The Way Love Goes
Notes: The characters are not mine and the story is! I've had this kicking around since November, never feeling like it was a good time to post it. So here, have it for Valentine's. It was partially written with the 31 Days theme I won't forget your kind smile or your eyes hidden with sorrow in mind. I flip back and forth on what I think of this pairing. Love triangles are even harder for me to write for than a romance without that obstacle (and if you know me, then you know romance is not something I write much). No matter who pairs up in the end, I still feel so sad for the other party. This was actually intended to be Tristan/Serenity, but . . . well, it took on a mind of its own. I only like Duke/Serenity if they've both grown up and matured, but my recent timelines follow the characters several years older and wiser, so it fits right in. But just because I'm writing this, don't expect it to be canon in my main timeline. Thanks to Kaze and Crystal Rose for plot help!
The late autumn sun made its way through the upstairs windows of the Black Crown game store. Lazily it touched on the short carpet and over the dark wooden desk. A stray sunbeam played across the black screen of the computer monitor, the hard drive contributing a low hum as it remained on Standby mode. The remaining light fell on the two people standing in the office. It rested on both dark and auburn hair and shone in the owners' eyes, illuminating the feelings visible within them.
The young man looked at her, the beautiful girl---no, young woman---standing before him, gazing into his veiled emerald eyes. Her own, a rich hazel, sparked with emotions---uncertainty, hesitation. . . .There was love too, just as there had been before whenever he had looked into her eyes before.
But he knew---it was not the kind of love he sought. It was a deep feeling for a dear friend, someone she did not want to hurt, someone whom she tried to convince herself that she could love in a different way.
He knew better.
He had always known, really, but that had not stopped him from trying. She had not been spoken for, though Tristan had always been interested too. They had competed for her affections for several years now, amusing her with their antics, but failing to make her understand their true feelings. She had been too young, too innocent, too naive.
She understood now.
He was not even sure why or how it had come about. When he had asked her to become his girl, shortly after she had turned sixteen, she had stared at him in amazement and surprise, as if not understanding. But then she had agreed, smiling like the angel she was.
He had been attracted to her because of her loveliness and her sweet personality. He had flirted with and dated many beautiful women, and unfortunately, empty-headed fangirls; she was different than all of them. Though she had been sheltered most of her life, there was a strength, a deep-seated courage, that he had not seen with any of the others. She had matured over the years, keeping hold of her optimism while sadly coming to realize that life did not always turn out as it should.
He, who had been discouraged and jaded for most of his nineteen years, had come to find new hope while seeing hers. She had changed him for the better. She had been one of his dearest friends and always would be---but now he knew that their relationship would never really advance beyond that. They had been fooling themselves to believe otherwise.
"Serenity . . ."
His voice was quiet and kind, and though he tried to keep his innermost feelings and heartache from slipping into it, he doubted he had succeeded. When he wanted a facade the most, it evaded him.
"We both know you really love him, not me."
She looked at him, tears of regret gathering in her eyes. "No," she protested. "I love you too, Duke! . . . I . . . I always will . . ." But she let the sentence trail into nothingness.
"I know," he said, managing a wan smile. "We've had good times together, haven't we? That won't change. But . . . the love you feel for me isn't the same as what you feel for Tristan."
She averted her eyes, feeling guilty now. "I'm sorry, Duke," she whispered. "I . . . I thought it would work out. . . . I thought we could make it work. . . ."
He took her hands in his, running his thumbs over the backs of her hands. "I wanted to think so," he said. "I tried to fool myself into thinking so . . . but I always knew different, deep down. I've just been able to sense it from you---the feelings you have for him. When we were on dates . . . when we talked . . . when I kissed you . . . you were imagining him being with you. It's okay, Serenity. I never should have butted in on the two of you in the first place."
She shook her head. "Tristan hadn't actually said anything then, and you were interested in me too," she said. Her voice cracked. "I didn't want it to go this way. I never wanted to have to make a choice. . . ." A tear slipped from her eye. "Having to make one is bad enough, but making the wrong one means I've let both you and Tristan down."
Tristan had been devastated when she had confessed that she had agreed to go out with Duke. His feelings had soon given way to bitterness and anger, believing that Duke did not really love Serenity and that he had only manipulated her with his charms and sweet-talk. Duke hoped that Serenity was not aware of Tristan's darkest feelings, though he himself definitely was. He and Tristan had always had a somewhat rocky friendship due to their rivalry over Serenity, but now it had erupted into practically a cold war. Tristan barely spoke to Duke anymore, and when he did, it was in a cool, clipped tone filled with underlying fire.
Duke had wanted to talk the problem out with him. The last time they had met, he had flat-out told Tristan that it had been Serenity's decision and Duke did not deserve Tristan's bitterness. Tristan had snapped then, accusing Duke of taking Serenity away just to spite him and that he likely only wanted to get her into his bed.
That had caused Duke to snap. He had put up with Tristan's hot-headedness for years, usually responding with his trademark smooth remarks and demeanor. But after Tristan's behavior over the last few weeks, he had reached the end of his patience.
"You don't know anything about me!" he had screamed back. Somewhere in his mind he had been relieved that they were the only ones in the store at the time. Tristan had gone in a few minutes before it was supposed to close, and Duke had locked the doors ahead of time, determined to have it out with him as much as Tristan had been determined the same way.
"I know enough!" Tristan had retorted. "I know how you act around every woman you meet. And I know your reputation. It fits right in with what I've seen! Serenity's not safe with you. After you've had your way with her, you'll dump her, just like you've dumped all the others!"
Duke had fought to rein himself back into control. The rumors that had been going around about him for years were partially his own fault, he knew, especially since he had done nothing to refute them. But this still hurt.
"You'd believe what gets strung around about me more than you'd believe me," he had said. "I guess it doesn't surprise me, but I expected more from you, Tristan. Sure, strangers off the street believe it, but you? I told you it wasn't true."
". . . I guess I find it hard to believe," Tristan had said.
But Duke had seen how Tristan had hesitated and looked away guiltily before replying. He had frowned, watching his old friend. How had they come to this, anyway? It felt so wrong.
Did Tristan feel the same? Or was Duke's old suspicion correct and Tristan had never thought of him as a friend? Maybe Tristan had only tolerated him but never really considered him one of them.
That thought hurt more than he wanted to ever admit.
He came back into the present, gazing again into Serenity's tear-brimmed eyes. Now he saw memories reflected there---their first meeting in Battle City . . . his attempts to get closer to her on Battle Ship and in Noa's world. . . . The duel against Nesbitt. . . . Him asking her to be his girlfriend. . . . Her answer. . . .
Their dates had been fun and enjoyable; there was no question that he knew how to show a woman a good time and make her feel special. And though Serenity had been attentive at first, he had watched her grow distant over the next weeks. She had stared off at nothing, often idly fingering the cellphone charm that Tristan had given her. Several times during conversations she had abruptly blinked in surprise, as if she had been thinking of something else and then was jerked back to the present.
She had probably been thinking and worrying that she had made a mistake in her choice, he thought to himself. And in essence, she had.
To go with Tristan was a familiar road, comforting to someone as sweet and sheltered as she was. He was more like her brother, who had been the only man in her life for years. He tried to be an optimist and went out of his way to paint a bright picture for her when things looked grim.
To go with Duke, on the other hand, would place her on a twisting, uncertain path. He genuinely loved her, as Tristan did, but he was not idealistic and did not believe in sugarcoating reality. And he was extremely different than either Joey or Tristan due to his far more reserved nature and his worldly fame.
All of that likely played a part as to why she gravitated towards Tristan. It could be the largest part; Duke was not sure. Maybe Serenity herself was not sure, at least consciously. Though in the end, did it matter much?
He leaned down, kissing her on the lips. For a moment she blinked in surprise. But then, quietly and sweetly, she returned it.
"He's waiting for you," Duke said as he pulled back. "Go ahead and go to him." His stomach twisted as he spoke. He wanted to recall the words, even to plead for her to stay after all, but he held his tongue.
If you love someone, set them free.
He would not deny that he had fantasies of her coming back to him just as he was encouraging her to do with Tristan. But at the same time, he knew it would not happen. She would be happier with Tristan, so she would stay with him.
She swallowed hard, gazing up at him as the tears slipped from her eyes. He looked back, praying that his inward plea for her to linger would not come out too strongly in his own eyes. He never wanted her to feel that she had to stay, for him.
At last she stepped back, taking a deep breath. "Alright then," she said. "Now . . . I just need the courage to walk out that door. . . ." She turned to look at it. When she stepped through, it would take her away from Duke, the one with whom she thought she was in love. But the further she went from him, the closer she would get to Tristan.
She was . . . really in love with him, wasn't she?
"From the very first day I met you, Serenity, you've always had a lot of courage," Duke said, breaking into her thoughts. "You can do it." And I'll stay here. I won't run after you, I won't try to get you to come back . . . even though I want it more than anything right now.
But I won't make it harder for you.
She nodded. "I can do it," she repeated. She took a step forward, then another. When she was at the doorway, she stopped, looking back. Duke was still where he had been standing, watching her.
She crossed into the hall, biting her lip. Then she broke into a run, fleeing towards the stairs.
Duke looked away. The sound of her feet on the steps echoed through his mind long after she had left the building.
He crossed the room, laying down on the couch by the window. Right now, he needed a rest.
Maybe everything would look better by then.
It was dark by the time Duke stirred. Grunting to himself, he rolled onto his back, at the same time running a hand through his raven bangs to brush them out of his eyes. The only light was coming from a streetlamp outside, casting its orange glow across the lonely office. It lit upon the objects in the room in odd ways, giving their shadows large, twisted, and otherworldly shapes. But though it looked somewhat eerie, he of course was not intimidated or afraid.
He turned onto his other side, staring blankly at the floor. Was this how Tristan had felt when Serenity had decided to go out with Duke? He felt so lonely . . . so empty and spent. He had lost a part of his heart that he could never get back. And he was jealous of Tristan, that he would have what Duke had longed for.
Tristan would never think it had been a hard thing for Duke to let Serenity go; he would probably think that Duke had lost interest and that he had tried to find an excuse to get rid of her without hurting her.
Tristan usually did think the worst of him. While Tristan was emotional and passionate, Duke was serious and logical. During their duel against Nesbitt, Tristan had been furious, believing that Duke had only cared about himself because he had not sacrificed his monsters to protect Serenity. Of course Duke had been going to protect her, but he had been going to do it without getting their lifepoints whittled down. Tristan had been desperate, acting without thinking, and that had cost him his own safety in the end.
Tristan had brought up that incident during their argument in the Black Crown, again stating how selfish he felt Duke had acted then. Duke had answered that Serenity did not need someone who would die for her in a heartbeat. It would crush her too much, feeling like it was because of her that someone dear to her was dead. Tristan had not seen how frozen Serenity had become after his sacrifice in Noa's world, but Duke had. He had tried and tried to get through to her, without success. And he had vowed that if he won her heart in the end, he would not allow such a scenario to play out. He would do everything to protect her without giving up his own life---unless that was absolutely the last option left.
"Oh, well, you're just so noble, aren't you!" Tristan had snapped. "I don't even get why you're so determined to have Serenity. You've already got half the girls in town at your beck and call. Why do you have to take Serenity too?"
"I don't want 'half the girls in town,'" Duke had retorted. "Just one."
Tristan's eyes had flashed. "Yeah? Well, so do I!"
That had been when Tristan had lunged, throwing a punch at Duke. The raven-haired boy had dodged, grabbing Tristan's wrist instead. He had not wanted to fight inside the store.
"Look, if you can't behave better than this, then get out," he had ordered.
Tristan had been shaking with rage. He had swung another punch at Duke with his other fist, which was also dodged. Then he had pulled away, shoving Duke backwards into the counter. The emerald-eyed boy had winced, gritting his teeth in pain as he had raised his gaze to meet Tristan's. He had not been happy. And he had really wanted to fight Tristan. He had only held back because he did not want to break anything in the store.
Tristan had finally seemed to recognize that fact. Then he had whirled, unlocking the deadbolt on the heavy glass doors and storming into the night. Duke had been left staring after him, with the distinct feeling that any friendship they had shared had just ended.
Had he been too harsh? Tristan had not understood him, but had he understood Tristan any better? They had both said and done things they should not have. And maybe together they had shattered their friendship.
"You still have all your precious fangirls," he could imagine Tristan saying. "You'll get by."
In the present, a grim, ironic smirk passed over Duke's features. Funny, wasn't it---he could have almost any girl he set his sights on, except the one he actually loved.
He sat up, glancing to the clock on his desk. By now the store was closed; whoever had been at the counter downstairs should have seen to that. Maybe no one had even realized he was still here. They might have departed, leaving him behind in the building. But the light in the corridor was still on, at least; he could see the cracks of it through the mostly closed door.
Swinging his legs over the edge of the couch, he pushed himself up. There was no point staying here. He would make sure everything was closed up, as it should be, and then go home.
The hall was empty when he opened the door and stepped into it. The other office doors were closed and dark at the bottom. Unless everyone else had gone to sleep up here too, he was alone.
He tried the knobs anyway, just to be sure. The last thing he wanted to do was to lock someone in overnight by accident. But the doors swung open to disclose vacant rooms beyond; their occupants were not present. Duke turned, heading for the stairs.
Only the dim overhead lights were on in the store downstairs. A quick check of both it and the storage room showed them to be empty. And the door to the basement was locked, so it was safe to say that no one was down there.
He sighed softly to himself. He dimmed the remaining lights even further, then crossed to the main doors. But then he could only stare.
Serenity was standing outside, nervously waiting. As her eyes locked with his, she gave him a quiet smile.
His heart beat faster. He turned the deadbolt, shoving the door open just enough to step outside. Then he stared at her, not even wanting to turn away long enough to close the doors again. She was so beautiful, with both real and artificial light touching on her features and in her hair. . . .
"Serenity!" he gasped, finally finding his voice. "What are you doing back here?"
She smiled again. "You were right, Duke," she said quietly. "What I feel for you isn't the same as what I feel for Tristan." She glanced at the Turtle Game Shop across the street, then back at Duke. "I didn't go see Tristan again. . . . I took a long walk to think about things."
She stepped closer to him. "Tristan's like a second brother to me," she said, her voice still soft and gentle. "I love him . . . I love him so much . . . but . . ." She took his hands. "I'm not in love with him. I . . . I just hope he'll be able to understand that someday. . . ."
He gripped her hands, scarcely daring to believe this was really happening. "And . . . ?" he asked. "What about . . ."
She stood on tiptoe, silencing him as she kissed him on the lips. Then she leaned back, gazing into his stunned and disbelieving green eyes.
"I didn't make the wrong choice," she said.
He could only stare at her, frozen, unable to comprehend this was real. Serenity loved him . . . she was in love with him. . . . She had chosen him and still wanted him. . . .
He pulled her close to him, returning the kiss firmly and passionately.
If you love someone, set them free.
If they come back, they're yours.
If they don't, they never were.