Title: #1 - Payment Demanded
Part: 1 and 2/2
Series: The Cost of Honour Trilogy
Author: Calic0cat
Story Started: Feb. 2, 2003
Story Finished: April 23, 2003
Genre: Yaoi, Angst, Sap, Romance
Pairings (more-or-less in chronological order): 5x2, 3x4 implied, 5xOC (het), 1+2+1
Rated: PG-13
Warnings: AU, OOC, Swearing, Angst
Archives: Also at Lev's Lair http://www.gwaddiction.com/levlair/ and at http://calic0cat.freeservers.com (my site) and at Mediaminer.org under Calic0cat.
Disclaimer: Duo and Heero and the rest of the GW gang aren't mine. This story is. Nuff said.

Notes: Post-series & post-EW. AC 199, everybody except Quatre is working for the Preventers.

'Thinking'
"Speaking"
************ Time passing or scene change

Author's Notes: Feedback is appreciated.

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Part 1:

"Fei? What is it?" Duo demanded anxiously. Seeing his lover pale and start shaking uncontrollably as the result of opening a letter was *seriously* disturbing.

"My clan - Meilan's clan - some of them are alive..." Wufei said in disbelief.

"Fei - that's wonderful news!" Duo exclaimed. Wufei had blamed himself for the loss of all those lives ever since the colony had chosen to self-destruct rather than be used against him. To find out that at least some of his clan - and that of his dead wife - were alive was incredible news. "Why'd they take so long to let you know?"

"They couldn't find me," Wufei answered distractedly, re-reading the letter. "The security that Heero set up for all five of us kept them from being able to verify I was even alive. Sending a letter to Preventers HQ addressed to me was a long-shot."

Looking up from the letter, Wufei said, "The surviving elders want me to meet with them. They've enclosed directions to set up the meeting if I actually received the letter."

Sensing some hesitance on Wufei's part, Duo asked gently, "Are you going to go?"

"I... I must. Honour and duty to my clan demands it," the Chinese youth answered.

"Do you want me to go with you?"

"NO!"

Duo winced, hurt by Wufei's vehement rejection of his offer. He had thought to support Wufei the same way that Wufei had supported him when he returned to L2 to lay his memories to rest.

"I'm sorry Duo," Wufei apologized quietly, rising to embrace him. "The elders have requested that I come alone to meet with them and I must honour that request. They undoubtedly have their reasons."

Duo willingly responded to Wufei's embrace, contentedly laying his head against Wufei's shoulder. "It's okay, Fei. I understand. Your honour's one of the things I love about you. I can't fault you for acting according to it."

"Thank you... I love you, Duo. Always..." Wufei answered before tilting Duo's head back and kissing him deeply, almost urgently. Something about the kiss and the lovemaking that followed disturbed Duo at the time, but he did not put a name to that additional element then. That came later - after finding out the *cause* of it. Only after finding out exactly why the elders had summoned Wufei did Duo understand why his passion had been tinged with desperation.

***

A shadow fell across Heero's desk. Without even looking, he knew who it was. He and Duo had been partners long enough that he could pick him out of a crowd blindfolded. And if Heero wished that they were more than partners, he knew that would never happen. He had been too slow in figuring out his deepening feelings for the first friend he'd ever had and best partner he could ever hope for. By the time he'd realized he loved Duo Maxwell, Chang Wufei had already wooed him and won his heart. And Heero loved Duo too much to hope for the destruction of that happiness, even if that was the only way he would ever have his own.

Being Duo's best friend was enough. It had to be. Though it could be very, very difficult at times, listening to Duo's rapturous description of the romantic evening Wufei had planned or some other event in their lives together. At least Duo's conversation during this week-long mission had been focussed on his curiosity over exactly what was going on at Wufei's meeting with his clan elders. Duo had barely been able to stand waiting till they finished briefing Une on their mission before dashing off to find Wufei. Heero was actually surprised that he was back this soon. He'd expected to have the entire report typed up before Duo returned.

"I've got the first half of the report finished, Duo. Just grab it off the printer and check it over to see if I've left anything out," Heero said distractedly. The shadow didn't move. Heero looked up from his work. "Duo?"

One look told Heero something was terribly, horribly wrong. Jumping up from his desk, he crossed the room to close and lock the door and shut the blinds before turning back to his partner. Raking his eyes over Duo's white face and wide, fever-bright eyes, Heero reached out to stop Duo's frantic twisting of his braid. "Duo, what is it? What's wrong? Did something happen to Wufei?"

Duo choked out a half-laugh, half-sob. "Did something happen to Wufei?" he echoed. "Did something happen to Wufei?" His voice rose with each repetition, breaking as he started to laugh hysterically before choking the laughter off again with an obvious effort. "I guess you could say that, Heero."

Duo's suddenly unnaturally calm voice contrasted sharply with his wild-eyed expression. Heero didn't know what to say or do. 'If Wufei had been killed or seriously injured while we were gone, Une would have broken the news in private but made certain I or one of the others knew and was there,' he thought. So it couldn't be that. But whatever had happened, it had to be very, very bad. Duo was on a razor-thin edge right now. Heero did not think he had *ever* seen Duo this close to a complete breakdown. Not sure if he was doing the right thing, he coaxed gently, "Tell me."

"My lover got fucking *engaged* while I was gone, *that's* what happened, Heero," Duo spat out, swinging from near tears to enraged in an instant. "His fucking clan elders informed him that the sister of his dead wife had survived and it was his goddamned duty to marry her. And does my adoring lover tell them no, he's sorry, he doesn't swing that way and he's already *in* a committed relationship? Oh no, of course not, that would tarnish his goddamned bloody fucking *honour*!"

Duo's voice had risen as he spoke. He sprang across the office to snatch the large photo of himself and Wufei on their first day in their new house off his desk and fling it clear across the office to smash against the wall. Glass shattered and flew everywhere. Duo grabbed the next memento from his desk, a glass paperweight that Wufei had given him, and dashed it to the tile floor at his feet, smashing it as well, before crumpling to the floor himself, heedless of the glass shards being ground into his legs and hands.

Heero listened in growing horror as Duo spoke. This was quite possibly *worse* than if Wufei had been killed. If Wufei felt that his honour compelled him to go through with the marriage, he would do it, no matter the cost. And the cost to Duo would be high. Very, very high. Losing Wufei to death would have been terrible, but at least it would not have been Wufei's *choice* to leave Duo. Duo had suffered so many losses in his short life and had always managed to bounce back, injured but not broken. This loss - this loss might be the one that finally finished the job.

When Duo dropped to the floor in the midst of the shattered glass and started rocking back and forth, Heero sprang forward with a cry of protest. "Duo!" Scooping his partner off the floor, Heero deposited Duo in his own chair. "Fuck," he muttered at the amount of blood seeping through Duo's pants and slicking his palms. Glass shards glittered through the red liquid. Grabbing his phone, Heero punched in an extension. 'Come on, Trowa, pick up...' he urged silently.

"Hello?"

"Quatre? What are you - never mind. Is Trowa there?" Heero demanded. Quatre didn't work for Preventers, but at the moment Heero didn't care why he was there and answering Trowa's phone for him. He was just grateful to have another friend to fall back on. Duo was going to need all of them.

"Yes, just..."

"No, don't bother getting him. Just have him bring a first aid kit - the field use type - and come to my office immediately. You too. Do *NOT*, I repeat, do *NOT* bring Chang."

"What..."

"*NOW*, Quatre!" Heero snarled before slamming the phone back down.

Throughout Heero's conversation, Duo had simply sat and rocked, arms wrapped around himself, staring unseeingly across the room. He had flinched slightly at Heero's mention of Wufei, but no other reaction was visible.

"Duo?" Heero said gently, trying to pull Duo's hands away from him before he ground the glass in any deeper. "Duo... Don't. You're hurting yourself. Please - let me help you."

"Help me?" Duo whispered so softly Heero had to strain to hear him. "You can't help me, Heero... Nobody can... Fei *is* his honour - if he does this, I lose him; but if he refuses and tarnishes his honour, it'll destroy him, it'll destroy *us*, and I'll lose him anyway... No, Heero, you can't help me... Nobody can... I should've known better... I'm not allowed to keep anything, not allowed to be happy..." Duo averted his face, voice trailing off in a mixture of despair and resignation.

The rattling doorknob reminded Heero that he had locked the door. With a worried glance at Duo, he rose and hurried to the door, parting the mini-blinds over the glass to check who was there before opening it. Quatre and Trowa, and, thank god, no sign of Chang. Heero hoped Chang had the sense to *stay* away. Despite his understanding of what would drive the Chinese youth to abandon Duo and obey his clan elders, Heero wanted nothing more than to beat him to a bloody pulp at the moment. And that would definitely *not* help Duo in the slightest.

Opening the door, Heero admitted Quatre and Trowa to the office. Quatre made a distressed sound the instant he spotted Duo's huddled form and started towards him. Heero caught his elbow to restrain him while shoving the door shut and relocking it with his other hand. "Quatre, wait," he said in a warning tone.

Trowa turned to look at Heero as well. Glass crunched under his shoes as he moved, catching both his and Quatre's attention. "What the hell..." Trowa breathed softly, gazing around the office at the broken glass everywhere and the bent picture frame laying near his feet.

Heero took a steadying breath, then said flatly, "You may have heard that some of Chang's clan turned up alive." Nods from both other ex-pilots indicated their knowledge. "The elders have informed him that it is his duty to wed the sister of his dead wife. Honour demands that he obey their wishes. Duo was just informed of the engagement."

"Oh Allah," Quatre moaned in sympathy.

"He smashed the paperweight and collapsed on the shards," Heero said. "That is why I requested that you bring the first aid kit Trowa. He may require more treatment than that, but I am afraid that Sally would wish to hospitalize him and I do not think that would be wise at the moment." That was an understatement. Duo never reacted well to either hospitals or tranquillizers and Sally would most likely take one look at him and order both. She meant well, but she had never learned to make sufficient allowances for the unique backgrounds of either Duo or himself.

Duo barely reacted to the presence of any of them, even when Heero and Trowa began the slow process of removing slivers of glass from his hands. Quatre could not stand to watch for long and ended up taking Heero's office key and leaving in search of a dustpan and broom to clean up the worst of the glass before anyone else got hurt.

Throughout the entire process of removing the glass and cleaning and bandaging the cuts, Duo barely even flinched. 'It's like he's not even here,' Heero thought worriedly. 'He's retreated so far into himself that I don't think he's aware of anything that's going on around him.' Even slicing open Duo's pantlegs and cutting them off just above the knee in order to tend to his legs didn't draw a reaction from Duo.

"Sally will have our heads if she finds out about this," Trowa muttered, preparing to stitch up a particularly nasty gash near Duo's knee.

"And letting her see him like this would be better?" Heero answered grimly.

Trowa simply said, "Keep his leg steady," and tightened his jaw in response.

Trowa's caution was unnecessary. Only the tiniest of twitches passed through Duo's leg as Trowa closed the gash with neat, tiny stitches. By the time they finished bandaging his legs, however, Duo had started to shake.

"Shock," Trowa said grimly.

"No shit," Heero growled back. "Go find a blanket or something I can wrap him in to get him out of here."

Seeing that Quatre had finished cleaning up the worst of the glass, Heero ordered him, "Go get him a coffee from the pot. Decaffeinated but heavy on the cream and sugar."

Voice gentling again, Heero lifted Duo's chin and said, "Duo, where do you want to go? Do you want to go home?" Hell, he hoped not. It was well past quitting time and Chang would almost certainly be there. He didn't think Duo was ready to face his - lover? ex-lover? housemate? - and he *knew* that *he* wasn't.

"Home? Don't have a home..." Duo murmured quietly. "Not anymore... Can't go back there..."

Eyes narrowing, Heero asked, "Did Wufei tell you that?"

Duo shook his head silently before adding, "Too many memories... Can't go there... Hurts too much..."

"Alright," Heero said, forcing his anger on Duo's behalf down again. Duo had been so excited over building that house with Wufei. It wasn't fair that losing Wufei was going to cost him his dream house too. "Where would you like to go then?" No response.

Quatre had returned with the coffee and managed to coax Duo into swallowing a few mouthfuls. After it became clear that he wasn't going to get any more into Duo, he picked up Heero's line of questioning, asking, "Would you like to come home with me, Duo? I have plenty of room..."

Duo shook his head violently in response. Heero understood why. Duo and Wufei had lived at Quatre's while their house was being built. There would be too many memories there. "Then I guess you'll just have to put up with staying with me," Heero said firmly. He wasn't offering a choice. Trowa lived with Quatre, so unless Duo came home with him they would have to let someone else see the shape he was in and Heero didn't think that would be a wise decision at the moment.

Just then Trowa returned with a blanket and handed it to Heero. Heero wrapped it around Duo as he swept him up in his arms.

"Rashid is waiting out front," Trowa told Heero. "The car is already warmed up and you won't have to worry about driving."

Heero nodded in acknowledgement. His car had been sitting in the Preventers' underground parking garage all week and would be thoroughly chill and damp inside. "Let's go."

***

Wufei dropped his head into his hands as the door to his office very quietly snicked shut behind Duo. 'Oh god...' He had dreaded this day since the moment he had accepted his grim duty. Walking out of that meeting with the clan elders, he had half wished that he would be hit by a car or struck by a bolt of lightning. Something, *anything*, to avoid having to look the man he loved in the eyes and inform him that he was now engaged to wed someone else.

But nothing had happened and he had just had to very calmly inform his lover that he was abandoning him. That he was turning his back on their life together and obediently following his clan's wishes like the well-trained scion they had raised him to be. That he was turning his back on a life of love to take up one of duty. That... '*Enough!* You have *no choice*, Chang. You never *have*. Your life was laid out for you from the day that you were born and no amount of wishing is going to change that.'

A muffled crash and the distant tinkling of breaking glass brought Wufei out of his chair and sent him towards his door, only to jerk to a halt again. He *knew* what - or rather, *who* - was undoubtedly the cause of the sounds. But he had given up the right to comfort Duo when he had told him that it was over between them. His presence now could only make things even more painful for both of them. 'His partner will look after him. Yuy is Duo's best friend. He will help him get through this.'

Thinking of partners reminded Wufei that his own partner was due back at their office soon. He was in no condition to face anyone right now. A single smart-ass comment from Zechs would be all it would take to snap the frail thread of self-control he had left. Wufei gathered up his jacket and was out the door, just in time to see Quatre and Trowa vanishing into Heero and Duo's office. 'A first aid kit? Oh god, Duo... I'm sorry, love. So very, very sorry...'

***

Brow furrowed in concern, Heero laid another blanket over Duo's huddled form. Duo hadn't spoken since they left Preventers HQ several hours ago. Heero had managed to get a few spoonfuls of soup and a few mouthfuls of hot chocolate down him, but that was it. And although Duo was curled up tightly on the bed, he wasn't sleeping. His eyes were wide open, staring at nothing.

The sound of a key in his door drew Heero's attention and he slipped quietly from the room. No doubt that was Trowa and Quatre, back from retrieving at least some of Duo's belongings from the house.

"Where's Quatre?" he asked in surprise as Trowa entered alone, laden with a suitcase and a box full of music CDs and so on.

"He stayed there," Trowa answered. "Wufei's a mess, though nowhere near as bad as Duo is," he sighed. "Quatre is going to check out your suggestion, but I doubt that it will do any good."

"I know. But it's all I can think of," Heero said. Knowing that he would himself be unable to face Wufei without decking him, Heero had suggested that Quatre find out whether the marriage agreement was verbal only or in writing and what the exact wording was. Maybe - just maybe - there would be a loophole somewhere that would allow Wufei a way out of the marriage with his honour intact. But he doubted it. The Long clan was well known for its scholars - including those specializing in law - as well as its warriors.

***

"Quatre, it's no use. There will not be any loopholes. Honour demands that I fulfill the marriage agreement and obey the clan elders' wishes. It is as simple as that," Wufei stated, fighting to keep his voice level. 'Do you not think that I have not already considered this, Quatre?! If there were a way out of this with my family's honour intact, I would have taken it in a heartbeat!'

He had certainly looked for a way. Initially, Wufei had simply refused the elders' request that he wed Long Jun. He had pointed out - with a degree of calm that surprised himself - that he had fulfilled the agreement in marrying Meilan all those years ago. His obligation died with her as far as he was concerned.

Wrong. The elders had produced the actual agreement and showed him where it quite clearly stated that he was to wed "the heir to the Long clan" - *not* specifically Meilan - and that the union was to produce an heir to both families. They had then gone on to point out that, had he done his duty at the time and produced an heir despite his and Meilan's youth, he *would* have been free of the agreement upon Meilan's death. Without an heir, however, the agreement simply passed to the next "heir to the Long clan" and he was required to marry *her*.

Wufei had argued and debated the issue with them for hours, calling on every bit of scholarly learning that he had. In return, he had been reminded that his entire education had been provided in preparation for his role as husband to the Long clan heir. That by not producing an heir with Meilan he had already failed in his duty once. That he had also failed by resisting his role as a Gundam pilot and that that failure had led to Meilan's death. That the colony had self-destructed because of him and that he owed the clan a debt for the deaths of those who died with it. That he had already tarnished the honour of the Chang family with those failures and that the only way to restore it was to do his duty now by honouring the marriage agreement.

In the end, he had been forced to admit defeat. There was no way out. He would have to honour the agreement and marry Long Jun. Whatever the cost to himself and to Duo.

"Wufei... Wufei!"

Abruptly recalled to the present, Wufei snapped sharply, "Leave it be, Quatre! You cannot fix everything. You will simply have to accept that this is one of those things that you cannot. Duo is strong. With the help of you and his other friends, he will recover from this as he has from his other losses."

"Will he, Wufei? Are you certain of that?" Quatre asked softly.

'God, Quatre, I hope so...' Wufei thought painfully. He was far from certain that Duo would bounce back so easily. Remembering the way that those expressive blue-violet eyes had gone from excited curiosity to shocked disbelief and finally to betrayed pain, Wufei very much feared that he had dealt the final blow to Duo's indomitable spirit. Aloud, however, he only said, "Of course he will, Quatre. Duo is too strong to allow a lover's betrayal to keep him down for long."

Quatre shook his head slightly, clearly no more convinced by Wufei's words than Wufei himself was. "And what of you, Wufei? Who will be there to help you?"

Wufei's breath caught painfully at the question. Gruffly, he growled out, "No one, Quatre. I do not require any help. I am doing my duty and upholding my family's honour. That will be sufficient." It would have to be because it was all he would ever have. The only "help" he wanted or needed came in the form of a loving, cheerful youth with expressive violet eyes and a glorious cascade of chestnut silk hair. And that was someone that he no longer had any right to.

***

"Despite Wufei's objections that it was useless, I've sent a copy of the written marriage agreement to five different lawyers now and not one of them has managed to find a loophole in it. Chang Wufei - named together with a full listing of his lineage reaching back generations - is to marry the heir to the Long clan. Their child is to be heir to both families. Should one or both of them die before producing an heir, the families remain separate but what happens depends on who dies. As Wufei is mentioned by name, his death would cancel the agreement. The death of Meilan, however, merely meant that the agreement passed to the new heir. They have covered virtually every possible contingency." Quatre rubbed his eyes wearily and sighed, "There's no way out of it other than Wufei refusing to honour the agreement."

"Shit," Heero swore. "What if the sister refuses to go through with it?"

"Unlikely," Quatre said, shaking his head. "And even if she did, that would automatically pass both the position of heir and the obligation to the next in line."

"Fuck."

Trowa stirred and raised his head to say quietly, "There is no way out for them, then, is there."

There was no response to that statement. All three of them knew too well the value Wufei placed on his family's honour.

Heero slumped in his chair. They were all out of ideas. Nothing more could be done. Tomorrow morning, Chang Wufei would leave the Preventers to join the Long clan on its new, still-under-construction colony and by the end of the month he would be married to Long Jun. And two lives - no, three, as Heero could not see how a husband in love with someone else would be a good thing for Jun - would be ruined because of a bunch of tradition-bound old fools and a thick-skulled idiot who couldn't seem to see that his own personal honour had nothing to do with an agreement signed by his parents when he was a mere infant and *everything* to do with standing up for the commitment that he himself had made in wooing and winning the man he loved.

It wasn't as if they hadn't tried to convince Wufei. All three of them had tried at some point over the past few days. Heero had very nearly come to blows with him over it. Only the realization that Wufei would not fight back - would, in fact, *welcome* being beaten to a pulp over this - had stopped him.

Instead, Heero had stepped back, looked Wufei straight in the eye, and let his own feelings for Duo show through as he told him, "You're a fool, Chang. An idiotic fool. You have the most precious thing in the world, the one thing I would give *anything* to possess, and you're going to let him go because of a stupid piece of paper, an agreement that you had no part in making."

Seeing the dawning comprehension in Wufei's eyes, Heero nodded grimly in acknowledgement before continuing in a fierce tone, "Had I ever had the slightest notion that you would do this to him, I would have fought tooth and nail to steal him from you when I first realized I loved him. But he was happy, genuinely, truly happy, in a way that I had never seen him before and I would never have taken that away from him. He's lost too much in his life as it is. His strength in coming through those losses as the wonderful, caring, generous person he is will never cease to amaze me. I just hope he has enough of that strength left to handle this loss too." With that, Heero turned to leave Wufei's office, then turned back for a moment and threw a vid-disk on his desk. "Before you go running off to your 'honourable' new life, I suggest you take a look at that. Take a look and see the cost of your 'honour'."

It had been a last-ditch effort. Heero had left a camera recording while first he, then Quatre, coaxed an almost completely unresponsive Duo into eating a few bites of food or swallowing a bit of a protein drink. While they had brushed and braided his hair and changed his clothes and tried to get him to talk to them. While Duo simply lay curled up on the bed or sat huddled in a blanket and stared blankly into space. But it hadn't worked. Whether Wufei had not watched the disk or whether it had simply not been enough to change his mind, Heero did not know. It did not really matter. Either way, he had failed. Failed to protect Duo's happiness. And Duo...

Duo had lost yet another person he had dared to love.

***

Wufei closed and sealed the last box of belongings and placed it with the others. The shipping company would be there to pick them up soon. He looked around the room one last time, checking for anything that he had overlooked, but there was nothing. Nothing that he dared take with him, that is. The photos in the face-down frames were still too painful to look at and he could not be certain of keeping something like that out of sight of his soon-to-be wife. To subject her to indisputable evidence that his heart lay elsewhere would be exceedingly unjust. This situation was no more *her* fault than his own. Their fates had been sealed long before they were old enough to comprehend what the word "marriage" even meant.

The vid-disk on the table drew his gaze yet again. He had not dared watch it. He could not afford to weaken his resolve any further. Yet at the same time, he wanted to know just what was on it that could make Heero speak of honour in such a disparaging fashion. Particularly after finding out that Heero had been in love with Duo all this time but had kept his silence rather than risk damaging the happiness Duo had already found. Heero was a man of honour himself. For him to have spoken of it in such a derogatory manner... 'Whatever it is, it has to be bad...' Wufei thought, staring at the accusing disk.

Reaching an abrupt decision, Wufei rose and picked up the vid-disk. He could not carry it with him any more than he could carry the photos. But - perhaps there was a way to keep a few reminders where he could view them when the longing became too great. And while this would certainly not be a *good* reminder, it would perhaps be an important one. Should he begin to feel sorry for his own losses, watching the disk might remind him that he was not the only one to pay the price. It would perhaps serve to increase his resolve to fulfill his duty rather than allow Duo's pain to have been for nothing.

Powering up his laptop, Wufei began selecting files. Photos and short video clips. Email messages. A copy of the contents of the mysterious vid-disk. His hacking skills were no match for Yuy's, but he could easily manage to hide some personal files on the net in such a way that only he could access them. He could not give up *all* of his mementos of Duo. Surely the pain would eventually fade to a level where he could remember the good times fondly without drowning in sorrow. It *had* to.

***

"Thank you, Quatre," Heero said quietly. "I will tell him. Goodbye."

"He did it, didn't he."

Heero turned sharply from the now-dark vid-phone. He could barely believe that flat, dull voice, harsh from disuse, belonged to Duo. Meeting Duo's shadowed eyes, Heero said simply, "As of 0900 this morning, Chang Wufei and Long Jun are married. Quatre and Trowa attended the wedding in case Chang came to his senses and needed their support, but he did not."

Duo closed his eyes and swallowed convulsively.

"I'm sorry, Duo," Heero said unhappily. "We tried everything we could think of."

Duo shook his head slightly as he choked out, "It's not your fault, 'Ro. I *knew* Fei's honour was the most important thing in the world to him. I *knew* that. And I fell in love with him anyway. Hell, I was even dumb enough that his honour was one of the things that *made* me fall in love with him.

"It's my own damn fault. I should know better by now. I'm not supposed to be loved. Not supposed to be happy. Not supposed to get to *keep* anyone or anything. Not supposed to have a damn *home*." Duo laughed bitterly, "Y'know what the best part is, Heero? Today would've been our second anniversary as a couple. Happy fuckin' anniversary to me."

Heero stepped forward and pulled Duo into a tight hug, heart aching at his inability to do anything to fix this. Duo allowed the hug but did not relax into it or hug back, something that set off a definite warning in Heero's mind. Duo had been withdrawn and silent, but he had never shed a single tear in the entire time since finding out that Wufei was leaving him. And now he was eerily calm and cool. The whole thing had Heero worried. Very worried.

And Heero was even more worried when the very next day Duo calmly informed Une that he was "done acting like a melodramatic, lovesick teenager and ready to return to duty". But that didn't mean he could do a damn thing to stop it. Heero was afraid that if he tried, Duo would simply request a change of partners and then Heero would not be there to watch his back and prevent what he was all too certain would happen. He knew the signs all too well. Duo was looking for an excuse to self-destruct.

Part 2:

Standing in the backyard of his former dream house, Duo threw another handful of photographs into the fire he had lit. He watched, dry-eyed, as the images curled and shrivelled, blackened and burnt. Fire had taken everything he cared about once before, it was only fitting that it should do so again. The fire had already consumed everything from the master bedroom's silk sheets to the soft, thick rug that had cushioned the floor in front of the fireplace. Anything remaining in the house was either too large or too difficult to burn. He had already placed the call to a local charity and they would be arriving later that afternoon to pick up whatever remained.

As the fire burned, Duo watched over it with cool disinterest. With every item destroyed, the pain receded a little further and the wall of calm detachment grew a little bit thicker. By the time the ashes cooled, he had distanced himself more than sufficiently to meet with the real estate agent and arrange for the house's sale. Wufei had signed his share over to Duo, but Duo had no desire whatsoever to ever *see* the house again, let alone live in it. No, far better to sell the place and donate the proceeds to charity. At least that way something good would come of his disastrous decision to do something so utterly foolish as love again.

'You are truly an idiot, Maxwell. After losing Solo and the others to plague, then the remainder of the gang to adoption, and finally Father and Sister Helen to war, you should have learnt your lesson. But no, you thought you might actually get to be happy. Might get to keep something or someone. Might get to love and be loved. Might get to have a home. *Ha!*' It did not pay to care about anyone or anything. The inevitable loss was too painful. It had been made more than clear that he was not entitled to happiness.

No more. No further lessons would be needed. He would not make the same mistake again.

***

Jun closed her eyes tightly, a single tear trickling down her cheek as her husband once again left for his own bed. Their marriage was a sham. A disaster. Oh, Wufei performed his "duty" on a nightly basis, following the elders' orders to produce an heir. But that was *all* it was. A duty.

And she could not truly blame him. Wufei was very solicitous, kind, gentle, considerate, the perfectly dutiful husband. He did everything she or the elders asked of him. Always perfectly polite. But it was more than clear to her that his heart was elsewhere. 'As is my own, though I was not entirely certain of that before...'

But she had been the dutiful, obedient clan heir and had married where the elders dictated rather than where her heart was inclined. Had she been certain of her feelings - and that they were returned, something she still did not know and under the circumstances fervently hoped was *not* the case - she would perhaps have been prepared to refuse the elders' orders. And had she known that her then-future-husband was deeply in love with someone else, she *would* have refused. Her own feelings for the man she now knew she loved had not been very strong yet when she and Wufei were wed. Had Wufei not been deeply in love already, they might have developed a strong caring for each other that would eventually deepen to love. As it was, she doubted that would ever happen. Instead, they would spend the rest of their lives being perfectly polite to one another and living their own lives except on the rare occasions when duty dictated that they interact.

'And such is a life of "honour"...' she thought bitterly.

***

Quatre hung up the phone very gently and stood motionless for a moment before grabbing it up and flinging it across the room to crash against the wall.

"I take it that Duo will not be joining us tonight either," Trowa observed drily. He moved across the room to wrap his arms around his lover comfortingly.

"He's not even bothering to come up with good excuses anymore," Quatre said in a distressed voice. "He told me that he has to *wash his hair*..." Drawing away from Trowa slightly, he turned his head towards where Heero sat at the table, shoulders slumped. "We're losing him more and more every day, aren't we?"

Heero closed his eyes for a moment, then admitted, "Yes. He barely even speaks except to discuss essential mission details. He never smiles or laughs. He doesn't turn on the radio in the car anymore or listen to it while he works in the office. He works through lunch most days and leaves the office late.

"He never makes a mistake on a mission - never does anything to put anyone *else* at risk. But given two options of action, he will always, *always*, take the one that puts himself in the greatest danger."

"Have you tried speaking to Une?" Trowa asked quietly.

Very slightly, Heero nodded. "Yes. And she confronted him about the number of times he's been ending up injured lately. But he always has a perfectly rational, logical explanation for why he chose the course of action that he did. Une told me that she was satisfied with his explanations and if I had any further problems with his behaviour, she could arrange for us to change partners." 'And that is a chance I can't take. I *have* to be there to watch his back. I'm fairly certain that he would not have got out of that burning warehouse last month in time if he hadn't had to help me.'

That was one sprained ankle that Heero would be eternally grateful for. If he hadn't landed badly when the catwalk gave way and dropped, he would have been out before Duo came strolling through the collapsing building as if he had all the time in the world. The instant Duo had spotted him, a fleeting look of resignation had crossed Duo's face, then Duo had been at his side, supporting him as they hurried out as fast as he could hobble.

Quatre gave Heero a concerned look. "Heero, even you can't watch over him every second. You're going to make yourself ill with the worry."

Trowa dropped a light kiss on Quatre's forehead and told him, "Pot, meet kettle. You're worrying yourself sick too, love."

Quatre raised one eyebrow and challenged, "And you're *not*?"

Trowa sighed in response and gave Quatre another hug before releasing him to join Heero at the table. "We're sure we're not over-reacting, right?"

"Have you been to his apartment lately?" Heero asked pointedly.

Trowa shook his head. "No, not since he moved in. It wasn't at all the sort of place I'd expected him to choose. Dull, drab, and pre-furnished with some of the ugliest chrome and plastic furniture I've ever seen."

"Well, if you saw it then, you know exactly what it looks like now," Heero told him. "Unless you went through the drawers, you wouldn't even know someone was living in the place."

"Shit," was the only response from Trowa. Heero thought it summed up the situation rather succinctly.

'We're losing Duo, bit by bit. I can't even slow it down, let alone reverse the process. It's only a matter of time before he does something guaranteed to get himself killed. Damn you, Chang. I hope your damn "honour" was worth it,' Heero thought bitterly. 'What the hell am I going to do?'

***

A tiny flicker of guilt passed through Duo's mind as he hung up the phone. Quatre had sounded very disappointed at his refusal. 'But it's better this way. The less contact we have, the less it will hurt in the long run. Sooner or later, I lose anyone I care about. I might as well do the losing on my own schedule. Eventually they'll get tired of trying and they'll simply leave me alone.'

Duo stuck a frozen dinner in the microwave before turning on the evening news. Once he had some supper and caught the news, he would work on some of the case files he had brought home with him. *After* washing his hair, that is. He had told Quatre that he was going to do that, so he would. 'Just a typical evening at home,' he thought.

He made certain to bring work home every night since there was nothing *else* to do in his tiny apartment. He had a small television, but he hadn't bothered subscribing to any of the entertainment packages available. The freely available news feeds on the public broadcasting stations was quite sufficient for his needs. And "needs" were all he had. "Wants" weren't allowed and certainly weren't fulfilled if he should happen to slip up and allow himself to wish for something nonessential.

Food and shelter were essentials, therefore he had those. Anything beyond that started to fall into the "want" category. And things that you *wanted* tended to be things that you actually *cared* about. Caring about things meant losing them, therefore there was no point in having them in the first place. Life was simpler that way. Less painful, if rather dull.

***

Wufei rose from the bed and slipped off to his own room. Behind him, he knew Jun would be crying herself to sleep again. He pretended not to know that she did so just as she pretended not to know that he spent hours every week looking at photographs and reading old email messages from his hidden personal files. Just as they each pretended not to notice when the other called out for someone else during their time together.

Wufei could not bring himself to call what they did in bed together lovemaking. They both did their "duty" as ordered by the clan elders because they saw no way out of this mess that they were in. "Love" had nothing to do with it. Two lives ruined by their own commitment to "honour".

He just hoped that a third life had not been ruined as well. That Duo had managed to bounce back from his abandonment. That perhaps Heero had managed to get Duo to fall in love with him and that Duo was happy again.

Was he finally ready to view the contents of the vid-disk that Heero had flung at him? To see exactly how high a price Duo had paid for *his* "honour"? Wufei stared at his computer for a very long time that night before finally deciding that no, he was not ready. The price of his family's "honour" was already far too high. He did not think that he could bear knowing how much higher it could be.

***

Duo threw a sideways glance at Heero. Yes, he was watching. Again. Damn. Calmly, Duo picked up the bulletproof vest and donned it with no outward sign that he had not intended to do so. He had no intention of flat-out committing suicide. No bottles full of pills or self-inflicted wounds for him.

But over the past months he had discovered that in the midst of a firefight or while sneaking through a building full of armed and dangerous criminals, at least for a few moments, he could feel truly alive while he gambled against Death. The greater the gamble, the sharper the feeling of life - and the greater the pull of death. It seemed to be the only thing that really penetrated the thick wall of unnatural calm that now surrounded him at all times, separating him from the rest of the world. Duo was distantly thankful for the presence of that wall, cushioning him from the pain on the other side of it. But those brief moments that something *did* pierce it and make him feel truly alive still drew him.

"Duo? Did you hear me?" Heero asked a bit sharply.

"Yeah, yeah. Ten hostages: two kids with their mom, two seniors, one other bank patron and the rest are all bank employees. Three gunmen confirmed, one more suspected. We get in, take out the gunmen by whatever means necessary, free the hostages, yadda yadda yadda." 'Crap. Shouldn't have been quite so flip,' Duo thought as Heero's gaze narrowed. "I know, I know, 'Take it seriously, Maxwell' - have I ever let you down, Heero?"

"No, you haven't, Duo. And that *wasn't* what I was going to say."

Duo raised one eyebrow in disinterested query.

Heero gave him a slightly sad, knowing look and said, "Watch your damn back, Duo. Don't take any unnecessary chances."

Even through his protective wall, Duo felt a slight pang at that. It carried a definite echo of things he himself had said to Heero during the war. Well, it couldn't be helped. Whatever happened, happened. It wasn't like he particularly cared either way. Dead, alive, what was the difference? He wasn't allowed to be happy or loved anyway.

***

Heero watched Duo exit the locker room with a heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach. 'He wasn't going to wear the vest,' he thought painfully. The risks that Duo took during a mission had continued to climb. Keeping them both alive and in one piece was demanding more and more of Heero's skill, pushing him to limits that he had not reached since the war. Perhaps even beyond them. Sooner or later, he was going to face a situation where he could *not* keep them both even reasonably safe. A choice would have to be made.

Though really, there *was* no choice. Given a choice of saving Duo or himself, Heero would not even need an instant to make a decision. 'I won't lose him. No matter the cost.'

***

'Fuck. So much for intel,' Duo thought, freezing on command. Not only were there actually *five* gunmen - all successfully disarmed and currently being handcuffed by Heero - but one of the bank employees had turned out to be their inside man - or rather, inside *woman* - and had just completely blown the whole rescue operation by grabbing one of the kids. Crack shot or not, he couldn't chance shooting her - it was too likely that even in death her finger would tighten on the trigger and blow the poor terrified kid's brains out.

Several options ran through his mind before Duo settled on one. 'Oh well. Today is a good day to die, and at least it will be worth it,' he thought with an eerie calm. Dropping his gun and kicking it away from him as instructed, Duo began to slowly walk towards the woman, talking all the time about whatever totally inane, non-threatening, nonsense crossed his mind. As he neared her, still babbling away, the woman repeatedly told him to stop, her voice becoming more panicky each time.

Finally, the moment he'd been waiting for arrived. She turned the gun away from the child and towards him. Even as he lunged towards her, he knew that he probably wouldn't survive this. He'd ditched the protective vest hours ago, before he crawled into the ductwork to make his way through the mall and into the bank. The vest had been too bulky and rigid to allow him to fit. Heero had had to remove his as well. Then the gun was going off - but he was crashing to the floor even as it fired, too soon to have been hit by the bullet.

Duo's head hit the floor with a crack that left him seeing double for a few moments. By the time he staggered to his feet, the woman was struggling to get out from under someone and the kid was on the floor several feet away, bawling. Duo lurched forward automatically, kicking the gun away from the woman and cuffing her - then he realized that the body she had shoved off of her still wasn't moving. And the protective wall of numbness that he'd been hiding behind shattered with the realization of whose body was lying there so very still in a growing pool of blood.

"Heero?" A mere breath of a whisper slipped from his suddenly stiff lips. "*HEERO?!*" he screamed in panic. Fighting back the panic, Duo barked harshly into his communicator, "Preventer down, need EMS stat!" Flinging himself to his knees, he very carefully rolled his partner over, located the entry hole and started to apply pressure to both it and the exit point on Heero's back. "Heero, stay with me," he half-ordered, half-pled. "Don't you dare leave me too, Yuy!"

Heero's pale face twitched slightly as Duo applied pressure and his eyes slid half-open. One hand raised to touch Duo's cheek wonderingly as bright tears ran down it. "You... okay..."

"The bullet didn't touch me," Duo said, "but I'm *not* 'okay'! Dammit, Yuy, what did you go and do a fucking stupid thing like that for?!"

A flicker of a smile crossed Heero's face before it lost out to a grimace of pain. "Love you... Couldn't... lose you..."

Duo stared down at Heero in horror. 'God no... He can't mean it like that...'

"Take it back, Heero," he begged frantically. "Take it back! You can't love me! If you love me, I'll lose you! Please, take it back!"

"Can't... Truth..." Heero's hand slipped away from Duo's face, dropping to the floor weakly.

"Fuck! What the hell is taking the damn paramedics so long?" Duo swore viciously. Seeing Heero's eyes start to close again, he snapped sharply, "Yuy! Stay with me! Don't you tell me something like that and then go quitting on me! Do you hear me, Heero? *Heero?* *HEERO?!*"

***

"You need not come to my bed again," Jun said quietly.

Wufei met her gaze directly for the first time in weeks. "You mean..."

She inclined her head slightly in response and managed to dredge up a faint smile. She should be delighted at the news. She *was* grateful that this would at least remove one duty from their lives. But she had to wonder what sort of existence they would be bringing their poor child into. In all likelihood, his or her own marriage would be arranged by the elders immediately after birth and they would condemn another soul to a life tied to the burdens of duty and honour. 'And the child will grow up in a house full of regret, with parents that share only a mutual sorrow for their losses and a respect for one another's commitment to the wishes of the clan. What kind of life will that be?'

The look in Wufei's eyes told her that he was having similar thoughts.

Unbidden, the thought came to Jun's mind that while she had no power as clan heir, that would change when her grandmother died and she became clan head. If that happened *before* their child was born - or at least before they were forced into signing any agreements in the child's name - things would be very different.

*If* she had the courage to stand up to the elders and use the power she would inherit. And it would take courage - a great deal of it. And determination. But, for the sake of her child, she thought that she would find the strength. *If* such an opportunity even arose. 'Grandmother is old and in poor health. But then, she has been that way for a very long time. She may live for many more years yet.' But for the first time in her life, Jun hoped that she would *not*.

***

Duo huddled at one end of the waiting room couch, half-sick with worry and fear. Every trace of the protective shell of isolation that he had so carefully constructed after Wufei's abandonment was gone. Despite his best efforts to teach himself *not* to care about anyone around him and his continuous attempts to push all of his friends away, thus eliminating the chance of being hurt so deeply ever again by losing one of them, he still cared. Oh god, did he care. 'I can't lose Heero too... I just *can't*...'

Quatre entered the waiting room, looking around for Duo. Spotting him huddled at one end of a couch, Quatre hurried over to sit beside him. "Oh, Duo..." he said sorrowfully.

Duo's head jerked up and he turned to face Quatre. "Quatre!" he gasped before flinging himself against Quatre's shoulder, arms closing around him.

Quatre wrapped his arms around Duo and rubbed his back comfortingly. "When Une called, she said they thought he had a fair chance of making it. Heero's tough, you know that. Don't give up hope, Duo."

"But Quat, he said he *loved* me and he wouldn't take it back! I'll lose him too!" Duo gasped against Quatre's shoulder.

Quatre froze for a moment. Duo pushed himself away from Quatre's shoulder and looked at him searchingly. "You knew..." Duo accused. "You *knew* he loved me..."

Sighing, Quatre admitted, "Yes. I guessed when he was trying so hard to find a way for you to keep Wufei. He considered - things - that..." Quatre shook his head wordlessly. "I do not think that there is anything that he would not do for you, Duo, if it would make you happy," he said simply.

"Then... why did he never say anything before?" Duo asked brokenly. "I - Quat, the caring and the attraction was there for *both* of them, but W... - *he* - was the one who showed me that he felt the same in return and made the effort to develop those feelings into more. And so I fell in love with him. Had Heero done the same..." 'Had Heero done the same, none of this would have ever happened! I'd have fallen in love with him, been with him, not Wufei...'

Quatre placed a finger lightly on Duo's lips, silencing him. "He did not know what he was feeling at first. After all, you were his best friend, it seemed only natural that he would feel differently for you than for his other friends. By the time he figured it out, you and Wufei were 'going steady' and you were so happy that he did not want to risk hurting you. So he kept his silence. He has regretted it every day since the day you found out about Wufei's engagement."

"So why hasn't he said anything *since* then?"

Sighing, Quatre told Duo sadly, "Duo - you've been distant and withdrawn ever since. You've done nothing but try to push us all away. Heero did not want to risk having you push him so far that he would not be there to watch your back. We've all seen the chances you've been taking over the past months; Heero just has a clearer understanding because of his *own* behaviour during the war. He knew something like today would happen eventually; he just wanted to be certain that he would be there to protect you from yourself when it did."

Quatre was right, Duo admitted silently. He hadn't even stayed at Heero's apartment any longer than necessary to find a tiny one of his own on the other side of town, in spite of Heero's insistence that he was more than welcome to have the guestroom on a permanent basis. He had consciously decided that since sooner or later he lost anyone or anything he cared about, he might as well simply not have anything worth caring about. At least that way, it wouldn't hurt when he lost whatever he *did* have.

And so he had picked a completely bland, cookie-cutter apartment that even after nearly a year looked no different than the day he had moved in. He had not particularly wanted to hurt his friends in the process of disentangling himself from them and therefore had not actively driven them away; instead he had almost completely withdrawn from them, letting time and distance work to lessen the bond between them. And the risks... Well, when you didn't have anything worth caring about, you didn't have much worth living for either. But he'd never considered that someone else might want him to live. Might want it badly enough to risk their own life saving him... And for that someone to be Heero, his best friend and - maybe - even more...

Duo shuddered convulsively before collapsing against Quatre's shoulder again. "I don't want to lose him, Quat. If he loves me... well, I guess the risk is already there... I... I don't know whether I l... l... care about him as more than a friend, but I... I think I'd like to... to try..."

***

Wufei's hands shook slightly as he sent the commands to delete one hidden file after another. He was going to be a father; his loyalty was now permanently tied to Jun and his unborn child. Painful though it was, it was time to leave the past behind. Time to give up that last bit of hope and admit that he would never be able to return to Duo and beg his forgiveness. Never be able to ask Duo to take him back.

No matter how difficult it was, he owed it to Jun and their child - his family - to stop living in the past. It was time to let go of his old life and move on with his new one. Time to let go of Duo.

A small handful of files that were photos and video clips of the entire group of ex-pilots were all that he spared. He hoped that someday he would be able to resume contact with them; they were the only real friends he'd ever had after all. But not yet. The memories were far too raw and painful still.

Pulling up one last photo of Duo and himself moving in to their just-completed house, Wufei touched the computer screen lightly. "I'm sorry, Duo..." he whispered softly. "Goodbye, love..."

Then, eyes suddenly blurring, Wufei sent one final delete command. And the last picture disappeared.

***

Heero stirred slightly, fingers curling around Duo's. Duo raised his head hopefully, eyes searching Heero's face for any sign of returning awareness. "Heero?" he called softly. "Heero, can you hear me?"

Eyelids flickered, but were unable to open just yet. A faint whisper slipped from Heero's lips, "Duo?"

"Yeah, it's me. Gave us all quite a scare there, buddy." Duo hesitated a moment, then admitted, "Gave *me* quite a scare."

Heero's fingers tightened and he murmured, "Sorry..."

Silence reigned over the room for a while as Heero drifted in and out of consciousness. Finally, he became aware enough to open his eyes. His head turned, stopping when his gaze reached Duo.

Duo swallowed, gathered up his nerve, and blurted out, "Did you mean what you said?"

Heero's brow furrowed in confusion. "What I said? When?" he whispered.

Duo knew damn well this was a dumb time to be asking Heero questions. Heero was barely even conscious. But - he needed to know, and besides that, Heero was too groggy to dodge the questions right now as he might when he was back in full control of himself.

"While we were waiting for the paramedics. You said you loved me. Did you mean it?"

Heero's grip tightened again and a flicker of worry passed over his face. "I..." He hesitated, eyes searching Duo's face, then said softly, "Yes."

Duo closed his eyes for a moment, fighting down the panic that flared up again at the admission. Opening them again, he asked, "Love as friend or love as in in-love-with?"

This time, the heart monitor registered Heero's agitation at the question but he answered nevertheless, "In love with."

Still struggling against his deeply ingrained fears, Duo couldn't decide what to say at first. But seeing Heero's distress at his silence, he brought his free hand up to gently brush dark bangs away from Heero's eyes. "I... Look, 'Ro, it won't be easy. I... I've got a lotta baggage to deal with, y'know? But I... care for you. Care a lot. Maybe more," he admitted hesitantly. "I guess, if you want to, I'm willing to... to try."

The wondering smile that Heero graced him with was more than worth the struggle to get the words out.

"I want to," Heero breathed softly in return. "Very much..."

Duo managed to dredge up a shaky smile in response, "Okay..." He leaned forward and pressed a gentle kiss to Heero's forehead. Drawing back again, he sought refuge in humour, scolding, "Now then Yuy, you'd better do exactly what the doctor tells you and get better quick so we can get started."

Heero smiled again and answered, "Mission accepted."

#############################################

- end of Payment Demanded -
- tbc in the next part of The Cost of Honour Trilogy -