11-11-2006

Title: Life Goes On
Parts 21-29+Ep/49+Ep
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 21

"A special assignment?" Liz gasped. The light in her green eyes sparked as she all but bounced on her feet, "What is it?"

Howard chuckled deeply, "Something that I trust only you to solve with me as I am teaching the others when they start coming in. You're about to have a lesson in some very complicated DNA theories and equations that I've lived by throughout my career."

Leaning in over the table, he told her quietly lest the walls hear, "And like what we discussed about that mystery floor, this needs to stay just between us. All right?"

The young woman nodded and smiled, "Of course." Buttoning up her white lab coat, she inquired, "So, what do you have that I can help with?"

Inwardly smirking to himself, the old man removed a folded paper from his pocket and opened it. Pointing to the DNA structure that was displayed, he explained, "This here is just a scenario that I have come up with. This structure, as you can see, is falling apart."

As she examined the image closer, Liz frowned, "Oh, I see. Some of the 'ladder rungs' are missing along with the molecules that line the sides."

"Very good," Howard grinned with a finger waving in the air. "It takes a keen eye to pick that up." As his pupil gushed at that, he opened a second paper- with the perfect image of a DNA strand from Duo when he was a kitten.

Pointing to the image, he continued, "Now, this is the original structure of that same strand before it had been manipulated and damaged. I need to come up with a way that the unglued DNA strand could safely digress back to the original without having the whole thing come undone."

Carefully looking over the two images, Liz hummed to herself in thought and bit her lip. "That's going to be quite the challenge," she commented. Straightening, she grinned widely, "But I always did like a challenge.

Howard winked, "That's why I chose you for this hypothetical. Every one of you here will be given different scenarios and I am assigning you with the most difficult one. I have no doubt that, with a little coaching from me, you'll be able to come up with the solution." 'And save me a great deal of time in the process while I play teacher to the rest of the staff here,' he thought to himself.

Clearly excited to solve her puzzle, Liz beamed, "I'll get started on it right now." Taking her seat a top her stool, she removed a pen from her white coat pocket and began to jot down some notes for herself.

From the back of the room, some of the other young staff entered to start their work week. With a pleasant grin, Howard called to them, "Come on in, everyone. As I am sure that Doctor J has informed you, I will be assisting all of you in your work of stem cell and DNA research. I have several hypothetical problems that I would like to assign in knowing where you are at in your development for what is in store for you."

Much like Liz, her co-workers only looked thrilled to have such an influential man in their field teaching them. Quickly getting to their stations, they were handed their projects and eagerly went right to work.

* * * * * *

With Monday came the first round of final exams. Both Heero and Duo had spent the whole of their Sunday afternoon and evening studying and preparing. Much to the neko's concern, Solo decided to work on getting himself ready on his own.

As they stepped into the classroom where their first exam was to be held, Solo grinned to his braided friend, "I think that I'm ready for this one. Thanks to your notes and what we went over, I was actually able to make sense of this class."

"That's great," Duo replied happily. "Glad to know that I was able to be of some help." They parted when taking their seats and the tests were handed out as the students all fell silent with their pencils in hand.

Over an hour later, a handful of students walked to the front of the class with their finished papers. Duo was the second to complete his exam and felt pretty confident that he would score well, having only a couple questions that he had to stop to think over.

Patiently, the cat-eater boy waited out in the hall for Solo. When the blonde teenager emerged as one of the last to wrap up, he was pleased to see that he was smiling at least. "Still feel pretty good about that one?" Duo asked quietly as they walked down the hall together.

"Actually, Misses Thompson wanted to start grading me right away to see if it was even worth her time," Solo chuckled deeply. "I only got three answers wrong."

Gasping sharply, Duo froze with wide eyes. "Then that means..."

The other boy finished with a smirk, "I got an A minus. Enough to pass the class with a decent grade." He laughed, "You should have seen Misses Thompson's face! I thought she was going to fall out of her chair when she was finished grading me!"

Duo shook his head and laughed, "I'll bet! Wish I could have stuck around longer to see that." His smile warming, he patted his friend's shoulder and said sincerely, "I'm really proud of you, man. You worked really hard to pass that Psychology class and it paid off. Think you're up for our Basic Law exam later this afternoon? We have a few hours between now and then to get a little more studying in."

"Sure," Solo nodded. "Every little bit helps." Looking to his watch, he suggested, "But maybe we should get some lunch first."

At the mention of food, the braided neko's stomach growled deeply. Blushing a bit, Duo chuckled, "I think my stomach would have to agree with you. I was too busy getting ready for this last exam to really have a decent breakfast."

Easily moving through the busy halls to head to the cafeteria, the blonde teenager asked, "So what does Heero's schedule look like for today with his finals?"

Just the mention of his lover's name brought a wide smile to Duo's face. His tail swayed to-and-fro as he replied, "He has two tests today, just like us. The first is a written exam for his Art History I course and for the second he has an hour to sketch with charcoal while incorporating all of the techniques that he learned from that class."

Solo's eyes widened a bit and commented, "Sounds interesting. I never did get to see any of his artwork before."

His violet eyes widening, Duo gasped, "That's right! He has the artworks that he's worked on this semester in the spare room." Another wide smile tugged his lips as he said, "I'll have to show them to you when we get back to the apartment."

'Good," Solo thought to himself. 'Once we have some time alone, I'll finally be able to tell him everything.' His cat ears and tail were already itching to be freed from their confinement. For the whole of the day before, he'd been debating over how and when would be the most appropriate time to handle his confession. His nerves were making his stomach turn at the thought of how Duo might react to realizing that he was no longer the only neko-along with the fact that he'd been lied to.

From when he came to know of the braided cat-eared boy, however, Solo couldn't help but be hopeful that he would eventually come to understand and forgive him. Maybe even help him and his family in breaking free from Doctor J.

Stepping into the cafeteria, Duo was about to reach for one of the trays at the front station when his extended arm began to shake. "Oh no," he whispered desperately. "Not now." No sooner had he said the words than an intense pain shot up his arm from his fingertips.

With a sharp cry of pain, he fell to his knees, gripping the throbbing arm with his good one. In seconds, however, Duo's entire body felt as though it was on fire and he curled into a ball on the floor.

There was another voice that was screaming and it took a moment to realize that it was his own. Through the haze of the pain he was enduring, he could vaguely hear some of the other students crying his name and others shrieking for someone to call for help.

As sweat tolled down his face, Duo managed to slowly half open his eyes and looked up. Solo was already at his side, frantically trying to get him to respond to his voice that was hardly audible. Too weak and in too much pain to answer, the smaller neko's eyes drifted closed as the darkness took its claim on him once more.

* * * * *

Heero ran up to the front reception desk of the emergency room. Panting, he met the wide-eyed gaze of the young woman in blue scrubs there. "I'm here to see Duo Maxwell," was all that he could manage.

The girl gave him an understanding nod and escorted him down the hall. "He just came to a few minutes ago," she said, looking back over her shoulder to the worried young man. She smiled, "Doctor Treize said that I should expect a very anxious visitor with your description and to just bring you right in."

Considering the fact that Treize was willing to make such light-hearted comments over the situation did put Heero at ease. Still, he wouldn't be happy until he actually got to see his lover... got to see for himself that he was all right. Finally, his escort gestured to the room just at their right and quietly walked off.

When Heero stepped into the room, he found Treize sitting beside Duo's bed as he spoke to him quietly. The two looked up and instantly, the violet-eyes that met his gaze welled up with tears as he whimpered, "He-meow." With a sharp gasp, he reached up and slapped a hand over his mouth.

His own cobalt eyes widening at the cat sound, Heero felt his knees going weak. Already up and at the Japanese teenager's side, Treize lent a hand under a trembling arm and assisted him in sitting at the side of the bed. Crying sharply, Duo flung himself forward and clung onto his partner. A deep frown settled on the doctor's face before he stepped back to give his friends some time alone.

Once he was in the hallway, Treize looked up at the sound of footsteps running up to him. Stopping just short of him, Sally gasped for air as she cried, "Danielle and Trent are outside fending off the reporters outside. How bad is it?"

"Bad," the tall man answered. "His vocabulary is being affected now. And on the blood tests that I had run, there are some noticeable issues arising that before I was not able to find through a single screening." Running a hand through his hair, Treize sighed deeply, "His time is almost up."

Small tears filled the braided woman's eyes as she shook her head, "God, Howard is so close. He said it'll only take a matter of days for him to have the serum ready."

Biting his lip, Treize hesitated before commenting, "I'm honestly not sure if Duo even has that long. All that we can do is wait and hope. We're already doing everything that we possibly can for him."

A small whimper escaped Sally's throat as she nodded, "I know. I was just so hoping that it wouldn't get this bad so fast."

In the room, Heero finally loosened his hold on his love and pulled back to lightly raise his braided head. When their wet gazes met, he forced his reassuring smile and told him brokenly, "It's not over yet, Duo. Howard is close to having this handled so it'll be all right."

His heart breaking at how determined his partner was to console him, Duo couldn't dare trust his voice as he continued to cry silently. Willing away his own fears, the Japanese teenager just wrapped his arms back around Duo's shaking body and rocked him back and forth.

As much as he wanted to believe his own words, Heero was not foolish enough to ignore how grave the situation had become. The odds against them were steeping, but he still refused to believe that they couldn't be overcome... somehow.

"I love you," Heero managed to whisper as his arms tightened around the smaller boy.

Duo sniffled against his shoulder and replied just as softly, "Love you, too." He whimpered again in a sound that was more of a pained mew. Biting his lip at the sound, Heero's eyes filled with fresh tears as he kissed the top of the neko's braided head.

****

His hands shaking, Solo wrung his white tail nervously as he sat before the vidhpone in his dorm room. On the screen, Doctor J took a deep breath before saying, "And so now you've seen first hand what is in store for you and the others when your own structure begins to fall apart. You have almost a year before it starts, but he only has a matter of days now based on what you've just explained to me. When he dies, so does any chance for a cure."

The old man paused and raised a white eyebrow, smirking, "Unless you are willing to try your luck, or anyone in your family's luck for that matter, in being my lab rats for a remedy."

"N-no, sir," Solo shook his head, fighting the tears. All that he could think of was Duo writhing on the floor, screaming himself hoarse in agony.

The thought of Cassie, Danny, or any of the others having to suffer that way shook him to the core. But, that was what would become of them if he didn't act and soon. It was already killing him to think of how he was going to have to betray his new friend, but he had to for the others if they were going to survive.

Doctor J smiled that way that made the hairs on Solo's skin stand on end. "Very good, my boy,' he nodded firmly. "We no longer have until the end of the week to wait, as I originally though we did. You must strike now."

His plan already in mind, the blonde neko stated softly, "Just have one of your men ready and waiting behind the Smith Apartments just off campus. I'll make sure that Duo's there, but I need to know that we can get away quickly."

"Excellent, Solo," the old scientist grinned. "I knew that you had this in you. I'm certainly glad that I was right in choosing you for the job." Leaning back in his leather seat, he chuckled deeply, "Sleep well tonight. You'll be back home before you know it."

As the screen went black, Solo whimpered and the tears that he'd been successful in fighting quickly filled his brown eyes. Hugging his legs tightly to his chest, he buried his face in his knees and sobbed in dread over what he had to do.

Slowly closing his own vidphone, Doctor J chuckled deeply and rose from his seat. Walking to the window of his office building, he watched as the sun began to set under the horizon of the city as he smirked darkly, "Bad news from God, Duo."

 

Part 22

Duo sighed deeply as Heero tucked the afghan from their couch around him. Much as he loved the fact that his lover was taking such excellent care of him, the braided neko hated being treated as if he might break any second. "I'm not that cold, love," he muttered with a deep frown. "All I suggested was that it felt a little cool in here."

He left out the fact that he was all but carried to the couch and lied down nearly the moment those words came out of him just moments before.

"And it might take some time for the thermostat to kick in," Heero replied. Once he was satisfied that he'd effectively wrapped the smaller boy, the Japanese teenager went to fluffing the pillows around him with a stern determination on his face.

Inwardly, Duo sighed to himself, his ears and tail drooping a bit. When the other teenager was set in looking after him, there was simply no talking him out of it. In the end, he really couldn't be too upset over it all. It did make him feel good to know that someone worried and cared for him so much. Still... he was perfectly capable of something as simple as covering himself if he was cold enough.

With a small smile, the neko chuckled deeply, "I thought that my parents were bad the whole time they were over here." He instantly regretted his words when Heero's shoulders slumped as if in defeat and his hands stopped working at one of the pillows beside him.

Biting his lip, Duo said softly, "I didn't mean to upset you with that. It's just... as much as I appreciate what you're doing, I can candle some-mew." The high-pitched cat sound that cut off his words ended the rest of his train of thought. Sighing deeply, he closed his violet eyes and lowered his head.

The edge of the couch shifted a bit as Heero sat beside him. A hand gently brushed its fingers along the cat-eater boy's cheek as his best friend's voice spoke quietly, "I'm sorry, Duo. It's just… I need to feel like I'm doing something to help out right now." At that, the smaller teenager blinked his eyes open to meet the cobalt eyes watching him.

Forcing a deep breath, Heero sighed, "Howard, Sally and Treize have been working on the solution to beating this thing. My Mom and Trent have been keeping any and all news media at bay this whole time. Zechs and Noin have been taking care of meals, getting us around and whatever else we need help with when things get out of hand for us... I want..." He turned his head away for a moment to gather his thoughts, and his voice when it cracked a bit in the end of what he was saying.

Despite his wish to say something, Duo just frowned and remained silent and allowed his lover a chance to speak his mind. Finally, Heero turned his head back and said in little more than a whisper, "I just need to feel useful to you right now. I need to know that I'm doing my part, since everything else is out of my control."

"Oh, Heero," the neko breathed with small tears in his eyes. "You're doing more than your part for me." When the art student was about to protect, Duo quickly told him, "I would have gone out of my mind long before now if you weren't here to hold me, kiss me, listen to me, reassure me, God, everything. If it hadn't been for you, I would have fallen apart by now."

Swallowing roughly, Heero asked brokenly, "Really?" With a small mew of a whimper, the braided teenager nodded. Slowly shifting closer, the taller youth wrapped his arms tightly around his partner as they both began shaking a bit.

The moment lasted for a few minutes before the doorbell rang. With a small sigh of regret in parting, Heero lowered his arms and slowly rose from the couch. Heading through the living room and past the kitchen, he was careful to make his way through the maze of flowers, stuffed animals, candy and other 'Get Well' offerings that filled the apartment before finally opening the door.

Only an hour ago, the phone finally stopped ringing off the hook with calls from concerned classmates that wanted to find out from Duo, himself, that he was all right.

First to greet him was a large bouquet of colorful flowers in a large, porcelain vase. Peeking out of the side of the immense display, the young man carrying them smiled, "Hey, Heero. Got a delivery for Duo. Again. No need to bother with a tip from here on out. I about made a mint from you along today."

Laughing, Heero nodded, "Thanks, Jason." With so many deliveries coming in, he and Duo came to know the deliverer on a first name basis. Carefully taking up the vase, he grinned, "I'll probably see you again before the day's out."

"Most likely," the brunette chuckled deeply. "Have a good afternoon, just in case that was the last of them." It was about the third time he'd said that in the last two hours. With an exchange of farewells Jason was off and Heero stepped deeper into the apartment as he closed the door as he called for his lover.

All but bounding into the room, Duo gasped at the sight of the beautiful arrangement of lilies, multi-colored sunflowers, violets and roses. Beaming, he gathered up the vase and took a deep, long whiff of the flowers before lowering them in one of the few openings on the floor in the hallway. Opening the card and reading it silently, the braided neko smiled warmly, "Christine and Denise. That's so sweet of them."

Heero leaned against the kitchen counter with his arms crossed and a smile on his own face. as he watched "Seems you've been making quite the impression on your classmates for your first semester," he commented before adding, "And the staff and faculty for that matter. At this rate, we won't be able to walk around here. I might have to turn down the next deliveries."

It was just a playful threat. They both knew, since Heero had made the same threat several times that day. In truth, he'd be thrilled if the entire apartment was filled to the last inch with flowers, candy and whatever else was sent up. It all showed Duo how much he was appreciated and cared for, regardless of his physical differences.

Seeing such an outpouring of affection for the neko only served to remind Heero, once again, how truly lucky he was to have him in his life.

And the cat-eared teenager truly appreciated every offering. Nothing came into that apartment without being hugged, sniffed, sampled and saved or cherished in any other way. So, yes, Heero was more than happy to endure the crowdedness.

"Good thing my Mom has a green thumb," Duo chuckled deeply before going through all of the other displays to smell them deeply with his tail swishing happily. "I love how it smells in here now."

His own smile growing in seeing how content his partner was, Heero admitted, "That it does." He glanced to his watch and announced, "I better get back to preparing for my last exam tonight. I'll feel a lot better once that's out of the way so I can focus on you the way that I want to."

Duo grinned moved one of the crystal vases with the largest arrangement of pastel-colored flowers to the kitchen table. "We already talked about that, mew," he reminded softly while ignoring his little slip in where he meant to say 'love.' "You're already more support to me that you realize." Lightly kissing the end of his best friend's nose, he told him, "Now, go on and study. I can last a few hours on my own."

With a light snicker, Heero smirked, "All right." Leaning in to kiss the other teenager soundly, he walked off down to the room that they'd dubbed their study.

Just as he was headed back to the couch, Duo's large ears twitched when the telephone rang. "I'll get it," he called back to the hallway. Quickly checking the caller id and recognizing the number, he smiled and opened the vidphone on the table before him. "Hey, Solo," he greeted when his blonde classmate appeared on the screen.

A mischievous smirk played on the red-capped boy's face as he chuckled deeply, "So, a visit to the hospital and you get out of your exams to take all of your exams at once, as opposed to spread out over the week, huh? I'm sure you could have come up with a more pleasant way of wrapping the semester up early."

Duo laughed, grateful that the frat boy was taking a light approach to the prior day's incident. "What can I say?" he shrugged. "It was the first thing that came to mind that seemed the most logical to work in my favor."

In reality, he was quite relieved that Dorothy was so good at getting his professors to give him the remainder of his finals that morning instead of having to wait. Now that he was finished, all that Duo needed to focus on was relaxing. Even Lady Une had done the same for Heero and his last test. After that evening, they would both have officially finished their fall semester.

Solo's smile warmed as he inquired kindly, "How are you feeling?"

Unable to hide his own worry, and unable to lie, the braided neko shrugged, "I've been better." Wrapping his arms around his thin frame, he explained, "Got a little problem that needs to be worked out." He was careful not to get too long-winded, lest he run the risk of another slip of the tongue, so to speak.

Worry creased the blonde neko's face. "Sorry to hear about that," he said sincerely. "I hope it works out." Duo gave him a bright smile and firm nod to reassure him. Clearing his throat, Solo suggested, "If you're up for it, maybe we could visit the Halo Café for another hot cocoa tonight." He quickly raised his hands submissively and promised, "I promise not to ask what was on the exams that you took this morning."

At that, Duo grinned, "Our teachers know that I'd never share that information, anyway." He thought for a moment of what night it was. Tuesday. The café was pretty slow on Tuesday nights, so it'd be easy to stay out of earshot should another cat sound escape him. With a deep breath, he finally nodded, "With Heero taking his last exam tonight, I could go for some company. I could let him know to just meet us there. I have some things that I need to talk about."

"Yea," Solo frowned slightly. "Me too." Quickly forcing a smile, he straightened and offered, "I'll come and pick you up at about eight tonight. It should be clear enough for a nice walk, long as we dress warm enough."

The thought of a nice night outside was more and more pleasing to Duo as he considered it. He really needed to tell someone other than his tight inner circle what was going on. And Solo had certainly become a person that he thought of as trustworthy- a far cry from how their relationship had started at the beginning of the semester.

Nodding firmly, Duo grinned, "Eight it is, then. Thanks, Solo." After a brief farewell from the other teenager, the screen went black. Virtually alone again, the braided neko sighed deeply in relief that he'd managed a whole conversation without a slip. He would not be able to go all night and be so lucky, but at least he could finally get his fears off his chest with a new pair of listening ears.

Already looking forward to the evening, and another cup or two of that wonderful hot chocolate at the café, Duo rose to his feet and headed to the bathroom for a shower. 'Maybe,' he thought to himself, 'it'll be a pretty good night after all."

* * * * * *

It was about quarter to eight that evening when the violet-eyes neko was dressed in his blue jeans and two layers of sweaters for the brief walk to the Halo Café. Duo felt a bit guilty at deciding to leave a note telling Heero where to meet him, as opposed to telling him before he left for his exam. But, he knew that his lover would just argue that such an outing might not be such a good idea. Better to explain after the fact that he just needed this.

The phone rang and instead of bothering with the vidphone, Duo just picked up the standard receiver on the wall in the kitchen and placed it to his ear. "Hello," he greeted.

"Hey," Solo's cheerful voice responded. "I'm out back."

Smiling, the braided teenager answered, "I'll be right down." As he hung the receiver back on its cradle, his long tail took hold of the grey ski cap that matched his top sweater. Sliding the woolen hat over his head and poking his ears through the holes at the top, he quickly reached for his winter coat and scribbled a note to Heero on their message board.

In just a few minutes, Duo stepped from the elevator on the ground level and headed for the back exit. Stepping out into the cool air, his breath steamed out as he looked around the dark paring lot. Solo approached with a wide smile and a wave of his hand. As he approached, he violet-eyes boy asked, "Ready,"

When they were only a mere foot apart, Duo paused suddenly as the air around him seemed to change. Something was wrong. Solo's smile had all but instantly faded and his brown eyes were darting about…as if waiting for something.

That was when he heard it, his ears twitching back to the heavy footsteps that were approaching behind as he watched the other boy's voice pale as he whispered in a small moan, "I'm so sorry, Duo."

Acting out as quickly as he could, Duo spun. He was only ale to turn himself half-way before two strong arms caught him around the waist and squeezed the air out of him. With a harsh gasp, the braided neko lashed out and managed to scratch the side of his attacker's face as he twisted awkwardly. The tall man cried out, but only tightened his hold.

From behind, yet another pair of footsteps came running through the dark lot and took hold of the trapped boy's arms. Yelling out as best he could without a full breath, Duo gagged on the cloth that was roughly shoved into his mouth and covered over his nose. The fumes acted quickly and within moments, despite his best efforts to fight, he felt his eyes going heavy.

One of the men, the one that had been scratched, chuckled deeply into his ear, "That's right. Just take a little cat nap."

With a small moan, Duo's body went lip as he drifted off. The last thing that he saw was the devastated look on Solo's face as his eyes shimmered with tears.

* * * * * *

A bucked of ice water was poured onto Duo to wake him with a start. Frantically retreating backward on the floor that he had been sprawled out on, his wide violet eyes took in his surroundings as his back hit a wall.

Before him, a pair of legs dressed in white pants neared and a deep voice chuckled from above, "Well, well, well. It certainly has been a long time, Duo."

That voice. In instant recognition, a chill ran up the neko's spine.

Panting, Duo slowly raised his head to face his captor. When he saw that terrible smirk on that face that he would never forget, he whimpered in a small mew and his ears drooped heavily in fear. "D-Doctor J," he stammered in little more than a whisper.

And in the look in those eyes behind the glasses boring down on him, Duo knew that not even anything that Dekim Barton might have had in store for him would amount to the hell that awaited him now.

 

Part 23

Leaning in so that his face nose almost touched his captive's, Doctor J smirked darkly, "I've waited a long time to repay you back for your insolence that cost me, and many of my friends, a great deal when you escaped from Dekim's lab. Do you realize the years of sacrifice that we put in to create you? And you repay us by leaving and actually believing that you have the same rights as us?"

Duo swallowed hard as he shivered almost violently. His arms wrapped around his drenched body, his teeth chattered as he whimpered, "B-but I d-do have the same r-rights. The Supreme J-Justices decided it."

Quickly pulling back, the old man growled deeply and shouted, "Had you not escaped, that would not have been an issue! You were the one that made that decision! You are the one to blame!" Doctor J paused and forced a deep breath to calm himself, Once he regained composure, he smiled in a way that bore no warmth, "And now, I get to thank you for all of the trouble that you caused. You've been brought here to die."

With a sharp gasp, Duo's violet eyes widened. "Oh, I know that you're already well on your way to Death's door," the scientist chuckled deeply. He leaned close once more and gripped the stricken neko's neck with his robotic arm as he hissed, "But I am going to make the pain that you've already endured so much worse. I'm going to prolong it for as long as I can before I finally decide it's time to cut the cord."

"You said that you were going to try and help him!" a voice cried from behind the old scientist. As J stepped back, Duo finally got a good look at the room and was surprised to find that he was actually in a finely decorated office. Sitting at the dark wooden desk sat the frightened young man that had spoken up.

Snickering, the white-haired man raised his robotic arm to the one sitting at the chair and grinned to the braided neko, "I believe that you have already had the pleasure of meeting Solo." Duo frowned deeply while he continued to shake on the floor.

Instead of the anger and disgust that Solo had expected to find in those violet eyes, he found only deep hurt and confusion over his actions... and his heart broke at the sight. The blonde young man's brown, fear-stricken eyes saddened as he lowered his capped head. "Well, my boy," Doctor J prodded while poking a metal finger against his arm. "Aren't you going to introduce yourself properly?"

With a rough swallow, Solo slowly reached up for his red cap and removed it. When his white cat ears stretched to their full height, Duo froze. Even his trembling halted as his violet eyes widened like saucers. Slowly, the other neko lifted his deep green sweater for his long tail to curl out from its confinement.

"H-how?" Duo managed weakly, amazed that he was able to manage the single word when he couldn't even think to breathe at that moment.

A loud, boisterous laugh exploded from Doctor J and he slapped the blonde neko on the shoulder roughly with his metal arm. Solo winced and lowered his head once more as his captor explained, "Oh, I've been quite busy getting back to my work for nearly two years now. Solo, here, is just one of the handful of neko's I've managed to create on my own."

It was all too much for Duo to fathom as his mind raced. Seeing his prisoner's state of shock, the old man gave a cocky, lopsided grin. "Betrayed by one of your own," he shook his head in amusement.

Solo forgot himself, and his place, for a moment and glared at the scientist heatedly, "You promised me that you would try and help him to save all of us." Before he could blink, he was knocked from his seat with a swift and violent slap to the face with the robotic hand. Reeling on the floor for a moment, the young man reached for his already swelling right cheek as he shook his head to stay conscious.

Doctor J rose over his prone accomplice with a fierce glare of his own and growled deeply, "Don't you ever speak up to me like that again. Of course I fed you that lie. How else would I have managed to get you to go along with bringing him to me after you were beginning to show signs that you were backing out of my wishes?"

There was a long pause before the old man straightened and tilted his head. "And now, to thank you for all that you've done," he began in all too cheerful of a voice, "I'll have him stay in your cell. That way, when he come back from one of his painful testing and experiments, you can hear his screams and see his torment as he begs for me to kill him."

His brown eyes widening in terror, Solo's mouth opened to shout and cry out in protest. Before he could get a word in, Doctor J turned and patched into the control panel at his desk to open the door to the four guards that had been waiting. "Get them out of here," he ordered. "I'll have things ready for the braided one in about an hour."

Unwilling to fight, Duo allowed himself to be hauled under either arm and hung limply between the two strong men carrying him. Solo moved on his own accord with his watches walking close behind, the right side of his face reddening from the blow that he received. He moved numbly as he his mind reeled by the turn of events that he was responsible for.

The trip down the elevator to the dimly lit lower level to the large black cell was made in grim silence. Absently wiping at the tears that were filling his eyes, Solo bit his lip and stumbled forward as he was roughly shoved first into the prison. The two carrying Duo threw him in none too kindly and slapped the metal door closed with a deafening bang.

Falling to his knees before the wet and trembling form that remained of his friend, Solo whimpered, "Duo? I-I'm so sorry. I thought... I was afraid that..."

"No more, Solo," a faint voice, nearly unrecognizable with the pain and loss that dripped from it, muttered. Gasping softly, the white-furred neko blinked in surprise. Slowly pushing himself onto his side hug his legs to his chest, Duo raised his tear-filled eyes and whispered brokenly, "I forgive you... but please no more. Not now. I'm so tired."

The entire world had gone mad.

Everything that Duo thought that he had known was turned upside down and shattered. Emotionally drained and physically devastated by the changes happening in him, his violet eyes drifted closed as he fell into a deep but unsettling sleep laced with nightmares of what was to become of him.

* * * * * *

"Hey, you've reached Duo. I'm sorry that I missed your call, but if you just leave me your name, number and a brief message, I'll get back to you as soon as possible." Heero frowned deeply as he closed the flip of his cell phone. His call went right to voicemail which was odd, to say the least.Especially considering the fact that there was no answer when he had called the apartment just before trying Duo's cell.

After taking his most difficult final, Heero was anxious to tell his lover how well his last exam went during his drive back home. It had taken longer than expected to finish, but he was more than pleased in knowing that he aced the test and was looking forward to celebrating a successful finish to both of their semesters.

Now, an unsettling feeling began to settle in Heero's stomach in not being able to reach Duo at either contact line. It just wasn't like him to not be difficult to get a hold of without his giving an idea to his whereabouts.

Something about the whole thing was… off.

After turning his car around the last corner before reaching the apartment a short while later, that unsettling feeling only worsened when Heero spotting the flashing lights of two squad cars beside the complex. As soon as he found an open parking spot on the side of the rode, he quickly glided in and turned off the engine.

Running up to the crowd of people that were gathered behind the yellow tape that blocked off the building's back parking lot, Heero quickly recognized some of his neighbors that were huddled together. Jill, one of his said neighbors that was closest to the tapped off lot, picked him out of the mass gathered as he neared. With a sigh of relief, she stood on her toes and waved excitedly, "Heero! There you are!"

With a little effort in making his way through the crowd, the Japanese teenager finally reached the brunette's side. Panting lightly, he gestured to the officers that were taking pictures of some deep tread marks left in the fresh snow by a vehicle that obviously pulled out in a haste and asked, "What's going on?"

"No idea," Jill frowned. "About an hour ago, a few of us heard what sounded like someone shouting back here. At first, we thought that we imagined it but then we heard an engine revving tires squealing right after that. The driver almost took out a few people on the sidewalk as he sped away. Unfortunately, no one was able to get a good enough look at the license plate."

Already scanning the people gathered around, Heero searched out for his lover when Jill shuddered, "I overheard one of the officers saying that they had found blood in the snow not far from the tracks."

His head snapping to face her with wide eyes, the Japanese teenager repeated, "Blood?"

Nodding, the young woman relied, "Not a lot, from what I heard, but enough for them to be concern enough to be investigating what happened." Jill's brown eyes widened in sudden realization that her neighbor was alone as she quickly inquired, "Isn't Duo with you? I knocked on your door just before the cops pulled up to see if the two of you were all right but there wasn't an answer."

Heero was turning on his heels just as she finished her last train of thought. "I've been looking for him," he called back while pushing his way back out of the throng of people. "Let me know if you hear anything new."

"O-okay!" Jill yelled after him with a firm nod. Biting her lip, she turned back and watched the officers examining the parking lot.

In minutes, Heero reached the apartment that he and Duo shared. As he opened the door, the motion sensor lights chimed on and followed him in his search of every room in hopes that the braided neko was merely sleeping.

Finding the rooms empty, he stepped into the kitchen and froze before the message board on the refrigerator. Relief instantly washed over Heero as he read aloud the note written in erasable marker, "Hi, love. I'm out at the Halo Café with Solo. Needed to get some air. Sorry I didn't mention it before you left. Didn't want to worry you. We'll be waiting to meet with you there. Love, Duo."

The fact that his partner had gone out in public in his condition didn't even bother Heero. All that he wanted to know was that Duo was safe. He could deal with anything as long as Duo was all right.

Snatching up his cell phone, Heero took up the phone book and looked for the café's number in the phone book with his free hand. Not wanting to take any chances in assuming that all was well, Heero dialed and waited a couple rings. Finally, a friendly voice greeted, "Halo Café. This is Adam. How can I help you?"

Nearly out of breath from his frantic search, the art student greeted, "Adam. It's Heero Yuy. I just found a note saying that Duo was going to be stopping over there for a while. Do you know if he's still there?"

He could hear the deep frown in his classmate's voice as he answered, "I'm sorry, man, but I've been here since five o'clock. Duo hasn't been in here all night. I doubt that he would be showing up now since he would know we close in ten minutes."

In hearing that, Heero felt his knees going out and slumped into one of the chairs at the kitchen table. "H-he never showed?" was all that he could manage.

There was the distinct of a rough swallow on the other line before Adam responded, "No. I've been working the front counter all night. I would have noticed if he came in." Obviously sensing the tension from his friend's end and asked, "Is everything okay, man?"

Running a trembling hand through his long bangs, Heero sighed deeply and muttered to himself, "No." It took every effort of his strength and fading self control for force a smile in effort to not get word spreading too quickly of what he knew. "Everything' s fine. I'm sure that he and our friend that he went out with just decided to so something else," he reassured. "But, if you do run into him, tell him to give me a call."

"Will do, pal," Adam's voice grinned. "Have a good night." With an automatic farewell of his own, Heero closed his cell phone and rose on unsteady legs.

Slowly walking back to the message board, the unruly-haired teenager reread the message that Duo had left for him. His cobalt eyes narrowing heatedly, Heero hissed, "Solo."

He knew that there was no point in following up with anyone at Wayne if they had seen the frat boy recently. And there was no time to lose in finding the answers that he already knew. Whatever had happened in the parking lot involved Duo with Solo organizing it. Why else would he have waited to lure his lover into the idea of an outing when they were separated?

Fighting to keep himself from going completely out of his mind, Heero opened his cell once more and hit one of the speed dials. "Heero?" his mother's voice greeted after a couple rings. "It's getting pretty late. Is something wrong?"

"It's Duo, Mom," Heero whimpered. "Someone has him."

* * * * * *

Liz was not one to give up on a task easily. The assignment that Howard had given her the day before was no different. She was bound and determined to come up with the solution to his puzzle. Even if it meant working through the night to be able to present the answer to him in the morning.

The working after hours never did bother her. An empty lab always did make it easier to focus.

After hours of working to find the key, Liz's green eyes widened when she finished writing out her handwritten equation. Quickly going through the figures and factors that she had come up with, she gasped, "That's it."

With another thorough look through her work, she jumped from her stool and shouted, "That's it! I figured it out!" Spinning on her heels, she rubbed her hands together and eyes the wall of hundreds of canisters, each filled with a chemical.

Humming to herself, Liz smirked, "Now, for some extra credit and actually making the serum." She laughed, "Howard's going to be so surprised!"

 

Part 24

Howard sighed deeply in relief as he headed up Treize's front porch steps. I'd been a long day at J's office and the nearly equally long commute back to his temporary residence had drained him. As he stepped inside the large estate, he was not surprised to find the good doctor and Sally still up and waiting for his return as they sat at the couch in the living room.

What was surprising were the troubled looks on their faces. But then, they were the ones that saw first hand how bad off Duo's situation had become. Ever since his visit to the hospital the day before, both Treize and Sally had been more than glum. Truth be told, even Howard was more than concerned over the progression of his friend's coming undone, but he refused to slack in his efforts by thinking the worst.

Putting on a bright smile, the old man announced as a means to lighten the mood, "Nothing to fear, my friends. I've been monitoring Liz's progress in finding the solution to our problem and I am convinced that we'll have the serum we need very soon. I know that things seem bad, but we'll have it solved before we really have reason to worry."

At that, Sally bit her lip and slowly rose from the couch. Taking a deep breath, she frowned deeply, "Actually, there is even more reason to worry now." Just as Howard opened his mouth to ask what was wrong, she explained, "Duo's missing. Heero called to tell us that he believes that one of his classmates is involved, but he has no way of knowing where we can find them. The police are investigating as we speak."

"K-kidnapped? " Howard sputtered with wide eyes. "But that makes no sense! Why would one of Duo's classmates want to do something like this to him?"

Treize rose and stated, "Apparently, from what Heero had told us, this Solo had been known to have some sort of animosity towards him from the start of the semester. He said that after the Thanksgiving break, this boy seemed to have had a change in heart when really it was all to get close enough to strike. Heero said that there was a note confirming that Solo convinced Duo to meet up at the Halo Cafe. Duo never made it there."

Shaking his head, Howard threw his arms up in the air and cried, "It still makes no sense! While it does seem this boy was involved, what could he possibly want with Duo? Was there a ransom note? Or a phone call announcing demands for his safe return? Anything to hint to what Solo would have gained from taking him? What sort of motive did he really have that would benefit him?"

Both Treize and Sally shared a surprised look. Turning back to the old man, the braided young woman admitted, "Actually, we never thought about that. But, Heero never mentioned anything about a note or a call of the like. We were waiting for you to return before we headed over to his apartment to see how we could help."

Nodding, Howard replied, "Good. I want to know more about this kid, Solo. There has to be something that would tip off what's really going on here." Quickly, the trio gathered up their coats and headed outside.

* * * *

Heero was in the middle of giving his statement of the night's events to the investigators when Howard and Treize arrived. Obviously distraught, the Japanese teenager dry washed his face with his hands when he finished. Slumped in his seat, he sighed deeply in relief when his mother stepped into the living room to carefully hand over a cup of tea to him. Quietly, the two business-suited investigators discussed their notes in seeing that they had everything that they needed from the distraught teenager for the time being.

Speaking quietly in the kitchen at the table in the middle of the room, Noin, Zechs and Trent filled the new arrivals in on what they had learned from the officers and Heero's recant of everything. Much to no one's surprise, it was now clear that Solo was missing when the authorities at Wayne University had been contacted. If there was any doubt in his involvement before, that had been cleared now.

Howard was working feverishly at his laptop, scanning the small sample of the blood that was found at the scene. Danielle had managed to use her magic on the officers and insisted that they not take the whole of the splatters for the scientist to examine it and rule out whether or not it belonged to Duo.

With a deep frown of worry, Sally shook her head, "I had been hoping that perhaps this was some sort of prank meant to jest, but the fact that blood was found pretty much out rules that." She shuttered at the thought of what that blood could have meant.

"Fortunately, there wasn't enough to be concerned about a life-threatening wound," Trent commented softly. "And we'll know shortly if the blood is even Duo's to begin with." At that, Howard nodded in reassurance as he continued to type rapidly in zooming in on the scanned image.

The young lawyer rubbed a hand over his jaw and sighed, "I've worked several kidnapping and assault cases like this in the past and there are a lot of things just not adding up. There should have been some kind of contact from the people that did this by now to discuss a ransom long before now. If they knew how to reach Duo, they would know how to get to Heero as well. They would have to know that he'd be the one to try to cut a deal with."

His eyes widening, Howard looked up from his screen from across the table and exclaimed in a forced whisper, "That's exactly what I thought! Something just isn't right about this whole thing. There are too many questions as to the motives behind this."

Wiping at her own eyes, Noin bit her lip and offered in a broken whisper, "What if they simply don't intend on Duo coming back to us? What if they mean to... to..." She was unable to finish her thought aloud and buried her face in Zechs's shoulder when he wrapped his arms around her tightly.

Gently resting a hand on the young woman's trembling shoulder, Trent reassured her with a sad smile, "I don't think that we need to be so worried about that right now, Noin. The signs that would have hinted to that as their intent are not there. We have a teenage college student with a promising future as a lawyer in Solo. I highly doubt that such a bright young man would want to be connected in any way to a murder. Danielle and I have been working with the police closely to see that this is handled as quickly as possible."

In the little comfort that she could find from that, Noin nodded as she gently pulled back from her husband to dry her damp face.

Sniffling, she reached for the tissue box at the center of the table and gently blew her nose. Zechs leaned in to kiss his wife on the temple and sighed deeply, "It's been a very challenging few weeks for us with all of the news involving our son." His voice became thick at the end of his comment and he had to clear his throat past the lump in his throat.

Shaking his head to fend off his own emotions, the blonde man said softly, "It was difficult enough to have to deal with knowing his condition. And now this." If he wished to say more, he couldn't when the lump returned and he had to look away when a telling shimmering filled his eyes.

For all of the time that she knew him, Noin never saw Zechs overcome by tears before. Taking her turn in being the supportive spouse, her hand moved to take his and squeeze it in support. Slowly drawing a deep breath, she looked to the others and told them softly, "We just want to know that Duo's safe and that he'll be back with us soon so he can be cured from the reverting that's killing him.

"We just want to be able to move on and put all of this behind us finally. Please forgive us if we're not helping matters by getting worked up," she concluded with a slight duck of her head, her cheeks coloring a bit.

Treize smiled warmly, "I would think less of the two of you if you weren't so emotionally involved. It's certainly not anything to be ashamed of." Sally and Trent quietly expressed their agreement to the sentiment. Both Noin and Zechs kept their hands joined while they turned to nod in sincere gratitude to their friends.

A wide smile tugged Howard's lips as his fingers stopped their fluent typing. Straightening in his seat, he stated, "We'll handle everything one step at a time. For now, however, I do have some very good news."

Back in the living room, the two investigators rose from the couch where they had been sitting. Placing his notepad inside his suit coat pocket, the taller of the two men nodded firmly to the mother and son across from them, "I think that will do for tonight. If you should think of anything else that may be of help in this, please contact us immediately. " That said, he bent at the waste to hand a business card over.

Danielle accepted the card with a kind grin on behalf of her drained boy and replied, "Thank you, Detective Stanton and Detective Presley. We will certainly be in contact with you." Gently resting her hand on Heero's slumped shoulder for comfort, she added, "It's been a very difficult night and we appreciate your coming here so quickly."

"Of course," the shorter Detective Presley spoke up. "And you will be the first to know if we should learn of any new developments. "

Heero finally broke from his lifeless, sunken state and looked up to the two men standing over him. Muttering his own words of thanks, he was about to rise and escort the officers out when his mother insisted on taking care of it. She rose and led the way out of the living room with the detectives quietly right behind her.

Alone with his thoughts and fears once more, Heero looked down to the nearly finished cup of tea that was waiting in his numb hands. The way that he had drifted during his interview, he was amazed that it didn't slip from his fingers. He raised his arms and finished the cooling tea with a rough swallow and lowered the cup onto the coffee table beside him.

When Danielle returned, she sat beside her son once more and lightly rubbed his back. "Are you all right, son," she asked in a concerned whisper.

Shaking his head, Heero snorted. He turned to meet her cobalt eyes with a deep frown and answered honestly, "I don't know. I'm not even sure if it's all really sunk in yet. Just when it didn't seem that things could get any worse…" A frustrated and shaky sigh left him as his voice trailed off.

Howard stepped into the room along with the others that had been gathered in the kitchen. "Well, the results are back," he proclaimed. When the Japanese teenager snapped his head up to face him, the scientist grinned, "The blood does not belong to Duo. Despite the fact that it doesn't change the situation we're in, at least we can be a little more reassured that he was not the one injured in the abduction. The remainder of the sample is being analyzed at the crime lab for any possible links that will lead to the captor's identity."

The weight of the world seemed to come off of Heero, his chest filling with a rush of air as if it were his first breath. "Oh thank God," he whimpered with tears of relief filling his eyes. "Thank God," he whispered again, his hands reaching up as he leaned forward to bury his face in them. "He fought back", his muffled voice realized aloud.

While it did not change the fact that Duo was captured, it was the more comforting news Heero had received all night. Without it being said, the fact that the blood was not Duo's meant that it was not his captor's intention to harm him… at least it was not their immediate intention.

And for Heero, that was better than nothing to hang on to that would get him through.

* * * * * *

Moaning quietly, Duo blinked his violet eyes open. The cold and dampness that instantly greeted him reminded him in a flash of his whereabouts before his gaze even focused. When he finally got a good look at Solo's worried face watching him, he sighed deeply, "How long have I been out?" His dry throat made his voice crack and he tried in vain to swallow.

Solo quickly was on his feet and gathered some water from the sink of the prison-like facilities on the other side of the room. Gathering one of the paper cups beside the sink, he filled it and rushed back to braided neko's side just as he was pushing himself from the ground to sit up. "Here," he urged gently.

Not willing to trust speaking and hurt himself again, Duo nodded and accepted the cup. After a couple swallows, he finished the drink and sighed deeply, "Thanks."

Crossing his legs, Solo sat across from the other teenager and gripped his white tail. Fiddling with it nervously, he went into a rush of words as he explained, "Duo, I swear that I never meant to hurt you."

He winced with his white cat ear lowering and continued, "Well, maybe when I was first sent by J I did, but that change. But then, I got to know you and I was about to tell you everything when you had that episode in the cafeteria. J knew that I was turning when I called him when you were at the hospital and lied to me that you wouldn't be hurt. I wanted to believe him, and I just wanted to protect the others."

Shaking his head as he tried to take in the hurried justification, Duo could only focus on the last part and repeated, "T-the others?" He was quickly reminded of J's mentioning something about their being 'others' as well.

Instead of Solo having to answer, five cat-eared heads popped out of their hiding places from under the benches that lined along the steel walls. Gasping sharply, Duo's violet eyes widened as he turned his gaze around as the nekos hesitantly moved out into the open.

When his girlfriend reached his side, Solo wrapped an arm around her shoulder and gestured to her with his free hand to the calico-spotted young woman. "Duo, this is Cassie," he introduced. Lightly patting the head of the little boy beside him, he went on, "The little guy, here, is Danny."

As the remaining three neared, he nodded to each and supplied, "And last but not least, Jena, Andrew and Carson." The last named, with grey fur, seemed the least pleased to have to be acquainted. His glare directed at the braided teenager certainly made that clear.

Sitting together in a tight bunch, the six nekos eyed their cellmate suspiciously for his reaction. Still in shock at seeing so many like himself, Duo sat stiffly and blinked in shock. Finally breaking the uncomfortable silence, he gave a small smile and breathed, "You mean… I have a family I never knew about?"

Even Carson seemed shocked at the question, his eyes widening along with his friends. The cell door slammed open, making the lot jump at the echoing sound. Stomping into the room, the tall and muscular man that Duo had scratched during his abduction headed right for him. The right side of his face was covered in a bandage and his eyes were fiery as they bore down on his charge.

"Time for your first trip to the lab," the guard sneered. "J is very anxiously awaiting your arrival there."

With a small cry when one of the guard's meaty hands wrapped around his throat, Duo struggled for breath as he was drug out of the room with little effort. Solo's cry of his name was cut off when the cell door was slammed closed once more.

Closing his violet eyes tightly, Duo prayed that he would lose consciousness once more before he made it to the lab. Unfortunately, fate would not be so kind and he was introduced to just the start of the nightmare that he was in.

 

Part 25

Solo paced around the cell anxiously, his tail twitching behind him as he walked back and forth. Sitting on one of the benches, Carson snorted bitterly, "I just don't understand why you're so worried about that little prince. We wanted him knocked from his perch for a long time."

"Don't call him that!" the blonde neko snapped as he turned a heated glare on his friend. "You have no idea what he's like! We only hated him because we were jealous of the fact that he was out living his life, but we never even knew him!"

Closing the distance between him and the stunned, grey-furred teenager, Solo pointed to his own chest and growled deeply, "I got a real good look at him for over a week and saw first hand the kind of person he is. Duo's a good, caring person that takes everyone in and treats them as equals. Even after everything that I did to make his life hell before I acted like I wanted to become friends to get closer to him to strike, he gave me a chance because I told him I needed his help."

Small tears filled Solo's brown eyes as he shook his head and whimpered, "And for your sake, I ruined his life. A good person is going to die because I gave J what he wanted... the same thing that I thought I wanted."

The realization of it all crashing down on him was too great and his knees felt weak. Carefully sitting on the floor, Solo dried his eyes and whispered, "Now, I'd give anything to take it back. Even at our expense, Duo never deserved what J has planned for him."

Across the room, Cassie and Jena shared a bench with Andrew and Danny occupying the seat beside them. The calico-spotted neko muttered with her green eyes shimmering, "Duo said we were like another family to him. He doesn't even know us, and he was already treating us like his own." Already afraid of the answer, she looked up at her boyfriend and asked, "J has no intentions of actually curing him, does he?"

Shuddering, Solo shook his head and frowned sadly, "No, Cas. And I'm convinced that once he's had his fun with Duo and killed him, we're next. He doesn't mean to keep us as his lab rats forever when he could always make more." He ran a hand through his blonde hair and sighed deeply, "I've been nothing more than a puppet in seeing it happen."

Through the thick walls, Duo's voice screamed out in a long, shrill cry of agony. Gasping sharply, Danny's eyes widened and Andrew swallowed roughly while wrapping a sheltering arm around the trembling little boy. Every neko in the cell held their breaths until the sound finally faded away. The silence only lasted a moment before the scream returned much louder the second time around.

Panting heavily, Jenna gripped her black and white stripped tail and shrieked, "My God! What are they doing to him!" Even Carson seemed stricken to hear such a chilling sound from the braided teenager. His hands were already covering his gray cat ears as he looked to his friend with terror-filled eyes for the answer.

Solo lowered his head and answered in little more than a breath that the other had to strain to hear past the tortured cry, "Prolonging his end."

* * * * * *

Leaning his back against the elevator wall, Howard sighed deeply and pressed the button for his lab's floor. As the doors closed, so did his eyes in weariness. It'd been a long evening at Heero's apartment as he and his friends tried to comfort the lad while laying out every plan they could to somehow find Duo.

By the time he returned to Treize's residence, the scientist's mind was running wild on him and sleep eluded him. Now, he was suffering greatly for it as he struggled to fight off the urge to drift off while standing in that elevator.

All too soon, the cart came to a stop and the bell rang to announce its arrival to the requested destination. Grunting as he opened his eyes to the assaulting light, Howard pushed himself off the wall and stepped out into the hallway with another long sigh.

It was going to be a terribly long day.

When he swiped his card for access to his 'office' and entered, the old man was not at all surprised to find Liz already at her station in her white coat. Looking up from the large beaker that was boiling before her, the young woman grinned from ear-to-ear, "Howard!" Her excitement faded a bit when her head tilted with a frowned, "You look like hell. Is everything all right?"

Unable to help but laugh at the comment, Howard waved his hand nonchalantly and replied, "I had a bit of trouble sleeping last night, so I am a bit rough around the edges today, my dear. Just need some time to get my bearings, but I'll be all right."

Sluggishly, he moved to the small snack table where a pot of coffee was waiting. Pouring the steaming liquid into the mug that he brought with him, the scientist smirked, "Speaking of sleep, how much did you get last night? You were still working like mad on that problem I had given you by the time I stepped out."

At that, Liz shrugged with that impish smile of hers, "Oh, I managed to get a few winks in after I solved your assignment."

Howard nearly dropped the mug that he was bringing to his mouth at the statement and his eyes widened in disbelief. He must have heard wrong, he convinced himself. The exhaustion forgotten, he snapped his slack mouth closed. Quickly getting a good hold on his coffee just before it spilled, he sputtered, "W-what did you just say?"

With her smile widening, the young woman chuckled deeply, "I solved the puzzle. It was amazing how simple the solution turned out to be. When you think of the whole picture, you would expect the answer to be this long, involved thing when it's just the opposite. I almost couldn't believe it when I drew the final theory."

Liz opened up her binder to the images that had been given to her as Howard woodenly moved to her station. Shakily lowering his mug onto the table, he took up the notes that his pupil had jotted down as she explained, "Just a few core chemicals together would tighten the bond of the original strand that is still part of the complex structure that it had become.

"By keeping the original intact and allowing nature to run its course and eliminate all of the additional particles, the only thing remaining would be what you started with. So long as the core is still in tact, as it was in the image of the complex strand, the transition is a safe one."

While Liz was giving her commentary of her findings, Howard was also looking over her scribbled notes and found her conclusion to be, beyond the shadow of a doubt, "Absolute." Blinking in shock, he laughed and repeated, "It's absolute! Liz, you're a brilliant young woman! You solved the problem without a single flaw that could be questioned!"

He could have smacked himself for how truly simple the answer was. As Liz had started out, Howard had been looking at the whole picture for a detailed and complicated solution. But, in looking at the heart of the matter, the conclusion was as plain as day. The whole thing was almost comical to him that he hadn't seen it sooner.

All it would take was a few provisions that he already knew were waiting in that lab and he would have what he needed to save Duo.

Beaming in seeing how truly impressed her mentor was, Liz removed the small vile that she had been carrying around in her lab coat pocket. Slowly raising it up, she grinned, "And, just for the fin of it, I created the serum that it would take to solidify the original strand. So, you have my written answer and the actual concoction."

His breath hitching in his throat, Howard straightened stiffly as he started in wonder at the vile. Reaching out for it as though it might vanish, he gingerly wrapped his fingers around it. Somewhere, Liz's voice was listing off the solvents and chemicals that she had used to create the serum. As much as he was vibrating from emotion inside, he was amazed his hand was as steady as it was.

Gazing into the clear glass to the translucent, light green fluid, he chuckled deeply. That chuckle grew into a full fit of laughter as tears of mirth filled his eyes. Liz blinked in surprise at the old man's reaction, but soon felt herself smiling proudly that she'd been successful in her little test. Putting the extra hours in had been more than worth it.

Just as he was wiping his eyes, Howard gasped in realization and his laughter died out. Raising the vile once more to examine it closely, he frowned deeply. "Just one day sooner," he muttered. "If we just had you a day sooner…"

Only a day's difference and Duo would have been cured. The elusive serum that he and his friends had worked so hard on was finally grasp, only now the braided neko was the one out of reach. At that thought, a new batch of tears filled the scientist's eyes for a completely different reason.

Life was indeed cruel at times.

Biting her lip in concern, Liz asked gently, "Howard? What's wrong?"

Not wanting to upset his pupil's joy in solving his problem, the balding man quickly wiped the tears from his eyes and reassured her with a grin, "Nothing, my dear. Just the tiredness creeping back in." To emphasis his excuse, he gathered up his mug and took a long sip.

When he finished, he smiled widely and raised the vile with a proud, "You've done very well, Liz. I know some very talented people, including myself, that had been stomped by this particular puzzle. You should be very happy with your efforts."

As the young woman's brilliant smile returned, Howard wiggled the vile before her and requested, "Would you mind at all if I held onto this for a time? I have some colleagues that simply will not believe that they were outwitted by a student of mine and they will want to see the proof."

"Oh!" Liz exclaimed, her eyes widening. "No, not at all, Howard!" she cheered excitedly. "I certainly don't have a use for it. Besides, even if I did, I could always make more where that came from."

Carefully placing the vile in the pocket of his slacks, Howard wrapped his arms around her tightly and chuckled deeply, "Thank you, darling. This means a great deal to me to have something that gave me such a hard time laid to rest." Pulling back, he winked, "Now, considering that we have time before the others show up, I say we celebrate properly with breakfast at the diner down the street on me."

The young woman giggled, "That sounds wonderful. Thank you, Howard." Removing her lab coat, she replaced it with her jacket as her mentor led the way out of the room.

For the remainder of the day, Howard would rub his fingers over the vile in his pocket for reassurance that it was still there as a means of being safe than sorry. The way that things had been going, he was not about to take any chances.

* * * * * *

After a morning of searching and working with the police, Heero and his family returned to his apartment. All but running inside, the Japanese teenager removed his coat and quickly moved to the answering machine. The red light was not flashing to announce any new messages and he felt his heart sinking further after a very disheartening look for his lover.

Noin assisted in removing the coats and setting them in one of the spare rooms as Danielle announced, "I'll get some lunch started. Better to head back out on a full stomach, and we could use a bit of time to rest."

"Good idea," Trent nodded. "I'll help you with the food." he offered and headed to the refrigerator as his wife moved to the cabinets to search for something to fix up. Gathering up some sandwich meat and cheese, the brunette peered from the corner of his eye to watch Zechs and Noin step into the living room with Heero.

Once they were finally alone, Trent moved close to the red-haired woman and asked quietly, "Have you noticed that there was little to no coverage on the incident that happened last night? I only saw a brief mention of a possible abduction, but nothing more. In a small town like this, you would think that such a thing would be all over the media."

A sudden thought crossed his mind and he smirked, "Did you have a few words with some reporters to keep them at bay without telling me? You know that I love fending those vultures off just as much as you do."

Danielle looked up from her placing some bread in the toaster and frowned, "Actually, I was going to ask you the same thing. I never had a chance to think about handling them. But, I did notice the lack of interest in the local reports. As large a crowd as there was outside of the apartment that Heero ran in to, you would think that there'd be a cameraman at the very least amongst them."

Humming to himself, Trent thought aloud, "I'll look into that when we get started up again. Something just doesn't seem right." He grinned when the glint of mischief filled his wife's eyes, "And you stay with Heero. You had plenty of fun with those reporters." Lightly kissing her forehead, he winked, "Now share."

With a sigh of mocked frustration, Danielle smirked, "All right. All right. You'll probably have a better chance getting into their offices, anyway. I'm sure that the guards of every news facility have a picture of me to see that I am nowhere near the facility by now." Trent chuckled deeply and removed a few cans of soup from the cabinets to prepare.

The doorbell rang and Heero called as he anxiously headed from the living room, "I've got it." Opening the door, he was hoping to find an officer, or one of the investigators bearing some insight on the search.

What he found made his cobalt eyes widen. "H-how? What are you-?" he stammered, unable to voice every question that entered his head.

Standing before him were Quatre, Trowa, Wufei, Relena and Dorothy. Smirking, the Chinese teenager answered, "Sally called and told us everything that's been going on so we had to come and help find Duo."

Beside him, Relena nodded, "Your mom and Trent called to convince our directors to let us finish our exams early so that we could be here." She chuckled deeply, "They seem to have quite a bit of pull when it comes to things like that."

In the kitchen, the said couple smiled and greeted Heero's friends as the stunned art student stepped aside for them to enter. As his coat was removed, Trowa rubbed his hands together and grinned, "You do realize that Wufei and I get first shot of this Solo guy, right? We promise to leave enough of him for you by the time we're done." Chuckling sinisterly, the raven-haired boy nodded his own anticipation of some vengeance.

Finally breaking from his shock, Heero smiled widely for the first time since Duo's disappearance. "One second, guys," he excused himself politely and moved to embrace his mother and Trent tightly. "Thank you so much," he whispered sincerely to them before returning to his friends.

Wrapping an arm around his wife's shoulders, Trent commented, "It's not the same as bringing Duo back to him, but at least it'll help fill the void for now."

"Exactly," Danielle nodded as they watched the warm reunion between their son and his life-long companions with smiles on their own faces.

At least, for the time being, there was a sense of peace breaking through the storm.

Part 26

On the cusp of waking, Duo felt his tall ears twitch to give any sign to his surroundings before he dared open his eyes. The little movement that his ears made, alone, caused a wave of pain to run through him. He did not want to risk what any kind of light would do when he did feel brave enough to gaze around.

Time lost its meaning to the braided neko when he had been brought to J's private lab not far from the cell. The metallic-armed man held nothing back in using his vile creations meant to test every nerve sensory and how far he could stress them. After being in and out of consciousness throughout the experience, Duo shivered at recalling the constant pain that he experienced when he was awake.

When his cat ears couldn't pick up on any sound other than his breathing, he held his breath to be certain that there was nothing more to hear. Whenever he did come out of his brief escapes into the blackness, there were always voices present, always equipment being moved and prepared for the next round of torture. This time, thankfully, there was only a heavy silence that remained.

Letting out the breath that he had been holding in a deep sigh, Duo could have wept in relief. It seemed as though his ordeal was finally over... for now.

With his eyes closed, he nearly jumped at the unexpected slamming of the metal door when it was forced open. Silently praying to be left to himself once more, Duo kept his eyes closed and forced himself not to tremble as a sign that he was back amongst the living. As bad off as he was, he knew that he wouldn't survive another 'fun little game' as the doctor called his experiments.

Two pairs of heavy footsteps neared the metal table where the neko was lying on his stomach. One of them stopped just before Duo's nose before the deep of the observer snorted, "Still out. I guess the doctor was right that he had enough for now."

Small tears of joy nearly sprang up in the neko's closed eyes in hearing that he was going to finally have a reprieve for the time being. He had to hold back the whimper that nearly escaped him.

"Think the others will give us a hard time when we bring him back to their cell?" the other guard asked from the foot of the table. "Maybe we should call for more back up when we deliver him in case they get out of line."

Laughing, his accomplice replied, "That's right, you're still new here. Of course they won't give us trouble. J has them convinced that they have some microwave chips, or some crap like that, in their heads from one of their visits here. It only took mentioning it once and those cowards never questioned or retaliated once. Even if such a thing existed, J would never risk killing them by an installment like that. But, he knew that they'd believe he would do such a thing."

Duo fought to keep from snapping his eyes opened at that. Suddenly, a lot of things were beginning to make more and more sense when it came to Solo and his actions. Now that he knew of the blonde neko's family, he couldn't blame him at all for wanting to look out for them.

As far as they knew, J could kill any one of them in an instant if they did not do what was expected of them.

"Well," the guard closest to the neko's face began with a crack of his knuckles. "Let's get this over with." The second young man gave an affirmative response and stepped closer to the table's edge.

It was all the warning that Duo had before his shoulders and legs were gripped tightly. Fire shot through his body from his limbs and his violet eyes flew open with a pained scream from his hoarse voice. "Wakie, wakie," the tall man just before his nose smirked darkly in his face. Once he was forced onto his feet, the braided teenager was taken by each arm and drug through the door and down the short walk to the holding cell.

The sound of the steel door opening seemed impossibly loud and Duo's ears bent to cut off as much of it as possible. His stomach was wrenching from the simple movement of walking, when he could find his footing and dragged when he could not. Unable to see anything past the blinding light that under normal circumstances would have been dim, the neko was unable to get his bearings to what was around him.

Finally, the strong arms holding him up set him down roughly. "See you soon," one of the two guards chuckled deeply. The way that every sense was running together, Duo couldn't distinguish the voice to know which of the tall men it was. Then the door slammed closed once more and with a cry, he reached up to close off his tall ears, himself.

A pair of hands, much gentler than the ones that had gripped him a moment before, brushed against his shoulder. Even the slight pressure was enough to burn through his skin. "Duo?" a voice urged in a whisper that might as well have been screamed. With everything that his nerves had been through, the jaunt from the lab was enough to set everything on edge again-making everything that he sensed excruciating.

"Duo?" the gentle soothing voice returned and the other shoulder was rubbed, "Are you all right? Can you hear me?"

A wave of nausea hit suddenly and the braided neko whimpered, "D-don't touch me. Please." Instantly, the hands pulled back and Duo crawled on the floor just as his vision returned to find the toilet in the corner of the room. Pulling himself up and over the bowl just in time, he spilled the contents of his stomach until there was nothing left and the dry heaves began.

Panic stricken, Solo carefully held the long braid back while Cassie wet a small cloth under the running sink water. "Duo, we have to try something to help cool you down," the blonde neko said softly, biting his lip in worry. "You're burning up."

So that was why his face was on fire, Duo realized. It was from the sweat that he now recognized rolling from his brow. A small, scared mew escaped him and the nekos around him gasped at the sound with wide eyes. "J-just do it quick," he muttered with his forehead resting against the cool bowl.

Frowning deeply, Solo nodded to his girlfriend when she had the rag ready. With a deep breath, Cassie bent at the waist and as gingerly as possible rested the cold cloth on the back of the exposed, damp neck. Duo sobbed quietly at the touch and wanted nothing more than to curl into a ball. The pain that such a thing would have caused kept him from doing so.

Andrew was kneeling beside Solo and asked quietly, "What can we do for you, Duo? Do you need some water?"

Duo shook his braided head against the bowl and replied, "I need to get this out of my system first. Everything hurts and if I drink or eat anything, it'll just come back up. Even hearing myself talk right now is killing my head."

Only when he felt safe enough to do so, Duo slowly pulled back from the toilet and lowered himself to lie on the cold ground on his side. Staying close to the bowl in case another bout of nausea hit him, his violet eyes drifted closed to block out the minimal lighting that was piercing through his retinas.

As they watched their new cellmate, Solo and his family remained quiet as not to cause him any more pain than what he was enduring. Jena wrapped her arms tightly around Andrew's waist for support as she cried silently. Lightly kissing her head, the tall young man worked to control his own shaking. Nothing they had ever experienced in their own visits to the lab brought on anything as horrendous as what J was doing to the braided neko.

"J lied to you," Duo said after a long pause to calm his body. His eyes still closed, he stated, "I overheard the guards saying that there never were chips installed into you that would harm you if you were to cause any trouble."

There were several collective gasps of shock at the announcement. It was all Duo registered before staying awake was too tasking on him and he drifted off.

* * * * * *

"Mister Clark, please come in and make yourself at home," Ashley Forbes smiled warmly as she rose from her desk. The head of one of the most prestigious news broadcast networks extender her hand to the tall attorney as he approached. When they exchanged a firm handshake, however, her smile faded and her blue eyes looked to the door worriedly.

Chuckling deeply, Trent reassured her, "No need to worry, Ashley. I'm here alone." Taking a seat on one of the guest chairs, he said nonchalantly, "My wife is busy assisting the search team that we pulled together."

As she closed her office door, the dark-haired woman's bob swayed when she looked back to her guest in surprise. "Search team?" she repeated. Quickly returning to her desk of glass that melded with the similar furniture in her room, she asked, "What would bring on the need for you to assemble such a thing?"

Folding his hands in his lap, Trent watched her face closely and answered, "Duo had been kidnapped last night, right behind his apartment complex around eight o'clock."

Those blue eyes widened with a sharp gasp and a slack jaw. "K-kidnapped!?" Ashley sputtered. "Last night! But... but...."

Leaning back in his seat, Trent raised an eyebrow and smirked, "I'm surprised that one as intuitive as yourself did not already know that by now. Your crew is usually the first at any news-breaking scene of interest. In fact, there was the briefest of glimpses on the incident announced on your morning news broadcast, but there had been nothing more. No other station seemed to have even an inkling to the attack."

Ashley's face turned several colors before his eyes at the mention of the morning report. It was the hint that Trent needed. She knew something. It had been a mistake that there was mention of the incident and she had been the one to see that it was never brought up again.

His eyes narrowing, the young lawyer leaned forward in his seat and stated, "You own not only this broadcast station, but you are the go-to person whenever there is a breaking story that your competitors report as well. If you do not want something made public, it's kept quiet."

Fixing his gaze on the startled woman, Trent told her, "I want to make myself perfectly clear. If you are withholding any information that could hinder our search, you would be considered an accessory and prosecuted as such. I promise you that if you do not come forward when you know something, I will personally see that you are destroyed. And you know that I am capable of doing it."

Slowly leaning back in the chair, he winked, "Now, for your cooperation, I would be willing to overlook your actions. I'll simply thank you for your help and leave you to carry on with your life as you wish."

Biting her lip nervously, Ashley looked as though she was going to be ill. Her hands shaking, she opened one of the top drawers to her desk. Holding out a thick and heavy manila envelope to her guest, she swallowed hard and muttered, "I received this a couple of days ago as a payoff to keep from reporting the incident. There was no mention to who was going to be taken, and there is is no lead on where the money came from."

Uncomfortably fiddling with her hands, she lowered her head and continued, "I wasn't aware that one of my teams got wind of the assault before it aired and I had the plug pulled on it as quickly as I could manage before too many people saw it."

Trent opened the envelope and peered in to find several wads of hundred dollar bills. Also within the envelope was a folded paper that must have been the note directing what the sender wanted. Looking up with only his eyes, he commented, "I suppose everyone has a price."

Grinning as he pushed himself onto his feet, the young man raised the envelope and nodded firmly, "I'll be taking this with me to be examined, of course." Trent bowed at the waist and with a dramatic twirl of his free hand, he announced, "And as promised, I will now thank you for your help and I will take my leave."

That said, the brunette lawyer turned and headed for the door. Quickly rising from her seat and rounding the desk, Ashley cried, "Wait!" Just beating her guest to the door, she held it closed with one hand and his surprised eyes met hers.

With a wide smile, the dark-haired woman giggled, "Now that I am no longer obligated in staying quiet, this means that my station will be the first to report on the kidnapping of the world's only neko. You do know the human interest story that boy has become. It would be in the public's interest to know what happened to him. I am sure that you and Danielle would have to understand something like this simply must be told."

Blinking in shock at the woman's audacity, Trent had to bit back his urge to shake her to her senses. Instead, a sly smirk tugged his lips. "Actually," he replied calmly, "You're going to see that this story remains quiet."

Ashley's blue eyes widened as she shouted, "What!? You can't possibly mean that! You must understand that I have the right to broadcast whatever I damn well want. And neither you nor your wife have the right to keep fending me, or any reporter for that matter, off the way that you have been."

Trent took a deep breath and glared heatedly at the newswoman. "Whoever sent you this payoff wanted to make certain that the kidnapping was not widely known as to stir a massive search. They wanted time to do whatever it is they intend to do to him. They sent the money in trust that you would follow through with your end of the bargain. If this person were to see that you went against them, they could harm Duo. They might even kill him.

Raising his hand and extending a finger to her face, he gritted, "If there is so much as a peep about the abduction in any sort of way over any branch of media, I will know that you were the source of that information.

"And should anything happen to Duo as a result of your meddling, I will hold you solely responsible. I know every law agency on Earth and amongst the Colonies and I promise you that there will not be one person who will see that you're defended fairly. Then, you'll have years to think over harming your little human interest story."

Slowly leaning close, Trent asked coldly, "Do you understand me?"

Absolutely stricken by the threat, Ashley swallowed roughly with widened, glistening eyes. When she finally managed a breath, she gave a few quick nods. "U-understood," she whispered. Trent clearly did not seem convinced and she cried, "I understand! Not a word of this will get to another reporter.

"I'll see to it that the team that reported it earlier is convinced that there was some discrepancy in what they learned and until we know for certain what happened, we are not to relay anything that may be false."

Trent smiled, "Very good. I'll be watching just to be sure of it." Raising his arm in a mock salute, he bid his adieu and stepped from the room without another word. As he headed for the elevator, he gazed over the yellow envelope in his hands.

Stepping into the elevator, he found it empty and pressed the button for the lobby. With the door closing on him, Trent murmured to himself, "This just gets better and better."

 

Part 27

The long hours that had been put into their efforts were finally wearing too greatly on the search party. Reluctantly, they decided rest for the remainder of the early evening. With the sun just beginning to set, Heero, his friends and family piled into the Japanese teenager's apartment with somber faces. Dark was going to be settling soon, and so they would need to wait until the morning before heading out to search once again.

Every hour that passes was another hour that Duo might not have. And it was that knowledge that was the most upsetting for all of them to have to stop. Noin, Sally and Danielle worked together in making a ham dinner with all of the fixings to fill their lot as Trowa, Quatre and Wufei went about moving the kitchen table beside the one in the living room. Once the tables were ready, Dorothy and Relena went about setting the plates, napkins and silverware.

By the time dinner was being placed on the tables, Trent had still not returned from his excursion and Danielle was silently chomping at the bit, anxiously waiting to learn how things had gone for him.'Better than it had gone for the rest of us, I hope,' she thought to herself. Taking a seat at the large table in the kitchen along with Noin, Zechs, Sally and Treize, the red-haired young woman smiled over her shoulder to her son seated behind her.

Lightly patting his shoulder, she urged him gently, "You need something more to eat than just the few spoonfuls of cereal and half of a sandwich that you had today. It'll cause Duo no good if you make yourself ill by not getting some kind of nourishment. "

A small, embarrassed smile tugged Heero's lips and he snorted, "Yes, Mom." To appease her, despite his lack of appetite, he took up one of the trays of sliced ham and took a couple thick pieces for himself. Danielle sighed softly in relief when he also reached for the stuffing and went to filling her own plate.

"What does everyone think to going out and sledding later," Quatre suggested as she poured some gravy over her mashed potatoes. "There was a large park not far from here that would be a perfect spot for just trying to take some of the edge off."

Inwardly, Heero winced. That park was the one that he and Duo had spent several nights at with their friends from school. Even though it would be painful to revisit the place without his lover, he knew that he couldn't avoid such things because of their ties to the neko. As close to losing his mind as he was, he had to admit that he needed something to relax him.

Looking up, the unruly-haired teenager noticed that his friends were all watching him. Apparently, they were making him the one to decide whether the idea was a good one or not. The fact that they didn't want to push him into anything that he might not want to with all that was going on only made him appreciate them all the more for their understanding.

With a deep breath, Heero gave a small smile and nodded, "I don't see why not. It'll probably be pretty empty since most of the others that go there will either be studying for their finals or they're already home for the winter break, so the snow will be fresh." The slight tension that had been in the air faded instantly and his friends went back to their meals.

There was a knock at the door and Noin rose from her seat to answer. Opening the door, her eyes widened at the sight of the panting young man on the other side. "Trent," she blinked in worry as she moved aside to allow him inside.

As he entered, the brunette lawyer tried to catch his breath as everyone in the living room rose from their seats with wide eyes. "We had a breakthrough, " Trent announced with a wide smile when he finally was about to get enough air.

It was all that Heero needed to hear and he quickly closed the distance between himself and his step-father with his mother close behind. "What did you find?" he asked in a rush, his heart pounding. "What breakthrough? "

"Seems someone made a payoff to the tune of half a million to one of the most influential news reporters in the area," Trent answered to the curious faces watching him. To his son's taken aback look, he explained, "Your mother and I notices the lack of coverage on the abduction and had our suspicious, but we didn't want to let you in on that and get your hopes up until we knew that we were right."

Rubbing her hands together, Danielle met her husband's gaze and thought aloud, "So someone was working to see that they had time to be with Duo before a large-scale search was launched when word got out."

With a firm nod, Trent replied, "My sentiment exactly." A smirk tugged the corner of his lip as he said, "I don't believe that we'll have to worry about the media hounding us for some time. And the incident will remain quiet until we have Duo back safely."

His hand on his chin in thought, Wufei commented, "And now we know for certain that Solo isn't the one calling the shots, unless he made a pretty lavish inheritance."

Zechs growled deeply and glared at the mention of the Solo's name. "Not that he's any less responsible. " Shaking his head, he sighed deeply, "I just don't understand how no one seems to know where that boy came from. His home residence turned out to be nonexistent and no one can track down his parents. It just doesn't add up."

"And we will find him," Danielle reassured him with a calming glance. "No one can stay hidden forever. For now, we just have to work with what we do know until everything else works itself out."

The door suddenly opened and Howard entered the room in a flourish. "And what we do know," he grinned from ear-to-ear while reaching into his coat pocket. "Is that once we do find Duo, we have the means to cure him." At that, he raised the small vile that he had collected from Liz that morning.

Quickly turning to Heero before the teenager could even take in his words, the old scientist took up one of his hands and placed the vile in its palm. Slowly closing the trembling fingers over them, Howard smiled warmly, "I give you the serum needed to save Duo. That's half the battle right there, my boy."

Everyone fell in silence as they leaned in as close as they could to get an eyeful of the glass container in Heero's hand when he opened it to them. "You did it," Sally breathed with tears of relief in her eyes. Facing her grey-haired friend, she giggled, "You really did it."

Raising a hand, Howard admitted, "I cannot take the full credit. One very intelligent young woman that I placed my trust in pulled it off. Now, all we have to focus on is finding Duo to administer it."

His hopes restored in holding the cure for his lover's condition, Heero looked up to him with shimmering eyes and nodded, "We'll find him." Gently closing his hand around the serum, he stated, "We'll get to him before it's too late." Their own confidences renewed, the others around him nodded their agreement.

Trent raised his hand high and stated, "Sooner than you realize." When all eyes fell back on him, he smirked, "The envelope that was used to deliver the payoff had a return address label that was removed by laser before it was delivered. It took a pretty keen-eyed detective to spot the manipulation. They could have the label restored, and the blood test results back as soon as tomorrow."

A round of gasps and cheers broke out in the group as several elated hugs went around. "Tomorrow?" Heero breathed in disbelief. When Trent grinned and nodded to him, it was all that the boy could do to keep from breaking down.

Danielle wrapped her arms around her son's shoulders and kissed his head. "As soon as we have the results and know who is responsible, I can have a search warrant drawn up in minutes." Lightly cupping the sides of his face, she brought their cobalt eyes to lock as she smiled, "We're going to get him back, Heero." His own mouth tugging upward, the Japanese teenager returned the embrace fiercely.

Only one more day. One more day and the whole nightmare would finally be over.

* * * * * *

"He said that the chips never existed, Carson" Solo hissed with narrowed eyes that centered on the grey-furred neko. Cassie, Andrew, Jena and Danny were all looking to their friend as they sat close to the unconscious neko to keep an eye on him.

Carson, instead, was leaning against the wall with his arms folded as he focused his own glare on Duo. "And how are we supposed to believe him?" he snapped, turning to face the blonde teenager with his face reddening. "This could all be a ploy of his to get us hurt, or killed, for his being captured. He probably figures to bring us all down along with him."

Rising to his feet, Solo stalked up to his brother and gritted slowly, "Duo. Does. Not. Lie." Shaking his head, he pointed back to sleeping boy and shouted, "And he is not the kind of person who would willingly allow another person to suffer, even if they did hurt him. That's just not his way."

Jena bit her lip and added quietly, "I don't think that he's capable of that, either. Not after being so quick to accept us when he first met us." Nervously playing with a few strands of her short, blonde hair, she raised her clear blue eyes from where they had been staring at the floor and stated, "I believe that he was telling us the truth."

With his brown eyes widening, Carson threw his arms up in the air and exclaimed, "I don't believe you people!" He started pacing back and forth and yelled, "This is too much to be risking in one person that we don't even know."

Pausing in his footsteps, the brunette's fierce gaze settled back on the white-furred neko and warned, "That goes for you, too, Solo. You might have had time with him, but you don't actually know enough about him to risk your life on his word like this. Not after your direct involvement in capturing him. People can turn their ways on a dime if they want to."

Before Solo could protest, Carson quickly raised his hand when the blonde's mouth opened and continued, "Even if you could, you all saw how bad off he was when he was brought in here. How do we know that he heard those guards correctly? He very well could have imagined the whole thing."

"I don't think so," Cassie broke in. Her green eyes scanned the faces watching her as she told them, "How could he have even known about the chips unless he heard about them from the guards? We never mentioned anything about them to him."

Smiling at that, Solo nodded excitedly, "That's right! And he never heard about them from me. So, he had to have heard them correctly."

Deep in thought, Andrew ran a hand through his brown hair with a deep sigh. His grey eyes narrowing and his black ears pulling back in anger, he snorted, "And it would be just like J to pull such a thing. How many of our sessions are based on terrorizing us more than causing actual physical pain? He enjoys witnessing the fear that he can cause more than anything. It would only make sense that he would use the same tactic to keep us in our place."

All but collapsing to the floor in defeat, Carson frowned deeply to the oldest teenager of their group. "Of anyone here, Andrew," he groaned, "I had hoped that you would see to logic that we simply can't chance that in trying to escape."

In frustration, the grey-furred neko held a hand out to Duo and suggested, "His friends are surely looking for him." His bitter tone returned as he chuckled deeply, "And as loved by everyone in the world as he is, he's sure to be found in a day or so. All we have to do is sit and wait it out until then."

Lightly resting a few fingers on Duo's neck, Cassie pushed back her long brown hair over her shoulders with her free hand and frowned deeply, "He doesn't have days, Carson. His pulse is weak and though it's getting stronger, he's only going to be pulled into another visit to the lab." Her spotted ears and tail drooped at the thought. "He won't be able to hold out much longer at the rate he's been treated."

Shaking his head, Solo yelled, "Just what in the hell is your problem with wanting to get out of here, anyway, Carson? We're talking about finally getting the chance to get out of this place and you're arguing with us that we shouldn't bother!"

"I'm scared, all right!" Carson finally bellowed. Panting heavily, he cried, "I'm scared of dying, but I'm even more scared of what waits outside of this building for us! Even if we were able to get away, what are we going to do then?! There is nothing for us out there!"

Trembling, he gripped his grey tail and tears filled his brown eyes as he struggled to calm his breathing. With a small whimper, he sobbed, "We'd be all alone. How could we possibly fend for ourselves when we don't know the first thing that we're walking into?"

His friends all sat stunned for a moment before Solo finally crawled over and rested a hand on Carson's shoulder. "We're all scared," he whispered. "But we won't be alone when we get out of here. We have each other. Somehow, we'll make it through."

Danny raised his little head of red hair with drooped, tan ears. Sniffling, the boy softly, "J scares me more than the outside." He bit back a sob of his own and moaned, "I want to get out of here and away from him." Cassie wrapped her arms around the child and held him close. Kissing the top of his head, she slowly rocked him as he buried his face in her shoulder.

As he looked away from the scene, Andrew cleared his throat and announced with a firm nod, "That's more than enough for me. The next time those guards come for Duo, I'll be doing whatever I can to get past them. There has to be someone out there that would help us and I intend to find them."

Looking over his shoulder to the black-eared neko, Solo smirked, "I'm with you." Jenna and Cassie both quickly gave in their affirmatives that there were along with the plan. Turning back to the still trembling teenager before him, the blonde spoke gently, "It would be a lot easier if we all stick together. Just like we always have and always will, regardless of what the future holds for us."

Their brown eyes stayed locked for a long time before Carson took a deep, shaky breath. Wiping at his eyes, he straightened himself and found his resolve. Nodding firmly, he replied, "All right. I'm in, too."

Solo pulled him in for a one-armed hug for support with a whispered word of appreciation. When they pulled back, Carson sighed deeply with a small smirk, "Well, someone has to look out for the rest of you to make sure you don't get into any trouble." Chuckling deeply, Solo lightly rubbed the top of his head.

Andrew moved to the small sink and with a few rough tugs on the loose bolt at the base, he freed the long, metal pipe that was attached. Resting it on his shoulder, he grinned, "And now for a plan on how the hell we're going to pull this off."

The nekos huddled close and started making suggestions while relaying the layout of the basement and their options for a successful escape. As scared as they were of the unknown, they knew there was no future in not trying to reach for it.

Now, they were stretching with everything they had.

 

Part 28

Throughout the night, the nekos took shifts in standing by the door, armed with whatever they could get a hold of from the cell that could be considered a weapon. Not knowing when the text time the guards would come for Duo, they didn't want to take any chances in being taken by surprise when they finally did.

Sleep did not come easily for those that were not on watch. The anticipation of their impending attempt to escape kept them on edge. Every now and then, the neko standing by the door would stiffen and press their ear closer to the wall as the others waited on pins and needles. So far, however, nothing happened- other than maybe a creak or a drip from a leak on the other side of the door that would soon be deemed a false alarm.

When it was Solo's turn to stand on watch, he gripped the wooden beam that he managed to break free from one of the benches and headed for the door. After what felt like a good twenty minutes of standing there, he gasped at the sight of Duo stirring. With a deep groan, the braided teenager's violet eyes blinked open.

Cassie was quickly at his side with a worried frown. Afraid to touch him, she kept a hand just above his shoulder and called softly, "Duo?"

His eyes widening, he lifted his head and his brown ears twitched. Blinking in surprise, he smiled, "It's gone. The pain's gone." Quickly sitting up, Duo looked to the expectant faces watching him and cautiously tested rubbing his arms. Sighing deeply in relief, his shoulders sagged. "Whatever they gave me must have finally worked its way out of my system," he thought aloud.

As he looked around the room once more, Duo's violet eyes widened much more when he took in the items sitting close by each of the nekos. "What's going on?" he asked with a deep frown. "Apparently, I missed something while I was out."

The others chuckled deeply and Andrew lightly patted his new cellmate's shoulder. "We're getting the hell out of here. Thanks to that little piece of information you got when you were back in the lab, we decided that we've had enough of this. Soon as those guards come back for you, we'll be ready for them."

Sitting beside her boyfriend, Jenna nodded, "Hopefully, we can fend for ourselves enough to get help. If all goes well, you should be back with your family soon." She bit her lip and lowered her head with a quiet, "None of us ever meant for you to suffer like this."

With a small, sad smile, Duo rested a hand on her shoulder and nodded, "I believe you. Especially since I can't say that I would have acted any differently if I was in Solo's shoes." His violet eyes locked on the wide brown ones of the said neko at the door. "My family is everything to me as well. If they were in danger, I'd do everything I could to protect them, too."

Solo swallowed hard at that. Bowing his head, he said quietly, "Thank you. I don't deserve your understanding, or your forgiveness, but I'm more than grateful." When he raised his head, he asked, "Do you think we might have a shot at pulling this off? You've seen the layout of the rest of the floor."

Carefully rising, Duo fought the slight dizzy spell that followed before answering, "It's pretty much a straight-away down the hall from here to the elevator. As long as even one of us can get in there, it's all we need." He glances to the others watching him, he grinned, "I think that we can make it." His new friends all smiled and whispered excitedly amongst themselves that they might actually have their freedom.

"I've never seen more than two guards on watch at a time whenever I was moved from here to the lab," Andrew supplied. "With the six of us fending them off, we should be able to get someone through."

Little Danny frowned, "Hey! What about me? There are seven of us with me." Folding his arms, he pouted, "I want to help, too."

Cassie winked to the child, "You're the one that's going to slip through, buddy. Andrew was just referring to the six of us that will make sure you can get through safely." The boy's eyes lit up and widened in learning his responsibility.

Bending at the waist, Carson smirked, "That's right, kiddo. Being the smallest of all of us made you the most important person in our plan. You've seen the elevator before, right?" When Danny nodded, the grey-furred neko nodded firmly, "Good. When you get in there, you have to reach for the button with the big 'L' on it. When you press it, you'll go up to the ground level where you should be able to find some help."

Duo bit his lip in worry. He didn't like the thought of a child having to try something so dangerous. Once Danny was on the ground level, there was no telling who up there was a friend or not. But, not having much of a choice, the braided teenager reluctantly had to agree with the idea. The boy was small enough to slip through as the guards were given a time.

A huge smile tugged Danny's lips as he bounces on his feet, cheering, "I won't let you guys down! I'll make sure that I find someone to help and bring them back here!" He was rewarded very warm smiles a rub to his head that made his purr.

"I'm sure that you will, Danny boy," Carson whispered as he pulled his hand back. "I'm sure that you will." The child wrapped his arms around the brunette's leg tightly.

Taking a deep breath, Duo eyed the room for something that he could arm himself with. Finding a metal beam that had been screwed into the floor as a means of keeping one of the benches on place, he smiled. The other nekos watched as the braided neko crawled under the bench and used the long nail of his index finger to slip into the grove of the first screw.

With his tongue sticking out the corner of his mouth, Duo turned at the screw until it loosened enough that he could work it out with his fingers. Quietly working his way down the length of the metal beam, he did the same with the remaining screws until he took up his weapon. Crawling back out from under the bench, he appraised his long nails and snorted, "I never thought I would be so glad to have these things."

As he stood up, Duo gripped and raised the cool beam with both hands to examine it. He never liked the thought of hurting another person. Violence was never anything that crossed his mind before. But, these people were more than willing to harm, even kill him. They were tilling to do the same to the other nekos as well.

More than anything, however, Duo just wanted to get back to Heero. He wanted to live the rest of his life with his lover in peace. And the people holding him captive were intent on seeing that he would not have that opportunity.

He would have to lash out. He would have to fight. It was the only way out of that cell and he knew it… even if he didn't particularly like it.

Slowly walking towards the door, Duo leaned his back against the wall opposite of Solo. When the blonde frowned in confusion, the braided teenager shrugged, "Better to have two here at all times in case more than one guard enters."

Blinking his brown eyes in surprise, Solo's white ears perked and he smiled, "Good idea." His own hands wrapped tighter around the wooden beam in his hand as he fought his nerves. Even with having another person close, he was on edge. Knowing what was about to come was one thing, but not knowing when it would happen was quite difficult.

Everyone around remained sitting up, no longer attempting to get the sleep that they knew would only elude them. From the time that passed, they knew that morning had to be drawing near. With that, it wouldn't be long before someone came through the door. J always liked starting his day with a visit to the lab.

They had plotted and planned all that they could. A plausible idea had been formed and they were all ready to carry out whatever it was they needed to do in carrying it out.

All that they could do now was sit and wait.

* * * * * *

Stepping into the elevator a couple hours later, Howard sighed deeply and leaned his back against the furthest wall from the door. Silently, he wished that he could have just called out today to be with his friends as they waited to hear back from the investigators for the results of their tests.

At the very least, he could be at ease knowing that it was only a matter of time before they finally found Duo. He kept his cell phone on so that he could receive a full update when the results were in.

When the elevator opened to his floor, Howard blinked in surprise at the sight of the person standing there and grinned, "Hello, J." He raised his empty coffee mug and chuckled deeply, "Top of the morning to you."

"Howard," the metal-armed man greeted with a pleasant enough grin and a nod. "You're early, as usual. I always did like that about you." When his friend did not make a move to step into the elevator that he had been waiting for, Howard took that as a sign that he wanted to talk. So, he stepped out and let the doors close behind him.

Leaning in, Doctor J told his old colleague quietly, "I'm sorry to have to inform you, but I had to let Liz go this morning. She just was not working out."

His eyes widening, Howard gasped, "Not working out!? What do you mean? She was one of my best students!"

J simply waved his robotic arm in a nonchalant gesture and shook his head, "I'm not inclined to get into the details, Howard, but I am overstaffed and had to make some cuts. Liz was just one of them." With a sad frown, the old man sighed, "Now, it's going to be a very long day with my having to inform the remaining people that I have to cut loose. If you'll excuse me."

Howard nodded stiffly as J stepped into the elevator when the doors reopened for him. Moving towards the lab, he ran a hand through the hair that remained on his head with a deep frown. In the few days that he knew her, Howard saw Liz as the only friend that he really had in the facility. Now that she was gone, he felt terribly alone.

But then, through his shock and sorrow for the girl, Howard began to wonder why Liz would be one of those chosen to be cut back. as soon as the question ran through his mind, the chiming of the elevator bell filled the air. With it, the old man straightened with wide eyes as a chill ran down his spine.

"I am such a damned moron!" he shouted with a slap to his forehead. 'The elevator! Of course!' he screamed in his head. He'd been so preoccupied with Duo's kidnapping that he had completely forgotten about the findings that Liz had made regarding the mysterious floor that was closed off. And now, not two whole days after Duo's disappearance, she was let go. Somehow, being at the wrong place at the wrong time had caught up with her.

His hands shaking, Howard reached into his coat pocket and retrieved his cell phone. Quickly dialing, he placed the received to his ear. "Howard, I was just about to call you," Danielle's voice answered almost immediately over the sound of sirens in the background. "The lab results are in and everything is pointing to J!"

Nearly falling onto the stool behind him, the old scientist's heart fell into his stomach. Duo was literally right under his nose all this time. "I know," Howard finally answered. "I just came to the discovery, myself. I'm at the lab now."

Danielle sighed deeply, "Good. Trent and I are on the way there now with a search warrant and a half-a-dozen officers. We'll be there in about ten minutes."

Rising back to his feet, Howard moved over to the supply table and carefully removed the vile from his pocket. As he filled one of the syringes with the clear, green liquid, he responded, "I'll meet you in the lobby, then." That said, he closed his cell phone and stuffed the syringe into his pocket.

* * * * * *

"Did you hear that?" Solo whispered. His white ears twitches closer to the door as he pressed his face near the crack. "I thought that I heard footsteps." Duo pushed himself off the wall and instantly regretted not having its support when the dizzy spell returned.

Solo pulled away from the door when the heavy footsteps neared the entrance. With an urgent, "Get ready," to the other teenager, he gripped his beam and raised it high over his head. Duo did the same with his own weapon just as the door flew open to miss him by inches.

The remaining nekos were huddled together at the opposite side of the cell, sitting atop their own tools and making the guards that entered head right for them in quick and steady steps past the entrance without an inkling of what was waiting for them. "Where the hell is he?" the first man gritted to the trembling group before him.

Once both brutes were past, Solo was the first to act and struck the second man with a powerful down stroke that knocked the man out before the other even knew what happened. Duo wobbled on his feet just as the first man turned to face him with wide eyes. Only gathering his senses enough to raise his metal beam like a baseball bat, the braided neko recovered to swing with all his strength behind it.

In the moment of hesitation, the tall guard was able to get his own wits together to grab onto the weapon before it could hit his face. Pushing back on the beam hard, he managed to knock Duo of balance. As the neko swayed, the guard pulled the weapon from his hands and moved to strike the braided teenager with a cried, "Big mistake!"

Just before the man could hit Duo, Andrew yelled and lunged forward along with solo. The black-furred neko reached the target first and struck him in the lower back with the pipe in his hands. Screaming in pain, the guard fell to his knees and dropped the beam as it clamored to the floor. Solo moved in and finished the job with a blow to the man's head to keep him down.

Cassie was instantly at Duo's side as the shaken teenager panted heavily from where he had fallen to the floor. "Are you all right?" she asked worriedly. Before she could get her answer, the sound of someone just outside shouting for backup reached her ears. Carson was already standing with Andrew and Solo by the entrance just as two more guards entered.

Much more prepared for a fight than their fallen comrades, these guards dodged and blocked the initial blows easily. When Jena tried to help, she was kicked in the chest and knocked to the ground. Solo was easily beaten down with a punch to the head that stunned him for an instant.

As the struggle continued, the bell from the elevator filled the air along followed by the heavy footsteps of at least four more guards approaching the cell. Duo, Cassie and Jena were both back in the thick of the struggle as Solo, Andrew and Carson managed to push the two men that they had been fending off into the hallway.

When they were out in the open, the new reinforcements were just arriving. Looking over his shoulder to his little brother, Carson shouted, "Now, Danny! The boy simply nodded and was off in a flash.

Moving towards the elevator, Danny narrowly avoided being snagged up by hands of the approaching guards that were reaching for him. Their frustrated grunts of effort turned into enraged screams and orders for someone to get him. Never paying mind to anything but the elevator just a few yards ahead of him, the child ran with abandon.

The elevator doors were closing just as Danny flew past them. One of the men that had stayed on his heels reached for him, but was a second too late and he slammed into the closed doors. Panting heavily, Danny reached up to the 'L' button with his long, tan-colored tail.

From the other end of the basement, the lab door flew open as Doctor J stormed out at the end of the fight. Approaching the scene just before the cell, he noted that each of his guards had taken hold of each of the nekos, holding their arms and hands tightly behind their backs and forcing them to their knees. Everyone bore a cut or bruise of some sort during the attack, but that wasn't what had the old man concerned. "Where is Danny!?" he bellowed to his men.

The guard holding Solo sighed deeply, "He managed to get into the elevator. We called to the rest of the team to be on the lookout for him. He won't get past the front doors before he's taken back into possession."

Satisfied with that, Doctor J turned his focus on the six teenagers kneeling before him. Duo looked to be the worst off, struggling to stay up even that much as he swayed. Glaring heatedly at Solo, the scientist hissed, "You couldn't just leave well enough alone, could you?"

"Not after we learned that you lied to us about those chips you supposedly installed into us," the blonde snapped back.

Laughing loudly, J shook his head, "Of course I lied to you about that. Besides..." Reaching into his white lab coat, he removed a revolver and aimed it at Solo's forehead as the teenager froze with wide eyes. "I don't need them when I can just as easily kill you like this," the white-haired man gritted.

Cassie gasped sharply with tears in her eyes and cried out, "No!" Helpless, she and the other nekos watched in horror as he pulled back on the trigger.

Just as the bullet was about to be released, a woman's voice called from down the hall, "I wouldn't do that if I were you, J!" Several officers ran into the scene with their own weapons drawn and it was the doctor's turn to freeze.

Danielle smirked as she entered, a search warrant in one raised hand and Danny's waist wrapped by the other. With a wide smile, the boy had his arms wrapped tightly around the red-haired woman's neck. His face turning pale, J slowly lowered his weapon and let it fall from his limp hand.

Nearly collapsing when the hands gripping his wrists together fell free, Duo blinked up to the young woman. With sweat still running down his face, he laughed breathlessly, "Not a moment too soon, Ma."

 

Part 29

In the lobby, Danielle and Trent reluctantly stayed back from Duo and the other nekos so that the officers could go through their routine of handcuffing Doctor J and his men while reading them their rights. Already in 'mission-mode, ' as Heero and Duo called it, the couple used the time to use to place calls to the proper channels. The braided neko chuckled quietly to himself as he watched the two of them excitedly talking on their cell phones while directing people that came in and out to where they were needed.

Howard had already reunited with Duo and was just as shocked as Danielle and Trent when faced with the new batch of cat-eared teenagers. Not happy at all in seeing how poorly treated and malnourished Solo and his family were, the old man ran hurried to Treize's in preparation of their arrival.

As soon as J and his team were finally escorted from the building, Danielle closed her phone and ran to the bench where Duo was sitting along with his new friends. Bending at the waist, she wrapped her arms tightly around him and kisses his cheek. Instantly returning the embrace, the braided teenager buried his head in her shoulder as a few tears rolled down his face.

"It's all right," the young woman whispered soothingly when the boy in her arms started trembling. "It's over now." Gently, Danielle rubbed circles along Duo's back and told him, "Heero and your parents should be here soon. Trent and I just didn't want to waist any time getting here."

With a small chuckle against her shoulder, the braided neko muttered, "Good thing you didn't. You cut it pretty close-mew." When the small sound escaped him, he sighed deeply before pulling back to dry his eyes. His 'Ma' shuddered a bit at recalling just how close she had been indeed. Gingerly, she rested a hand over the blackening mark on his right cheek and helped him dry the wet trails away.

Gazing over the other fairly cut and bruised teenagers at the benches, Danielle's face reddened at the sight of the tattered clothing on them. In the light breeze that would blow in whenever the front doors opened, the frightened lot would shiver. Quickly glancing over her shoulder to some of the law officials walking about, the law firm owner shouted, "I thought that I asked for some warm clothes! These poor things are freezing over here!"

Instantly, the officers closest dashed off with hurried affirmatives. Straightening, Danielle folded her arms with a smirked, "I've still got it." Her smile saddened when the shaking, cat-eared teenagers all looked up at her, "There's nothing to worry about."

Gesturing with her head to her husband as he continued to talk on his cell phone, she stated, "My husband and I are already in the works to informing the right channels of your existence. Before long, you'll all be named citizens of the Earth, thanks to the law that the Supreme Justices established for Duo when they deemed that he should have the same rights as any other human. The same will go for each of you. You'll never have to worry about being someone's lab experiment ever again."

It was all too much for Solo and his family. The disbelief was evident in their wide eyes. Swallowing hard, Cassie was the first to speak up, asking, "W-what will we do with ourselves now? We've never been..." She paused with a shudder, then gestured to the glass doors and frowned deeply, "out there before."

"You can do whatever you wish," Danielle grinned. Lightly resting a hand on the too-thin girl, she reassured her, "And we'll help you find out whatever that is in time. Until then, we'll be working out the details of where you will all be staying. It's my intention to see that you all stay together while we work things out."

There was still a bit of apprehension in Andrew's stiff posture. Swallowing roughly, he asked, "What about Doctor J." He gestured with his head to the said old man as he was being assisted into one of the squad cars. "Someone as powerful as that would have a lot of friends that would want to help him out."

Pleased at the young man's question, Danielle grinned, "We're working every angle in finding those friends. Before long, we'll have every connection to Doctor J that helped with everything from funding, to equipment, to manpower. Anyone that aided him will be treated as an accomplice and will be spending a very long time behind bars."

Her smile warmed as she vowed, "I promise you that you will no longer have to worry about Doctor J. I have many friends on both sides of the legal fence and I will see to it, personally, that he will spend the remainder of his days in prison for his crimes against all of you."

There was a collected breath of relief from Andrew and the others at her words. Having to fight off a few tears that filled his grey eyes, he whispered brokenly, "Thank you." His appreciation was echoed among his family.

Winking to them, the red-haired woman nodded replied, "My pleasure."

Little Danny's eyes grew wide when some white flakes began slowly falling outside. Squirming on Jenna's lap, he pointed to the sight and shouted, "Solo, look! Is that the snow stuff that you were telling us about!?"

The blonde teenager chuckled deeply, "Sure is, kiddo." Lightly rubbing the top of the child's red head, he smiled, "Wait until you get to see the fun you can have in it." Cassie, Carson, Jena and Andrew were all staring in awe at drifting flakes.

Danielle bit her lip, her heart breaking at how something as simple as snow was a complete mystery to the little family. They had so much to learn and experience before they could even begin to imagine what they would be able to do with their lives. Having the freedom to do as they wished was a wonderful thing. But, she could only imagine how terrifying a concept it could be for the nekos that had never known it before.

Just as a team of officers rushed in with a few bundles of blankets and warm clothes from the station, Heero entered the lobby along with them. His cobalt eyes widening on his lover, the Japanese teenager didn't even acknowledge anyone else. "Duo!" he cried out and ran towards the bench.

At the sight of his partner, Duo's eyes widened with a new batch of tears. Before he could completely stand, he was caught up in two strong arms that pulled him close and lifted him from the ground.

Biting back the small sob that tried to escape him, Heero whispered, "God, I was worried to death over you." Not caring about the fact that his mother, and dozens of other people were around, he leaned in and kissed the smaller boy fiercely.

When they finally broke for air, the Japanese teenager gently lowered the braided neko back to the floor, both their faces flushed. When he looked over to the bunch sitting on the benches, Heero's eyes widened as he sputtered, "W-what in the…?" Solo quickly ducked behind Cassie before he could be picked out.

Smiling widely, Duo held his hand out to the other nekos and told his lover, "Heero, these are our new friends." Starting from the furthest end of the bench and up, he introduced, "Carson, Danny, Jena, Andrew, Cassie…" He paused when he didn't see the blonde teenager and frowned deeply. Slowly, Solo peeked his head out over his girlfriend's shoulder when she nudged him with her elbow. His white ears were drooped and his brown eyes were wide with fear when they met the pair of cobalt watching him.

Heero just stared at the boy that he had damned for his involvement in Duo's capture. With this new turn of events, he couldn't even find his voice and his mouth hung open. Squeezing his stunned partner's shoulder, the braided neko grinned, "Solo's okay, Heero. J had threatened his life and his family's life if he didn't bring me to him."

The growing anger that was building in Heero's cobalt eyes quickly faded at that. Blinking in surprise, he only managed a small, "I see." To their amazement, the other nekos watched as he suddenly replaced any other emotion with the understanding that they had seen in their 'brother' when he came to know of their situation.

Duo wrapped his arms tightly around the art student's neck and grinned proudly to the lot, "Everyone, this is Heero. He's the one I was telling all of you about while we were waiting for the guards to show up." Smiles finally stated tugging at the nekos' faces and one-by-one, they extended their hands in greeting. With a small smile of his own, Heero exchanged firm handshakes with all of them.

Clearing his throat, Solo was the last to approach. Hesitantly, he walked up with his tail gripped in both hands and his ears still drooped. Lowering his gaze from the other boy, he frowned deeply, "Heero, I… I didn't mean…" The words just weren't coming. How did one go about apologizing for what he had done?

"It's all right, Solo," came the quiet response. With a small gasp, the white-furred neko lifted his head with shock-filled eyes. Heero smirked and told him, "We'll talk. Right now isn't the right place or time, but things certainly are not as black-and-white as I had thought them to be. And with that in mind, I would like to hear your side of the story."

Solo sighed deeply in relief. Nodding, he smiled gratefully, "I'd like that. Thank you." Returning the nod, Heero shook his hand firmly.

At that moment, Noin and Zechs flew fast the front doors. His violet eyes brightening, Duo shouted and waved, "Mom! Dad!" Meeting them half-way, he tightly held onto his parents in another tearful reunion.

Danielle and Trent walked up to Heero with armloads of blankets and shoes. Gesturing to the family still huddled close, the red-haired young woman informed her son, "We need to get them bundled so we can get them to Treize's house. He's waiting there along with Sally and Howard to look them over."

"Right," Heero nodded firmly. Running to the pile of sweaters that were waiting, he took up as many as he could handle.

Before long, the little family was warmly dressed and ready to go. Walking together towards the doors with their hands and tails tightly grasped, they headed for the doors as the small crowd gathered parted for them. Heero, Duo, Noin, Zechs, Danielle and Trent stayed close to the worried bunch to offer whatever support they could, but stayed back enough to give them the space that they needed as well.

As one, the nekos stopped just before the door and gazed out to the frozen world just beyond. Biting his lip, Carson took a deep breath. Forcing a smile to the others, he shrugged, "We're going to have to face the outside at some point."

His own lips curving up, Solo chuckled deeply and nodded. Looking to Cassie, Andrew, Jena and Danny, he asked gently, "Ready, everyone?" When they all gave small, hesitant nods, the blonde teenager reassured them, "We're all in this together."

Once again moving as a whole, the nekos stepped through the glass doors that slid open before them and into the unknown.

* * * * * *

Shaking her head, Sally sighed deeply, "Thankfully, there is no permanent damage caused from their experiments to any one of them. There were only a few cuts and bruises from their attack that needed to be tended to. But, other than being too thin and in need of a nice shower, they're perfectly healthy." Treize nodded his agreement to the assessment.

At that, Danielle breathed her own sigh of relief. "Good." She smiled sadly at watching the famished group eagerly eating from their pizza cartons at Treize's table. Chuckling deeply, she warned them, "Not too quickly. You don't want to make yourselves sick." They all mumbled affirmatives with their full mouths.

"You weren't kidding, Solo," Jenna giggled when she swallowed. "This pizza stuff is delicious." Solo was already taking another large bite from the slice he was working on as he nodded and hummed an 'Um hm.'

In the living room, Heero and Duo were sitting closely together on one of the couches with Howard kneeling in front the braided teenager. His eyes closed tight and squeezing onto the hand in his own, the neko prepared for the needle that his friend was about to inject. When Howard announced, "All finished," he blinked his violet eyes in surprise at not having felt more than a slight pinch.

Observing his exposed left arm as the balding man placed a band aid over the tiny puncture wound, Duo grinned, "That's really it?" Howard just chuckled deeply and patted the top of the boy's head with a look of amusement.

Despite the fact that Duo's reverting back to his cat state was needed to save him, Heero felt a lump forming in his throat that he tried to swallow past. "So how long before this takes effect?" he asked after clearing his throat.

"A matter of hours," Howard answered as he rose to his feet. Meeting the violet eyes watching him, he explained, "You're just going to feel very tired and go to sleep. The change will take place while you're unconscious, much the same way that you turned into the way you are now when you were in your last stage."

His ears drooping a bit, Duo nodded, "Okay. Thank you, How-mew." He shook his head and lowered it at his failed attempt to finish his thought. Heero kissed his temple and just held him close.

Smiling sadly, Howard squeezed the neko's shoulder and said softly, "No need for thanks, Kit. This is only going to be a temporary thing. You know that, right?" Slowly raising his cat-eared head again, Duo nodded. "Good. Now, let's get you home," the scientist grinned.

* * * * * *

Danielle and Trent along with Noin and Zechs opened their grand, shared estate to Solo and his family. When they all arrived at the large residence after the long drive home, Duo was already growing tired. In the living room, the braided neko hugged and kissed his two sets of parents and his friends-new and old-good night. Everyone stressed that is was simply a good night and not a goodbye.

Heero lifted his lover into his arms and carried him upstairs to their room when his violet eyes became heavy. Closing the door behind them, he carefully lowered Duo onto their bed and helped strip him down to his black boxers before shedding his own clothes. As he pulled the covers over them, the Japanese teenager held the neko close and kissed his bruised cheek.

Slowly opening his violet eyes, Duo smiled tiredly and muttered, "Love you. Always will." The more he fought to stay awake, the heaver his eyelids became. "Don't wanna sleep," he frowned deeply.

Biting his lip, Heero whispered, "I love you, too. Just rest now, little one. This isn't goodbye." Even as he spoke, small tears were already filling his cobalt eyes. "You'll be back to yourself before you know it and I'll be here waiting."

With his eyelids slipping closed again, Duo sighed softly, "'Kay." Heero cried silently when the neko's breath evened out as a sure sign that he had drifted off. Sniffling, he kissed his face lightly before his own fatigue caught up and sleep claimed him.

It was a couple hours past dawn when Heero began to stir. The sun was out for a change and a few of its rays were peering under the drawn curtains. Where his hand been resting on Duo's waist, he felt only the cold mattress. Everything came back in a rush and sitting up with a start, he looked down to the little brown cat curled in a tight ball beside him.

The long ears on the ball of fur twitched and with a wide yawn, the cat raised its head. Blinking large, violet eyes, the feline looked up to Heero and meowed as if in greeting. Arching its back in a stretch as he uncurled himself, the cat stretched up and began to lick away some of the tears that the teenager had been unaware were rolling down his face until then.

"Duo," Heero breathed. Gently lifting the cat in his arms, he blinked in shock, "You still remember me, don't you?" If a cat could smile, he could swear that this one was at the question before the brown creature purred deeply as he nuzzled his head along the teenager's cheek. Laughing quietly, Heero was finally able to release the breath that he had been holding.

Now he knew without any doubt. Duo's memory had stayed intact.

 

Epilogue

"That's it!" Howard cried as he ran from the study. Liz giggled and closed her notebook to follow her mentor down the stairs and into the living room. Heero was lying on one of the couches while playing a game of chess with Duo. The cat's head was tilted in thought of his next move when the old man entered with his arms spread open as he cried, "We finally found the solution!"

It had taken nearly two whole weeks since Duo had reverted back to his original self. Once Howard tracked down Liz, the two went right to work. After long days and late nights, it was nothing more than a waiting game as to when and if they would come up with the answer to bringing the neko back.

Solo, Cassie, Andrew and Carson all ran into their room in their own cat states with the little kitten that remained of Danny close behind. Looking up anxiously, they mewed with their tails weaving excitedly.

Finally breaking from his own stupor, Heero rose onto shaky legs and blinked in disbelief. "You have the solution? You can really bring them back without a flaw in their DNA?"

Tapping the book in her hand, Liz grinned, "That's right. There won't be a single flaw. Howard and his original team were close the first time they created Duo. What we have now will ensure that the strands are perfect. Thanks to Dorothy and Trowa in their allowing Treize to safely take a sample from their growing baby while it's still in the womb, we were able to fix the problem pretty quickly."

Howard shook his head, "It's amazing what modern medicine can do nowadays. There was only the smallest of modifications to the initial plan that make all the difference. That sample that we used was exactly what we needed to bring the whole thing to light."

Smiling widely, Heero thought back to how Dorothy volunteered to offer a sample from her baby's stem cell. While the extraction was proven to be quite safe for her and the child, Trowa promptly fainted in realizing that he was about to be a father. When he came to, the Latin teenager was practically dancing with excitement.

"And thanks to the equipment that Danielle and Trent managed to confiscate from Doctor J's lab," Liz giggled, "we can have the serum made up in a day or two. Duo and the others will be back to themselves in time for Christmas."

Turning back to the couch, Heero opened his arms just in time to catch the brown cat as he leapt into them with a happy mew. "You hear that, Duo," he asked quietly. Purring deeply, the feline nuzzled the teenager's face. With tears in his eyes, the art student breathed to the scientists, "Thank you."

At that, Howard bowed his head and winked, "No thanks needed. When the others get back, we'll have to celebrate. Until then, we'll get to work on that serum." Liz nodded and quickly followed the old man back upstairs to their 'lab.'

Solo and his family were having a playful wrestle as they meowed excitedly in knowing that they would be returning to their neko forms soon. Carefully lowering the cat in his arms back onto the couch at his side of the board, Heero was still beaming in anticipation. "I can't wait to see our parents' faces when we tell them the great news."

His tail swinging, Duo examined the checkered board once more. Placing a paw onto one of his black chips, he slid it forward to the square that he wanted. Heero sat up with wide, cobalt eyes as he noted that the simple move would skip over his own last three pieces. With a meow, the brown cat looked up with his head tilted innocently.

Laughing, Heero shook his head and smirked, "Got me again, you cheeky little bugger."

* * * * * *

Two days later, as promised, the serum was finished and Heero was on pins and needles for it to take effect after it had been injected. Just as before, it wasn't long before Duo was sleeping soundly. Rolled in a tight ball on their bed, his furry little chest rose and fell slowly.

In trying to keep himself occupied, the Japanese teenager was at his desk filled with art supplies preparing for his presentation to Jeffrey Klein. Occasionally, Heero would glance over his shoulder in hopes to see something happening. Eventually, the hour grew late and his cobalt eyes grew heavy against his wishes. Folding his arms on his desk and resting his head atop them, he only intended to take a short rest but drifted off into a much deeper sleep and missed the soft glowing from the bed.

When a gentle kiss fell on his forehead, Heero moaned quietly before blinking his cobalt eyes open. As his gaze focused when he raised his head, he found a pair of brilliant violet eyes watching him and a wide smile on the heart-shaped face that they belonged to.

Gasping sharply, the art student sat up wide awake in an instant as he cried, "Duo!" It was the only warning he offered before he lunged forward and tackled his naked, cat-eared lover to the ground with a tight embrace.

Duo was laughing and holding onto Heero with all of his strength. After an exchange of kisses and drying each other's wet faces, the Japanese teenager made a thorough look over the other boy. Every inch of the long-haired neko was just as he remembered before he had reverted back into his cat state.

Without using words to reassure his partner, Duo leaned up and kissed Heero fiercely. Before long, he removed the taller teenager's clothes and they made love slowly. Every gentle touch expressed what words couldn't as they moved together on the floor there. When they found their release, silent tears of relief and love rolled from their eyes and they simply held onto each other for a time.

Finally lifting his head from where it was pillowed on the firm chest beneath him, Duo purred deeply and grinned, "Missed you, too." Heero chuckled and pulled the other boy's face close for a heartfelt kiss.

* * * * * *

Over the next few months, Solo and his family remained in the care of Heero and Duo's parents until they were granted government funding that would more than support them. Moving to a nearby apartment, they were regular visitors to the Yuy-Clark estate.

Danny was enrolled in a nearby kindergarten and was well on his way to going into grade school. Solo, Cassie, Andrew, Jena and Carson earned their high school diplomas in no time with help to their home studies and they were already planning on what they wanted to study in college for their careers. There was a whole summer to enjoy before they needed to really worry about any of that. Of course, while they were studying at home, they were treated to many of life's pleasantries that they had missed out on during their captivity thanks to Duo and his friends.

With the new batch of nekos loose in the world, the media made a mention of them before they realized that following the lives of more than one such creature would be too much trouble. Reporters were soon no longer an issue as they went about more interesting and unique stories to report.

The spring semester for Heero and Duo flew by. To no one's surprise, they both excelled in their classes and made the Dean's List once again. Between his lessons and finishing his creation for the Stellar Gala competition, the art student was quite busy. It was during the week of finals when he received the call from Jeffrey Klein that he had been chosen as one of the twenty artists to be featured at the event.

At the opening of the Stellar Gala, everyone was present and waiting to be ushered into the massive museum. Nervously holding onto Duo's hand, Heero took a deep breath and smiled to his family and friends as they talked excitedly amongst themselves. Wrapping his tail around their joined hands, the neko whispered, "Don't worry, love. You're already in the Gala. This isn't like a tryout or anything."

"I know," Heero sighed deeply. "I just always get nervous at these unveilings. Maybe Mister Klein and the other judges were impressed, but what if no one else is?"

Chuckling deeply, Duo grinned, "I highly doubt that would be possible. I personally can't wait to see what you made for this." Unable to help but feel better at his lover's words, the Japanese teenager just smiled lovingly to him in appreciation.

Just then, the ushers smiled and bowed to the large crowd that began working its way into the museum. Once they weaved their way inside, Heero and his tight group of supporters were greeted by beautiful music played by a small band of harps, flutes and violins. Men and women in black and white uniforms walked around with platters of delicious snacks and a variety of beverages in crystal glasses.

Solo and his family were all wide-eyed as they looked about the impressive exhibits. Even Trowa and Wufei seemed to be appreciating the event, though they only intended such an event for Heero's sake. Dorothy was starting to show and her hand that was not clasped onto her fiancés would occasionally rub her swelling abdomen. Sally spoke quietly with Wufei as they discussed some of the lovely works that they walked past.

Relena and Quatre were still on the moon after their recent engagement and never drifted far from each other during their walk through the building. Howard, Treize and Liz would occasionally chuckle at a softly spoken joke from the old man. And Lady Une was in her element, beaming in pride that one of her students was featured in one of the most well known art events in all of space. Even Sylvia Noventa and her father came as the proud owners of the art university, just as they had at his first big reveal.

Stepping into the main room with the featured artists' displays, Heero froze in the doorway with wide cobalt eyes. Everyone around him did the same as they looked up. Placed on the back wall, high above all of the other displays from the featured artists was the Japanese youth's work for all to see as soon as they entered.

Instead of presenting five separate pieces of work as every other contender had, Heero used five huge, square canvases that when placed together made one massive painting. One canvas made up the top, one the bottom and the remaining three placed in a row portrayed the center. From the bottom and working the way up, the colors went from vivid and bright colored flames to a dark and calming scene in the starry heavens.

Painted all in white was an enormous phoenix, its wingspan covering the entire middle of the portrait, its head the top in the heavens and its tail feathers in the fiery bottom canvas. Just as the legend spoke, the great bird was rising up with its eyes on the star-filled skies as it took flight from the ashes.

Each of the five canvases had their own scenes that helped create the bird. When taking a closer look at the feathers, those scenes began to come out. There was an image of a lively dance under a gazebo. Another had the scene of a mother cradling a child in a field of flowers. One of the canvases had the image of friends carrying large baskets of fruits from a farm filled with trees. The top canvas displayed several people holding hands in a circle under the stars.

And in the center of the phoenix were two lovers embracing. The silver-colored pair had no distinction in their gender. They were neither male nor female, they just were. Locked in each other's arms, while one could not make out their faces, their joy and love could be felt just by looking at them. In the bottom corner of the bottom canvas had the painted name 'Love Never Dies' along with Heero's signature.

Everyone that was in the room pointed up to the grand painting at the center of it all. Praises were heard and gasps filled the air whenever someone new entered and laid eyes on the artwork. Beside the young artist, Duo breathed, "Gods, Heero. I-it's beautiful." He looked to his lover with small tears in his eyes as smiled, "It's really beautiful."

From behind, Danielle hugged and kissed her son with tears in her own eyes. "You have no idea how damned proud I am of you," she whispered brokenly. Wrapping his own arms around hers, Heero swallowed past the lump in his throat and nodded his appreciation.

"There you are, my boy!" Jeffrey Klein called as he ran up with a huge smile. Taking one of the boy's hands to shake it firmly, he opened his free arm out to the painting and stated, "I just had to have your piece as the center of it all. Everyone on the panel was blown away by how you were able to successfully create five separate paintings that worked into one. You have an incredible amount of talent for one so young."

Blushing, Heero stammered, "T-thank you, sir." Jeffrey gave him a firm pat on the back and a promise to talk to him later along with some interested clients before he headed off. Relena, Quatre and all of the others moved in to congratulate their friend on his work along with offering their own praises.

As the group filtered out to look over the other displays along with the crowd, Heero and Duo were left at the entrance. Purring deeply, the neko wrapped his arms around his lover's neck and kissed his cheek. "You should be proud, Heero," he grinned. "I know I am."

Finally able to breathe easier, the Japanese teenager raised an eyebrow and smirked, "You realize that I have you to thank for this one, too. I was quite inspired by everything that had happened over the winter."

Chuckling deeply, Duo asked, "Art imitating life, then?" Heero smile and nodded before kissing the tip of his partner's nose. "I suppose I could get used to being your muse of sorts," the neko thought aloud as he looked back up to the phoenix. "Especially if it brings things like this out of you."

From where she was observing another painting, Liz frowned deeply and looked over to Howard. "You know," she began, "I've been thinking about that serum that we used to bring the nekos back. I know that there is no flaw to their DNA now, but you remember that before we even injected the serum I thought there might have been something wrong in what we came up with?"

Howard laughed, "You're still worried about that? We've taken regular blood tests and nothing has come up as a concern. Their structure is perfect."

"I'm not worried about a breakdown in their structure like before," Liz shook her head. Biting her lip, she shrugged, "But we used the sample of cells from a woman and an unborn child to fix them. The answer to the DNA problem just came a little too quickly to my liking."

The old man wrapped a fatherly arm around her shoulder and winked, "You really need to learn to relax, my dear. There is nothing to worry about. We're at an art museum. Try and enjoy some of the sights for a change."

A small smile tugged the girl's lips as she shrugged, "You're right. I'll try and learn to take it easy for a change."

From where they were standing in the entrance, Heero kissed his love's cheek and suggested, "We better get back to the others before we lose them in the crowd." Hand-in-hand, the young couple walked together through the main hall.

Little did anyone know that day that life was about to preparing another surprise for the pair just down the road.

…But that's another story.

 

END