9-27-2006

DISCLAIMER: I do not own Gunman Wing, nor its characters. I just love playing with them.

Title: Life Goes On
Parts 11-20/29
Pairings: Eventual 1x2, 3XR, 4XD, 5XS
Warnings: Neko-fic, AU, ANGST., sap, possible lime
BY: SkyLark
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

 

Part 11

The Wayne University cafeteria filled up quickly with the students returning from their break. Solo reunited with his friends at the table that was all but reserved for them. Just one of the perks in being part of a fraternity.

As he took his seat, the blonde neko fell into the conversation that was already taking place between his 'brothers.' It was one of the usual points of interest, talking about their peers walking in and making comments about the ones they knew-few of those comments were ever flattering. After all, there were not many people better than they were.

Part of being with the 'in crowd' was making it known to everyone else you are the 'in crowd.' Nothing drew people in more than that declaration. By simply saying that you're the top dog, people will believe it and make it so.

It was a fascinating thing to Solo to witness. So much of his short college experience intrigued him, but that was one of the biggest surprises. Civilization certainly was a wonderful, fascinating thing.

Eric, the 'brother' to his right, suddenly growled deeply, "There he is." Looking up, Solo watched as Duo entered the cafeteria. A few cheerful shouts of the braided teenager's name filled the air and he waved back at some of his own friends excitedly, his tail swinging behind him. With a sort, the red-haired jock hissed, "What a freak. I can't believe that he actually has people that want to be friends with him."

Nods from the others followed along with a few muttered comments about the cat-eared boy. All the while, Solo just kept his eyes on his target- as he would whenever they were in the same room together.

Having a new role to play, the blonde neko warned in a quiet growl, "Let it go."

All around the table, backs stiffened and eyes widened. Mike, sitting across from Solo shook his head in disbelief, "I know that you didn't just say what I think you said." His blue eyes narrowed, "Why the hell should we leave that little bastard alone?" Eric, Stanley and the usually quiet Tim all voiced their own harsh words.

Solo had expected the frustration that was directed at him. When he first entered the school, he specifically sought after students who were already voicing their disgust in attending the same classes as a neko, a freak of nature.

Once he found these four, and made it clear that he despised the cat-tailed boy ever bit as much as they did, Solo was brought into the group easily. The whole reason for his acceptance within the tight unit was because they all shared the same loathing for one particular person.

That hatred was stemmed from two major factors. First, the obvious reason, was the simple fact that Duo was different. And in school, students looked for such a mark. A mark that the majority of the student body would agree was not fit to be among them.

Status was everything in school. The more that you could make someone else look bad in other people's eyes, the better you looked in the end.

In Duo's case, however, he was never one to lack any friends or popularity. This was the second reason for the seething ire amongst Solo's band of brothers- the only reason that they shared in common, but for different reasons.

Jealousy.

Despite all of his obvious differences, Maxwell was one of the most popular students in the school. That sort of attention normally went to guys like Eric, Stanley, Tim and Mike as a whole group. Instead, the attention was drawn to a single person- the one person who should have been an easy victim at their hands. It was infuriating.

Solo knew that he would have some explaining to do even before he announced his 'change in heart.' Fortunately, he had already come up with a reason that he certainly hoped would be believable.

The last thing that he wanted was to have this lot's disgust turned on him. They were still popular enough as a group and also had a lot of pull when it came to getting what they wanted. He felt his neck tighten as he swallowed.

"Look, I'm about to fail three of my classes," Solo announced, glaring back as his friends. "They happen to be the same ones that Maxwell is in. As much as I hate the idea, I have to try and get him to help me. I am not looking forward to having to be nice to the guy at all, but it'll be better than having to explain three F's to my parents. So, I would appreciate it if you'd all just back off of him for a while for my sake."

There was a long pause at the table before Eric finally cleared his throat and nodded, "All right, Solo. We'll play nice for your sake." Mike, Tim and Stanley all nodded their own promise to do the same.

With an inward sigh of relief, Solo smiled, "Thanks, guys. Remember, this is only our first semester. We'll have plenty of time to get Maxwell."

At that, Tim straightened with a spark of realization in his grey eyes. "Keeping him close will only set him up for a bigger fall when we finally do get him," he grinned. Just the thought of that had Eric, Stanley and Mike chuckling deeply as they nodded to each other.

'If only they all knew how big a fall he's in for,' Solo thought to himself. A lop-sided smirk tugged his own lips.

This was certainly a lot easier than first anticipated. Now, if only everything else would just go according to plan.

* * * * * *

Staring at the closed door with the metallic apartment number '2B' staring back at him, Solo sighed deeply. He had been standing there like that for at least ten minutes, wondering how on earth he was going to pull this off. This first big step was something he had dreaded the moment he knew that he would have to change his tactics.

There was simply no other way. If there was any hope for himself or his friends to survive the inevitable, Solo had to carry this out. With that resolve, he finally raised a fist to knock on the door.

From inside, the computer operated lock was undone and the doorknob turned to be pulled inward. With the door partly opened, Heero Yuy met his gaze, his cobalt eyes widening at the initial surprise in seeing who was visiting. The moment was gone in an instant, replaced by a warning glare and a less than pleasant, "Solo."

It was only the third time that the blonde neko had seen Heero Yuy. The two times before that were just in passing on the weekend when they happened to be in town at the same time. Since Solo and Duo were not on the best of terms back then, there were no words spoken between them and they quickly went on their merry ways while ignoring each other.

Obviously, the brief run-ins were enough for Heero to remember the face of someone that was less than pleasant towards his lover.

The tightening in Solo's throat returned when he tried to swallow. With a firm nod, he greeted, "Heero. Is Duo in?"

Folding his muscular arms across his chest, the Japanese teenager replied coldly, "Maybe. Where are your other friends?"

"I came alone," the slightly smaller teenager answered, his frown deepening. "Listen, I know that you must not think very highly of me for the things that I've done to Duo." A dark eyebrow raised at that comment. Before the other boy could say whatever was on his tongue, Solo quickly added, "But I came to apologize."

Again, those cobalt eyes widened before glaring once more. With a cautious glance down either end of the hallway, Heero sighed deeply before stepping back. "Come in," he finally offered, keeping a close watch on his guest as he entered the apartment.

Closing the door, Heero never took his gaze off the possible threat as he called towards the bedroom, "Duo, someone's here to see you."

Solo swallowed a couple more times, shifting on his feet uncomfortably at having those eyes on him. It reminded him too much of being back in his cell, where he knew he was being watched constantly.

The sound of footsteps reached his ears and turning, the blonde looked up just as Duo entered the room. Freezing in his spot at the first glance of his 'visitor,' the braided teenager gasped sharply, "Solo."

Heero took a step closer to their guest, but finally shifted his eyes to his partner's. Cobalt locked with violet land a silent conversation began.

Before long, the blonde neko could interpret what was being 'said' by glancing back and forth between the pair. Heero was making it known that he wouldn't hesitate to show Solo out if it was what his Duo wanted. And Duo was reluctantly allowing a moment to know what was going on. With that, the Japanese student stood down- moving back a couple steps but remaining close enough jump to his partner's air if needed.

The whole thing was almost... endearing.

Taking a deep breath, Duo turned back to his visitor and nodded firmly, "Solo. This is a little unexpected."

A bit of the discomfort that Solo felt ebbed in seeing just how awkward the moment was for the other neko. Lowering his shoulders a bit, he nodded, "I'm sorry to have come unannounced, but I didn't exactly want to discuss this over the phone since it's pretty personal."

Duo tilted his head a bit, blinking in surprise. "All right," he said after a moment of obvious surprise. He gestured to the sofa deeper in the living room and offered, "Please, sit down." He cast Heero another look that told him he could handle it from there, but to not go too far.

The unruly-haired teenager simply nodded and stepped into the adjoining kitchen, disappearing behind the wall. Soon, the sound of running water and plates clanking together filled the air in an obvious sign that Heero was busying himself with the dishes.

As soon as the weight of those cobalt eyes were off of him, Solo was able to breathe more easily. Taking his seat, he waited until the other neko sat on the other end of the couch. He fought the urge to pull his tail from its confinement to fiddle with it, settling instead on rubbing his hands together as he considered his words.

"I came to apologize for the way that I've been behaving," the blonde teenager announced quietly. He turned his head away as not to have to see what he assumed would be gleeful satisfaction in those violet eyes in hearing such a thing from him.

The last thing Solo wanted was for the one person he came to despise more than any other silently boasting over the fact that he had somehow bested him into saying that he was sorry.

His head still lowered, he continued, "It was very childish of me, but in fact I am quite jealous of you." Surely, that comment would have put a smug grin on the other boy's face. The fact that he was saying such a thing was making Solo sick to his stomach. At least it made it easier for him to act sincerely troubled.

Repeating the script he had practiced to himself, Solo concluded, "I hope that you can forgive me for the things that I've said and done. And I really do hope that we might be able to become friends."

As he bit back the scream that wanted to erupt from him, the blonde neko slowly raised his head to meet gaze watching him. What he found there made him stiffen in shock. Instead of smugness, or anything of the sort, there was only astonishment and almost hopefulness in those widened violet eyes.

Blinking in disbelief, Duo whispered, "Y-you're jealous of me? Why on earth would you be jealous of me?"

Quickly recovering from his own surprise, Solo shrugged, "Well, you're only the most popular guy in the whole university. People are drawn to you, even though you're so different from all of us."

With a bright smile that was warm and friendly, Duo shook his head, "But you're pretty popular, yourself. There's no need to be jealous of me. My life certainly isn't as easy as it might appear sometimes." He tilted his braided head again and grinned, "Thank you for the apology. And thank you for coming here to give it in person. It shows how much you mean it. Forgiven and forgotten."

From inside the kitchen, the sudden sound of a glass shattering made the two nekos jump. "Sorry!" Heero's voice called. "Plate slipped!" Duo rolled his eyes and smirked, knowing perfectly well that his lover had much more grace than that when taking care of the dishes.

With a smile forced to appear sincere, Solo turned back to face his gullible target. "Thank you, Duo. This means a lot to me." He extended a hand and asked, "Friends."

Easily accepting the hand with his own, Duo nodded, "Friends."

Another crash sounded from the kitchen followed by Heero's shouting, "Damn plates!" The braided neko sighed deeply to himself and shook his head.

Not wanting to press his luck by asking for favors right away, especially with an obviously unconvinced listener present, Solo rose from the sofa. "I better get going," he stated as he looked to his watch. "We have our early class with Doctor Clarkson tomorrow. You know how she loves pop quizzes."

Duo chuckled deeply, "Yea. I was just refreshing myself for that before you came." He rose and patted Solo on the back with a friendly, "See you tomorrow then."

Passing by the kitchen on the way out, Solo peeked in to find his 'friend's' lover kneeling on the floor with a dust pan and brush, as he cleaned up hundreds of tiny glass shards. "Good seeing you, Heero." He was answered with a heated glare and a deep grunt before the dark-haired boy returned to his chore.

Once Solo closed the front door behind him, Duo knelt across from his partner and assisted in the cleaning. "Did you have to make it so obvious that you were listening in?" he mock scolded with a smirk.

"I think you're way too trusting of that guy, Duo," Heero commented, raising his head so that he could show how worried he was. "Just before the break, he and his friends were giving you a hard time. Why the sudden change, unless he's after something? A favor of some kind maybe."

Biting his lip, Duo had to admit that he already thought the same thing. "Maybe," he nodded. "But for now, I'd like to believe that he's being sincere. Better to make friends than enemies, right?"

Unable to argue that, the Japanese teenager nodded, "Fair enough. I won't mother you in this, but I will just ask that you be careful. Deal?"

Together, they threw away the last shards of glass and Duo wrapped his arms tightly around his lover. Kissing his lips soundly, he grinned, "Deal. I'm going to get back to my studying." With his tail swinging lazily behind him, he stepped from the room.

Looking back to the front door, Heero frowned deeply to himself. Shaking his head, he muttered, "Very interesting turn of events."

 

Part 12

Professor G looked to his watch and turned away from the chalkboard that he had been writing on. With a small smile, he nodded to his students, "That concludes today's lesson. I certainly hope that you took good notes since there will be parts of this class featured in your final exam in two weeks."

There was a low roll of grumbling from the students that he'd expected such a response from. Even if they had been good enough to actually pay attention in class that early afternoon, it would take a miracle for them to score high enough on the exam to pass the course. He smirked, "See you all on Thursday."

As the students gathered their books and backpacks to file from the room, the long-nosed professor grinned to his prized pupil, "Very good to see you're back, Mister Maxwell. I certainly hope that you are feeling better after that episode before the break."

Wincing, Duo glanced in the direction of Solo and his friends in anticipation of the snickers and comments of 'Teacher's pet' that they would normally give in such a situation. He was pleasantly surprised that it seemed as though they didn't even acknowledge the sentiment.

The lot simply finished gathered their things and on the way out, the blonde teenager actually grinned and nodded to the neko in a friendly gesture. The same had happened at the end of all of the classes they shared in common since school returned to session the day before.

His violet eyes blinking in shock, the braided boy turned back to face the equally surprised teacher and smiled, "Thank you, Professor G. It's really nice to be back. Those days of bed rest were killing me."

Chuckling deeply, the old man shook his head in amusement, "I had expected as much from you. I've never known a student to want to learn as much as you do. It's a very refreshing change from the young men and women I am used to dealing with. You actually remind me of myself when I was your age."

He lost the slightly wistful and proud look on his face and asked, "Did Christine get the notes from the classes that you had missed? Besides the two of you, there are only a couple others that actually take notes and listens when I teach. So, I knew she was the best person to bring you up to speed."

Duo nodded, "Yes, thank you. I already went read through them and they're very detailed, so I'll be prepared for the exam along with everyone else."

"Very good," Professor G grinned. "A good rest of the day to you, then."

His smile growing, the neko nodded his braided head, "Same to you, Professor." With that, he stepped from the classroom and out into the long hallway.

Just outside the door, Solo pushed off of the wall that he had been leaning against. "Hey, Duo," he greeted when their eyes met. "I was hoping to have a minute to talk to you, if you're not busy."

Having to ease his shoulders that tensed at the initial sight of the blonde teenager while reminding himself of Solo's apology and request of a truce, Duo gave a tentative smile. "Sure," he replied. "That was my last class for the day, so I was headed to the cafeteria for lunch."

Physically easing at that, Solo readjusted his backwards baseball cap and grinned, "Great. I was headed there, myself, so we could talk on the way there." They fell into step together, side-by-side, as the slightly taller student began with a clearing of his throat, "Listen, I was kind of hoping that maybe you wouldn't mind helping me out with something."

Duo froze in place, turning to the fraternity boy with a mild glare. "I knew it," he frowned deeply. "Your whole apology and saying that you wanted to be my friend was just because you want something from me. Must be a pretty big deal if you even went as far as to get your buddies to play nice these last couple days."

With his jaw dropping, Solo's eyes widened. He never planned on having the other neko catch onto him so quickly. From their discussion the night before classes resumed, he thought to have had Duo wrapped around his finger. Silently cursing himself for selling his enemy short, he shook his head, "No, that's not true." He winced at the glare that heated on him and finally admitted, "Well not entirely."

Sighing deeply, Duo started off again with an almost sad, "Goodbye, Solo."

Quickly running to keep up, the taller neko cried, "Wait! I honestly do want to be friends with you, Duo. But, yes, I do need your help." When he managed to keep up the hasty pace that the braided student set, Solo continued, "I am going to fail three of the classes that we have together. I have to do well on these final exams if I'm going to pass and you're the only person that I can turn to for help. My parents are going to kill me if I return home with even one F as a final grade."

"And what about this 'friendship' deal," Duo asked bitterly, peering out of the corner of his violet eye. "What happens to that after you've used my help and you pass the exams? You just go right back to your old ways and give me a hard time?"

Once again shaking his head, Solo all but pleaded, "Tell me what I have to do to prove that I won't. Just say it."

For a moment, Duo considered as he slowed in his steps until he came to a stop. Turning his braided head to meet the brown eyes watching him, he smirked, "All right. Just stick with me." His long tail curled in anticipation as the blonde boy followed with a curious and almost worried look.

Entering the cafeteria, the brown fur on Duo's ears perked up along with them as he scanned the large room. At finding the two people he had been seeking, he smirked to himself and gathered a tray. Solo followed his lead and they went about getting their meals. When they reconnected, the cat-tailed boy led his 'new friend' to the table that he had spotted.

With a sharp gasp, the blonde teenager stopped a few tables short and whispered, "Not there. You don't really mean for us to sit with them, do you?"

At the table just ahead of them, two of the school's social lepers sat together. Both wearing glasses and with a book opened for them to read as they ate, the two students ignored the ruckus going on around them. Chad Gabriel and Beth Robinson were just two of the school 'nerds' that very few of their peers ever troubled themselves with when it came to actually giving them any attention.

To be associated with the likes such as they were was stature suicide at Wayne. That was, unless, you were Duo Maxwell. The braided neko would befriend any and everyone, including those that the majority of their classmates cast aside. From the top of the status ladder to the very bottom, Duo befriended them all.

Duo turned to Solo and grinned, "Of course with them. If you're going to be friends with me, you're going to be friends with everyone I'm friends with." He raised an eyebrow and commented, "You said to name what it would take to prove that you're sincere. This just the start."

'The start!?' Solo's mind screamed.

Swallowing hard, the blonde neko stared at the pair at the table and whimpered, "But Chad Gabriel and Beth Robinson?" He cast a look to the table across of room that he and his fraternity brothers normally shared.

Just Solo's luck, the four of them were all present, watching him with wide eyes and slack jaws in watching their 'brother' being reduced to sitting in the 'nerd' section of the cafeteria. He narrowed his brown eyes and cast them a threatening glare that sent them quickly turning back to their meals. Unfortunately, many other students were staring at him with the same shock. Frat boys just never socialized with anyone 'beneath' their status.

Duo had certainly named one hell of a test. And from his words, this was only the beginning.

His cat ears twitching in waiting, Duo smirked, "Problem?"

Solo was quick to reply, while turning his head back to his captor, "Of course not. It's just that they're... well... they're ne-"

"They're brilliant," Duo cut him off before he could finish the harsh term. His tone remained sharp in a way of warning not to use such words to describe his friends. "Chad is one of the best business students that Wayne has ever had in its existence. Beth is going to be a very important in the world of medicine when she's finished with her studies and might even cure diseases one day. And they're two of the nicest people that you'll ever meet."

A mischievous smirk tugged the neko's lips again as he asked, "Now, are you going to join us or not?"

Slowly closing his brown eyes, Solo took a deep breath. He willed himself to not think about the eyes that he could still feel on him and with a firm resolve, he moved towards the table first. Duo smiled to himself and followed close behind. All around, gasps and whispers spread amongst the students present when the blond frat boy took the seat beside Chad.

Looking up from his book, his short-cropped brown hair swaying and his glasses reflecting the light in his movement, Chad's green eyes widened with a gasp. "S-Solo," he breathed in a frightened voice. Beth, blonde head snapped up at that, her own blue eyes widening in shock when she looked to one of the brutes that was well known for his insults directed at her and her less than popular friends.

Duo took his seat beside Beth and with a warm smile told them, "Hey, guys. Solo expressed his interest to have lunch with us this afternoon. I hope that the two of you don't mind."

Both Chad and Beth looked from Duo then to each other. With a nervous smile, Chad nodded to their new guest, "Sure. That'd be fine." The pair closed their books and began a lively conversation with their cat-eared friend while Solo stared down at his tray and tried to enjoy his food. Every swallow was forced roughly.

Time went by agonizingly slow for Solo as he listened to the discussion going on at the table for a short while. Through the haze of his wishing to crawl into a hole and die, he heard Beth say, "I think I found a way to get back at my neighbors for the loud music that they refuse to turn down every night."

His interest captured by the start of that story, Solo gazed up to the blonde girl as she grinned, "I poured a concoction that I created in my lab class that looks and acts like baby powder at the base of their door and took a hair dryer to it to pour up into the room and fall over everything and everyone inside." [1]

In shock that a nerd would have been capable of such a clever prank, Solo found himself laughing along with Chad and Duo. "You didn't!" the blonde young man exclaimed. "Why didn't the whole school hear about it by now? Nothing that good stays quiet around here for long."

A pleased look fell on Beth's face at finding that Solo was actually listening and participating in the discussion. "Well, two things," she answered. "First, if they had reported what I did to the RA, they would have had to admit that they were being far too loud for me to have to take action. And second, the concoction only stays for a few minutes before it evaporates completely without damaging anything. They thought it was so cool that I could do such a thing that we called a truce."

Never one to turn down the chance to prank someone himself, Solo found it amazing to hear that a nerd was capable of such a thing. He actually smiled, "How did you manage to make such a thing?" Duo grinned widely at the earnest interest that the frat boy was giving his friends.

Beth's smile grew as she answered excitedly, "Well, it's actually not as difficult as you would think. See, I just took some galvanized salt, sulfuric acid¡K" As she went on, Solo rested his head on a hand that he had propped up and took in her words with great curiosity.

By the end of their lunch together, the blonde neko was grinning from ear-to-ear at the unexpectedly good time that he'd had. As Beth and Chad left and gave their farewells, Duo smiled to Solo. "Well, you've just earned yourself one night's worth of tutoring," he announced.

Taking up his backpack, the braided teenager moved from the table and called over his shoulder, "Does six o'clock work for you tonight? My place?" As impressed as he was with Solo's performance during lunch, Duo was nowhere near comfortable enough to meet with him unless it was on his own terms. He smirked, "No offense, but just judging from the way you goof off in class, you're going to need as much help as you can get for the exams so be better get started soon."

Solo laughed and threw his napkin at the other boy. "Thanks a lot," he smirked back. Duo laughed and just managed to dodge the thrown, rolled up ball of paper. "Yea," he smiled. "Six would work great. Thanks, Duo."

With a wave, the long-tailed student turned and headed from the cafeteria. Checking the message that he had on his cell phone that he had forgotten to turn back on, he frowned at the urgency in Howard's voice as he said, "Duo, Treize and I need to meet with you at his place as soon as possible."

A quick look at his watch showed that Duo had just enough time to catch the next bus that would get him to the address that was on Treize's business card. All but running, he headed for the bus stop.

* * * * * *

Tears stung Duo's eyes as he looked away from the screen that showed the results of the blood test run from the small sample that Treize had drawn from him at his arrival. After the explanation that he was given by the scientist and doctor at what he was looking at compared to the DNA strands from the blood work results taken from him before his transformation, the outlook was very grim.

Swallowing hard, Duo breathed, "Dying. I-I didn't think that it would be this bad." But the evidence was right in front of him. The strands of his DNA were losing more and more rungs in their structure compared to what they were missing in the initial test.

Howard closed his laptop and knelt before the braided neko with tears in his own eyes as he whispered, "Nether did I at first, my boy. Fortunately, the deterioration is going rather slowly for the time being. If and when it will suddenly pick up before we are able to do anything about it, I just don't know."

With a deep frown of concern on his face, Treize walked up to his patient and rested a hand on his shoulder, "We thought that it was only right to let you know." He bit his lip before saying, "I think, in all fairness, that it's only right that Heero be told about this, too."

"He's right, Kit," Howard nodded, his frown saddening all the more. "That boy loves you. He doesn't deserve to have this kept from him any longer."

Tears ran down the Duo's face as he nodded. His thoughts running together in a way that he couldn't begin to sort them out, he finally heard himself reply quietly, "You're right. Thank you for telling me. I better get back to the apartment now, before Heero gets back from his last class." Howard and Treize nodded while reassuring him that they would do everything in their power to save him.

As he headed back to bus stop, Duo dried his eyes and sighed deeply while resolving himself to what he needed to do-what he dreaded having to do.

He had to tell Heero.

[1] I actually went to college with a girl that did this, of course it was with actual baby powder to teach her neighbors to quiet down! It was awesome!!!

 

Part 13

Solo closed his book and yawned widely. From within his shirt, he could feel his tail aching to stretch along with the rest of his body as he raised his arms overhead. It'd been a long day and after a couple hours of studying, he was worn out despite the early hour of the evening.

Raising his arm to glance at his watch, the blonde neko commented, "I better get going and see about dinner." When he looked over to his tutor, he found him staring off again. It was only the second time the other boy looked so distracted during their lesson, but it was enough to draw attention to it.

"You all right, Duo?" Solo heard himself asking, his head tilting a bit.

As if waking from a dream, his braided instructor shook his head. With a sheepish expression, Duo met the brown eyes watching him and replied, "Yea. Sorry, just a few things on my mind. We probably should call it a night. You're getting a good handle on what we worked on tonight."

Much as he hated to admit it, Solo had to agree that the way Duo had explained things to him made a lot more sense of what he'd been taught in Misses Tishim's class. Even when he was listening in her class, he couldn't make sense of what she was saying.

Law certainly never intrigued him. However, he was actually starting to see how someone could become interested in the field now.

Putting his books into his backpack, Solo rose from his chair at the living room table and asked, "Same time, same place tomorrow, then?"

Duo gave him a mischievous smirk and shrugged, "If you earn it." At the almost nervous look that he was rewarded, he laughed, "You're finished with your classes before noon tomorrow, right?"

Almost worried to answer honestly, Solo resolved himself to enduring whatever his next test would be. Nothing could have been worse than what he had endured at the cafeteria that afternoon.

Then again, when he really thought about it, he had to admit that the experience with Beth and Chad was nowhere near as bad as he'd imagined such a thing would be.

With a deep breath, Solo finally nodded, "Yea."

"Great. So am I," the braided neko grinned from ear-to-ear, his tail swaying excitedly and his ears perking. "Meet me in the gymnasium at twelve thirty."

Solo knew by the look on the other teenager's face that he was not about to reveal what he had in store for him. Deciding that it was probably for the best, instead of having him dwell on it until it actually came, he replied, "All right. Twelve thirty, then."

Just as the blonde was about to head out, the door opened before him to reveal Heero. When their eyes met, both widened in surprise, a deafening silence fell on the room. Glancing over to his lover with a looming question in his cobalt eyes, the unruly-haired art student waited patiently for the answer.

"Hey, Heero," Duo grinned. "Perfect timing. I just finished tutoring Solo for the night." Those deep blue eyes blinked in shock just as the said blonde neko ducked and hurried past Heero with a hasty 'good night.'

Stepping into the room as the door slid closed behind him, the Japanese teenager repeated, "Tutoring?" Heero shook his head and frowned deeply, "So he was after something all along with his little act, just as I had thought, and you're still helping him out?"

A smirk of his own tugged Duo's lips as he commented, "Oh, not without having a little fun." His best friend raised a dark eyebrow for an explanation. "I'm going to make him earn each lesson. Today, for example, I made him enjoy a nice lunch in our busy cafeteria with Chad, Beth and myself. His goons were all there to watch first-hand, too."

Heero laughed loudly at the image of that. He had the pleasure of meeting both Beth and Chad on several occasions. While they were both good people and he enjoyed their company, he knew the cruel stereotype placed on them. For Solo to have actually agreed to sit with them in the presence of his classmates only proved how desperate he was to endure the harassment that he was sure to get from his friends.

The braided neko's smile grew as he said, "And wait until he finds out tomorrow that he's signing up for the Glee Club to sing with them at the campus Christmas party. No self-respecting frat boy would ever sign on for choir, or associate with anyone who did."

Knowing the truth of that, Heero's laughter bubbled out all the more. He shook his head in amusement, "You clever little devil. I never knew you had it in you. Damn, I just wish I could be there to see his face when that happens."

When he peered to the clock just above the television set, the Japanese art student winced, "Sorry I'm so late. My discussion with Lady Une to prepare me for my interview this weekend went a lot longer than expected." Sighing deeply, he muttered, "As if I wasn't nervous enough about this meeting before she drilled me just now."

At the mention of the upcoming meeting with one of art's elite promoters, Duo frowned deeply. He'd almost completely forgotten about the whole thing. He supposed that when one learned that they were dying they tended to forget a lot of other things that were going on in their lives.

"Duo?" Heero's concerned voice called through the haze of his drifting thoughts. Blinking his violet eyes, he returned to the present just as his lover ran a hand lightly through his long bangs and asked, "Are you all right?"

The dread building inside him was enough for Duo to find no comfort in the light touch. Not even a purr rumbled from his chest. Swallowing hard, he plowed ahead into the storm. "There's something that I need to tell you," he heard himself whisper, his head lowered as he studied the floor.

His concern only growing, Heero nodded firmly, "All right." With a hand on the small of the neko's back, he gently urged him towards the couch. Once they were seated beside each other, his stomach tightened in finding that Duo had yet to look up at him.

It was painfully obvious that whatever it was that needed to be said was not about to be pleasant for either of them.

Placing a finger under his lover's chin, Heero urged his braided head up to force their eyes to meet and reassured, "Duo, whatever it is, you know you can talk to me." He gave small smile and shrugged, " Whatever it is you have to say, we'll get through it together-just like we've gotten over everything we've already been through. Just tell me what's wrong."

Together. That word stuck out and ingrained itself in Duo's mind. While their helping each other throughout their ordeals before always saw them through, it might not be enough this time.

Small tears prickled the corner of the neko's violet eyes as he began in little more than a whisper, "Back when I collapsed, before the break…" He licked his lips and continued, "When I came to in the hospital. Remember how I hurt myself?"

A shudder ran through Heero's body in recalling the incident. Running into the room to find his lover's inner arm cut and bleeding as it was certainly wasn't something he was about to forget anytime soon. No more than he'd forget the helplessness and terror in his best friend's eyes as he tried desperately to free himself from what he thought was his cell at the lab that he had been created in.

With a rough swallow, Heero nodded, "I remember."

Nervously chewing the inside of his cheek, Duo summoned up the last of his courage to raise and opened his balled fists that were resting in his lap to reveal the nails that had been quickly growing all day. Where before he could have gone a day or so before having to file them down, they were returning more rapidly and were beginning to curve when left along long enough.

Gasping sharply at the sight of the nails, Heero's eyes widened as he reached up to take the trembling hands into his own. "Duo," he breathed, looking back up into the reddening eyes before him. He frowned deeply and shook his head and thought aloud, "I should have thought more into that incident to wonder how you managed to hurt yourself like that. I was just so relieved when Treize and Sally announced that you were fine that…"

Sudden realization filled the Japanese youth's cobalt eyes and they widened once more. "But you knew," he spoke just as the thought came to him. "This whole time, you knew," he frowned deeply. His brown furrowed as a glare formed on his features.

"I would have noticed something like this over the last two weeks," Heero growled deeply. "Which only means that you've been hiding these," he emphasized by raising the nails closer to his lover's face. Duo whimpered, tears rolling freely down his face as his tall ears and tail sunk. "So what do these mean?" the taller boy demanded. "You wouldn't have gone through so much effort to keep this from me if you didn't know what it meant."

His body shaking, the braided neko bit back another whimper and answered in little more than a breath, "I-It's the s-start of a reverting process that the professors who made me thought might come about eventually. I c-called on one for help."

Everything in Heero's vision went red as he shot forward to grip the smaller teenager's shoulders to shake him. As he brought their faces close, he shouted, "So you could go to them but you couldn't come to me with this! Damn it, Duo, I thought after everything between us, I thought that you could come to me with anything! Why? Why on earth did you keep something like this from me?"

Lowering his head, Duo sniffled and shook his head, "I didn't want to upset you."

At that, Heero rose from the couch and yelled, "And I shouldn't be even more upset by the fact that you hid the truth from me on top of what's happening? How many other people knew about this before you told me?"

When his lover looked up at him with wide, wet eyes but could not find his voice as his mouth opened and closed, the art student leaned down until their noses almost touched and bellowed, "How many!?"

Finally finding his voice, Duo answered brokenly, "Only Treize and Howard, the doctor that I called. I swear no one else knows." A sharp sob escaped him as he fell to his knees to wrap his arms around his partner's waist, crying, "I'm so sorry, Heero! Please don't be mad with me! I-I wanted to tell you, but I didn't know how! I never meant to hurt you!"

Anything else that Duo wanted to say was lost as he fell cried uncontrollably. His whole world was falling apart around him as he clung desperately to the only person that kept him from shattering along with it all. While he could not blame the anger directed at him, the grim and bitter realization that his actions had so badly hurt the person that he loved was tearing him in two.

There was a long pause before Heero finally released the air that he had been holding in his lungs since his lover hung tightly to him. Gazing down to the trembling neko, seeing and feeling how distraught he was over the whole ordeal, his own heart broke. There was still anger and disappointment, but he knew that that would pass. It was obvious that the smaller boy was deeply sorry for his deceit.

Very slowly, Heero reached up to run his hand over the braided head buried against his torso as Duo sobbed. As he continued to caress the long hair, he bit his lip and whispered, "I'm sorry for yelling like that. It's just… I don't like the fact that you felt like you couldn't come to me with something like this."

Carefully loosening the arms around his waist, the Japanese teenager lowered himself to his own knees. With one hand, he gently raised Duo's lowered head until their eyes met once more while his other hand soothingly wiped the fallen tears away from that heart-shaped face. His brown ears and tail still drooped, the neko frowned deeply with a wavering voice that breathed, "I'm so sorry, Heero."

"It's all right," his partner nodded, the sincerity heavy in his own voice, "I forgive you." Taking a deep breath, Heero resolved himself to the real problem at hand and sighed, "Now, I take it that if both Treize and this Howard know about the reverting process that is going on, they're both working together on solving it?"

Biting his lip, Duo nodded, "Howard has been at Treize's place since this last weekend. He flew out here as soon as I contacted him."

Pleasantly surprised that a scientist from the neko's past would go so out of his way to help the situation, Heero blinked his widened cobalt eyes. Before he could even voice the next question, his braided lover reassured him, "We can trust Howard, Heero. He left his work and Dekim's lab when his conscience over the reasons for my creation got the better of him."

Concern built back up in Heero's chest at the realization that Duo was still avoiding what Treize and Howard had actually found. With it evident that he would have to spell out what he wanted to hear, he came out and asked, "And what is the prognosis that they've come to? There is a way of keeping you from reverting back to your cat state, right? There has to be." Even he heard the desperation dripping from his voice at the last statement.

Just when the last of his tears had been dried, more sprung into Duo's violet eyes at that. The sight of them made Heero stiffen. "They're trying to stop it, Heero," the smaller teenager answered quietly. "But if they can't find a way to do so soon enough, I…" his voice failed him as his mouth opened and closed. Having to force sound from his throat, he announced abruptly, "I'm dying, Heero."

There was a long silence at those words. His cobalt eyes wide with small tears slowly filling them, he shook his head and murmured, "No. You can't be." Knowing better than to try and find a way of answering him verbally, Duo sniffled and rested his head against his love's strong shoulder as the trembling overtook both of them.

Firmly holding the neko against him, Heero whispered through the tears rolling down his face, "God, this can't be happening." For a long moment, they just clung to each other and willed the rest of the world to go away and just let them be.

Lightly pulling Duo away from him so their watery gazes met, Heero told him with all of the determination he could muster, "We're going to get through this. Somehow. I'm not about to lose you now or ever."

In seeing the resolve in those deep blue eyes, Duo couldn't help but give a small smile and nod. If there were anything that could be done to save him, he knew that Heero would see to it. He couldn't allow himself to give up now. Not when there was still a chance.

And so long as he was still alive, there was a chance.

* * * * * *

Sally looked up at the ringing of her vidphone. Stepping over to the center of the living room where it sat on the table there, she opened the small screen and answered the call. When the face of the caller appeared, she smiled, "Well, hello, Heero."

A small, almost sad smile tugged the art student's lips as he greeted, "Sally. I hate to be a bother to you, but this is terribly urgent."

 

Part 14

"The Glee Club!?" four voices cried in disbelief.

Sighing deeply, Solo's shoulders drooped. He certainly didn't expect any of his 'brothers' to be particularly thrilled when they learned what Duo had him do earn that night tutor session. Word certainly spread through the school quickly, seeing how the lot knew of his joining the club before he finally returned to his dorm after his last tutor session. His friends probably learned of it before the ink dried on his signing papers.

And he was not about to tell them that his first practice with the choir was actually more enjoyable than he had ever thought it would be.

Quietly moving into his room that they followed him into, he lowered his backpack beside his desk. Turning back to face his friends, Solo greeted them with a frustrated, "Nice to see you all, too. And yes, he had me sign up to sing with the choir for the Christmas concert at the end of exam week. Thank you very much for rubbing it in my face."

Stanley shook his head with wide, green eyes. "Man, you must really be desperate to pass those classes. I'd sooner hang myself than be associated with the Glee Club." The name of the said organization was spat out in disgust. Mike, Eric and Tim all nodded at the sentiment.

"You don't know my parents," Solo replied, easily falling back into his excuse as to why he needed to get closer to Duo. "There would be a far worse end to me than that if I don't do well while I'm here."

Moving over to his bed, the blonde neko fell back into the soft mattress and requested, "Now, if you all could please give me some time alone so that I can properly wallow in my mourning over the loss of my pride, I would be most grateful."

With small words of understanding and sympathy for their friend and his situation, the four fraternity brothers stepped from the room. The swish of the door as it slid closed had Solo sitting up instantly. In a rush, he punched in the command for the door to lock then headed back to the large window to draw the thick blinds closed.

Satisfied that he was alone at long last, Solo removed his red ball cap with a heavy sigh of relief at finally freeing his white cat ears. They wiggled and twitched, stretching after being confined for the better part of the day. His tail acted much the same when he lifted the back of his sweater enough for it to slip out.

Looking over to his backpack, he headed over to it and removed the recorder and headset that were given to him by the choir director when he signed on that afternoon. With a smile on his face, the neko sat on his bed and folded his legs together while placing the buds into his ears. Pressing the play button, the first song that he had learned at that first practice began.

His smile growing as the lovely song continued, Solo closed his eyes and placed his hands over either bud. Humming along to his part, he slowly rocked and swayed his tail in time to the music as he lost himself in the enchanting melody.

* * * * * *

Treize smiled as he stepped back to allow his visitor a clear way into his home. "It's very good to see you again, Sally," he greeted the young woman as he took her long coat and exchanged a friendly handshake with her.

She gave him a sincere smile as he hung her coat in the closet and nodded, "Same to you, Treize. Thank you for allowing me to show up like this on such short notice."

Waving his hand nonchalantly, the tall man reassured her, "Not even worth mentioning. We certainly could use all of the help that we can get in this matter." Treize stepped ahead, leading his new guest to the living room. "Howard and I were both quite relieved when Heero called to announce you arrival."

Howard looked up from his laptop and his fingers stopped their furious typing when the two doctors entered the room. Smiling kindly, he reached out and said, "Sally. Thank you so much for coming so quickly to help us out. It's a pleasure to meet you."

The braided young woman took his hand in hers and shook it firmly. "Howard," she grinned. "The pleasure is mine as well. I've been dying to have the opportunity to actually sit and talk to one of the scientists that helped create Duo. Working with you will be quite the learning experience."

Raising her suitcase, Sally removed her own laptop and set up her own station across from Treize and beside Howard at the large table. Opening her computer, she suggested, "As to not waste any time, why don't you two briefly explain what we are dealing with here. Once I'm up brought to speed, just tell me where I'll be most helpful."

Both Treize and Howard smiled at each other. "You certainly right in saying that she's a tenacious one," the old scientist commented. "I like her."

Sally smirked, "Oh, you haven't seen tenacity from me yet. Duo is a dear friend of mine and I'm not about to slow in any efforts I might be able to provide until we reach a solution that will save him." That said, she gave the two men a firm nod and stated, "I believe that you were about to explain to me what you have found so far in your research."

His own smile growing, Howard hummed to himself, "I like her a lot." Turning his monitor so that it faced the braided doctor, he began, "Now, this is just the tip of the iceberg that we're been chipping away at these last few days. I'll give you a brief idea of how this problem was foreseen even at the beginning stages of creating a neko…"

* * * * * *

That evening, Heero returned to the apartment complex following his last class with a heavy sigh of relief at being 'home.' It'd been another challenging day of art history, theories and concepts. While every bit of it had been interesting and exciting, it was also a great deal to take in and think of how to incorporate what he'd learned into his own works.

What was more, Jeffrey Klein had rescheduled their meeting for the following afternoon for lunch as opposed that Saturday as originally planned. Silently, Heero had wished that Lady Une hadn't talked him up so much to the man. Now, Mister Klein could not wait any longer to meet him.

Reaching his floor, the Japanese student stepped from the elevator and headed to the apartment he and his lover shared. Stepping inside the apartment, Heero closed the door after him and called, "Duo. I'm home."

The smell of something burning instantly assaulted his nose, his cobalt eyes widening. Following the smell into the kitchen, Heero gasped sharply and cried, "Duo!"

After making quick work of gathering the pot holders to removing the pan from the stove that was just beginning to billow smoke, he all but threw it into the sink and turned the burner off. Luckily, the exhaust over the stove was already on and was ridding the room of the smoke before it reached the alarm.

Once the immediate threat was handled, Heero fell to his knees to gather the neko that lied sprawled out on the floor. Placing his hand on the dampened forehead, he did a quick check of vitals on the neko as Sally had taught him.

Any signs of burning up. Pulse. Breathing. Pupils. To both Heero's amazement and relief, everything that he checked was normal. Which meant that the episode that rendered his partner unconscious was much like the one he suffered before the break.

With a deep small grunt of effort, Heero lifted Duo up into his arms and led him to the living room. Carefully lowering him onto the couch, he grabbed one of the folded blankets close by to drape it over the braided boy before running to the bathroom to wet a washcloth.

Sitting at the edge of the couch, Heero gently wiped the sweat that had remained on the neko's forehead from the collapse and whispered in a small, pleading voice, "Come on, love. Please wake up."

A brief moment passed before Duo moaned softly, his ears drooping and his eyes squeezing tighter shut as if he were in pain. Then, with a sharp gasp, his violet eyes flew open. In the daze of trying to place himself, the neko whimpered and searched the room without seeing the other teenager just beside him.

Lightly gripping the smaller boy's shoulders, Heero called to him softly but firmly to break through his panic, "Duo, it's me. You're safe. You don't have to worry."

Instantly, those wide violet eyes snapped up to meet cobalt. All of the tension in Duo's body melted as he sighed deeply, "Heero." Placing a hand to his forehead, he closed his eyes and said tiredly, "It was just like the first collapse. That dizzy spell came out of nowhere."

"I'm going to call Sally so that she stops over to check on you," Heero announced. "She should be at Treize's home by now." He placed a finger over the mouth that was just about to open in protest and said, "If there have been any changed in your structure, they need to know it right away."

As the finger slid away from his lips, Duo sighed and frowned deeply, "You're right." He winced, "I'm just getting tired of getting poked and prodded for all of the blood samples I've had to give these last couple weeks. It reminds me of…bad things."

The art student bit his lip and whispered sadly, "I know." Gently rubbing his lover's arms, he told him softly, "If there were any way I could take this away from you…" Heero shook his head and fought the small tears that were filling his eyes. Quickly changing the subject, he asked, "How are you feeling now?"

Duo shrugged, "Tired, but otherwise fine, just like the last time I passed out." His eyes widened again in realization. With a small wince, he frowned, "I ruined dinner, didn't I?"

Laughing quietly at such an absurd question at a time like this, Heero reassured him, "Don't worry about dinner. You're far more important. We'll just order out after I finish talking to Sally." He gave the neko's hand that was already in his own a firm squeeze as he leaned down to kiss his forehead. "Just rest now," he said softly when he pulled back.

"Okay," Duo muttered with his violet eyes drifting closed already. He purred deeply and leaned into the touch of his lover's hand as it ran over his head soothingly.

Watching the slow and even rise and fall of the neko's chest, Heero remained close for a moment before rising from the couch. The small tears that finally won the fight were wiped away as he moved towards the vidphone at the table.

He didn't have he heart to tell Duo at that moment that he noticed course hairs just beginning to grow along his arms when he rubbed them.

* * * * * *

With a heavy heart and a deep sigh, Sally headed to the living room of Treize's home. Recalling how distraught Duo was when she arrived at learning of the stubbly fur that was just coming in, she swallowed past the lump that formed in her throat. He was one of her dearest friends and she hated seeing him so lost.

Heero had been his anchor, holding him and rubbing his back as he cried into his shoulder. The grief in the Japanese teenager's eyes was enough to bring tears into the braided doctor's own eyes when she arrived at their apartment.

The blood sample was taken easily, though Sally hated having to do it when seeing the small bruises that were beginning to form along the neko's inner arm from all of the punctured he'd received since the beginning of the reverting process. Not to mention what horrific memories such needle work must have brought back. As she drew his blood, Duo just squeezed onto Heero's hand tight enough that his knuckles were turning white.

About the only good thing that Sally was able to conclude was that the neko was otherwise fine after his collapse. But, that was very little consolation considering the bad news that they were able to gather otherwise.

It had been a very difficult visit indeed.

As she moved into the living room, Howard looked up from his laptop with a look of urgency. With Treize working at the hospital that evening, the old scientist was on his own until Sally returned. Answering the unspoken question in his eyes, the braided doctor raised the small vile with the thick red liquid she had taken.

Seeing the distant look in her eyes, the white-haired man left alone asking for any details of her visit. He simply rose from his chair and carefully took up the vile. A few drops were gathered on a slide and slid under a microscope attached to his computer. After magnifying the blood to examine the DNA strands, he shook his head and groaned.

The strands had come undone quite a bit since the last time Duo's blood was tested. And that was only the day before, when he had stopped over to hear the graveness of his situation. If in only a day, his make-up was dissolving, that did not bode well for him all.

"Fur is just beginning to grow," Sally announced in little more than a breath. "It's only on the arms…for now."

Howard lowered his head, covering it with his hands and he tried desperately to think of a solution rather than focusing on the problem. He rubbed his temples and just considered every angle he knew of from what he'd been working on for the last few days.

A chill ran down the old scientist's back as an idea struck him. Something that he'd never considered before. His head snapping up with wide eyes, Howard quickly went over all of the negatives and positives of what such an option would bring. In the end, it was the only chance that they had with the little time they were looking at.

Slowly turning to face the young woman beside him, he breathed, "I-I think I might have an idea."

* * * * * *

The following afternoon…

Heero sighed deeply as he appraised himself in the mirror. It was the most dressed up he had been in months. Wearing a grey suit and white blouse, he almost didn't recognize himself. Then for the last touch that usually gave him a hard time. As he reached for the black tie, Duo offered quietly, "I can help with that."

With a grateful smile, the Japanese teenager handed the tie over and allowed his cat-eared lover to make easy work of it. As the neko worked, Heero tried not to look at his freshly shaven arms for too long and ruin the peaceful spell that had settled. Gently patting the tie against his partner's firm chest, Duo smiled wistfully, "You look great."

Blushing at that, Heero grinned, "Thanks." He leaned in and kissed his love's lips soundly before pulling back and asking, "Wish me luck?"

"Good luck," Duo nodded. Chuckling deeply, he winked, "Even though I don't think you're going to need it much. I'm sure that you'll do great."

Another kiss and a tight hug later, Heero took up the handle to his large portfolio and headed out of the apartment. As he headed out to the elevator, he tried not to pay attention to his churning stomach.

Time to finally meet the man that could help launch his career.

 

Part 15

Heero stepped into the private room of the pricy and elegant restaurant that had been set as the grounds for his meeting. The lovely waitress that had been ushering him through the restaurant smiled and nodded to the lone table in the center of the small space. Sitting at one of the two settings that had been placed across from each other sat Jeffrey Klein.

With a smile of his own, the tall man rose from his seat and greeted, "Heero Yuy." His head topped with blonde hair that shimmered with red highlights in the light, the man of his mid forties was dressed in a black suit and blue shirt finished with a deep red tie. He extended his hand and commented, "Thank you for being so flexible with your schedule. I hope that our meeting a couple days early was not a hindrance for you."

Lowering the large portfolio that he had been carrying, Heero grinned back and shook the hand firmly. "Not at all, sir," he replied. "This is quite an honor for me, and I appreciate your taking the time to meet with me."

They took their seats and beverages were ordered. As the waitress stepped from the room, Jeffrey folded his hands together and propped his elbows on the table. "Now," he began, "before we really get started here, I want to tell you that I am well aware of your infamous boyfriend."

His smile growing a bit when Heero blushed at the statement, the tall man continued, "And I will have you know that your bit of celebrity in that will neither help nor hinder your chances of being entered in the Stellar Gala. One's personal life is one's personal life and I, for one, am not a person who judges another where that is concerned."

At that, Heero's tense shoulders sagged with a deep sigh of relief. He smirked and nodded firmly, "Thank you for that, sir."

Jeffrey returned the nod and announced, "And now onto business. In case you don't already know, Lady Une is one of my dearest friends. I find her taste in art impeccable and so I hold her opinion in high regard. When all she could do was sing your praises for the last couple weeks, it was quite difficult for me to ignore."

Heero cleared his throat uncomfortably and shrugged with a nervous grin, "Great. No pressure, right?" He was rewarded with a laugh that rumbled from the man's chest.

Feeling a little more at ease in having lightened the air, the Japanese teenager admitted with a slight frown, " I've only had two years of formal teaching in art, so it was a bit of a nerve-wracking thing when Lady Une asked if she could get the two of us to get together. The Stellar Gala is a very prestigious event and I'm not at all sure that I'm ready to be a part of such an event."

Jeffrey tilted his head and smiled sincerely, "I appreciate that modesty. I must admit, myself that I was surprised to learn of how young you are and inexperienced as far as the formal teachings as you say. However, some people are simply gifted. Lady Une believes that you are one of those individuals. " Straightening when the waitress returned with their drinks, he excused her politely for the time being.

"That said," the influential man said as he gestured to the portfolio beside the table, "Let's have a look at what you have there." As Heero quickly rose from his seat to gather up the large folder, Jeffrey removed a pair of thin wire framed glasses and set them atop his long nose.

Returning to his own seat, the unruly-haired boy worried his hands together under the white linen table cloth. Jeffrey paged through the works without hinting what impression they were making on him, a set frown of thought on his features. A 'poker face' Heero mused to himself. And it only made him all the more worried that Lady Une might have expected too much of him.

Finally, after appraising each artwork carefully, Jeffrey closed the portfolio and set it beside the table again. Removing his glasses, he asked with a raised eyebrow, "Only two years of formal teaching, correct?"

Heero nodded, not trusting his voice at that moment, before taking a sip of his water. Lightly tapping on the large portfolio's leather cover, the promoter asked, "And you are the young man that painted 'Life,' which hangs in the entrance of the Smithsonian largest museum on Earth? The same one that you have a much smaller version of in here?" [1]

Nearly squeaking out his answer, Heero responded, "Yes, sir. That was unveiled just this last summer."

Already nodding before the teenager could finish his words, Jeffrey's brown eyes revealed something akin to awe as he stated, "Yes, I am aware of when the portrait was unveiled. I was there for the event."

"Y-you were?" Heero stammered, his own cobalt eyes widening. The museum was filled with people that day for the unveiling. To think that Jeffrey Klein, one of the most significant men in the world of art, was there to see his artwork had his heart pounding.

Sitting back in his seat, the promoter folded his hands together again and smiled, "Yes I was. Quite a few of my peers were. Along with mentors of my own. I wish that I made a note of it to learn the name of the artist, and yet here you sit. That painting is quite a remarkable piece of work. You truly captured the essence of life, as you so named it. Such a feat is quite astounding for one as young as yourself."

Not one to be very comfortable with praise, Heero lowered his head. Peering through his unruly bangs, he said quietly, "I am honored that you think so, Mister Klein. That painting is still my favorite of the paintings that I've done."

The excitement in Jeffrey's brown eyes grew as he leaned forward. With a wide smile, he asked, "Please tell me where you got the inspiration to create such a perfect image to explain such a complex concept."

Sitting back in his own seat, Heero smiled at the question and lowered his head a bit. He thought of Duo and how he had inspired him to make the painting. As he raised his cobalt gaze from the table linen, he replied, "Well, it was how I felt at the time. From practically the time I was born, my parents had wanted me to follow their footsteps and become a lawyer and owner of their firm.

"I never had a concept of what it was like to live, I just went through the motions of what my parents expected of me. That was until I met Duo…" Losing himself in the memories of how his life had changed, Heero continued on with his story with a small grin on his face.

* * * * * *

Treize blinked his widened eyes as he raised his hand to his chin in thought. "I never would have considered that as an option," he shook his head. "Make it that Duo will convert back into a cat without the process killing him then rebuild him from scratch so to speak."

Nodding from his seat across from the young man, Howard explained, "It would be a far less challenging thing to do as opposed to solving the whole of the problem at once. We've been trying to both save Duo and stop the process that's already so far along now. I could make a serum that will keep the DNA from breaking apart entirely while returning to their original state by using the samples we took from him before we ever experimented on him."

"And it would save us the time we need to rebuild his make up so that there are no flaws in his structure," Sally realized aloud, her own eyes widening at the concept. "It comes with its own risks, such as memory loss or the possibility that we might not be able to come up with a solution to bring him back. But it's the only logical thing that we can try, considering how far along Duo is to coming undone as it is."

A deep sigh escaped Treize's lungs. Folding his arms, he thought deeply on the option that had presented itself. Finally, he stated, "There really isn't any other way. Trying to handle every problem at once will take too long." To his right, Sally nodded her agreement.

The tall doctor took a deep breath and met the old scientist's gaze watching him from across the table and gave a firm nod of his head. "Tell us how we can help."

* * * * * *

Tray in hand, Solo stepped through the cafeteria for a late lunch. Thinking back to his last class for the day, he was amazed at how much more sense the teachings had become with Duo's help. With only a couple tutoring sessions under his belt, the dots of what little he was able to grasp were beginning to connect.

Passing the table there his four 'brothers' were already gathering, the blonde neko gave them a nod of recognition before heading to where the food awaited. Quickly filling his tray, Solo moved back into the main seating area. On his way towards the table where his friends awaited, he noticed Duo sitting on the other side of the room with Chad, Beth and a few students from the Glee Club.

There was one seat left at the table. Right across from Duo.

It was another test. One to see where the frat boy would go on his own devices.

With wide eyes, Solo gazed from where his anxious friends were watching him to the table where Duo was sitting. He noticed the braided neko's violet eye glance at him from its corner before he returned to the lively conversation he and his friends were engaged in.

Giving his 'brothers' an apologetic look, Solo moved to the chair across from Duo and forced a grin. "This seat taken?" he asked.

A wide smile tugged Duo's lips as he turned to face his apprentice. "Not at all," he answered. The other students at the table all greeted the blonde teenager with smiles and encouragement to join them. Lowering his tray to the table, Solo slipped into the chair. The pleased smile on the braided lawyer-to-be only grew as if to say, 'Passed another one.'

Beth looked over to the blonde neko. "You're going to have to get a couple more trays," she giggled. "One just isn't going to cut it." When she was rewarded by a confused look by her one-time nemesis, she opened her backpack to reveal three trays that she had stuffed inside. Duo and all of the others gave a peek into their own bags to show that they, too, had a handful of food trays stowed away.

Gasping sharply, Solo's brown eyes widened. As he leaned in, he whispered harshly, "You're stealing from the cafeteria? What if we get caught!"

Nonchalantly waving his hand, Duo smirked, "The staff knows that we do this all the time when it starts snowing." He gestured to the window at he other end of the table, to the lightly drifting, thick white flakes that filled the air. "But to give it a little more excitement for us, they 'turn a blind eye' to it."

"More like no one can resist Duo's charm," Chad snickered. Duo blushed at the statement and shrugged.

Solo blinked his eyes and inquired, "But what could you possibly want with all of those trays?"

At that, Duo's smile returned, a bit more mischievous than the other neko would have liked. "Well, to find out, we're going to have our tutor session earlier than usual. Since we're finished with our classes for the day, we'll just meet up at my place after this. But, you have to get more trays before we head out."

If that was what Duo wanted, that was what Duo would get, Solo decided. By the time they finished lunch, he managed to 'sneak' five trays into his own backpack.

* * * * * *

Night was just beginning to fall when Duo headed out with Solo after their session. Trays in hand, they moved through the wooded park not far from Wayne. "So where are we going?" the taller teenager asked in slight annoyance as he adjusted his brown wool cap with his free hand. He brushed some off the snow that was clinging to his eyelashes as it continued to fall around them.

"Almost there," was all the response that Duo gave him with a glance over his shoulder. A few more paces and the braided neko pushed back a large branch that was in their way.

When they cleared the obstruction, Solo froze with a sharp gasp and wide eyes. Just before them was an impressively steep hill that dipped into what appeared to be a wide valley below. All around, dozens and dozens of students were laughing, sledding, having snowball fights and making snowmen and snow angels. With the sun going down, the sunset reds, oranges and yellows painted the snow in a breathtaking mural while the lamplights began to brighten with an almost dreamlike glow.

Sighing in content, Duo smiled wistfully as he watched the scene. "Heero and I somewhat started this when we got caught sledding by our apartment earlier this winter," he informed. "We pulled a few people in and eventually word spread to the other colleges near by so we had to move here for the room. Every snowfall, we get more people than the last time."

His violet eyes sparkling with excitement, he raised the trays in his hand and grinned, "Not everyone has a sled, so we accommodate what we can." That said, he moved over to the top of the hill they were on and set down the extras by a very short pile already waiting to be used by anyone in need. Solo moved slowly, still taking everything in, as he followed his 'mentor's' actions right down to setting one of the trays down and sitting on top of it.

"I-I've never done this before," the blonde neko admitted nervously as he looked down the steep hill. Watching the others that were soaring downward on their own trays-turned- sleds, he tried to get an idea for how sledding worked.

Duo smiled, not a mocking smile but one of understanding. Lightly pressing his hand on Solo's back, he told him, "Just hang onto the edges of the tray tight and fall as you will when you reach the bottom." He gave a firm push that sent the other teenager over the edge.

Crying sharply, Solo hung on tight to the 'sled' as he flew downward. The cold air stung his face at the rate he was going and his heart was pounding in his chest at the sheer exhilaration of traveling so quickly. Missing all of the others at the bottom of the hill, he hit a small rough patch in the snow and was knocked from the tray. Rolling and tumbling along the soft, cold blanket, he found himself laughing loudly. Just beside him, Duo crashed to a halt and his laughter melded with his own.

Before he was even able to get up, Solo grunted deeply when a snowball from nowhere hit him in the back. Quickly turning to the source of the attack, he found Beth, Chad and the others that had been at their table that afternoon. "Good to see you, Solo," the young man grinned as he adjusted his glasses before hauling another snowball that he already had waiting in his other gloved hand.

"Oh yea!" Solo laughed as he bent down just in time to dodge the oncoming assault. Quickly forming a snowball of his own after watching how the others were doing it, he threw it and landed a perfect hit. The lot formed teams and engaged in a vigorous 'war.'

Just as Duo was about to partake, he was suddenly knocked to the ground from behind. Landing with a sharp 'oof,' he turned onto his back to look up at the person that was propped just over him. "Heero!" he exclaimed with a wide smile.

Panting from his swift ride down the hill, the Japanese young man grinned, "Got your message to find you here, as you see." Duo was just in the middle of opening his mouth to ask about the meeting when Heero leaned down to kiss him deeply. Pulling back only for air, he smirked, "Jeffrey's looking forward to the artworks that I come up with for his gala."

His violet eyes widening, Duo breathed, "Heero. That's wonderful news." He smiled widely, "I'm so proud of you!" Reaching up, he pulled his partner back down for another heated kiss. Their moment was broken when a snowball hit them both in the shoulder.

Looking up with wide eyes, they watched as Solo fronted the small army of their friends. The lot all held the same mischief in their eyes as the blonde neko chuckled deeply, "Get a room, you two." The air filled with laughter and 'yea's' from the other students as they hurled their snowballs at the young couple.

Heero and Duo laughed loudly as they scrambled for the trays to use them as shields.

TBC

[1] For those who might not remember, or did not read the epilogue of 'Life…Really, ' here is the description of the painting 'Life' that Heero made:
The painting spanned the entire wall's great length and height, the first piece that everyone entering the museum would see. It was an image of a breathtaking shoreline at dawn. And at the center of the image was a man, his back to the perspective of the gazer, his legs parted as he leapt high into the air with outstretched aims to the brightening sky.
While the man's face in the painting was not seen, it was impossible not to imaging the elation that would have certainly been there. The striking, vibrant colors used for the art piece could not help but draw the eye to it.

 

Part 16

"How did they take it?" Duo asked, nervously biting his lip as he stepped into the living room. Heero was sitting on the couch, closing the vidphone on the table before him following the call that he had just wrapped up.

Despite the fact that the neko knew it was only right his parents learn about his ordeal, he couldn't summon up the courage to tell them, himself. Understanding as always, Heero volunteered to be the bearer of bad news. It made Duo sick to his stomach to have put his lover in such a spot, but he couldn't even think of seeing Noin and Zechs hurt and worrying over him without getting emotional.

With a small smile, Heero patted the spot on the couch beside him. Opening his arms as his braided partner sat down, he leaned back to lie down while holding him close. Lightly running a hand over his neko's head, he answered quietly, "Pretty hard, but that's to be expected." When the boy in his arms tensed, the Japanese teenager quickly reassured him, "They're not mad at you. They're just very concerned, as any good parent would be."

Relaxing a bit at that, Duo purred deeply and leaned into the soothing touch as his violet eyes closed. "They're on the way up here with my Mom and Trent," Heero announced.

That bit was to be expected. No doubt they would want to stay close in case they could be of any help…. or in the event that the worst scenario did come about. In the event that Duo should end of dying. He shuddered at the thought.

"Don't," Heero urged gently but firmly before lightly kissing his lover's forehead. "We're going to get through this, remember," he reminded while squeezing the neko tighter to him. "Don't go on thinking the worst."

Biting his lip against the threat of tears, Duo nodded against the firm chest. Had it not been for Heero, he doubted that he would have been able to hold himself together following their findings after his last collapse.

Time was running out and Duo knew it. He knew that Heero knew it as well, but he never allowed himself to dwell on that enough to lose hope.

Ever since learning of the predicament they were facing, Heero never treated Duo any different than he had before- never treated him like he was dying in a means to keep thoughts from lingering on the possibility. The Japanese teenager helped with the morning clipping of nails and shaving of fur that was growing in, making jokes when appropriate to lighten the air during the tasks.

Had it not been for Heero, Duo knew that he would never have been able to cope with this new 'challenge,' the word that his unruly-haired lover insisted of calling it since challenges could be overcome.

Lying on the couch together for a time, the braided neko finally looked to the clock hanging on the wall. With a regretful sigh, he muttered, "I have to get going for my last class." He leaned in for a soft kiss before reluctantly pushing himself up off his partner.

A smile tugged Heero's lips as he asked, "So what do you have planned as 'payment' for Solo to earn another session tonight?"

His heart lightening a bit at the game that they had made of the frat boy's expense, Duo turned back and smirked, "Decorating committee. We're starting with the main hall at Wayne tonight, so I'll tutor him as we work."

Sitting up on the couch, his lover grinned, "Nice choice. So we'll just fend for ourselves for dinner, then. I have a lot of preparing for my own finals that I need to work on." Lazily rising from the couch, Heero wrapped his arms around Duo's waist and kissed his lips gently. "Have fun tonight, okay?" he urged in a soft tone.

"I will," Duo nodded. Holiday decorating always did have a way of cheering him up. It was one of the things that he had looked forward to all week. Gathering up his backpack and swinging it over his shoulder, he grinned widely and stole one last kiss from his best friend before heading out of the apartment.

* * * * * *

Solo stepped from the cafeteria, laughing along with Chad and Beth following their dinner while still discussing their fun the night prior in the park. Duo was still in class, but managed to get a note passed along to the blonde neko with his new assignment to earn his next lesson.

The Decorating Committee certainly was not an ensemble of the most popular students at school, but Solo actually found himself looking forward to it. So far, he had yet to be asked to do something that he didn't enjoy. They were all things that he would never have been able to dream partaking in while sealed away in his cell.

There were so many things to experience, to take in and be a part of. Even when he was a member of a fraternity, he never felt like a member of a team the way that he did when he was with Duo's friends.

His 'brothers' would never have participated in the fun things that Solo was doing now. They only enjoyed pranks and other 'games' that were always made to poke fun at whomever they had chosen to be their victim that day. And while he would never admit it to anyone else, he actually enjoyed hanging out with Duo's friends more than the fraternity brothers that had taken him in.

While he would never verbally say as much, he quickly learned that his actions did when he elected to sit with Chad, Beth and the others even in Duo's absence.

Once he was through the cafeteria doors, Solo stopped in his tracks. His laugher dying out, he swallowed hard at the sight of his less-than-thrilled 'brothers' glaring at him from the end of the hallway. In spotting the frat boys, Beth and Chad also paused with worried frowns.

Clearing his throat, Solo grinned to them, "You guys go on ahead. I'll meet you in the main hall in a few minutes."

Nervously biting her lip, Chad asked quietly, "Are you going to be all right?" The thought of standing up to a quartet of jock fraternity brutes was certainly unnerving, but he would do that for his new friend if he needed help. Beth quickly voiced her own wish to stick around to see that there wasn't trouble.

Taken aback by the fact that two people that- not a week before- he had tormented were willing stand by him, Solo turned to them with wide eyes. He finally smiled warmly and said sincerely, "Thanks for that, guys. But, I better handle this on my own. It shouldn't take long."

"All right," Beth sighed with a deep frown. "Good luck." Chad nodded in reluctant acceptance of his friend's wishes and together, the pair walked off in the opposite direction of the brutes that were still glaring at Solo.

With a deep breath, the blonde neko headed towards his 'brothers' and forced a grin as he greeted, "Hey guys. Are you all on your way to dinner now?"

Eric growled deeply, "We were at our usual table and you walked right past us." The other three continued to glare at the ball-capped teenager. "Duo wasn't there to baby-sit you tonight, so why the hell did you head over to sit with those losers?"

Solo's brown eyes widened in realization that he hadn't even noticed his friends, or even thought to check their normal spot for that matter. He was getting so used to sitting with Duo's crowd that it only seemed natural to join them.

Folding his arms, Tim leaned in and hissed, "You're not starting to forget about us already, are you? Not after the way we've looked out for each other."

Quickly, Solo snapped his head to face him and shook his head, "Of course not! You all should know me better than that." The less-than-convinced looks that he received made him sigh deeply. Sagging his shoulders, he frowned deeply, "You know, it pisses me off that you think so little of me. You really think I actually want to be tortured like this?"

Some of the edge in his 'brothers'' demeanors finally subsided a bit to be replaced by confusion. Leaning in to share with the group in confidence, the blonde neko reassured them, "By the end of our finals, life will be back to normal. That was the plan and that's still the plan.

"I can't afford to have one of Duo's friends going back to him and saying that I'm only willing to socialize with them when he's around. You all know how the walls have ears around this place. And that would be the end of our lessons to help me pass my courses," Solo explained patiently as he noted the realization filling his friends' eyes." No offense, but I am far more frightened of my parents than the lot of you," he smirked.

The four young men all glanced to each other before Stanley finally nodded and met the blonde's gaze. "Sorry, Solo," he grinned sheepishly. "We didn't mean to offend you by making you think we didn't trust you. It just… really seemed like you actually enjoy being with those losers."

At that, Solo winked with a wicked smirk, "Then I'm doing my job. If I'm able to convince the four of you that I like this shit, then Duo will stay totally clueless up until the time that we can finally hit him hard."

His 'brothers' chuckled deeply. The sinister grins on their faces hinted to their plotting some of the nasty things that they wanted to do to the one they called the 'braided freak.' Not before Solo struck him first, the blonde teenager thought to himself. His speech had served its purpose and bought him time. Inwardly sighing in relief, he checked his watch and announced, "Look, guys, I would love to stay here and discuss this further, but I am going to be late for my next lesson if I don't get moving here."

Once again convinced of their fortitude, the frat boys bid their goodbyes and parted ways. When he was outside, running for the Main Hall, Solo wiped the sweat that had beaded under the brim of his red ball cap. Knowing the bullet that he had barely managed to dodge, he silently applauded himself for keeping his cool enough to come up with such a believable excuse for his slip.

He knew that he wouldn't be able to afford many more mistakes like that before he carried out his act.

* * * * * *

"Could you hand me another piece of tinsel, there?" Duo asked as he leaned over from the top of the ladder that he was on. From his perch on the ladder beside him, Solo reached down into the bag hooked to the top rung.

All around the main hall, students were working on stringing white lights, large red ribbons and colorful balls from the bowing rafters in the center of the marble floored and walled room. Having been working together for well over an hour, Duo decided to call a break in their tutor session so that they could focus on enjoying their work.

For his part, Solo wasn't about to complain. He'd never seen decorations before, let alone set them up before. He followed the lead of Duo and the others in hanging the variety of ornaments properly. Every now and then, he would gaze down from his ladder to watch the huge evergreen in the very center of the room being ordained with all kinds of trinkets and lights.

As he handed over the shining handful silver tinsel that had been requested, the blonde youth asked, "So why did you decide to become a lawyer, anyway? Of all of the things that you could have studied, what drew you to that?"

It had been a question that had bothered the blonde neko for some time. There really wasn't anything about the field that really appealed to him, personally. And while he was starting to understand it a great deal more with Duo's help, he still couldn't see why a neko with newfound freedom would be so determined to succeed in the profession.

Gripping the tinsel with his long tail, the braided neko finished securing the string of white lights that his hands were working on and smiled, "It's a repayment back, I guess you could say." Once the cord was hooked firmly to the rafter, Duo's tail stretched up to string the tinsel between each bulb as he explained, "Heero's mother and Trent are the reason that I was given any rights to do as I wished. Ever since then, I've wanted to be a voice for people that wouldn't have one otherwise."

The violet-eyes boy grinned wistfully to his pupil, "So, I plan on becoming a representative for foreigners looking for citizenship from the Colonies to the Earth. The process is pretty grueling and can be harsh and demanding on them at times, so I want to help make the process easier on them so that they can become legal inhabitants of the Earth-free to live their lives and follow their own dreams the way I'm able to now."

Solo's brown eyes widened at the sincere and tender answer to his question. It was the last thing that he'd expected to hear from the person that he had grown to have nothing but loathing for. To hear such a selfless thing from Duo shook him to the core and made him question everything that he forced himself to believe.

His own reason for hating the other cat-eared boy was nothing more than his jealousy for being the one trapped in a cell with no way out while Duo was allowed to do as he pleased. He wanted so badly to see the braided teenager writhing and screaming in the same pain that he endured every day of his confinement.

What was more than that, Solo knew that he and his family of nekos were dying. Doctor J had informed them that their structure was unstable and if there were to be any way of surviving, he needed Duo to test a cure to the problem on. Otherwise, the old man would have used Cassie or Danny or any one of them for experiments that might kill them in the process.

In the end, Solo had to look out for himself and his loved ones. Only now, he realized that one of the other reasons for his hating Duo was to cover-up what would be an absolute betrayal of one of his own. He had to hate the braided teenager if he was ever going to have a clean conscience for bringing him into Hell and possibly his end.

'What the Hell am I doing?' Solo asked himself. He could feel the color draining from his face.

Beside him, Duo tilted his head in concern and called, "Hey, you okay, man?" Shaking his head, Solo forced himself back to the present and muttered that he was fine. Even though he was anything but at that moment.

Lightly patting the last tinsel into place with his tail, Duo smiled, "Well, looks like we're finished here. Let's get you back down. Maybe the height is starting to get to you." Moving in a numb haze, Solo slowly descended his own ladder while the braided teenager watched him to make sure that he was okay.

When they reached the floor, several cheers of "Finished" began filling the air from different sections of the room. As the whole committee of over a dozen students gathered at the front of the room, the head of the group threw the main switch to dim the main lights and brighten the Christmas strings.

At the sight that remained, Solo gasped sharply along with several others as his eyes widened. The tree in the center nearly touched the top of the raised ceiling with its large, gold star. The hundreds of colored lights and strings of tinsel on the branches twinkled and reflected in the ornaments that donned the deep green pines.

Up above it all, the white lights strung along the rafters met in such away that they gave the appearance of an even larger Christmas tree that consisted of the entire room. Like the actual tree, the silver tinsel draped from the rafters sparkled like hanging snow and icicles.

His violet eyes wide with wonder, Duo kept his gaze on the breathtaking sight and whispered, "Beautiful, huh?"

It was like nothing that Solo had ever seen before. A lump formed in his throat and small tears filled his brown eyes that stayed on what he helped create as he breathed, "Yea. Beautiful." Not trusting his voice, he simply stood in silence and willed the image to stay in his memory for when he would have to leave it all behind.

 

Part 17

The whistle of the tea kettle had Heero excusing himself from the living room, where he had been standing while his family sat at the two couches at either side of the space. At their arrival just moments before, he instantly went into host mode to keep himself occupied while answering their questions regarding Duo's condition. It helped keep him from dwelling too much on the answers he was giving.

As was expected, Noin was beside herself, occasionally drying her eyes with her handkerchief as she sat and listened to what little Heero could explain. While Zechs remained silent and strong for his wife's sake, squeezing her hand with his in encouragement, it was clear in his eyes that it was taking effort for him to hold himself together.

Danielle and Kent sat together across from the other couple as they took everything in. Every now and then, they would glance at each other in worry. For the most part, however, they were the in control of asking the questions that were on all of their minds and learning what they could of the situation in their ever-present lawyer fashions. Ever the lawyers of their tight group.

With a deep sigh to himself as he stepped into the kitchen to turn the burner off and take up the tea kettle, Heero did his best to will away the dark thoughts that were beginning to take hold. With Duo still away to decorate on the main hall at Wayne, he no longer needed to keep up his air of confidence that everything was going to be all right.

The truth was that he really didn't know that for sure.

Quietly stepping into the kitchen, Danielle watched as her son poured the steaming water into the five teacups sitting on the counter. With a sad frown, she waited until he lowered the tea kettle back onto the stove before slightly tilting her head and asking quietly, "How are you holding up, Heero?"

It was the first time that anyone had come out and asked him that. Heero went about setting the teabags into the cups and shrugged, "Fine." Even he had to admit that he did not sound nearly convincing enough, and only proved the contrary.

Danielle bit her lip and closed the distance between them just as he was turning to face her. Tightly wrapping her arms around him, she whispered, "It's all right to cry, you know? No one is expecting you to be the strong one. Especially when you're the one who has the most to lose here."

Unable to hold back the damn of emotions that he had been welling up since Duo had told him that he was dying, tears sprang into Heero's eyes. Trembling, he reached up to hold onto his mother tightly and rested his head against her shoulder. Finally, he admitted aloud in little more than a shaky breath, "I'm so scared, Mom." The tears flowed freely as he whimpered, "I can't lose him."

Rubbing circles along his back, Danielle had to fight her own urge to cry along with her son. "I know," she managed to tell him in what she hoped was reassuring him that she really did understand. "I know," the red-haired young woman repeated a bit louder.

She really did know what it was like to lose a soul mate. When Odin had been killed in a car accident years before, Danielle felt like her life was over. Had it not been for their only child, she would never have gotten through the pain. She knew that she had to live for Heero's sake, to watch after him. He still needed her.

But there was no one like that for her son if Duo were to die. And what the pain would do to him should that happened terrified Danielle.

Then there was her own emotional investment in to braided neko. Duo was the reason that she and Heero had such a wonderful relationship now. He showed her the error in her ways when she thought that she was doing the right thing by forcing her wishes and dreams for her son without taking his own desires and hopes into consideration.

Small tears filled Danielle's eyes as she thought of how she would forever be in that cat-eared boy's debt for everything good in her life now. And yet, here she was- powerless to do anything that could save him. It was devastating.

After a long time of their just holding onto each other, Heero 's body finally stopped shaking and his silent crying stopped. Slowly pulling back to dry his face and eyes, he sniffled. "Thanks," he smiled sheepishly. "I guess I did need that."

Cupping the side of his face, his mother helped dry the last tear streaks as she smiled lovingly, "No need to thank me. Just promise me that you won't take on all of this by yourself. You have Trent and I to turn to if you need anything."

Heero smiled back and nodded, "Okay. I promise." Looking back to the counter, he winced, "I better finish the tea before it turns cold."

With a wave of her hand, Danielle shook her head, "I'll take care of that. You've been running around doing things ever since we got here. Just go sit down and relax for a bit." That said, she moved to the refrigerator to remove the cream.

Having nothing to do at that moment, Heero had to admit that he was a bit fatigued. The emotional strain from the last couple days was finally creeping up now that he allowed himself to actually feel it. Squeezing his mother's shoulder in appreciation as she poured the cream into the teacups, he stepped from the room.

Moments after Heero sat down beside Trent, the door opened and Duo stepped in. Directly in his line of sight, his eyes fell on his parents sitting together on the couch. Biting his lip, the cat-tailed boy whimpered before all but running into the living room, hugging Noin and Zechs fiercely. "I'm sorry I didn't say anything," he whispered brokenly.

Holding onto their son tightly, the young couple whispered their reassurances as they fought their own tears. Danielle quietly entered the room with a tray carrying the tea that she'd finished preparing, along with a sixth cup that she added when she heard the door open. Once Duo settled down enough to sit between his parents, the red-haired, retired law firm executive served the drinks.

After a moment for everyone to catch up, Trent announced, "The four of us will be staying at the Renaissance Suites, just down the block. That way, we can be close until this ordeal is cleared up." Both Heero and Duo nodded, the appreciation more than evident in their eyes.

Clearing his throat, the braided teenager nodded to his lover across from him and told everyone in the room, "Well, since Heero's not one to boast, I'm sure that he hadn't told any of you yet. Mister Klein already met with him and was pretty impressed."

With a small gasp, Danielle turned to her son with wide cobalt eyes. Heero blushed a bit and shrugged, "He wants me to make some artwork to be judged on for the Stellar Gala. The competition is by invitation only, so I suppose it's a good thing that he was interested enough to have me partake in it."

"A good thing!" his mother exclaimed. "Heero, that's a wonderful thing! From knowing how he runs his gala, that man has a very keen eye for talent. The fact that he wants to see what you can do is a remarkable accomplishment! "

Zechs, Noin and Trent all voiced in over one another to say much the same and congratulate the Japanese young man. Ducking his head a bit, Heero's face burned all the more. "Thanks for embarrassing me," he smirked at his partner as the praises continued.

Winking, Duo grinned, "Well, you deserve it."

Everyone fell silent when the vidphone rang. The small caller ID on the side of the closed computer showed the name 'Doctor Treize Khushrenadah' on its lit screen. Stiffening, Duo swallowed hard before reaching towards the table that he was closest to. As he reached to open the monitor, Heero was instantly at his side and holding his free hand.

The parents rose from their seats and stepped out of the room for a moment to give the boys some privacy. Whatever the reason for the call, they knew that it was only right for Heero and Duo to hear it first. This was their fight and so they needed to face it head-on for better or for worse. And so, unless they were invited, the quartet silently agreed not to be involved.

When he vidphone was opened, Howard's image appeared. His eyes widening a bit behind the thin-framed glasses, he smiled, "Wonderful! You're both there, so I can tell you both at the same time!"

At the almost giddiness in the old man's voice, Heero and Duo shared a surprised look. Turning back to the screen, the braided neko licked his lips and asked, "You have some news, then?"

"Do I!" Howard laughed. "Only, I don't wish to discuss this over the phone like this. I just wanted to be certain that you were going to be around before Sally, Treize and I head over."

Nodding, Heero replied, "We'll be here. We also have our parents here as well. Is this something that they should be involved in?"

The white-haired scientist answered, "I would, my boy. There is a lot that we need to discuss, and I think it would only be fair for everyone involved to have a say in the matter. Every opinion will help. We'll be there in twenty minutes." With a quick salutation, the call ended and the screen went black.

Almost afraid to believe that there might actually be some good news, Duo fell back into the couch with his violet eyes still on the blank monitor. "God, Heero," he breathed. "Do you really think that they might have found something?"

Sitting back beside his lover, Heero met the eyes turning to face him and said quietly, "We'll know in a few minutes." A small smile tugged his lips as he commented, "But he did seem pretty excited about something. Duo squeezed the hand in his and nodded. All that they could really do now was sit wait to hear what Howard wanted to discuss.

It was going to be a long twenty minutes.

* * * * * *

The caffeine from the tea that Danielle kept coming was keeping Howard on his toes, even though he was already pretty revved up to reveal what he had come to for an answer to the problem,. Speaking what felt like a few hundred words a minute, he used the images on his laptop along with some charts that he'd grafted to show the positives and negatives in allowing Duo to revert back.

Every now and then, Sally and Treize would manage to add in. But for the most part, they sat in silence along with Heero, Duo and their families. In the end, it would be up to the braided neko if he felt comfortable enough with the idea of returning to his cat state and the risks involved with it. If the idea was not sold to him, the race against the clock would only be that much more difficult.

Throughout the demonstration, the two doctors would look for any sign from Duo to see how he was leaning in the decision. There was no sign to be found as he just watched and listened intently to Howard's every word.

When the old scientist finally fell silent, however, Duo was the first one to speak up as all eyes turned to him. "So," he began with his ears drooping, "If I were to go back and you were able to rebuild me, there's no guarantee that I would be able to keep my memories of everything that I've been through up to now?"

That was going to be the hardest sell, Howard knew. With a deep sigh, he frowned deeply and shook his head, "I'm sorry, Kit, but there is just no telling. There has never been a situation like this before. I just don't know the answer to that."

Heero squeezed the hand that was clutching onto his own and turned back to face the scientist. "But you know for certain that allowing him to revert back safely would work? It would save him?" he inquired.

"We've been working on this theory since the idea came up yesterday," Howard replied, adjusting the glasses on his nose. "And already, we are well on our way to coming up with how a safe transition back could happen. We weren't looking at the whole picture when we thought to stop the breakdown in Duo's make-up. It is taking far too long for us to come up with the solution that way."

Lowering his head a bit, the old man swallowed hard before meeting the neko's violet eyes and saying in all certainty, "And I believe he is too far along for any hope of us being able to stop it, now." Howard tapped the monitor of his laptop displaying the DNA strands that he had enlarged and stated, "But allowing a safe revert will bide us the time we need to build him the way he should have been built, without a flawed structure."

Slowly turning to look back at his parents on the couch just behind him and Heero from where they were sitting on the floor, the cat-eared boy asked, "Mom? Dad? Do you think I should go through with it?"

With a small, sad smile, Noin tilted her head and answered, "Duo, this is really up to you. You know better than anyone how much time you think you have here. No one else here can be as sure about that."

Zechs nodded, "She's right. You should be able to tell just by the things that you've been experiencing through this change what we're up against. And even if you didn't, there is a lot at stake in accepting or not accepting the treatment. It wouldn't be right for us to make such a decision for you."

Duo took a deep, shaky breath as he took in everything that he had learned. Howard was right in saying that there was no way to stop what had already started. He could feel that, himself. And in what he felt, he knew that there wasn't much time.

But to risk losing everything that he'd come to know and love… it was terrifying to him that such a thing might actually happen.

Slowly turning his head to meet Heero's cobalt gaze, Duo felt his heart breaking at the thought of what such a thing would do to him. A reassuring smile tugged the Japanese student's lips as if reading his partner's mind as he told him quietly, "I'll stand by whatever you choose. Whatever happens, we'll get through it, remember?"

"Yea," the braided neko whispered, smiling back in return and playing with his tail nervously in his hands. Somehow, they'd manage to get through. He knew that.

But, to have a chance to do that, he also knew that he needed to live to see it through.

That in mind, Duo faced Howard once more and nodded firmly, "All right. Let's go with your solution." Sally and Treize sighed deeply in relief, their shoulders sagging while the parents at the couches smiled to themselves.

Clapping his hands together, Howard cheered, "Wonderful! Within a couple of days, I should have the right concoction that I would need to make for the revert process to go smoothly."

Danielle folded her arms and frowned, "Now that you mention it, how do you plan on obtaining the chemicals and whatever else you would need to create such a serum? Surely you were not able to bring everything that you would need since you gave your practice up."

A white eyebrow raised as the old man smirked, "Ah, you are right there, my dear. However, Duo is not the only one that I have been keeping tabs on over the years. An old friend of mine has the tools I need.

"Doctor J."

 

Part 18

"Well, I never thought that I would ever see you again," Doctor J chuckled deeply as he rounded his desk to exchange a firm hand with his visitor. "How are you, Howard?"

Smiling warmly at his old friend, the retired scientist shrugged, "Oh, quite well, thank you." He gazed around the elegantly decorated office and smirked, "You look to have been doing quite well for yourself over the years since Dekim's demise." He turned back to the older man and raised an eyebrow. "But then, you also left his practice before he was forced to shut down."

Doctor J waived with his metal hand and snorted, "That fool had it coming. Considering how arrogant and self-serving that man was, I can't say that I feel bad for him." Through his own glasses, the metal-armed doctor appraised the other man in a means of trying to read him. Why, after all of these years, would his long-lost friend be paying a sudden visit?

Rather than wondering, J decided to get to the point and asked, "Now, what really brings you here? You have been laying low for quite some time now to just decide to pay me a friendly visit."

There was something in the suspicious tone of that voice that tipped Howard into realizing that he'd been right to not be very forthcoming with everything. They had worked together long enough for him to know that Doctor J was very a calculating man- much like Dekim. And with so much at stake, the cards had to be played just right.

With a wide smile, Howard announced, "I have decided to end my retirement." At the look of surprise on the older man's face, he grinned, "And who better to end that retirement than with someone that I came to know so well? Someone that I know will ethically use his practice for the better of mankind?"

J's chest puffed up proudly as he grinned, "Who better, indeed." Howard kept the smirk to himself. Friend or not, something just told him that the man was not to be fully trusted in the way that he was not being very forthcoming with what he was doing with his own practice now.

Whatever the lab owner was up to, Howard intended to get to the bottom of it while working right under the doctor's nose. Silently, he was grateful that he did not just come out and ask for the chemicals that he needed. Such a specific list of items would have had J very curious to what he was up to.

For his part, Doctor J was just as leery about Howard. He knew how his old friend would react if he were to learn that there was a handful of nekos in his possession. It would not go well for him in the least.

Then again, he thought to himself, the cell and testing rooms were in the second basement level. Those with access to the nekos had a special access key for a hidden lock in the elevator that took them down to the cell and holding rooms. He could use his old ally's wealth of knowledge to assist his newest prodigies in some of the other divisions of his work and had Howard none the wiser of what he was hiding.

After a moment of consideration, the old doctor finally clapped his flesh and robotic hands together and laughed, "All right! Having you on board to help my chemists would help me greatly in our stem cell research department. How soon would you be able to start?"

Beaming, Howard answered, "Tomorrow if that's all right. Stem research, hm? My but it's been a time since I worked with that. It will be quite the treat!" He reached forward and took the metal hand offered to him. "Thank you, J," he nodded firmly. "You won't regret this."

"I will give you a tour when you arrive in the morning," Doctor J grinned. "It'll be good to have you on board."

With an exchange of farewells, Howard left the room to be escorted to the elevator. Stepping outside just as the sun began to set, the old scientist sighed deeply in relief of putting on that he thought to be a compelling performance. "Tomorrow," he smiled to himself before all but running to the parking lot across the street.

* * * * *

Heero finished gliding the blade carefully along the top of Duo's
right arm to remove the long fur that had grown since that morning's shave. As he worked, the braided neko used another blade to work at the left arm. "So what did Solo have to do today to earn tonight's lesson?" the Japanese teenager asked when the silence in the bathroom became too think.

Chuckling deeply, Duo replied, "I decided to take it easy on him today. He's gone through a lot the last four days." Lightly running the shaving cream from the blade in his hand under the running water of the sink, he grinned, "And I think he's actually been enjoying the things that I've had him do so far."

At that, Heero paused and raised an eyebrow. "Really?" he smirked to the reflection of the violet eyes watching him in the vanity mirror. Finishing up his work, he inquired, "What makes you say that?" As he lowered the blade onto the sink ledge, he reached for a towel and lightly ran it over the length of the arm that was smoothed down once again.

"I don't know," Duo admitted. "But, last night when we finished decorating the main hall, I couldn't help but think that he really enjoyed himself. He was pretty quiet for a time after we got a chance to see how the room looked when we were done, just watching the lights and all with wide eyes."

He paused for a second as he reached for the towel to dry the arm he'd just finished and frowned in thought. "It was almost like how I know I reacted the first time I saw a Christmas tree," the neko thought aloud. "I wonder if he ever really got to appreciate something like that before."

Folding his arms as he considered that, Heero thought aloud, "Maybe not. Considering how a lot of parents out here still live by my mother's old ways, I suppose there is a chance that he'd missed out on a lot. Even for myself, I never really appreciated a Christmas tree, or the season, until after you came along." He smiled warmly, "Your own enjoyment of it all was pretty contagious."

Duo blushed a bit as he lowered the towel in his hands and accepted the soft kiss that his lover gave him. Ducking his head a bit, his cat ears drooped shyly while he asked, "Does my excitement over even the little things embarrass you at all?"

"Of course not," Heero replied, his smile growing and warming all the more. "I think it's wonderful. Anything that makes you smile makes me happy." Lightly wrapping his arms around the smaller boy, he pulled him close and rested their foreheads together with their eyes locking. "You've helped me appreciate so many things that I take for granted. The sound of rainfall. Snow. Rainbows. Even the simplest of things like finding a penny on the ground with heads facing up. Things that I would have missed out on if it weren't for you."

The blush returned to the braided neko's face, but a bright smile tugged his lips. Reaching up to wrap his arms around the partner's neck, he purred deeply. His long tail came up to wrap around Heero's waist in just another means to get even closer. For a moment, they just stood there like that before the taller boy whispered, "You're my whole world, Duo. Nothing else in this life would mean anything to me without you."

Biting his lip and fighting the small tears that threatened to creep into his eyes, Duo breathed, "Love you, too." Slowly, they leaned in for a deep kiss. Before things could get any further, the doorbell rang.

Reluctantly pulling back with frustrated sighs, the two teenagers chuckled deeply. "That'd be Solo for his lesson," the neko said regrettably. Quickly giving his lover's lips a quick kiss, he leaned in close to his ear and suggested in a deep purr, "We'll have to pick this up where we left off when I'm finished tutoring."

Heero smirked, "I'm not inclined to argue there." Lowering his arms from the smaller boy's waist, he lightly smacked his rear and winked, "Get going. Sooner you get started, the sooner we can get back to this."

With a playful yelp at the hit, Duo stuck his tongue out before laughing and dashing off for the door just as the bell rung once more.

As the door slid open at his command, the braided teenager smiled to
his guest, "Hey, Solo. Come on in."

Lifting the backpack from his shoulders, the blonde young man grinned, "Thanks." As he stepped into the living room with his teacher, Solo asked, "So which class will we be going over tonight, 'teach?" He chuckled deeply along with his tutor at the nickname.

Duo hummed in thought a moment while going through his own texts in the bookshelf before answering, "Probably Professor G's Basic Law Theory class. You seem to be picking up on the other classes pretty well. And G's exam will be the most difficult out of all of them, from what I can tell. The more time we spend on that one, the better."

Shuddering, Solo frowned deeply, "I was afraid that you'd say that. That's the one class that I'm doing the worst in, too. If I don't ace the exam, I fail his course for sure."

"Well, we'll just have to really work at going through these notes, then," Duo replied as he held up his notebook. "We'll start from the top and go from there." Already pulling out his own notebook and textbook, Solo joined his mentor at the table in the center of the room.

From around the corner, Heero peeked in to watch the pair for a moment. Chuckling deeply to himself in amusement, he smiled to himself, "Maybe there is hope for Solo yet." As he headed back to the bedroom, he smirked, "If there was anyone that could change a person for the better, it's my Duo."

* * * * * *

Late that evening...

It was a little known fact that the only security camera that watched the Main Hall after hours was nothing more than a prop to scare anyone who might think to try something. But then, having so many people that wanted to please them with such information always kept life interesting.

With nothing recording their actions, it was a simple matter of slipping into the building after the campus security car made its round. Once it moved on, it would take the officers inside nearly forty minutes to slowly drive around the remainder of the campus before it returned. More than enough time for the four of them to carry out their plan.

As the headlights of the security car vanished down the long street flanked by thick trees at either side, they moved. Dressed in black from head-to-toe, they smirked to each other before running up the front steps of the large facility.

The lock was pretty easy to deal with. Within minutes, they poured inside the darkened building and closed the glass door behind them. Turning their dimmed flashlights on, they headed into the large central room that had been decked out from top to bottom for the holiday. While not as impressive with the Christmas lights out, the dark-clad lot appraised the detail of the handiwork that had gone into decorating the large room.

A great deal of time had gone into setting such a display up. And it would only take moments for it to all come down.

Removing the crowbar that he had been in his black backpack to grip it tightly, Eric grinned to his accomplices, "This is going to be fun."

* * * * * *

It was early the following morning when the phone rang. Moaning, Heero and Duo stirred from their deep slumber. "Don't wanna get up," the long-haired neko muttered as he buried his head in the strong, bare chest beneath him. The phone rang once again. "Sleepy," he whined. "Too comfy to get up. And it's a Saturday! No waking on a Saturday before ten in the morning!"

Chuckling deeply, Heero lightly ran a hand over his lover's long hair. "Aw," he grinned, "Did I wear you out that much last night?" He laughed when the head against his shoulder nodded enthusiastically.

With a deep sigh, Heero reached for the phone sitting on the table at his side of the bed and placed the receiver to his ear. "Hello," he greeted while stifling a yawn. After a moment of listening to the frantic voice on the other line, his cobalt eyes widened. "Hang on, Sandra," he soothed, "He's right here."

Frowning deeply, the Japanese teenager rested the receiver against his free shoulder. "Duo," he called to the tall, furry ears peeking out of the mass of hair on his chest. "It's Sandra from the decorating committee. She's pretty upset about something."

Quickly raising his head, the smaller boy pushed back his loose hair behind his cat ears and reached for the phone. "Sandy? What's wrong?" he asked, fully awake now as worry filled his eyes. It took a moment for the frenzied girl to recant the news that she was given just moments before.

His violet eyes widening, Duo shouted, "What!? I'll be there in a few minutes!" In a blink, he reached over to hang the phone back up and was half-way across the room to open the top drawer to his dresser.

On his own feet in an instant, Heero reached his lover's side. "What's wrong?" he questioned as he opened his own dresser up to throw something over his nude form.

Pulling up a black pair of boxers, the neko slid his tail through the hole in the back. "Someone vandalized the main hall. Everything that we set up last night is ruined," he stated. "Why would anyone…" his voice trailed off and he shook his head while focusing on getting dressed as quickly as he could.

Heero paused in his own changing, his cobalt eyes widening at the thought of someone… or more than one person, for that matter, could be as cruel as to destroy a Christmas display. "I'd like to come and help, if it's all right with you."

"Yea," Duo replied with a small smile of gratitude as he buttoned the front of his jeans closed. "Thanks." That said, the pair quickly dressed in silence, grabbed their coats, and ran out of their apartment.

* * * * * *

The entire decorating committee was walking about the massive room at the center of the Main Hall. Dorothy and several other directors and staff were also present to survey the damage done. The huge tree had been knocked down with most of its lights and ornaments smashed into colorful dust particles on the floor.

All around, the garland, tinsel and lights from the ceiling were strewn about where they fell after being torn from their hooks. Spray paint of all shades and colors etched out horrible sayings and abstract designs in the tree and on the walls. 'Merry Fucking Christmas' was the largest of the phrases, greeting all on the wall at the back of the room so that it would be the first thing seen when a person entered.

In the center of the room, Dorothy wrapped her arms around her waist
and shook her head with a sad frown as she gazed on the fallen tree. Heero, Duo, Solo and a very distraught head of the decorating committee walked up to her. Lightly wrapping her arms around the quietly crying red-head, the law director reassured her with a small smile, "Don't worry, Sandra. We'll get even more help to clear all of this up and decorate the hall to look even more wonderful."

Biting her lip, Sandra brushed back her short hair from her shoulder and sniffled, "I just don't understand. Who would do such a horrible thing? And why?"

With a deep growl, Solo's eyes that had been glaring at his surroundings since his arrival fell on the tree last. His hands clenched at his sides, he hissed, "I think I know."

 

Part 19

More than forty students, in addition to the large decorating committee, made their way into the Main Hall at Wayne University to assist in the clean up and redecorating. Word had traveled rather quickly through the dorms of the vandaized Christmas scene that had been up for little more than a whole day.

Dorothy and several other staff members pulled together some funds to replace those decorations that were too damaged to spare. A new tree, just as large and full as the first, was brought in by several members of the school football team. The decorations that could be spared were the first to go up on the branches.

Those vulgar words and haphazard markings that were spray painted on the walls were cleaned up with the assistance of the maintenance crew and their machinery to make quick work of the task. Ladders were brought in for the lights, tinsel and garland to be strung back up in the rafters. Brooms moved about the floor to quickly sweep up the broken ornaments and fallen tinsel.

Even the Dean, herself, had arrived to dig in with the efforts. It was quite a pleasant shock for Dean Morales to show up in jeans and a plain red T-shirt instead of her usual business suits that everyone was used to seeing her on during the week. With her normally loose black hair pulled back in a ponytail on top of it all, even Dorothy had a hard time recognizing her at first glance.

With so many hands on sight, it was a matter of a few short hours before the room was restored to look just as breathtaking as it had been before the incident. When the lights were turned on, a huge cheer went up from the group gathered around.

Solo sighed to himself with a deep frown, unable to enjoy the celebration. The guilt of knowing that he was partially responsible for the incident was making him sick to his stomach. He was more than certain that his 'brothers' were the ones that had broke into the building to destroy the scene that he had helped create.

Without their even needing to say it to his face, Solo knew that Eric and the others sent this act as a message to him. 'You choose who you're loyal to.'

He had.

As the celebration began to calm, Dorothy wiped the back of her hand over her damp brow and moved over to one of the couches that sporadically lined the walls. Taking a seat, she sighed deeply and closed her eyes.

"You okay, there, Dorothy?" Duo asked as he sat beside his friend. "You look a little pale. Do you need some water or something?" he offered quickly, his cat ears perking up in his anticipation to help however he could.

Chuckling deeply, the blonde young woman opened her light blue eyes to meet his and replied, "Actually, water would be wonderful. Thank you, Duo."

She hardly finished the words before the braided neko bounded from the couch to head down the main corridor to the vending machines. Dorothy smiled and shook her head in wonder and amusement, "Where on earth he gets his energy."

Heero approached the couch and smirked, "I've often wondered the same thing, myself." Tilting his head to the side, he questioned in little more than a whisper so that the students and staff filing out couldn't hear, "So have you told Trowa about the baby, yet?"

Her eyes widening, Dorothy snapped her head in his direction and opened her mouth to ask how he knew when he raised his hand and grinned, "Don't forget that my mother had me training to become a lawyer for years. I'm a little more perceptive to things than a lot of people."

Sighing deeply, the law director shook her head and grinned, "Of course. I should have known, considering how she was one of the first to notice." After a moment's pause to nod her goodbyes to some of the students walking past, she bit her lip and said softly, "I was going to tell him once finals were finished this week. During the winter break. There is just so much going on for both of us right now to have to complicate things even more with something like this."

"Probably not a bad idea. It is only another week before things will settle down again," Heero agreed. With a small smile, he said sincerely, "Congratulations. "

A slight blush colored Dorothy's cheeks. Lightly rubbing a hand over her stomach once the last of the crowd filtered out, she lowered her head and admitted softly, "I'm worried about he'll react." Small tears filled her eyes as she looked back up to her friend and said, "You've known Trowa almost your whole life. Do you think he'll take this well?"

Heero gave her a reassuring smile and gently wiped away a lone tear that fell down her cheek with his thumb. "He'll be thrilled," he answered without any hesitation or doubt in his voice. "Don't worry."

Feeling a great weight lifted from her shoulders at those words, Dorothy wiped her eyes dry and smiled, "Thank you, Heero. I really needed to hear that."

"Is this about the baby?" Duo inquired as he neared with a cold bottle of water in his hand. Just as the stunned young woman looked up at him with her mouth opening to speak, he grinned, "Law student, remember? Always be perceptive." Handing over the bottle to his friend, he warned, "Just try not to overdue yourself like that again."

Unable to help the laugh that escaped her, Dorothy accepted the opened bottle and took a long sip. "Great," she muttered while replacing the cap. "If the two of you were able to figure it out my secret then my entire staff of professors, and most likely most of my students, are aware that I'm pregnant by now."

His grin widening, Duo nodded, "Probably." Her head falling back, Dorothy laughed.

Looking around the room, Duo's ears drooped a bit when he found it empty. "Any idea where Solo went?" he asked. "He seemed pretty upset when we got here this morning. I don't remember him saying a word the whole time we were working, either."

As leery as he was of the blonde frat boy, Heero even felt a bit of concern after seeing for himself how distraught he was. "I didn't even see him slip out of the hall," he commented, rising to his feet.

With his brown eyes narrowed, Solo's fists clenched and unclenched at his sides. As he headed up the front steps to the patio of the huge mansion-turned college dorm known as Bradley Hall, he ignored the greetings of some of the other fraternity brothers in their passing. Several concerned faces that he came across quickly got out of his way.

Stalking through the entrance, the blonde neko walked up to the security guard at the desk just inside. The tall, muscular man blinked in surprise at the reddened face. "Something wrong, Solo?" his deep voice asked the obvious question in a way of opening up conversation to try and ease the enraged boy.

"The people responsible for vandalizing the Main Hall are in this dorm, Evan," Solo hissed, careful to keep his voice quiet as to not have anyone else that might be listening tip off his 'friends.' "I'm about to get the evidence to prove that, so you might want to call some extra security in here to escort them."

Instantly, the guard's hand moved to the transmitter at his belt as he leaned close to the teenager with narrowed, grey eyes. "Which rooms?" was all that Evan requested as he removed the device from its hook.

After a quick glance around the large foyer to see that the few students around were out of earshot, Solo answered, "Three C and D." Without another word, he was off and through the doors leading to the stairwell. There was a sharp call from the guard to wait, but he was in no mood to wait any longer.

Every fiber in Solo was on fire with rage at the frat boys he once thought of as people he could trust. The fact that they would stoop to such a level to get at him made him seethe. He was vaguely aware of the security officer running up the steps after him, a whole half of a flight behind.

Finally, making it to the top floor, Solo turned the corner and walked down past the jocks that were laughing and talking in the hallway. He paid no mind to the worried greetings that he was receiving and headed right for room 3C, the closed of his two targets. Raising his hand, he gave two hard knocks on the door.

When the door opened, Stanley greeted him with wide eyes at finding the heated glare that bore down on him. "S-Solo?" he stammered. "What's going-?" Cutting him off, the blonde teenager growled deeply and pushed himself past his 'friend' into the room.

Much to his luck, the remaining three were all inside, in the middle of playing a video game. When their heads snapped up to meet the eyes glaring down on them, there was a brief glimmer of fear in them that was quickly erased. Ever the leader of the group, Eric lowered his control pad and rose to his feet with a sly smile. "Good to see you, Solo," he jabbed in a not-so-pleasant tone that was meant to intimidate.

Despite the fact that Eric nearly towered over him, Solo was not the least bit threatened. Getting right to the point, he snapped, "Spare me the pleasantries. You're going to turn yourselves in for what you did to the Main Hall, or I'll be the one to do it."

Throwing his own control panel at the television, Tim stood quickly and shouted, "Where do you get off, you little shit!? You have no way of being able to prove that we involved! This is some respect to be showing your 'brothers' after everything that we've done to look out for you!"

No longer in a mood for further discussion, Solo all but ran for the closet just to his right and threw it open before the others had a second to react. The moment that the door was opened, several spray cans and crowbars fell to the floor along with an open plastic bag of dark clothes.

"You son of a bitch!" Eric screamed, lunging for the blonde neko. Just before his fist could slam into Solo's face, Evan kicked in the door that had been closed and locked. Everyone froze as they were with wide eyes on tall man.

Raising a finger and shaking it in the air along with his head, the security guard smirked, "I wouldn't if I were you. Not unless you want to add assault onto the charges that you're going to be handed."

His fist shaking where it has stopped inches from Solo's nose, Eric sighed deeply and lowered his arm. The glare, however, remained as he stepped back to join his accomplices. And not a moment too soon, the neko thought to himself as he could feel his knees beginning to shake underneath him.

Several more guards entered the room behind Evan as they assessed the evidence that was lying on the floor. "Call the Dean," he commended. "She hasn't left the premises yet. I'm sure that she'll want to know about this."

Considering the grave charges against them for their little stunt, Dean Morales had contacted the county officers to come and take the four perpetrators into custody. After a stern talk that she had with the boys privately, she assured them that they would be spending the next two days and nights in prison without bail for just the beginning of their punishment.

"I have no tolerance for this behavior," the Hispanic young woman stated clearly as she paced before the teenagers sitting on the bench across from her. Their heads lowered, Eric, Tim, Stanley and Mike listened with solemn faces. "You will be expelled from this university for the remainder of this semester and the following. And frankly, I am not even sure that I would be willing to allow you back even after that."

Tim and Stanley winced while the others swallowed roughly. "Now, you will have a lot of time on your hands for the next few days to think over what you have done and how you have disappointed your parents," Dean Morales continued, folding her hands behind her back. "I will be notifying them of everything on your way to the prison."

Giving three of the county officers at the lobby door a firm nod, she stepped back and watched as the four boys were escorted outside to the squad cars that were waiting. Along with nearly every student living on the campus that came rushing to see what the commotion was all about. With a deep sigh, the Dean shook her head and frowned deeply, "Such a terrible waste."

With her head high after regaining her composure, Rosario Morales stepped out of Bradley Hall just as the last bit of sunlight was fading and the street lamps began to glow. Retaining her approachable, yet commanding presence, the young woman smiled and nodded firmly to the many students gathered around, "All right, everyone. I would advise just carrying on with your lives now. No need to be lingering here."

Reluctantly, but without argument at those words, the crowd began to dissipate. Those that lived in the dorm all but ran back inside while those living elsewhere split apart to head back to their own residences. Solo, however, walked up to the Dean just as Evan joined her on the patio. "I understand that you wanted to speak with me, Dean Morales," he frowned nervously.

A sad smile tugged her lips as she replied, "Solo, I appreciate your efforts in our finding the people responsible for the damage in the Main Hall. However, I am aware of how close you were to those boys. We need to know where you were last night during the incident for our own satisfaction. "

His brown eyes widening, Solo thought of how to explain that he'd been studying when he was well known by the faculty for all but completely blowing off his classes.

"Solo was studying with me at my apartment off campus, Dean Morales," Duo's voice called. Gasping softly to himself, the blonde neko turned in shock to watch the braided student running up the front steps along with Heero. Lightly panting from the short run, his tutor explained to the young woman, "We didn't finish until pretty late since it was a Friday night, so he couldn't have been part of the break in."

Heero remained quiet, knowing that he was not needed to validate his lover's story. Everyone knew that Duo never lied.

Raising an eyebrow, the Dean smirked to the red-capped boy, "Well, Solo, I am pleasantly surprised to hear that you are actually taking your studies seriously for a change." Still reeling by the fact that the other neko had come to his aid, the blonde teenager could only manage a small nod. With a pleasant 'good night' and a 'thank you' to Duo for his help, the young woman stepped down from the patio while Evan returned to his post in the lobby.

Left alone, Solo slowly turned to face his savior and said quietly, "Thank you. I don't think that she would have believed me if I told her what I was doing last night."

Duo smiled warmly and shrugged, "Thank you for doing the right thing. That had to be pretty hard for you. Besides, what are friends for?"

Friend. The words echoed through Solo's numb thoughts.

"Well, all things considered, I think we should cancel tonight's lesson," the braided neko suggested. Lightly slapping his new friend on the shoulder, he grinned, "What do you say we visit the Halo Café for some hot chocolate or something?"

Heero zippered his long, brown coat up to his neckline and smiled, "That does sound like a good idea right about now."

A small grin slowly tugged Solo's lips at the thought. "Yea," he finally nodded, "I-I'd like that… friend." He tested the word and was surprised how natural it felt to be calling the other neko such a thing.

Their plan set, the three teenager set out for the parking lot to Heero's car just as snow began to drift from the starless sky. Despite the chill in the air and his nerves that were still tense after all that'd happened, Solo didn't feel the cold for once.

 

Part 20

Early the same morning the Main Hall at Wayne University was being redecorated. ..

When it came to working for a lab, there was no rest on the weekend. Howard was well aware of that little fact when he asked to start that Saturday morning. There would only be half the staff working that would normally be around on a weekday and so it would be easier to settle into his new role.

Doctor J greeted his old colleague in the ornate main lobby with a firm handshake and a grin. "I thought that it would be best to start with a tour to get you acquainted with the facility. We'll start from the basement and work our way up." 'Well... not the lowest level basement,' he inwardly smirked.

"Very good," Howard relied as he returned the handshake. "Thank you, again, for this opportunity, J. I've been itching for the chance to get back to what I love doing. You're a good man for being so gracious." 'And so generous with the use of your equipment and wonderful supply of chemicals,' he added silently with a deep chuckle in his mind.

Leading the way to the elevator, the metallic-armed man smirked, "My pleasure. You are, after all, going to be a much-needed help in teaching some of my less than experienced staff." Stepping into the elevator, he announced, "Let's get started, then."

Throughout his little tour of the facility, Howard made sure to notice any and all details that might have been out of the ordinary. He quickly memorized the names of the staff that he was introduced to in the event that he might be of need of their assistance in the future. Despite the friendly demeanor that Doctor J was showing, he still couldn't help the nagging feeling that the man was hiding something.

From what he had seen, however, the retired scientist had to admit that there was nothing to hint to such a thing. With that, Howard just decided to keep a keen eye and ear open at all times during his stay.

At the end of their journey, Doctor J stepped into the last of the laboratories that they had yet to visit. On the black tables that stretched from one side of the room to the other, there was a variety of vials and beakers atop burners.

Hundreds of clear canisters with labels marking the contents within were set up in holders against the walls. Howard made sure not to let his eyes linger too long on the canisters. There'd be time to locate the chemicals that he needed. It was best not to draw too much attention to his interest in them.

There was one lone person working at one of the center tables with their back to the old men, studying the beaker of fluid that they were boiling over a burner. Opening his arms, J stated, "This is where you will be working, my friend. As you can see, I am lightly staffed, today." Cupping the side of his mouth with his robotic arm, he called, "Liz. I would like to introduce you to your new mentor."

Her back straightening, the white-coated young woman rose from her stool and quickly turned off the burner at her station. When her feet touched the ground to reveal her petite height, her head of shoulder-length mouse brown hair flowed with the movement.

When Liz approached, her green eyes widened with a small gasp, "Oh, very nice to meet you, Sir. Doctor J told us all about you and how you had worked together in creating the first ever neko. This is a great honor to be working with you."

Smiling warmly at the girl's clear enthusiasm, Howard accepted her hand in a firm shake and nodded, "The pleasure is mine, Liz. I understand that you and your team will be focusing on stem cell research. That, my dear, is one of my best fields. I hope you would not object to our getting started right away in a private lesson?"

"Really!?" the lovely young woman gushed. "I'd be honored!"

Doctor J chuckled deeply, "I best leave the two of you alone to get acquainted, then. I've much work to finish, myself, before I leave for the day." With a nod to his new employee, he stepped from the room.

Clapping his hands together, Howard asked, "Now, my dear, what is it that you had been working on before we old men so rudely interrupted you?"

Liz chuckled deeply, "Oh, I was just working on a breakdown in the second layer of a stem cell that I've been taking samples from. We're focusing primarily on the contamination of the cells that lead to a variety of paralysis."

"Excellent!" Howard cheered. "This will be a most interesting thing to teach you." With a friendly hand on her shoulder, the old scientist led his new pupil back to her station, finding the excitement in the girl's green eyes was contagious. It'd been some time since he had felt the same rush in being a part of something that was important to him with his practice-to help others.

Once they were sitting across from each other at the thin black table, Liz's smile faded into a worried frown. Glancing around to make sure that they were alone, she leaned in and whispered, "Sir, I hope that you don't find me weird for saying so, but something is definitely.. . off about this place."

Raising an eyebrow, the white-haired man replied, "First, I will not answer to the name 'Sir,' since it is not what my mother named me. Howard will do just fine." As his student blushed a bit at her embarrassment, he leaned in and asked, "Now what do you mean by 'off?'"

"Well," Liz bit her lip before explaining, "I'm only telling you this because you had the decency to leave Dekim's labs when you knew what was in store for that neko that you helped create. I thought that maybe if you thought something wrong was happening here, that you might want to know about it before getting too involved. I certainly wouldn't want any part in anything that went against my own morals."

In seeing the sense in that, Howard nodded, "I appreciate that, dear. As much as I love the thought of returning to work in this field, the last thing that I would want is to jump from one frying pan into the other." Folding his arms and resting them on the table, he pressed, "Now, what is it that has you so concerned?"

Swallowing hard, Liz nervously played with a few strands of her short hair and answered, "Less than a week ago, I was in the basement collecting some data reports that were stored there. When I went to get the elevator to ride back up here, I could have sworn that I heard it rising up instead of lowering. The crazy part is that there is only one basement level to choose from. But, I know what I heard."

Her green eyes looked about once more before she said in little more than a whisper, "No one knew that I was in the basement to begin with. We're to report whenever we wish to go down there, but I was in a rush to get back to the test that I was running in here.

"I think… I think that I heard something that I wasn't meant to and I'm afraid that someone will find out. But then, why would there be a whole other floor that no one else knows of if Doctor J was acting ethically?"

By the worried look in her eyes, Howard could tell that Liz was clearly fearful of what might happen if she was found out. She obviously believed what she had heard enough to want to talk to someone that she thought she could trust. Who better than a new mentor that she knew acted out of his conscience by leaving his prior profession.

More than that, what the young woman had to say certainly did tie into the odd feelings that Howard felt when in J's presence. He would certainly have to look further into what she believed she had found.

With a kind smile, the old man spoke reassuringly, "Liz, I promise you that not a word of what you said will leave this room." His smile widened as he commented, "I'll be sure to keep my eyes and ears open for anything out of the ordinary. And I will look into this mysterious floor that you believe exists so that both of our minds could be put at ease."

Liz's shoulders relaxed with a deep sigh that pulled from her lungs. Returning the warn grin, she nodded, "That would be wonderful. Thank you S-Howard." She chuckled lightly at her near slip of the name.

Howard gave a supportive pat on her shoulder and winked, "I have a feeling we're going to be fast friends, my dear. For the time being, however, let's focus on what you're doing here so as not to appear as though we've done nothing but sit here and conspire this whole time."

"Good idea," Liz remarked. Clearing her throat, she pointed to the beaker with one hand and turned the burner back on with the other. "Well, this little pattern that's still blue from the heat is the one that I'm currently watching for any changes…" As she went on, her teacher leaned in for a closer look, nodding to himself and assessing her findings. Throughout her discussion, his eyes drifted to the canisters lining the walls for a quick assessment.

At the end of the day, when he stepped into the elevator, Howard noted the security camera that stared down at him from the square ceiling. Glancing away from it, he let his eyes glide down the buttons of the different floors.

To the inexperienced eye, much like Liz's and the countless others that worked for J, nothing seemed out of place. In Howard's case, having worked for Dekim, he noted the tiny patch in the metal that was not the same shade as the rest. It would have gone unnoticed even to him had he not known to look for such a thing.

Sure enough, the discolored metal patch, no bigger than a keyhole, was most likely covering just that. It would give the few that had the key access to a level no one else would have even known was there.

Quickly looking away from the patch, Howard folded his hands behind his back and hummed a merry turn to himself while rocking back and forth on his feet.

With a 'good night' to the guard at the lobby desk, the white-haired man stepped out just as a new batch of snow began to drift from the dark sky. Looking back to the tall building, Howard frowned deeply, "And what on earth would you be hiding, 'old friend?'"

* * * * * *

Solo stirred his large cup of hot chocolate as he stared into the dark whirlpool highlighted with white from the marshmallows that were melding together. Normally, he would have been enjoying such a treat. Before attending Wayne, he never got to experience such simple pleasures that humans seemed to take for granted.

Well… with one exception in Heero, that was. The Japanese teenager was clearly savoring his own cocoa from where he sat across the table. When he thought about it, Solo had to admit that the art major seemed to relish in everything- much like his cat-eared lover.

Duo sat beside Heero with his tail wrapped around his spoon to stir his steaming drink as he reached with a hand for the large bowl of marshmallows at the center of the table. Adding the handful to his already heaping collection, he grinned widely. Gathering a spoonful that was more melted marshmallow than the actual drink, he hummed in bliss to himself.

"You're going to be so high on sugar tonight you won't be able to sleep," Heero chuckled deeply, shaking his head. "I can't even see your hot chocolate any more!"

His violet eyes widening, Duo pushed away the mountain in his cup enough to show the dark liquid below. "See. It's there," he grinned. The unruly-haired teenager just mock rolled his eyes and smirked.

The whole scene only served to remind Solo how alone he was. He missed Cassie so much it hurt. He missed Danny and the rest of his family more than he could say. To not have any contact with that, to not have any reassurance that they were all right was killing him.

What was more, now Solo didn't even have the companionship that he had in Eric and his other fraternity brothers. At least while he was away from his family, he could at least rely on them for something as simple as having someone to talk to. Now, they were gone.

He was completely alone.

From across the table, Duo tilted his braided bead and frowned in worry, "You okay there, Solo?"

"Hm?" the blonde neko hummed as he lifted his head. Seeing the worry in the violet eyes watching him, he shrugged, "I'm all right. Just... coping with everything, I guess. Somehow, I don't think that the other fraternity members will be thrilled for selling out some of their own even if it was the right thing to do."

Duo shared a look with Heero in another silent discussion. When the art student nodded, his partner grinned, "You could always crash at our apartment in our living room if you're uncomfortable going back to your dorm. We only have a week before our winter break, so there will be plenty of time for things to blow over."

Blinking in surprise, Solo looked back and forth between the gazed on. When he found only sincere acceptance of the offer, he sputtered, "Y-you would really do that for me? Why?"

The braided neko chuckled, "Well, we're friends, remember? So, we look out for each other."

'That word again,' Solo thought to himself. He almost laughed at the notion. Weeks ago, he hated Duo more than anything else in existence because of his jealousy. In the time that they knew each other, he'd made a point to make life miserable for him until recently. Somehow, the very person that he was taught to disgust had become the only real person that he could trust and rely on.

Everyone knew that Duo never lied. He would never have called Solo a friend if he didn't mean it.

When he found his voice again, Solo swallowed hard and replied, "T-that means a lot. Thank you. But, I think that I best stay at my room for the rest of the semester. I'm not normally one that runs from my problems. Better to just face them."

Along with that, he decided, better to not have to explain why he slept at night with his baseball cap on. Better to just return to his single where he could always be on his own. The line at his dorm was also the only one that J and his henchmen could reach him at.

Heero looked a bit uncertain and asked, "Are you sure? It wouldn't be any trouble."

Already nodding before he finished his thought, the blonde neko grinned, "I'm sure. But I really do appreciate the offer. I'll definitely keep it in mind in case things ever do get uncomfortable. "

Both Heero and Duo smiled before returning to their warm drinks. A little more at ease, Solo went back to his own cocoa, actually enjoying it this time.

Later, when he was dropped off back at his dorm, the blonde young man headed to his room without any problem. Once he was closed away, he removed his cap and pulled his grey sweater up to stretch his white ears and tail. Flopping onto his bed, he looked up to the ceiling with a deep sigh as he thought to all of his revelations regarding his changing relationship with Duo.

Small tears of fear filled his brown eyes after a long, silent inner discussion. In little more than a whisper, he committed aloud, "I have to tell him."