he put all of his efforts into the display. It never ceased to flatter him when someone truly appreciated what he made out of some canvas, paints, pencils and oils.

Slowly turning around to meet her pupil's gaze, the brunette teacher smiled widely, "Simply brilliant, Heero. Few students manage to grasp the concept making a painting like this so early on in their studies. I was not expecting to have anyone in class come up with anything like this." She gazed back to the canvas and shook her head in amusement.

Glad that she turned away just as a blush colored his cheeks, Heero shrugged, "I just did more research on making something that doesn't seem to be there and got lucky, I guess." He remained silently grateful that the presentations were being made one-on-one as opposed to before the whole of his class. He knew he'd never hear the end of his blushing.

With a loud laugh, Lady Une turned back to him and smirked, "Lucky? No, no dear boy, something like this does not come simply out of luck.

"It takes a great amount of talent for someone like yourself, with no prior teachings of art concepts, to consistently come up with the brilliant pieces of work that you have created over the last two years here. You really do not give yourself the credit you deserve."

Lowering his gaze a bit, the boy's unruly bangs fell over his eyes as he replied, "Thank you, Lady Une." He shifted uncomfortable on his feet, causing the young woman to chuckle deeply as she finally moved back to her desk.

When she took her seat, the professor opened her top drawer and removed a small card. "Tell me, Heero," Lady Une began while holding up the piece of paper before her, "Have you ever heard of the Stellar Gala?"

Quickly, Heero nodded, "I actually attended it last year for the first time. All I really know of it is that it runs annually for the entirety of the summer. It was quite remarkable to see the works that were displayed there."

Just the mention of the fair brought a smile to his face. Surrounded by the lively music, delicious food and other entertainment that came with the fair were some of the most breathtaking creations that he had ever seen. To be around such great artistry, he felt strived to be any bit as good those talented souls that had their offerings spread out to be gazed on in awe by countless people.

Nodding, the young woman replied, "Well, the man that runs the gala is a good friend of mine. Millions of people travel throughout space to visit the displays of those twenty lucky artists that his esteemed team of judges chose to be entered into his esteemed festival. Those few lucky artists that have their works displayed there earn quite prestigious notoriety and never have to live as 'starving artists.'"

Her brown eyes glancing from the boy to the card in her hand and back, Lady Une ginned, "I would like to call him, to have him look at what you've done to see if you could be one of those twenty for the upcoming gala."

Unable to breathe, Heero's eyes widened and his back stiffened. To have one of his works displayed at the entrance of one of the most well-known museums was one thing. This was entirely another. "W-what?" he breathed, his knees buckling a bit. "But I'm not nearly good enough to-"

"My boy," the professor cut him off, shaking her head. "Do you really believe that I would risk my own reputation as a teacher in one of the most prestigious art schools in space?

"Friend or not, Jeffrey would have me committed if I bothered him to meet with you if I thought your artworks were anything less than a moment of his valuable time for a glance over. Granted, you'd be the youngest candidate to be considered, but I truly believe that you're good enough."

Swallowing hard, the Japanese boy's mouth opened and closed a couple times before he finally found his voice and nodded with a wide smile, "A-all right. I would be honored if you would talk to him."

At that, Lady Une smiled warmly, "Excellent." She sat back in her leather chair, checked her watch announced, "Well, my next presentation is scheduled in a couple minutes, so that would conclude our meeting." Rising from her chair, she gave a firm nod. "I certainly hope that you have a safe and relaxing Thanksgiving break."

His head nodding excitedly, Heero took her offered hand and replied, "Yes, thank you. You have a nice break, too." That said, he spun on his heels and quickly headed for the door with his heart pounding out of his chest.

Laughing, the young woman called after him, "I expect your final project of the semester to be finished in the next two weeks!"

"Yes, Maam!" the youth cried back just as he left the room. Shaking her head in amusement, Lady Une returned to her seat, folding her hands to prop her head up to further admire the painting across from her.

On his way through the main hallway and to the front doors of the large facility, Heero froze the moment he was outside. Panting, he gazed up to the millions of softly falling flakes. Blinking his cobalt eyes, he grinned widely at the sight of the surroundings quickly blanketing in white.

Quickly zippering his leather coat closed, the Japanese boy chuckled deeply to himself. He could already image his stir-crazy lover bouncing with excitement back at their shared apartment at the sight of the snow. having been cooped up indoors for over a week now, he could understand the neko's ever growing frustration as the days went by.

A plan already forming in his mind, Heero ran to the facility parking lot, grinning widely all the way.

* * * * * *

This can't be happening. Not now.

It was all that Duo could repeat over like a broken record as he almost violently filed his nails down. Knowing the bullet that he'd narrowly missed during his stay at the hospital, the braided neko sighed and continued to work the last remaining nails on his right hand down.

He spotted the look on Heero's face when he'd spotted the long things that he'd used to cut himself in a panic. Duo had been sure that his lover would ask him about them, if he'd noticed them, himself.

Luckily, between the Heero's relief that all was all right, along with his responsibilities with his remaining classes, it seemed as though he'd completely forgotten. The fact that the braided teenager had disappeared into the bathroom to file down his nails the instant they were back home also helped.

But hiding the fact hat his nails were growing was only going to work for so long. Duo was well aware of that. But if it prolonged having to tell the boy that he'd fallen in love what was to come, he just wasn't about to do that to him.

There had to be something that he could do to keep it from having to come to that. As he had ever since he's discovered the near claws a month prior, the cat-tailed youth wracked his brain for a solution.

Finally having finished with his nails, Duo lightly blew on his fingers to remove the fine remains of the near claws he'd cut down. Rising from his perch on the sink ledge, he carefully disposed of the file by seeing that it sunk to the bottom of the items already in the small wastebasket.

As he headed out into the living room, his violet eyes widened with a sharp gasp. Quickly recovering from his shock, Duo shouted excitedly, "Snow!" Running to the windows, he peered out to the lightly falling flakes that were already covering the branches of the evergreen that flanked the right side of the building.

Hands on the window ledge, the neko's tail swished rapidly and his ears perked. Smiling from ear-to-ear, he breathed hard on the cold glass and began to write over the large fog that appeared. 'Duo loves Heero' was surrounded by a large heart as he chuckled deeply to himself.

When the door opened, Duo spun on his heels. Just as his partner stepped into the room, he pointed outside while bouncing on his feet and shouted, "Heero, look! It's snowing!"

Laughing lightly, Heero brushed off the dusting from his shoulders and nodded, "Yes, I see." Before he could take another step into the apartment to close the door, he found his arms filled with his ecstatic, cat-tailed lover.

Soundly kissing his best friend, Duo pulled back and smiled warmly, "Missed you." A smile tugging his own lips, Heero replied the same in a small whisper before kissing his partner lightly. Moving from the embrace only to allow the other boy to step inside so that he could close the door, the braided teenager asked, "How was the presentation with Lady Une?"

Unable to help the wide grin on his face, Heero answered, "Better than I could have hoped. She wants to contact the man in charge of the Stellar Gala to see my work for possible consideration to be entered for the next event."

Duo gasped sharply, his violet eyes widening like saucers. "Heero," he breathed, "That's wonderful news." Throwing himself forward, he wrapped his arms tightly around his lover's neck and kissed the sides of his face rapidly. "I'm so proud of you!" he cheered.

Gently pulling his partner back, Heero grinned, "Now, now, this is just a meeting. There's no guarantee that I'll be selected to participate in the event." Shrugging, he commented with a smirk, "Though, I admit, it's quite an honor that my mentor would set up such a meeting."

"Of course it is!" Duo shouted, his face as brilliant as his smile. Calming down a bit, his grin faded and his ears drooped. "Too bad I'm stuck here. We can't celebrate properly with dinner or something."

Mischief glistened in Heero's eyes as he hummed, "Mmm, well, you have been very good at taking it easy for more than a week now. And we are leaving for home tomorrow to start our break. So, I think that you've earned some reprieve."

Just as Duo was about to hug him for all he was worth, Heero held up his hand and said, "But before we go to dinner, I have an idea."

* * * * * *

"Yaaaaahhhhooooo!" Duo shrieked all the way down the tall hill, Heero joining in as he held onto him from behind. When they came to a stop at the bottom of the hill when they hit a small snow drift, the pair rolled off their sled and along the snow-covered ground, laughing loudly along.

When they finally came to a halt, the neko was lying on his back with Heero close by in the same position. The braided boy chuckled deeply as he swiped at his cat ears to brush out the bit of snow that got into them.

Still laughing, the Japanese youth moved over so that he was propped over his lover as the smaller boy readjusted his red, wool hat. When they calmed, Duo's violet eyes sparkled with love and appreciation as he gazed up into the cobalt oceans echoing his own emotions.

Lowering himself slowly, Heero captured the full lips beneath him in a sheering kiss. When they finally parted, he pulled his flushed partner to his feet before gathering their sled again. hand-in-hand, the couple made their way back up the steep hill behind their apartment complex.

"Heero? Duo? Is that you?" a familiar voice called when they reached the top. A handful of their classmates and 'dorm mates' were gathered in a tight group, watching the pair in shock. The blonde young woman at the front of the group smirked, "Aren't you both a little too old to be out sledding?"

The two boys shared a smirk and Duo grinned, "Gee, Joann, I'm not sure. That would mean I'm too old to do this, too, huh?" Just then, his tail whirled forward, tossing a large snowball in its wake and hitting the blonde in the shoulder.

As she fell back, Joann and laughed, "Hey! I'll get you for that!" The gathered group quickly armed themselves and before long, the lot was engaged in an energetic snowball fight.

Within fifteen minutes, the new arrivals ran into their own apartments for trays and such to serve as sleds as responsibility and 'maturity' were thrown out the window for the afternoon.

* * * * * *

"So we'll see you after Thanksgiving break."

"You sure you don't need any help packing up before you head out?"

"Nah, but thanks for the offer. You guys take care."

As he waved good-bye to his fraternity brothers pulling out of the parting lot, Solo headed back to his dorm room to finish packing his own belongings. Slow in his steps, leaving footprints in the snow behind him, he sighed deeply to himself.

While everyone else had been looking forward to the long weekend at home, this weekend had been one that he was dreading. Readjusting his backwards, red ball cap, the blonde teenager climbed the stairs to his now empty dorm.

Solo moved down the dimply lit halls, his hands remained in the pockets of his blue jeans until he opened the door to his room. Closing the door after him, he removed his coat and gazed around the nearly barren space. In the corner, his bags were nearly packed.

God, but he hated the sight of them. It only served as further proof that he would be heading back.

When his telephone rang, screaming through the silence, the blonde boy jumped before quickly grabbing the received. "Hello," he greeted quietly.

"I'm on my way. Will you have good news when I pick you up?"

Swallowing hard, Solo answered, "No. He never left his room ever since the incident."

A deep growl filled his ear. "Well, you best improve your efforts when the break is over. He won't be cooped up forever. I'll be there soon."

Taking a deep breath, Solo bit his lip and replied, "Yes, sir." Lightly lowering the receiver, the blonde boy sighed deeply in a brief relief.

On unsteady legs, he moved to the tall mirror on the back on his closed door. Staring at his reflection for a moment, he pulled his grey sweater up, allowing his long, white tail to curl up into the air. A deep frown on his face, he removed his ball cap and his white cat ears perked up, stretching after their long afternoon of confinement.

Gazing into his eyes, he asked softly, "What have I gotten myself into?"

 

Part 4:

Heero pulled into the driveway of his family's home while the snow continued to fall in the early evening hour. Beside him, Duo sat up in the passenger seat with a wide, peaceful smile as he gazed on the large estate. Unable to help smiling himself at the sight of that warm grin, the Japanese teenager unlocked his door with a quiet, "Home sweet home."

The braided neko nodded and climbed from his own seat. Both taking up their large duffle bags from the back seat, the pair walked up the walkway with their free hands joined. When they reached the top of the steps, Heero placed his hand on the access panel and waited for his palm to be scanned. 'Welcome home, Heero,' the robotic voice in the entrance greeted as the door opened to them.

From the living room, Noin's voice called, "They're here!" Within a blink, the short-haired young woman all but ran into the entrance to hug the two boys tightly, kissing their cheeks before they could even get their bearings enough to lower their bags. When she pulled back, she smiled in relief, "It's good to have the two of you home. Do you need anything? I could start some hot cocoa-"

"Noin, let them at least get settled a bit before attacking them," Zechs chided with a deep chuckle before his wife could continue. He leaned against the entrance doorway with his arms folded. "They haven't even taken their coats off," he commented in amusement. Both Heero and Duo snickered quietly and proceeded to step deeper into the room.

Quickly removing his coat and lowering his bag, Duo pounced forward to wrap his arms around his mother tightly. "I've missed you too, mom," he said with his voice rumbling in a soft purr. Blinking in surprise, the retired maid relaxed finally and just returned the embrace. At that, Zechs smiled proudly and walked up to his son to pat the top of his braided head before the neko turned to hug him.

Heero grinned to himself as he hung their coats in the closet before quietly slipping from the room. Once he reached the living room, his smile grew when his own mother entered. Danielle practically beamed when their eyes met. Closing the distance between them with her arms open wide, she gave her boy a fierce embrace. "Welcome back home, son," she greeted quietly.

Kissing her cheek before they pulled back, Heero said quietly, "Thanks, Mom." Looking around the room, he asked, "Is Trent here?"

With a small sigh, the red-haired woman answered, "Something came up at the office that required his assistance."

Leading her son towards one of the couches with a hand resting on his back, she stated quietly, "Our firm has quite a big case coming up and the team working on it asked for his assistance, but he should be back soon. Noin came in to cook tonight and he has yet to be late for one of her meals."

It was well known that ever since her retirement following the trial before the Supreme Justices that Danielle was no longer interested in being involved with her firm's cases. Trent took up that end of their business partnership. He was, after all, still quite young and new in the world of law and all too eager to be involved on the few occasions that he was called upon.

Heero smiled to himself at the thought of his mother staying true to her word in not being involved. Had she been the same woman she was just a few short years ago, he would be returning home with her gone. As they entered the dining room, he wrapped an arm around her shoulder and squeezed it, expressing without words how grateful he was to have her in his life for a change.

The message was not lost as his mother chuckled deeply.

"Well, I do have an announcement," the young art student commented as he took a seat. "But I'll just wait until everyone is here."

As Duo stepped into the room, Danielle rose for a moment to embrace him. Pulling back after giving a small kiss on his cheek, she smiled in relief, "You're looking much better compared to the last time I saw you. You've been good, then, and followed orders to rest this last week?" She reached up to rub the top of his head, her smile growing when the neko purred deeply and leaned into the touch.

While she would never admit it out loud, Danielle never would tire of that soothing sound.

The hand fell away from Duo's braided head and he smirked, "I didn't have much choice with Heero watching after me." From his seat, the Japanese teenager gave his own satisfied grin and winked at his lover.

"Very good," Danielle chuckled deeply before returning to sit beside her son once again.

As the remainder of their family approached, Heero grinned to the dark-haired woman, "Noin, I could go for a cup of cocoa, if you're still offering."

At the mention of hot chocolate, Duo's cat ears perked and his tail swished excitedly. Smiling widely, he turned to his mom and nodded, "I'd like one too, please."

Noin laughed, "Of course. I'll start a large pot for the lot of us, then." Quickly turning on her heels, she made her way to the kitchen.

Danielle sighed deeply in the direction that her friend disappeared and shook her head, "I wish that she didn't feel like she still has to help out around here." Casting a glance to Zechs, she commented, "The large extension to the estate that is now yours to live in had been a gift intended to give the two of you an early retirement."

Zechs lowered himself to sit beside his own son as he grinned, "And while we while we would never be able to thank you enough for that, you would find the two of us hanging from a pair of short ropes if we couldn't make ourselves useful somehow. You know how neither of us like just sitting around."

Gently patting Duo's head, he chuckled deeply, "And with this one gone for weeks on end, it's certainly quite lonely, even with the two of us, in our part of the estate."

Purring deeply, the neko took hold of his tail and smiled to his father, "I'm sure that mom doesn't miss having to clean after my occasional fur sheddings."

"Oh, she does," Zechs winked. Brightening even more at that, Duo leaned back into the sofa just as Noin entered with a tray holding five mugs of steaming cocoa.

Quietly enjoying their hot chocolate and company, the tiny family caught up in some of the things that had happened over the last few weeks.

* * * * **

Even after being away for three months, he never forgot the smell of the place. The thick, musty air was something that clouded his darkest dreams ever since he had been sent on his mission. It was something he dreaded having to smell again in person.

Solo's ears drooped along with the corners of his mouth as he was ushered down the long, dark hallway. Swallowing hard, he fought to keep calm while a few sweat droplets began to form on his brow. He kept his blonde head lowered and his shoulders were slumped heavily in anticipation of what awaited him.

When they reached the door at the end of the hall, the neko's heart rate escalated to the point that he feared it would pound out of his chest. There was no running now...

Even if he could, where would he run to?

The tall usher kept his back to the boy and knocked twice on the door before it opened by remote on the other side. "Bring him in," the looming voice within called. Stepping aside, the bald, black-suited man stepped aside and gripped the teenager's shoulder none too gently.

With a small whimper, Solo allowed himself to be shoved into the office just as the door closed behind him. Alone with the man at the desk across from him, the neko removed his red baseball cap and gripped his white tail tightly.

"H-Hello, Doctor J," he managed in little more than a frightened whisper.

Leaning back in his leather seat, the old man smiled in that eerie way of his. As he folded his one flesh and one robotic arm, he nodded firmly, "Hello, Solo." His mechanic hand gestured to the chair just before his desk and he offered, "Please, have a seat."

Uncertainty filled the boy's eyes, but he tentatively stepped forward until he finally managed to lower himself down into the soft chair. "Now," Doctor J began smoothly.

Solo swallowed hard again. There was nothing kind or gentle about the man that had created him. Whenever he acted as such, it only meant trouble.

"Tell me," the old man continued, "How is it that you can spend three months at the same school, in most of the same classes with that other neko and you still have not been successful in bringing him to me, as ordered?"

His hands tightening around his tail all the more, Solo's mouth opened and closed before he managed, "I-I'm sorry, sir. I've been waiting for the right opportunity-" The sudden slamming of that metal claw on the desk made him jump from his seat before he cringed.

Rising from his own chair, Doctor J leaned forward and shouted, "The right opportunity!? You don't mean to tell me that you haven't had a moment to get close to him by now, do you!? You know what failure means!"

Small tears filled the blonde's eyes, his body shaking as he whimpered, "I-I'm sorry, sir. I promise to do better. P-please don't hurt the others for my failure." His voice cracked when he begged again, "Please."

After a long pause, the old man finally sighed deeply before returning to his seat. Folding his hand and claw before his face, he began, "I will be calling you back here soon, to discuss what you have been doing wrong. If my calculations are accurate, we are running out of time in bringing that neko here. And I will not have years of my blood, sweat and tears devoted to this science go to waste."

With a threatening glare, Doctor J took up his remote and ordered, "Get out of my sight and back to your cell. I can't stand the sight of you."

Quickly standing on his wobbly legs, Solo nodded, "Y-yes, Sir. As you wish." Without another word, not willing to take a chance, he turned on his heels and ran through the door as it was opened to him.

Back in the hall, the tall usher was waiting for him. Grunting at the neko when their eyes met, he turned and led him back down the corridor towards the elevator. When they reached the basement level, Solo raised his lowered head as the bald man punched the access code to the huge, safe-like door.

As the door opened, Solo winced when the tall guard gripped him by the shoulder tightly to force him into the room with a hard push. Stumbling in his steps as he entered the cell, the boy just managed to keep from falling forward while the door slammed closed behind him.

Once he was steady on his feet, the young man gazed around his familiar surroundings. The tall, wide room was furnished with a couple benches and a door that led to the small levorotary. While the room was fairly well lit, the metal walls, ceiling and floor only gave a cold feeling.

A chill ran up Solo's spine that shook his core. It wasn't the bitterness of the room that made his so uneasy. It was the quiet. From behind the furthest bench, a pair of calico-spotted cat ears perked up before the oval face and head of long, brown hair attached slowly rose. A pair of deep green eyes blinked in surprise before a quiet voice formed from her mouth, "Solo?"

In seeing his girlfriend, the boy sighed deeply in relief, "Cassie." Quickly climbing from the floor, the long-tailed young woman met him half-way. Taking her too-thin form into his arms, Solo purred deeply along with her and kisses her cheek. "Gods, I've missed you," he whispered.

Cassie pulled back just enough to kiss her boyfriend soundly. Wiping a few tears that had formed in her eyes, she breathed, "I've been worried sick about you. I'm so glad you're all right."

"Solo?" another voice asked from the bench at their right. Instantly, four other familiar, cat-eared faces popped out from their hiding places throughout the room.

The one who called, the youngest of the group at no more than ten, ran up to his missing friend. As he was hoisted up and into a firm hug, the child exclaimed with a wide smile, "Solo! It's really you!" He wrapped his arms tightly around the blonde's neck.

Gently rubbing the boy's head of red hair and tan cat ears, Solo grinned, "Good to see you, too, Danny. You've grown a bit since I've been away." In his arms, Danny giggled and just burrowed his face deeper into a strong shoulder.

Quickly counting his 'family' as they approached him, Solo frowned in concern, "Where's Andrew?"

The only other female of the bunch nervously hooked a few strands of her short, blonde hair behind her a brown and black striped cat ear. With a deep frown of her own, she answered, "He was taken away for some testing." Cassie lowered her head along with the others as Solo's eyes widened in fear.

Few words ran a wave a fear in the nekos the way that the word 'test' did. Nothing good came of those horrid examinations. Lightly resting a hand on the blonde girl's shoulder, Solo said quietly, "I'm sure he'll be all right, Jena. You know that boyfriend of yours is pretty tough." Biting her lip, she gave an unsure nod and wrapped her arms around her thin body.

The last of the 'family' to speak, a tall teenager with fur of a grey shade and short hair of a dark brown, asked, "So did you see him?" His brown eyes narrowed and he hissed, "The one who's responsible for all of this?"

"Yes," Solo answered, his own eyes thinning. "It won't be long before Duo Maxwell will regret the day he was created; just as we do."

Part 5:

Lightly brushing off the snow from his long, brown suit coat, Trent entered the house to the voice of the electronic recording that greeted him. Danielle appeared from the living room with a wide smile as she chuckled deeply, "Just in time for dinner, as always."

After helping him to remove his coat, the red-haired woman's smile grew when her husband pulled her close to kiss her soundly. When he pulled back, Trent grinned, "You know I'm never late for that."

Just as his wife opened her mouth, he raised his hand and reassured her, "Everything is fine with the case. Just a few minor details that the team wanted to have worked out before the holiday weekend."

He finished with a wink, "So no worries." That said, he kissed her smirking lips once more. He kicked off his boots and sighed deeply in content, "I've been aching to get out of those all day." Finally shed of his suitcase and extra articles, Trent ran a hand through his blonde hair and asked, "Did Heero and Duo make it back yet? There doesn't seem to be a stop to this snow any time soon tonight."

Danielle nodded, "They're helping Noin and Zechs with setting the table now." With a relieved smile at that, the young man walked with his wife from the living room into the dining room.

When they entered, Zechs was just finished lowering the large ham amongst the bowls of vegetables and other side dishes. Heero and Duo looked up from their finishing setting the plates and forks. A wide smile tugging his lips, the Japanese boy stepped forward with an extended hand as he greeted with a firm nod, "Trent."

Taking the offered hand in a firm shake, the blonde man nodded with his own smile, "Heero." he glanced to the cat-ear boy and nodded the same, "Duo. Good to have you back home." The braided teenager's tail swished happily at that before quickly finishing with placing the napkins along with the silverware.

As Noin stepped in from the kitchen, Trent took a seat at one of the heads of the table and complimented warmly, "Dinner looks and smells wonderful. It looks as though you have outdone yourself once again, Noin."

"You always say that, Trent," the short-haired young woman chuckled deeply. She removed her white apron from her waist and moved to sit beside her tall husband while grinning, "But I certainly do appreciate it."

The head of the opposite end of the table was occupied with Danielle, Heero sitting at her right and Duo at his other side. In silence, the family went about passing around the bowls and platters of food and prepared to enjoy their meal.

Some time into their dinner, Danielle sipped from her water and wiped her mouth politely with her napkin. Turning to her son, she asked, "So, Heero, what is this announcement that you mentioned earlier that you wanted to make?"

All eyes focused on the unruly-haired boy as he sat up, nodding to his mother as he finished sipping from his own glass. Clearing his throat, he smiled to the faces watching him, "One of my professors, Lady Une, is going to be talking with the man in charge of the Stellar Gala about me. She wants to see if I might be featured for next year's event." Beside him, Duo's violet eyes filled with pride for his partner as he nodded excitedly to the shocked faces around them.

Her mouth snapping shut and her cobalt eyes widening, Danielle sputtered, "H-Heero- That's wonderful news." Leaning towards, she held onto him tightly, "I'm so proud of you."

"Congratulations, Heero," Trent smiled, raising his glass to him. "It's about time more people got to appreciate the work that you do. The Stellar Gala would serve you well in getting your name out there."

Noin and Zechs both smiled widely at the announcement. "You certainly must have impressed her if she was willing to go out of her way to suggest you to her friend," the tall man commented. "Good for you."

With a wistful look on her face, Noin said quietly, "Oh, I cannot wait to see what you come up with for the show. I'm certain that you'll make some beautiful artworks for the event. You're sure to be a success there."

Lightly pulling back from his mother's embrace, Heero waved his hands in the air and told them all, "Well, let's not get too excited, everyone. I mean, it's not a sure thing that I'll get into the gala to begin with.

"I still need to meet with this man first, so that he can see the things that I've come up with so far, before he decides whether or not he'll even give me a serious consideration to be one of the few featured in his gala." He shrugged, "There is stiff competition to be chosen, all with much more experience than I have. I'm just happy that Lady Une felt happy enough with my work to give a good word on my behalf."

Duo tapped him on the shoulder with his tail to bring his lover's face to turn in his direction. He grinned widely, "You shouldn't be so hard on yourself, or your work. I've been to the gala with you and while there were some beautiful artworks, I know that you could beat anyone of those artists that have been featured."

Nodding at that, Danielle smiled, "I firmly agree with that. I might be biased, but I would like to think that I have a good sense and taste of art from my visiting a great many museums and galas over the years. You have a wonderful talent, son." Noin, Zechs and Trent all nodded their own agreement to the sentiment.

Heero looked back to his boyfriend, their eyes meeting in a loving gaze. Taking up the neko's hand in his own, he squeezed it tightly with a warm smile. Not breaking their gaze, he addressed the lot, "Thanks, everyone."

Slowly turning his eyes to his family, he smirked, "To be honest, I am pretty excited to see what will come out of this. I always did like a challenge." That said, the lot finished their meal.

"Visitors at the front door," the mechanic voice from the entrance announced, echoing in each room as to be sure that whoever was home would get the message. The table had just been cleared and Heero and Duo were sitting in the living room watching the flat-screened television on the wall across from the couch where they were nestled.

As he sat up, the Japanese boy called into the dining room, "I'll get it." Duo followed after with a curious look at wondering who would be stopping over in the middle of a snow storm just after dark.

Opening the front door, Heero's cobalt eyes widened in surprise. A bright smile brightening his face, he chuckled deeply, "Well, this is a pleasant surprise."

Gently nudging his head over his lover's shoulder, Duo gasped sharply. His tail waving happily and his cat ears perked, he exclaimed excitedly, "Guys!" Standing on the large front porch, bundled and each with a sled at their side stood Trowa, Quatre, Wufei and Dorothy. The group all smiled at the two boys in the entrance.

Springing forward, a pink-clad Relena hugged Heero tightly before moving to do the same with Duo. "We've been worried sick about you ever since that news broadcast. Are you all right?" the blonde girl asked while keeping her hold on the braided teenager.

"I'm all right, Lena," Duo purred deeply in her ear, returning her embrace with all his own strength so that she could feel it through her extra layers of clothing. "I've missed you." he said softly just as they pulled back.

Heero was already on the porch, exchanging handshakes and one-armed hugs with the rest of their visitors. Looking at their sleds, he smirked, "I don't suppose I need to ask if you all want to step inside for a bit."

Lightly nudging Trowa's shoulder, Wufei replied, "Not after I managed to beat Trowa, here, in finding the best hills for sledding in town." The tall boy mentioned rolled his visible green eye with a snort. "It's well lit and ready with a new batch of snow that's just waiting to get annihilated."

After hugging his neko friend through his deep blue snow gear, Quatre frowned in concern, "We were hoping that you might be up for joining us."

Beaming with a bright smile, Duo's tail was moving in a near blur as he cheered, "Are you kidding!? It'll take me just a few minutes to get ready." With that, he was gone in the blink of an eye.

Relieved, Trowa grinned, "Oh yea, he's doing just fine." He looked to his Japanese friend and suggested with a grin, "You better hurry. We have a whole shit load of trouble to get into to make up for the time we've been away." With a snort, Heero quickly reentered the house and closed the door behind him.

Beside her tall lover, Dorothy adjusted her deep green ski cap that matched her coat and thick pants as she chuckled deeply, "Like you're all so well known for getting in a shit load of trouble."

"Depends how you define trouble and who you ask," the grey-clad Wufei commented with a mischievous grin and glint in his dark eyes. "If you asked someone like Mueller, I think that he'd tell you what a pain in the ass we all are." His friends just laughed, nodding their heads in agreement.

* * * * * *

The sound of the access code being punched into the door of the cell made Solo's white ears twitch. Slowly coming out of his deep slumber, his brown eyes blinked open. In his arms and draped against his chest, Cassie gave a small sound as her own spotted ears flicked a bit. Her green eyes widened a bit as the cell door opened.

Finally placing himself as being back in the holding room of Doctor J's lab, Solo carefully sat up from the floor along with his girlfriend. Not far from where they lied, Jena uncurled her tightly wrapped body to gaze up with a startled gasp. Springing to her feet, she ran to the entrance just as another neko was tossed into the room. He fell forward, barely managing to walk on his legs that would not support him.

"Andrew!" Jena cried as she held onto him tightly just before he fully collapsed to the floor. Instantly, Solo, Cassie, Danny and Carson were by their friend's side to help carefully settled him on the floor. With tears in her clear blue eyes, the blonde girl whimpered, "Andrew, are you all right?"

Solo gave a look over the deep bruises that spotted the seemingly unconscious neko's pale arms. Wincing to himself, he tried not to think of what it was that had been used on him during his testing. Here and there, a few small blood dots marked where the needles had been roughly forced to puncture his skin.

With a deep moan, Andrew's grey eyes slowly blinked open. When his cloudy vision finally focused, he gazed on the frightened face of his girlfriend as tears rolled down her face.

Reaching up with a shaking hand to cup her face, he whispered in a voice hoarse from his screaming in agony, "Jena." Gently, he rubbed away a few tears with his thumb. "I'll be all right," he reassured her in his weakened tone. "I've had worse tests run before."

Jena took what little comfort she could at that, nodding to him and turning her head to his the palm of his hand.

A glance up at the other faces gazing down on him in concern, Andrew focused on one and his eyes widened with a small gasp. "Solo," he managed. "You're back." Already, his grey eyes were growing heavy. Fighting to keep them opened, he muttered, "You al'right?"

Swallowing hard, Solo squeezed his friend's shoulder and nodded, "I'm fine, Andrew. You just get some rest now. We'll catch up when you wake up."

His hand reaching up to squeeze the one on his shoulder, the black-eared brunette smiled as best he could despite the pain. "Missed you, brother," his weak voice breathed as his eyes drifted closed on him despite his best efforts to see the others a bit more.

"Yea," Solo choked out through his tightened throat. "Missed you too, brother," he whispered as Andrew's hand fell away limply. The slow and steady rise and fall of his friend's chest confirmed that he was finally in a peaceful oblivion from the pain that was wracking him.

Whimpering, Jena leaned down to kiss her love's forehead and curled up beside him. Danny's young eyes had seen so many of these instances with his family before, but he could never get used to seeing any of the others hurt. The child let out a small sniffle, tears rolling down his face as Carson pulled him close in a one-armed hug for support.

Over the course of their existence, Solo has somehow been seen as the one that everyone looked to when they needed guidance. Gazing over the faces of the others, he told them gently, "We all best get some more rest. It's been a long day." A few nods were his only response before the other nekos finally returned to where they had been lying about on the floor to curl up.

Pulling Cassie close to him, Solo stared up at the ceiling as she drifted off once more. All around, he could hear the others settling back into their own slumbers. Nothing had changed while he'd been away. He'd been thrust back into the hell that he'd always known.

Finally, once again unable to think of a way to spare them all, Solo's brown eyes drifted closed and sleep took him into a dreamless abyss.

It was just another day in the lives of Doctor J's lab rats.

* * * * * *

The following morning, Duo was busy typing away at the computer in his own bedroom in the second half of the large estate that had been given to him and his parents. It had taken days of following the few trails that he had to finding the only person who would be able to get him the answers he needed.

Luckily, with Heero attending class while he was forced to rest, Duo had been able to use their dorm computer to cover most of his searching. Now it was just a matter of confirming that he was on the right track.

"Duo," Noin's voice called from downstairs. "Breakfast is almost ready."

Turning from the screen, the neko called to the closed bedroom door, "Thanks, Mom! I'll be there in just a bit!" Quickly, he looked back to the screen, his fingers flying all the faster over the keys to get the last bit of information. His violet eyes widening, he quietly smiled to himself, "There you are."

With a click of the access button, he waited for the call to take and watched as the screen went black. After a few rings that sounded through the speakers, the call was answered and the screen turned on to reveal the man on the other line. The familiar eyes widened in shock as the man whispered, "D-Duo?"

His shoulders slumping and a deep sigh escaping him, Duo smiled weakly, "You're sure a tough guy to track down, Howard."

 

Part 6:

After weeks of planning and covering his tracks, Howard sighed a deep breath of relief before hitting the last key.

Watching the screen, he made sure that all of the data he had stored was wiped out until the memory showed a blank page. "Finished," he whispered to himself, his voice heavy from exhaustion and worry.

Now that his involvement in Dekim's lab had been removed from all records, his old friend and assistant was now free to go about his life.

The old 'mad scientist'- as Howard referred to him- was away for the weekend and was certain to be quite upset in seeing how his confidant and friend erased all of his works over the many years that they had worked together. It was a small victory, as Dekim had many of their research logged in old files that would take some time to search through. Still, even a brief delay in his plans was enough at this point.

By the time Dekim came to find what he had done, Howard would be long gone with no way of being tracked. All that the 'mad scientist' would have of him were his memories. Howard made sure of that.

Quickly shutting down his computer, the white-haired man rose from his seat and gathered his long coat from the rack just beside his desk. Taking up his hat as well, he moved to the front door for one last look at his large office that overlooked the city below. Howard kept the look brief. There certainly were not many fond memories to have come from the place.

Still.... ten years was a long time for a person to spend anywhere. Even if it wasn't the most pleasant of experiences. It was ten years of devotion to a cause. Ten years wasted, Howard thought quite bitterly at the time he decided to put an end to it.

His heart still heavy with anger and regret, Howard turned out the office light and stepped out into the hall. Closing the door behind him, hearing the latch click into its home with a metallic ring for the last time, he sighed deeply once more.

That sound signified the end of it all. There was no turning back now.

Keeping his pace rather slow, Howard made his way through the long hallway as he lost himself in his thoughts. Without really thinking about it, he moved into the elevator and pressed the button for the lower level of the facility. All along the way, he thought of how he was going to get through this part of his departure.

It'd been something that he'd been dreading from the moment he decided to leave Dekim's team.

When the doors opened to the basement level, Howard took a deep breath and stepped into the dimly lit room. Before walking into its line of fire, the old man disconnected the observation cameras aiming at his objective. This was to be something private that he did not want the likes of Dekim ever witnessing.

His footsteps echoing off the metal floor from the metal walls and ceiling, Howard approached the large cage set atop a simple table. In that cage, the small ball of brown fur began to stir at the sound of his approach. Peering through the metal honeycomb walls of the cage, the white-haired man watched as the kitten within raised its head in his direction.

As always, Howard's breath caught in his throat when those eyes blinked open to reveal the most haunting shade of violet he had ever seen. His own trained eyes caught the recognition in that gaze.

He'd never expected their experiments to work. But Howard knew. They'd tested the kitten enough to know that the kitten was to the point of thinking, remembering and reasoning just as he could. That much of their experiments proved to be a success. It wouldn't be long before Dekim completed the puzzle to his creation. Before the innocent creature was made into something much more.

The first neko to ever exist. It as something that the old man never thought he would see. And now, it was something that only made his heart ache to know what was in store for the trapped creature.

But what was he to do?

In the end, Dekim was working for the government and should the last experiments be successful, the creation of nekos would be an unimaginable feat. It was bad enough that Howard wiped out everything that he had been a part of over the last ten years. To try and liberate the kitten now, when the first half of the procedure had gone well, he would not only have Dekim on his heels, but every form of law enforcement on Earth and in space. Once caught, he would be tried for treason.

Still, it was killing Howard to have to leave the only real friend he had for the last few weeks. Knowing what was yet to come for the neko once he reached his true form would not be the end of it. His life would be a living hell for the rest of his existence.

Theories of creating such a creature were one thing. But when he actually saw the kitten for the first time, really thought of what was in store for him and having to endure knowing that just the few rounds of procedures and tests were hurting him, Howard could no longer be part of any of it.

When those violet eyes opened fully, the brown kitten mewed excitedly and walked to the edge of the cage. Supporting himself on his back paws, he placed his front on the metal honeycomb wall as his tail swayed behind him.

"Hey, Kit," Howard greeted with a sad smile. He'd given the nickname the moment he laid eyes on the small ball of fur when he'd been brought to the lab.

Slowly, the old man lifted the wooden lid to the cage and reached inside. The moment his cupped hand lowered inside, the kitten jumped into it. Howard carefully lifted him out and stroked his smooth fur, his smile growing a bit at the soft purr that he heard as well as felt from his palm.

The kitten sat up in the center of the hand holding him and peered expectantly at his visitor. Laughing, Howard nodded, "All right, little one. I know. I know." That said, he reached into his shirt pocket to retrieve the bit of treats that he always brought when looking in on his furry friend. When the food was brought to him, the kitten licked and nipped it up happily.

As he watched silently, Howard's heart only broke all the more. This was certainly a great deal harder than he'd ever expected.

When the kitten finished every last morsel, he sat back up while licking his lips. With his head, he nudged and rubbed up against the now empty hand and purred as loudly as he could in appreciation.

Biting his lip, Howard finally managed, "I'm going to miss you, Kit." At those words, the kitten froze before sitting up with a tilt to his head and wide violet eyes that peered up at the old man. The lab assistant smiled sadly, "I know that we've only known each other a few short weeks, but, you've been a good friend to me during that time."

A confused mew escaped the kitten as he blinked his eyes. Clearing his throat, Howard shook his head, "I'm sorry to have to leave you like this. If there were a way I could get away with it'd I'd take you with me without thinking twice about it."

'Kit' nudged his hand as if trying to reassure him, purring loudly. His tail fell limp, however, as the feline understood clearly what was being said to him. There was no question in Howard's mind that the remainder of the change would be a success once the remainder of the experiment was complete.

Lowering his head so that their noses almost touched, the white-haired man said quietly but with a great deal of urgency in his voice, "I want you to listen to me, okay?" The slight tilt of the kitten's head was his way of knowing that he was at full attention. "If you ever manage it, find a way to get out of this place. Run. Don't ever look back."

When he wrapped his other hand around the tiny ball of fur, Howard could fell the tiny, pounding heart under him. Afraid that he might lose his nerve and actually stow Dekim's proclaimed 'lab rat' away, bringing on nothing but endless trouble for the both of them, he gathered the last of his nerve.

Lightly kissing the feline's head, he whispered, "Gotta go. Bye, Kit." Moving quickly but carefully, he lowered his friend back into the cage and replaced the wooden lid. He forced himself not to listen to the pained mewing that called after him as he turned and headed back to the elevator.

Those cried echoed after Howard until the doors finally closed behind him. As the elevator rose to the ground level, he leaned heavily against the walls and reached up to wipe his stinging eyes. His heart broken, he numbly walked out into the lobby and through the front doors into the busy city to begin his escape.

(End Flashback)

* * * * * *

Howard removed his prescription sunglasses that replaced his usual spectacles as he sputtered, "But- but how in the world did you manage to find me after all this time? Dekim tried his damnedest and he wasn't successful."

Smirking, Duo shrugged to the screen, "Along with Dekim's lab results that were recovered and handed over to Sally and myself were some of his journals and other items that I managed to piece together for him." He winked a violet eye, "Besides, I was the only one you confided in not long after I was brought in that you wanted to visit Hawaii."

With a tilt of his head, the braided teenaged stated, "From your knowing my name, I take it that you've been following up on me."

Unable to help himself, the old man laughed, "You always were a bright one." Relaxing at last, he smiled warmly and got a good look at the boy that he helped create. Newspaper clippings and live reports on television certainly were one thing. But to actually be staring full on to the creature before him was something he never thought he'd get to experience.

"From what I've been hearing about you, you took my advice and it seems you've done well for yourself," Howard commented with a small smile before it faded when the guilt of leaving the neko behind that had consumed him for years welled up once more. Lowering his head, he said quietly, "I'm so sorry that I just left you behind like that. I just couldn't stand and watch what was going to happen to you."

Duo gave a dismissive wave with a hand and his tail as he shook his head, "It's all right, Howie. I know that you did what you had to."

The white-haired man raised an eyebrow, "Howie?"

His violet eyes brightening, the neko smiled, "Yea, I shorten all of my friends' names." He raised a hand to count as gave the examples, "Ro, Quat, Fei, Tro, Lena, Sal-"

Blinking in surprise, Howard whispered, "Friend? You mean you still consider me a friend even after all this time? Even after my leaving you the way I did?"

"Of course," Duo grinned without hesitation. Behind him, his tail swished lazily as he reassured the man on the monitor, "Like I said, I understand your reasons for doing what you did. And you were the one that gave me the idea to try and get out of that place. Of course I consider you a friend of mine."

Small tears brimmed the retired scientist's eyes and he breathed, "Thank you, Kit." he shook his head and corrected himself with a grin, "I mean Duo." His smile turned into a smirk. "Now, you wouldn't have gone through that much trouble to find me just to catch up, I'm willing to wager. So, what else is going on?"

Nervously playing with his tail, his ears sinking along with the corners of his mouth, Duo replied in little more than a whisper, "It's what was done to me to make me this way." He bit his lip in hesitation before saying, "I think it's reversing."

Howard's eyes widened as he took in the announcement. "Are you really sure?" he asked. "I mean, what makes you think that?"

Taking a deep breath, Duo went on to recant everything that had happened to him from the time of his collapse to the nails that were growing in long and sharp every day that he had to file down. As he sat back in his chair, listening to it all, Howard would occasionally nod or ask questions for more detail to exactly what had been taking place.

At the end of the neko's retelling, the old man rubbed his eyes and covered his face with both hands. "Damn it," he hissed through his palms. "We'd been afraid of something like this happening."

With a deep sigh, he lowered his hands and frowned deeply, "I'm afraid that your assumptions of what is happening to you is correct, Duo. There were bits of your DNA coding that were needed to complete the transformation that we had questions about. Creating a neko such as yourself was something that had never been done before, and so we were flying blind in our assessments. It appears that some of those bits are coming undone, pulling back into the strands that they originally were."

Shaking his head frantically, Duo cried, "What can I do? There has to be a way to stop this! I don't want to go back to the way that I was! I have a family now!" He sniffled as tears rolled down his cheeks, "I have someone that I love that loves me, Howard! Please! There has to be something!"

Resolve filled Howard's eyes. He'd let the boy down once before. He wasn't about to do that again. It was time to make up for what he had done. Straightening in his chair, he nodded firmly, "I can't make any promises Duo. But, I'll do whatever I can. While I destroyed my hand in the research involving you, I did save what had been worked on up until the time I left for myself. I'll be over there as well to talk to your friend, Sally-"

"No!" Duo shouted, his violet eyes wide with panic. "Sally will tell Heero what's going on. I don't want him to find out. Not until I can find the nerve to tell him myself." His mind racing to come up with a solution, he gasped, "Treize. Sally gave the doctor my records from her own findings so that if he ever needed to treat me he could. I'll talk to him and we can keep this quiet for now."

Raising a white eyebrow, Howard frowned, "I don't like the thought of you not telling that boy about this, kid. I think that he deserves the right to know."

Already nodding, Duo promised, "I know. And I will tell him if there isn't a way of stopping this. Until then, I don't want him to know. It'd kill him" He wiped at a few more tears that began their roll down his face.

Finally, Howard smiled sadly, "All right, Duo. Now we can't waste any time with this thing. I'll be on the first flight back to the States tomorrow morning. I'll be in touch with you as soon as I arrive."

Swallowing hard, the braided boy whispered brokenly, "Thank you, Howard." The connection was cut and the screen went black.

With one last wipe to dry his eyes, Duo hugged his legs to his chest and lost himself in his thoughts and fears.

The race against whatever time there was left had begun.

 

Part 7:

After enjoying a peaceful breakfast with his parents, Duo moved through the long corridor that connected their half of the estate with that belonging to the half belonging to the Yuys. With the prior night being their first time home in months, he and Heero thought it best to spend the evening with their respected parents.

His head swarmed by thoughts revolving around the conversation that he had with Howard earlier that morning, the braided neko's hands played with his long tail nervously. Not long after he had noticed the long claws that had formed when he woke in the hospital only days ago, Duo began to think of the possible reasons for their appearance. In the end, he could only think of the worst explanation.

And now his worst fear had just been confirmed.

Biting his lip, Duo fought the new wave of tears that threatened to fill his violet eyes. Slowly, he was reverting back to how he had started. His very make-up was coming undone with no known solution. While he was relieved that Howard was quick to offer his assistance, the old man could make no promises that all would be well.

Life never came with any guarantees. Why should his situation be any different?

Despite the fact that he felt selfish for thinking it, Duo couldn't help but think how unfair it would be for him to lose everything that he'd fought so hard to keep. More than anything, he hated the thought of ever being without Heero. From the moment that the other teenager had brought him into his home after the accident that nearly killed him, the neko came to grow in love with him as time went on.

Heero was everything to Duo. He dreaded the thought of being taken away from him through a means that he had no control over.

Then a startling realization ran a chill up the braided boy's spine. He froze with wide eyes and his ears drooped at the possibility- What if, in the process of reverting back into a cat, he lost his memories of the last few years as well? Would he never recall who he had once been, or the people that he had come to know and love?

It was all too terrifying a thought for Duo to deal with at the moment. He certainly already had enough to be worried about, knowing for certain that he was coming undone. The ramifications of that happening would have to be dealt with later.

'One problem at a time,' he told himself to keep from allowing his fears to run rampant and overwhelm him. 'One problem at a time.'

Opening the door leading into the Yuy household, Duo pushed all of his thoughts away. Once he was sure how to accomplish it, he was going to tell Heero and the rest of his family what he came to know. Until then, he was just going to be his usual, cheerful self... Even if he was falling apart inside.

Quietly slipping through the kitchen and then the dining room, the neko searched for any sign of life at the early morning hour. He soon found it in his lover when he reached the living room. Heero looked up from the book that he had been reading as he sat on one of the sofas. When their eyes met, the Japanese young man kept their gazes locked while sliding the book away while smiling, "Good morning."

In those simple words and in the love that he found in those cobalt depths, Duo forgot all of his worries. Returning the smile, he replied softly, "'Morning." He headed over to the couch while the other boy lightly patted the space beside him in a silent request to have him close.

Easily sliding to sit beside his best friend, the braided student found himself wrapped into a tight embrace as his lips were captured in a gentle kiss. With a deep sigh of content, Duo closed his violet eyes as he wrapped his own arms around Heero's neck. He returned the kiss fully, trying to sap every ounce of comfort from the exchange that he could.

It wasn't long before Duo lost himself in the warmth surrounding him, yet found that he still wanted more. He felt his tongue run along the other teenager's lips. Heero willingly opened his mouth with a deep moan, a shudder running through his body as their tongues danced and explored.

Whimpering quietly, the braided neko reached up and under his lover's grey sweater. The lead was followed and Duo gasped when he felt familiar hands roam over the skin of his back. He quickly assaulted Heero's lips again as they rode out the wave of their wants and needs that revolved entirely around each other.

At a gentle urge from his partner, Duo slowly lowered himself back to lie against the length of the couch. Sliding over him without breaking the kiss in their shifting, Heero stretched himself atop the smaller boy. Hands continued to roam and hold on tight.

Through the cloud of bliss that he had drifted into, Duo suddenly felt himself crashing down into reality. The thought of losing this, losing the one thing in his life that made everything right, was gripping him tight enough that he felt the air forced from his lungs and he tensed rigidly.

Quickly pushing himself up enough to gaze down on the neko with worried cobalt eyes, Heero asked softly, "Duo?" He reached up to run his hands through the long, damp bangs that had fallen over his lover's eyes. "Are you all right?" he asked when a haze of something in that violet gaze rolled by.

It took a great deal of effort on Duo's part to force a convincing smile. While he was never one to lie, he could be honest while averting the whole truth. "Just couldn't catch my breath back there," he answered with a sheepish grin. "I'm all right."

Relief filled Heero's eyes and he smirked, "Couldn't help myself. I've wanted to be like this with you for days now."

"Me too," the braided teenager sighed deeply in content. His ears wiggled along with his eyebrows as he suggested, "Now that my strength's back, maybe we can pick up from where we left later."

The deep purr came from the Japanese youth as he replied huskily, "I like the sound of that." The sound of footsteps moving about overhead were evidence that they were no longer the only ones awake in their half of the estate.

Looking up to the ceiling, Heero chuckled deeply, "Once we can manage a bit of privacy, of course. He shifted, pulling his partner up with him until they were both sitting back up on the couch.

Duo snuggled close against him, resting his head on a firm shoulder and closing his eyes with a deep sigh. Lightly running a hand over his lover's hair, Heero said quietly, "I missed you last night. It was strange- sleeping without you there with me."

A warm smile tugged the neko's lips at that. Opening his eyes, he looked into the pair watching him. "I missed you, too. We'll have to split which half of the estate we sleep in over the rest of our vacation."

More than pleased with the suggestion, Heero nodded firmly, "Agreed." They sat close and in a comfortable silence for a moment. Wrapping his arm tightly around the other boy's shoulders, he pleaded in little more than a whisper, "Promise you won't ever leave me."

With every ounce of his being, Duo tried his best not to jump at the softly spoken words. Looking back up to his best friend's face, he blinked in what he hoped was a reasonable amount of surprise and asked, "Where did that come from?"

Heero looked away, as if ashamed or embarrassed, and shrugged. Taking a deep breath, he finally replied quietly, "It's just- last night, I was reminded of how things were before you came along. I had forced myself to think that I liked where my life was headed, though I couldn't deny that I was perfectly happy to be following my parents' footsteps without having my own feelings taken into consideration.

"What's more, even though I had my mom, your parents and my friends, I always felt alone," he admitted, a rough shudder running through him at the memory. "No one really understood me. They only understood the person that I thought was expected of me."

Frowning deeply, Duo reached up to cup his love's cheek. Small tears prickled the corners of his violet eyes as he whispered, "Heero-"

Gently leaning into the touch, the promising artist smiled wistfully when their gazes met again. Despite the small tears in his own eyes, there was a real peace in Heero's gaze. "Then you came along," he breathed. "And I didn't feel like I had to try to be something that I wasn't anymore. I could just be myself."

He shook his head with a small chuckle as he wiped at his eyes, saying, "Anyway, it just reminded me of how lucky I am." Duo smiled lovingly, his heart filling at truly feeling how much he was appreciated. Then Heero took his hands into his own and placed a soft kiss on them.

Squeezing the neko's hands and with a fierce intensity in his deep blue eyes and his voice, he promised, "I swear that I will never-" He paused before stressing, "Never. Take for granted what you've done for me. I need you and I love you more than anything that this life has to offer."

Unable to speak, to even try and find his voice, Duo felt a stray tear roll down his cheek. Heero quickly, gently wiped it away with his thumb. Caressing the damp cheek, he pleaded once more very quietly, "Please don't ever leave me, Duo. I'd be lost without you."

"Oh, Heero," Duo breathed, reaching up to wipe the tear that was now rolling down his lover's face. He lunged forward to wrap his arms tightly around the other teenager' neck. Kissing his cheek, he whispered into his ear, "I promise. So long as it's within my power, I won't ever leave you."

It was all that he could say. All that he could offer- So long as it was in his power. Only there was no telling if what was looming in the shadows was something that he could overcome.

And the not knowing was already slowly killing him.

His own arms enfolding the neko's trembling frame, Heero sighed deeply in relief, "Thank you." Considering the holiday, he found that he had quite a bit to be thankful for. But he was grateful for the person he held above all else.

When they finally pulled back enough, Duo kissed his lover's lips soundly before smiling, "Gods, I love you, Heero."

"Love you," the other whispered back with a smile of his own.

The footsteps that had been moving upstairs traveled towards the stairs. Straightening themselves, Heero and Duo dried their eyes, but stayed close where they sat.

Stepping into the room following her descent, Danielle smiled, "Good morning, boys. Happy Thanksgiving." With bright smiles of their own, the two teenagers returned the sentiment. With a quick glance to her watch, the redheaded young woman thought aloud, "I better get started here soon."

Heero tilted his head a bit and asked, "Get what started?"

"I'm in charge of Thanksgiving dinner," his mother grinned. "Noin offered to help, but I insisted that I do this on my own. I've always wanted to cook a holiday meal, so what better time than now?"

Both Heero and Duo shared a surprised look. "That's a pretty big undertaking for just one person," the Japanese youth commented with a nervous smile. He left out reminding her that she'd only cooked on a few occasions, for very simple meals at that, up until then. "Are you sure that you don't want Noin's help for something like this?"

Giving a nonchalant wave, Danielle smirked, "I'll be able to handle it. I have found all kinds of tips and recipes over the last few days that I'll be able to follow. It shouldn't be more difficult than reading and following directions." Her smile faded a bit and she asked, "You don't think I'm up to it?"

Duo quickly rose from the couch and closed the distance between to hug the young woman tightly. "Of course we don't, Ma," he reassured her with a deep purr in her ear. When he pulled back, he smiled brightly, "I think it's great you want to do this."

His contagious smile worked its charm on Danielle as her own lips curled up. "Thank you for the encouragement, Duo," she replied with a hand running over his braided head. The neko purred deeply and leaned into the touch.

Grinning, himself, Heero approached them while nodding, "He's right, Mom. I'm sure that dinner will be perfect."

His mother brightened all the more at his support and she kissed his cheek. "Well, I have a lot to do if we're going to eat at a decent hour," she announced excitedly, looking to her watch again. "You best tell whoever will be joining us that we'll be eating a little after five." That said, she hurried towards the kitchen.

When she was out of ear-shot, Heero chuckled deeply, "She seems
really happy to be doing this."

Beside him, Duo nodded, "Well, I think she's realizing all of the things that she missed out on while working all the time. Now, along with being there for you more, she can feel less dependent when it comes to things that normal moms do."

Turning to the cat-eared boy, Heero grinned, "She really is trying. I couldn't be prouder of her."

As she moved into the kitchen, Danielle hummed a cheery tune to herself and removed the large turkey from the stove where it had been covered to thaw overnight. Once the glass case over it was removed, she rubbed her hands together and smiled, "Now, let's see..." Turning to the directions that she had left on the counter, she began to read.

Her cobalt eyes widening, the young woman exclaimed, "I have to remove what!?" With a look of fear, she turned to the bird. With a deep breath, Danielle sighed. Opening one of the drawers close by, she removed a box of latex gloves. As she slipped a hand inside one of them, she muttered, "Next time, I will have to look into buying a gutted turkey."

Back in the living room, Heero was on his cell phone waiting for his call to be answered. When the familiar voice greeted, he announced, "Trowa, just wanted to let you and Dorothy know that dinner is going to be around five."

"Great," the other boy replied. "I'm at Dorothy's folks right now, since they'll be heading out of town for business pretty soon here."

From the kitchen, Danielle's screamed. His eyes widening in concern, Heero turned towards the sound and was just about to call out to his mother when she shrieked, "Oh that's disgusting! Why do they leave these vile things in here!?"

Biting back a laugh, Heero turned away from the continued ranting and spoke into the receiver, "Better make that closer to five thirty."

 

Part 8:

Cassie sighed deeply as she leaned back against the cold, metal wall of the cell she and her family had always known. Inside, her stomach was churning in worry over Solo. He was taken away earlier that day to visit Doctor J once again. That old man had a way of making the fur of her ears and tail stand on end.

In the center of the room, Jena looked up and gave her friend a sad smile. "I'm sure he's all right, Cassie," she reassured her. "If he was taken into another round of testing, he wouldn't have been sent to Doctor J directly."

Finding what little comfort she could in that, Cassie nodded, "You're right." The young woman gripped her calico-colored tail and fidgeted with it. In the end, she had to admit that a visit with the old man, as frightening as it was, rarely meant a visit with a syringe or any other horrid tool that induced pain.

Still, nothing about being removed from the cell boded anything pleasant.

Her green eyes widening when the door suddenly opened with a loud creak, Cassie jumped to her feet and ran to the entrance. Solo stumbled into the room after being roughly shoved inside. Once he was steady on his feet, he opened his arms just in time for his girlfriend to hug him fiercely.

With a small grin, Solo rubbed the back of her head and told her quietly, "I'm fine, Cass. J just wanted to talk with me." The others gathered close with curiosity all over their faces. As Cassie pulled back, the blonde neko stated, "I'm going to have to change my tactics to get closer to Duo, if I hope to get a hold of him."

Carson's grey ears drooped a bit and he frowned, "Change tactics? You're in almost the same classes that he has. With the other frat boys you made friends with, it would be easy to overpower him once you've convinced or tricked them into helping. What does J suggest you change that will catch him?"

"I'm going to have to gain his trust," Solo sighed deeply, clearly not liking the idea one bit. "Duo has too many friends at the university. Even if I was able to trick the others into helping me to bring him here, there are too many eyes around making sure that he's okay whenever we're around."

Swallowing roughly and making a face as though there were a vile taste in his mouth, the blonde said quietly, "So, I'm going to have to act friendly towards him. I have to get him to believe that there is no animosity between us."

At that, Carson's eyes widened before thinning into slits. "Well, good luck with that," he commented. "I know that I wouldn't be able to keep that act up around him, even if it was for the purpose of luring him in." Just behind him, Andrew wrapped an arm around little Danny's shoulders when the little boy frowned up at him in confusion.

Cassie sighed deeply, "Why are you boys so determined to hurt Duo, anyway? He never did anything to us, personally."

Beside her, Jena nodded, "She's right. This anger is all out of your jealousy. He is one of us, after all-"

"He'll never be one of us!" Solo shouted, cutting her off with his face reddening at the very idea. "Even if he isn't the direct reason why we're in this situation, he is a huge factor in it! He should have just stayed a lab rat instead of being selfish enough to try and be included among the humans.

"We wouldn't have been needed, then. We would have been the way we were before J brought us into this lair to pick up where Dekim had to leave off."

Glaring heatedly at the startled young women, he continued, "We're all going to die! Do I need to remind you of that!? We have to bring him here if we stand any chance of surviving, before he dies during his revert process. He's already coming undone the same way that we will be!"

Both Cassie and Jena hung their heads, small tears of fear filling their eyes. "And of course we're jealous," Carson spoke up in a hiss. "Why the hell should he be so lucky as to live a free life while we're trapped here, poked, prodded and tortured for little more than amusement? Why should we be the ones trapped without any way to escape."

Tapping his right temple, the dark-haired teenager growled deeply, "I know you haven't forgotten the tracking chips that were installed into us. We wouldn't be able to take one step out of this building without an escort before these damned things could be used to kill us instantly." Straightening, Carlson smirked, "I'd like nothing more than to watch that little prince cry out when they insert one of those chips into his head."

Grey eyes narrowing, Andrew ordered, "That's enough." Looking in concern to the trembling boy beside him, he frowned, "You're scaring Danny, here." With a small whimper, the red-haired boy's tan ears were sunken as he shook in the protective embrace of the arm around his small shoulders.

Once everyone was calm again, the black-eared neko cast Solo and Carson a look of warning. "We'll agree to disagree on what we believe that Duo does or does not deserve," he spoke quietly, but in a tone that left no room for argument. "Don't force your ideas down our throats. And you don't need to remind us of the situation we're in. We're all in this together, remember? Don't break the family apart."

Reluctantly, Solo and Carson sighed deeply. Their ears and heads lowering, they muttered their apologies to the group.

When the door suddenly opened once more, the lot nearly jumped out of their skin at the loud grinding of metal. One of the guards stuck his bearded head through the crack and gave them a dark grin. "Happy Thanksgiving," he spoke in a voice meant to be humorous to him that sent a chill up each of the prisoners' spines.

"Beings this is a family holiday," he began with a gap-toothed smile, "The good Doctor has ordered that all of you experience the next round of testing together." Just as the last words left him, six tall and strong guards entered the room.

Pale and wide-eyed, the nekos were all gripped by a shoulder or arm. Knowing that resisting would only bring their end, they allowed themselves to be all but drug from the cell. Just before they were out into the hallway, Solo whispered in a sharp tone to Andrew, "Tell me, now, that you wouldn't give anything for that Maxwell to have to endure this with us."

To that, Andrew just glared without a word to say.

* * * * * *

"Finished," Danielle sighed deeply, wiping the little bit of sweat from her brow. Appraising the dinner layout, she smiled brightly in pride to herself. She'd pulled off cooking a grand Thanksgiving dinner all on her own. The turkey, cranberry sauce and every other fixing was finished by her own doing. And it felt amazing to have accomplished such a thing.

Even if it did take a couple hours longer than expected. Recalling her originally set time for five that evening, she chuckled deeply when she saw that it was nearly seven. "Better late than never," she shrugged to herself after checking her watch.

After pouring the last glass of wine at the table settings, she called into the living room, "Dinner's ready!" Instantly, her patient, and starving family entered the room. At seeing their two guests, she smiled warmly with a bow of her head, "I'm very glad that you both could make it, Trowa and Dorothy."

The young couple smiled back and Trowa spoke for the two of them with a sincere, "Thank you for having us, Misses Yuy-Clark. With our families away on business, we were afraid that we'd have to order out tonight." Chuckling deeply beside him, Dorothy nodded.

"Oh, you're always welcome, you know that," Danielle grinned. Lightly guiding them with a hand on their backs, she offered, "Have a seat." As she watched the looks of awe taking in all of the food around the table, she felt a warm tug in her chest.

With a wide smile, Heero turned to her and commented, "This looks great, Mom. I'm proud of you." The others all gave their own nods and likewise responses as the hostess took the head of the table opposite of her husband.

Folding her hands, the red-haired woman suggested, "Trent, darling, why don't you say Grace tonight?" All eyes turned to the young man at the other end of the table as he sat up with wide eyes.

A smile tugging his own lips, Trent lowered his head and closed his eyes while the others followed his lead. "To the Deity whom watches over us all," he began, "We thank you for the blessings in our lives. We thank you for our family, friends and hope that we will be together for many a year to come." Duo bit his lip at that, his eyes squeezing tighter in prayer that the last plea be answered.

Trent continued, "We thank you for health and for this wonderful meal. And we thank you for all of our trials in life as well, as they only make us stronger. In this, we pray, Amen." Everyone at the table repeated the softly spoken 'Amen' and smiled as they opened their eyes. Rubbing his hands together, the blonde lawyer raised a glass of wine and grinned, "So, let's eat!"

With a round of grunts and laughs, the gathered family dug into the feast before them.

Before long, everyone had more than their fill and rested back in their chairs while allowing their stomachs to empty themselves. "Great dinner, Ma," Duo complimented with a bright smile. All around, there were giving their own praises to the chef.

"I am most impressed," Noin winked. "You've certainly come a long way, Danielle. Everything was perfect." Across the table, Trent gave a wink and nod of his own. Zechs folded his arms and appraised the hostess with a smirk.

Practically glowing, the retired firm owner nodded, "Thank you. I'm glad that it turned out so well." She rose to her feet with her plate and announced, "I'll get the dishes started while you all make some room for dessert. The lovely people at County Market spent a lot of time perfecting the pies that I picked of for that." Her guests laughed and slowly made their way into the living room.

Dorothy took up a couple places and offered, "I'll help with the dishes." Noin replied in kind as she took up a few saucers to clear away.

Once they were in the kitchen alone with the young director of law, Danielle and Noin shared a knowing look and a nod. Clearing her throat, the red-haired young woman bit her lip before saying, "Forgive us for intruding, Dorothy, but how far along are you?"

Nearly dropping the plates that she was carrying to the sink, the blonde-haired girl gasped sharply with wide eyes. Quickly regaining her composure, and balance with Danielle's help, she sputtered, "W-what? How did you figure that out?"

Noin gave a small grin and answered, "We noticed the baby sip of wine you took as not to have someone ask why you didn't drink any. Danielle and I were casting glances at each other throughout dinner to see if the other caught it."

Chuckling deeply, Dorothy shook her head in amusement. Lightly resting a hand on her flat stomach, she said in a wistful tone, "I'm about three weeks along, now. I've been waiting to find the right opportunity to tell Trowa but--"¨ Her words trailed off as she lowered her head. Frowning deeply, she sighed, "I'm afraid of how he'll react. Then there's my parents. I know they'll be less than thrilled."

Small tears filled the corners of her light blue eyes. Looking up with determination, Dorothy stated, "But, I want this baby. Even if I have to go it alone."

Lightly drying the blonde young woman's eyes, Danielle rested her hands on her shoulders and reassured her, "You won't be alone. That I can promise you."

Noin stepped in and smiled, "I've known Trowa for years. He'd never leave you to something like this on your own. And I'm sure that he'll be thrilled to know he'll be father." Gently rubbing Dorothy's back, she vowed, "You have us, as well."

Without hesitating, Danielle grinned, "That's right. If there is anything you need, don't ever hesitate to ask."

Quickly drying her eyes, Dorothy gave a watery smile and whispered, "Thank you, both. That means so much to me." Hugging them tightly, she pulled back and sighed in relief of not being the only one to know her secret.

"Just be sure to tell Trowa soon," Noin suggested. "The last thing you need is for someone else to pick up on any signs then go and congratulates him before he knows what for."

Nodding firmly, the law director replied, "I will." That said, the three young women went back to their task of cleaning the dishes. All the while, Dorothy couldn't help but smile to herself. Already, she felt like a huge burden was off her shoulders.

Even if there was a bit of a rocky road to get past yet, at least the burden of going through was a little lighter.

* * * * * *

When dessert was finished and their friends had retired for the evening, Heero and Duo headed up to bed in the Yuy-Trent half of the estate. Practically falling into bed, the neko chuckled deeply, "Man, am I stuffed. I can hardly move."

Pouting, Heero lowered himself beside his lover. "Aw. And here I was hoping for another helping of dessert," he smirked. Lightly running a hand through Duo's bangs, he said, "Would have been nice to pick up from this morning."

A deep purr rumbled from the braided teenager's throat. But it was not only from the nice feeling that Heero's touch gave him. Wrapping his arms around the other boy's neck, Duo pulled him down for a heated kiss. More than anything, he needed this. He needed to forget everything else and just be one with the person that he loved.

Hands returned to the roaming that they had began earlier that day. Clothes were slowly removed and discarded. Skin pressed tightly against skin. And the only sound filling the air were pants, moans and purrs.

Trying hard not to sound too desperate as to scare his lover, Duo gazed into his cobalt eyes and whispered in little more than a breath, "Make the world go away, Heero."

A smile tugged the Japanese teenager's lips just before he lowered himself to once more claim his love's mouth with his own. Together, they drifted into a blissful oblivion where only they existed. For that moment, there was nothing but them and the love between them.

Through it all, Duo silently prayed that it would never end.

Part 9:

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached an altitude of thirty thousand feet. At this time, you may use electronic devices with the exception of cell phones," the voice of the stewardess announced over the com.

Howard sat up and reached under his plush seat for his laptop. Lowering the try to support his computer, he removed his prescription sunglasses and replaced them with his normal spectacles. Once the computer was on, he accessed the reports and data entries that had been locked away in a safe for almost five years.

The enlarged image of a DNA strand appeared on the screen. It was from a blood test taken from Duo not long after the first noticeable changes had begun. Thankfully, Howard was able to hold onto a great deal of the three dimensional images taken. It was going to take a lot of searching to find where the flaw began so that he could work on a way to repair it.

If there was a way to repair it.

But, determined in his cause, Howard resigned himself to do whatever was needed. If it was going to take looking over every strand and every lead he had to finding what he needed to help his friend, he would see to it.

There just had to be something that could be done.

Leaning a bit in to take a look, the passenger beside him grinned, "You one of those doctors looking for a cure to cancer or something."

With a smirk, Howard answered, "Something like that." The tall man gave a small grunt and sat back in his own seat before removing the provided headphones to listen in on the in-flight movie that was being prepared.

His eyes looking back to the screen, the old scientist began typing away. Every keyed command that he gave had the strand turning left and right or moving up and down. Taking a close examination of every detail of the image, Howard told himself quietly, "Now, let's just see what we have here."

* * * * * *

Duo slowly blinked his violet eyes open when his brown cat ears twitched. Tight arms held him close to his lover's muscular chest and he sighed deeply to himself. Snuggling closer into Heero's warmth, he recalled their love making the night before.

Silently, Duo wished to just stay locked in that time to forget about the world. Now, just outside of that warm embrace, the cold reality of the world hung and waited to pull him back into its own grip.

Biting his lip, the neko knew better than to try and avoid the inevitable. There was still work to do. With Howard most likely in the air as he'd promised just the morning before, Duo needed to see that he had someone to assist him when he arrived to the States.

His heart heavy at having to leave his sleeping lover behind, the cat-tailed boy brushed back some of his long, loose hair from the side of his face and carefully eased himself out of the arms wrapped around his bare waist. Heero sighed deeply in his slumber, mumbling something as he shifted enough for the smaller teenager to move easily from the bed.

Quickly throwing on his light blue nightshirt and matching pants that had been tossed to the floor, Duo turned back to lean down and kiss his partner's lips lightly. "I love you," he whispered tenderly, his hand reaching up to lightly run fingers over a chiseled cheek bone.

A small, but warm smile tugged Heero's mouth even in sleep as he sighed deeply in content. Biting his lip, Duo's ears and tail sagged heavily when his love whispered his name reverently and leaned into his touch.

There was no time be regretting the way of what needed to be done. That in mind, Duo gathered his own laptop that had been stored under the bed. Moving silently, he stepped to the door and slipped out into the hall. Once he managed to close the door without a sound, he moved into one of the empty spare rooms and closed the door behind him.

Sitting on the bed, the neko quickly braided his hair and opened his laptop and checked his messages. A deep sigh of relief left him when he found a message from Howard responding to his email following their talk. Now, with all of the flight information, he dialed a number that he committed to memory in knowing that it would be needed.

There was a very brief wait before the screen displayed the image of a messy-haired Doctor Kushrenadah. When their eyes met, the young doctor blinked in surprise. "Duo?" he frowned in confusion.

With his cat ears drooping a bit as he winced, the braided teenager greeted, "Hello, Treize. I hope that I didn't wake you up."

The doctor shook his head and reassured him, "Not at all. I just woke a few minutes ago." Running a hand through his bed-disheveled hair, he thought aloud, "I take it this is not a social call if you would be reaching me at such an early hour. How can I help you?"

Nervously playing with his tail, Duo answered, "Well, I am trusting that anything we discuss stays confidential, right?"

His head tilting a bit at the strange question, Treize nodded and gave him a reassuring, "Of course."

Taking a deep breath, the neko took a deep breath and continued, "I found the reason for my collapse, along with a couple other things that I have notices since then. Howard, one of the scientists that had worked for Dekim Barton told me that my DNA structure is reverting back to its original state."

Eyes widening, the doctor leaned forward. "Is he certain? Every test that I had run when you were at the hospital gave no hint to something as big as this."

Duo shook his head, "It must be happening slow enough that nothing would show this early on. Howard only mentioned that something like this happening was a concern. He's pretty sure that's why I collapsed and why my nails are lengthening."

Allowing himself a moment to take the news in, Treize rubbed his chin in thought. "A slow change in your make up would explain why I was not able to find anything out of the norm. Besides that, I have to admit that with your being the only one of your kind, I might not have picked up on something odd that would have otherwise been obvious to someone that helped create you."

Sudden realization filled the blonde young man's eyes and they widened again. "You are calling for my assistance in this?" he asked.

A nervous smile tugged Duo's lips as he nodded, "I am very sorry to be asking this of you out of the blue, Treize, but Howard is flying in from Hawaii as we speak. If it is all right, I was hoping that you would be willing to work with him. Since I'll be in school in just a few days again, I could stop into the hospital if he needs any blood or other tests run."

Without hesitating, Treize nodded firmly, "Certainly. If there is any way that I might be of assistance, I'll be happy to provide it."

Rubbing his chin again, the doctor inquired, "Would you happen to know when and where he will be landing today? I could pick him up from the airport to work from my house instead of having to stay in a hotel. It would make communications between us much easier as well."

Violet eyes widening, Duo blinked in surprise, "Well, yes, I have the information on his flight. Y-you would do that? I don't know what to say."

At that, Treize waved a hand and snorted, "Just forward what you have. I'm quite honored that you feel I am trustworthy enough to help in this. To be honest, I am very excited to learn what I can, as you're quite the unique creature. What we learn can only be to my and Sally's use when it comes to caring for you."

Duo gave him a warm smile. His ears perked back up and told the good doctor sincerely, "This means a lot to me, Treize." His grin slipped a bit and he reminded, "But this stays between the three of us for the time being. The fewer people that know about this the better. That includes Sally."

His own smile fading at that, the blonde man considered a moment. Still not knowing the neko on a very personal level, he had to assume that he had his reasons for keeping this from his friends. Reluctant as he was to agree, he finally decided to treat this as any confidential discussion between doctor and patient. "This will stay just between us, then," he agreed.

Sighing deeply, Duo's shoulders sagged at the load lifted from him. "I can't thank you enough for this, Treize. I'll forward the email from Howard that I received this morning with his flight details when we disconnect."

"Then I'll be looking for that," Treize replied. "I'll contact you through email as soon as he's settled." After another word of appreciation from the braided teenager and an exchange of farewells, the call was disconnected.

Once the screen went black, Duo was quick to retrieve his email once again. Forwarding the message from Howard to the doctor's email that had been given at the end of their talk, he pressed 'Send.'

As soon as he pressed the key, a sharp pain ran up from his fingertip and shot up his arm. At the speed and intensity of the needles reaching to his shoulder, the neko gave a small cry and his other arm quickly reached over to squeeze the tensed limb against himself. Closing his eyes tightly, he bit his bottom lip hard enough that it nearly drew blood.

Panting heavily, Duo tried to open and close his right hand, but the sharpness in the entire length of his arm was so that his muscles could not loosen their iron grip. A few tears ran from the braided youth's closed eyes and he whimpered softly.

At last, after a few minutes that felt like an eternity, the pain ebbed away as if nothing had happened. Panting heavily, Duo opened his shimmering eyes. He lowered his left arm and tested the right, moving it slowly while opening and closing his hand. Satisfied that all was well, he dried his tears and wiped the sweat that had formed on his brow.

Swallowing hard, he closed the laptop and carefully slid from the bed onto his shaky legs. When he was sure that he would be able to take a step without collapsing, the long-haired boy reached back with his free hand to undo his braid as he moved from the spare room.

Quietly closing the door to the room that he and Heero had shared for the last three years, Duo slid his laptop back under the bed. Removing his nightshirt and pants, he slipped back under the comforter and lied up against his lover.

With another soft murmur, Heero reached over in his sleep and pulled his partner close to him life a security blanket. Duo purred deeply, nuzzling the side of his face against the strong chest of the other boy. The sound lulled the Japanese teenager into a deeper slumber with a small smile on his lips.

Back in his haven from it all, the neko closed his violet eyes and allowed himself to drift back to sleep, willing the dread building in him away for the time being.

* * * * * *

Rubbing his eyes, tired from staring at his laptop screen for the last straight eleven hours, Howard readjusted his glasses. As he stepped out into the main lobby of the Greyson International Airport, he made his way to baggage claim.

It had been years since he'd been in his home state. While it would have been a nice time to check out the sights and see how and if things had hanged, the retired scientist knew that he did not have any time.

While waiting for his luggage to roll out onto the conveyer belt that had begun to spin, Howard ran over the scenarios that he ran on his computer while in flight. Every situation that he could fathom had turned out just the same. His stomach churned at the memory of his findings. They were not expected and certainly not welcome.

He could hear the clock ticking as he desperately continued to try and think of a way to change the situation. And with any turn he made in the past to an answer, he wound up hitting a brick wall. The whole thing was increasingly frustrating.

"You must be Howard," a deep voice behind him spoke. Turning from where he was facing the luggage that had begun to file out, the old man looked up to find a blonde young man smiling at him. "Duo described you perfectly in the email that he sent me."

Relief filled the scientist's eyes and he smiled back, "Treize. Good to meet you." He extended his hand which was accepted in a firm shake. "Duo sent me a message, as well, informing me that you would be meeting me here. Thank you very much for your hospitality and for your assistance."

Nodding, the doctor grinned, "Don't mention it." He looked warily at the many faces gathered around the baggage claim. "Though we best discuss this further when we're not in danger of the wrong pair of ears listening in on this."

With everything that was running in his mind, Howard had never thought of the media frenzy that would stir up if word got around on Duo's condition. He was still a public interest story, and it was going to stay that way for as long as he was alive. Grateful that the young man caught onto that before he went on with what he had found in such a public space, he responded, "Yes, of course."

The doctor assisted the scientist with his luggage when the two bags were approached on the belt without another word between them. Leading the old man through the airport doors and into the parking lot to his vehicle, Treize opened the trunk door to stow the large bags.

Only when they closed the car doors behind them did either man speak. "So," the young doctor began, "Have you had a chance to eat anything decent yet, or would you like to stop somewhere for a bite somewhere before heading to my house?"

"There's no time for any of that!" Howard blurted, his eyes widening at the suggestion as if it were a horrid suggestion with everything that was going on. When Treize blinked in confusion at him, he frowned deeply and forced himself to relax before saying quietly, "I'm sorry. I just came to learn something quite distressing while I was flying here."

Concern furrowed Treize's brow as he stated, "I may regret asking this, but what have you come to find?"

Swallowing hard, Howard fixed him with a grim expression and answered, "I ran every scenario of what could happen in this reverting course that has just begun. And every time, the same result came about. The structure of the DNA is folding in on itself in such a way that we're not dealing with a simple matter of him going back into a kitten state."

He nervously glanced away before meeting the worried gaze on him before announcing in little more than a whisper, "If the chain reaction that has begun is not stopped and reversed, it is going to kill Duo"

Part 10:

Opening the door to his home, Treize stepped aside for Howard to enter. The old man went right to the table in the dining room, lowered the laptop bag on the table there while his host set down his other bags. Quickly flipping his computer open, he diligently returned to his work, typing and accessing the tests he had been studying.

Treize sat beside him, frowning deeply at the screen. "This is what I had found," Howard told him as he pulled up the three-dimensional image of thousands of DNA strands. Crisscrossing each other, each strand spun slowly.

Quickly typing a theorized situation, the retired scientist stated, "Here is a cluster of strands from a blood sample taken from Duo before he took on his last transformation to become the neko that he is today. There is a crucial element to this reverting process that led me to my conclusion that we are looking at something far graver than I first suspected."

He tapped the screen as it displayed a single strand enlarged for a closer view. As the strand continued to spin, Treize's eyes widened as he realized out loud, "It has gaps." Pointing to the holes in the 'ladder rungs' that held the two long sides together, he blinked in surprise, "It's not a whole strand to begin with."

"Exactly," Howard nodded, a deep frown of concern on his face. "It took some searching, since the flaws are pretty spread out, but they're there. And every strand has the same imperfection at different places in their lengths. Some have more frequent gaps than others, but there is not one perfect cord in the lot."

Sitting back in the wooden chair, the old man shook his head, "In order to create a neko, obviously, his very make up needed to be shifted. I had concerns that something like this would come about. I had told Dekim that there would be little chance that, even if we were successful with our experiment, that it wouldn't be flawed. He just didn't care."

At the thought of the sinister man he had once considered a friend, Howard's eyes narrowed. "All that he wanted was the credit for being the first to create a new living creature," he hissed. What became of them after the fact never mattered to him."

Treize frowned, "From what I had learned of him from the media following Duo's trial, that somehow doesn't surprise me. That man treated him like nothing more than a lab rat and came close to killing him in the process."

Once again reminded how he had left the neko behind to that monster, Howard swallowed hard. Shaking his head again, he sighed deeply, "At any rate, it appears that during the initial experiments we had run, the flaws in the DNA began.

"They just weren't able to take the strain in the change they underwent. Obviously, there was enough to keep Duo in tack for all this time, but now they're finally starting to come apart and unravel."

He zoomed back out to the original image of the thousands of strands. "All it takes is for one line to finally snap under the pressure," the scientist said quietly.

Typing a few keys, the image changed so that one of the strands in the middle of the maze crumbled. Instantly, the five around it followed, then the ten around them and on. In mere few seconds, the thousands of lines came undone, disintegrating into nothing before the screen went black.

"My God," was all that Treize could whisper, his eyes wide and his skin pale. "How much time are we looking at?"

A sunken look fell on Howard's face as he shook his head and whispered, "I don't know. Days. Weeks. Months. There is no way of knowing for certain as this is uncharted grounds. But I must try and find a way to complete the strands, make them whole as they had been before they were altered, before Duo is beyond any help."

* * * * * *

On their last night of their vacation, Heero, Duo and the friends gathered in the ice cream parlor that had become a regular hangout place since their high school days.

Even with snow on the ground outside with winter making an early start, it was the first place everyone suggested to meet at. As they talked about their experiences at their own colleges and some of their professors- both good and bad- it was just like old times.

"The break sure went quick enough," Relena sighed before taking another spoonful of her peanut butter ice cream. "I've been looking forward to this break to be around all of you again this whole semester and it's gone already."

Quatre smiled and lightly nudged her arm. "Only for a couple more weeks," he reassured her. "Then we'll have almost two months for our winter break."

Wufei stabbed his spoon into his mint sundae, glaring at it as he snorted, "Now we have finals for the semester to look forward to. I swear to God my Chemistry professor is incapable of giving any of her students anything better than a B minus." He folded his arms, still glaring at his treat and mumbled, "Miserable harpy." His friends only snickered and shook their heads in amusement.

Beside the Chinese student, Trowa smirked, "Well that sparkling personality of yours certainly won't help you any." He yelled out sharply when Wufei kicked him hard in the shin. Glaring at the now smug raven-haired teenager, he nursed his leg and commented, "Too bad Sally's not here to examine this. You probably bruised the bone."

"And I'm sure that if Dorothy was here, she would defend my actions," Wufei retorted. The two continued to verbally spar, as they always would while the others rolled their eyes and turned their attention to each other.

Heero wrapped his arm around Duo's shoulder and spoke over the arguing, "You know, we don't have to head back to our dorms first thing in the morning. It might seem childish, but we could always stay overnight at one of our houses like we used to." Gesturing to his partner, he stated, "I'm sure that our parents wouldn't mind having us over."

Brightening at the suggestion, Duo's ears and tail perked as he cheered, "That's a great idea! We can stay together as long as possible!" Both Trowa and Wufei finally ended their feud and voiced their agreement to the notion along with Relena and Quatre.

Quietly excusing himself, Heero rose from his seat and removed his cell phone from his pocket. Speed dialing his home, he only waited a couple rings before his mother's voice greeted, "Heero. I was just about to call you."

His cobalt eyes widening in surprise at the urgency in her voice the Japanese teenager frowned deeply, "Is everything all right?"

"Your professor, Lady Une, just called for you. She said it's very important that you call her back as soon as you can," Danielle answered. "I'll give you her number if you're ready to take it down."

Taking out the pen from his pant pocket that he always carried on him out of habit 'just in case,' Heero took up a napkin and wrote down the number his mother read from the caller id. "I'll give her a call as soon as we're finished here." He ran his thumb over the napkin, silently wondering the reason for his professor's call when he was going to be back in her class in just a of couple days.

He quickly remembered the reason for his call with a shake of his head and asked, "Mom, would it be all right if Quatre, Relena, Trowa and Wufei stay over for the night?"

There wasn't a moment of hesitation before Danielle exclaimed excitedly, "Of course! That's a lovely idea. I'll make sure that we have plenty of snacks and movies ready by the time you all get here."

Smiling warmly, Heero replied sincerely, "Thanks, mom. We'll be there soon, then." After a quick exchange of goodbyes, he disconnected and dialed the number etched on the napkin in his hand. While the 'phone rang, he looked back to the table and gave the violet eyes watching him anxiously a wink and nod to answer the unspoken question.

Tail swinging in the air, Duo smiled widely as he turned back to the group and told them that the sleepover was a go. Their friends quickly finished their treats before heading out to get their things for the night. On their way out, they waved to Heero, telling him that they'd be over at his house soon.

When he was the last one at the table, the braided neko rose to his feet and headed over to his lover. Just as his boyfriend reached his side, Heero straightened when the call was answered. "Hello," the familiar voice of his teacher greeted.

"Lady Une, it's Heero," the art student responded. "My mother informed me that you just called."

There was a gasp and an elated, "Oh, Heero! I simply could not wait until our next class to tell you the wonderful news!"

Duo's brown cat ears twitched towards the cell phone at the excitement in the professor's voice just before Heero held the 'phone from his ear enough that they could both listen. "Jeffrey Klein wants to meet with you next Saturday to look at the work you have done so far and discuss the Stellar Gala," Lady Une announced.

"S-Saturday!" Heero sputtered while Duo's violet eyes widened in surprise. He frowned deeply and shook his head, "But that's so soon. I don't think that I'll be ready for something like that in such a short time." The neko just held his tongue and bit his lip, even though he wanted to reassure the other boy that he was more than ready for the chance being handed to him.

Apparently, Lady Une agreed with Duo. She laughed, "Of course you'll be ready! I have total faith in you. Jeffrey is a terribly busy man, and so I wanted to be certain that you were one of the first hopefuls for his gala that he met with. All you simply have to do is meet him, talk to him about the artworks that you have made so far, and thank him for his time. Simple."

When she put it that way, it certainly seemed simple enough. But, being featured in the gala would only ensure Heero's future as an artist. The last thing that he wanted was to lose his chance before the possibility was even offered to him. In the end, whatever Lady Une- or anyone else for that matter- thought of his artwork, it all came down to what Mister Klein thought.

In a very patient and understanding tone, the art professor said, "Now, I cannot force you into this meeting, Heero. I just wanted to advise you that Jeffrey is available should you wish to try and be entered in his event. The decision is yours if you would like to go through with this and I will understand either way."

Practically bouncing on his feet, Duo was grinning from ear to ear mouthing, 'Say yes. Say yes.'

Smiling at his bouncing lover, the Japanese teenager replied, "All right. I'll meet with him." Nearly falling over when Duo threw his arms around his neck, he stumbled a bit to get his footing. His smile grew as he wrapped his free arm around the other boy's waist.

"Wonderful," Lady Une answered with a smile in her own voice. "I will call him back to confirm that the time is fine for you. We'll discuss this more after our class later this week. Enjoy the rest of your break." That said, the call ended.

Pulling back, Duo kissed Heero soundly and cried happily, "I'm so
excited for you! You're going to do great!"

Heero closed his cell phone before replacing it. Wrapping his now freed arm around the neko's waist along with the one still resting there, he warned, "We'll see, little one. Let's just try not to get our hopes up. This is no where near a guarantee that I'll be entered."

Despite himself, he smirked, "Still, it'll be nice to meet with someone that I respect so much in my field."

Lightly hitting his love in the shoulder, Duo grinned, "Exactly. Even if he doesn't accept your work, it'll be a good experience for you to learn something from him."

Heero nodded, "Well, we better get back to the house before the others beat us there." They passed the table to gather the remainder of their ice cream as he said quietly, "I can't wait to tell my mom."

* * * * * *

A black car with shaded windows pulled up to the front of Bradley Hall, a dorm just on the outskirts of the Howard University. Opening his passenger side door, Solo stepped out into the chilly air and threw his duffel bag over his shoulder.

Quickly readjusted his backwards baseball cap, the blonde teenager flinched at the deep voice from the driver seat warning him, "Be sure not to let us down again. You only have a couple of weeks to pull this off."

"Yes, sir," Solo answered, having to work hard to keep the bitterness out of his voice. With one good shove, he closed the car door. Watching the vehicle roll off into the distance, he sighed deeply in relief of at last being out of the presence of J and his henchmen.

Behind him, he heard one of his fraternity brothers call, "Hey, Solo! Good to see you, man." When he turned, the neko smiled at the four young men that quickly approached him with wide smiles on their faces.

For the briefest of moments, Solo tried to imagine that he was like any other normal student surrounded by his friends. He tried to forget what awaited him when his mission was finally over, leaving this blissful reprieve behind.

One of the 'brothers' gave a welcoming slap on the shoulder. Biting his tongue to keep from screaming when the touch irritated the half dozen puncture wounds there, Solo just nodded firmly in greeting.

"What's the matter, man?" the brunette asked in concern. "Duo caught your tongue?" It was just one of the many jabs that were commonplace amongst them to take shots at the neko by using his name in place of the word 'cat' whenever possible. The four teenagers laughed at the joke.

A smirk tugged the right side of Solo's mouth as he muttered, "Not for long." Shifting the weight of his bag, he was reminded once more of his aching joints and sensitive skin that was still healing from his return to the lab. His smile growing, he nodded, "I'm fine. It's just been a long trip."

The redhead of the bunch grinned, "Well, get settled back in and we'll meet you in the cafeteria for dinner in an hour." The group waved their brief farewells before heading out.

Gazing on his dorm, Solo chuckled deeply to himself. "It's good to be back," he said softly, not allowing himself to dwell on his own words too much. Before long, life would return to the way it'd been before he was sent out on this mission.

Hell was waiting for him. At least now, he would be satisfied in dragging down a certain neko into the flames with him.

TBC