The Weight of the World
Notes: The characters are not mine (not even the store manager they're discussing; he's from episode #46) and the story is! This concerns some of the events of my fic October and takes place before it. Both fics are branch-offs of my Lead Me Through the Fire fic, which left Duke emotionally traumatized at the end. It's mostly a short character study/exploration of a more mature and weighed-down Duke and Serenity and their interaction, written for the Pairing prompt at Yugioh Contest on Livejournal.
He never had gotten over the past.
She had always known that, but though it had been difficult at times dealing with him in his anguish, she had never regretted her choice. They had both been badly affected by what had happened when the smugglers had used his store for their base of operation. She still felt that she was at least partially to blame for the death of his store manager and friend, but of course he laid none of that at her feet. No, he had taken all of the blame, all of the burden, upon his own shoulders. And it had been eating away at his soul ever since.
Outwardly he had put on a facade, like always, hoping to fool everyone into believing he was recovering and was just fine. Actually, he had been trying to fool himself, too. He had admitted that to her when he had told her that he needed some space to think about things. Of course, she had granted it to him, though her heart had been breaking to let him go. But she had known in her heart that he would return.
And he had.
She relaxed in his arms as he drew her to him in the large chair. His hands were cold, she noticed as he ran them up her sleeveless arms. And his eyes, the deep green eyes that alternately flashed with emotion or concealed it, and that matched her dress tonight, were still filled with guilt and pain. But tonight there was something else, too. She frowned slightly, trying to place it.
"You're still not yourself," she whispered, running a hand over his cheek. The flesh was still scarred and pale where the bullet had torn across it so long ago, in the forgotten future. It had bothered him, to have his face marred, but it was a small thing when he thought of the price his friend had paid. He had carried the mark since then as a token of battle, a war that for him, had never really ended.
"I don't know if I ever will be again," he replied. "And you know it, too." Gently he took her hand, moving it away from his face as he brought her closer, down to his lips.
His kiss was sweet, but filled with the same ache as in his eyes. She returned it softly, sadly, before pulling back.
"Neither of us are really the same," he said.
She nodded; she knew it well.
"You've grown up," he observed, brushing a lock of auburn hair away from where it had strayed into her face.
"So have you," she said. "In a way that never should have been."
He averted his gaze. "But it is, even though now we're the only ones who remember it," he said.
"It's kind of lonely sometimes, isn't it?" she said.
"It's not like I ever confided in the others to begin with," he said.
"Yeah, but . . ." She bit her lip. "Somehow, just knowing that they knew was a comfort somehow. It was like . . . like we didn't have to carry the weight all by ourselves." Her voice lowered. "It was so hard for me, when I had to keep secret that I knew who you really were when you were pretending to be dead. . . . There were so many times I wanted to say it, to just scream it at the top of my lungs and let Joey in on it, but . . . but I knew I couldn't."
"I'm so sorry." He traced the edge of her jawline with a skilled finger. "You didn't have to come into this Hell with me. You could've chosen to be ignorant like everyone else . . . to never know that I rewound time to bring him back. . . ."
She shook her head. "But I chose to share your pain and your sorrow," she said. "I couldn't help you before. This time . . . keeping this secret makes me feel like I'm doing something to help you, even if just in a little way. And at least . . . I don't have to wonder how you feel. I could never know everything, but now I think I understand just a small part of your feelings." She leaned in, kissing him this time.
He returned it. "We've sinned, haven't we?" he said. "At least . . . I've sinned and dragged you down with me."
"You couldn't stand knowing that he died on that case," she said quietly. "It's not a sin."
He was not convinced. "Look at how many lives I've changed---including his! I keep thinking, What if he didn't want to come back? What if I dragged him back through time and space and he would've rather stayed where he was?" He shook his head. "And the price I paid . . . having all his memories of his death, and even our friendship, erased. . . . I'm so selfish. I . . . I just thought that I could keep him from dying again if we weren't close, since it was my fault he . . ."
She placed a finger to his lips. "You only changed things that directly came from the smugglers' invasion and his death," she said. "I'm sure he'd understand why you did it, if he only knew. And I'm sure he'd be grateful for the chance to live again."
"I can't ever tell him. He can't ever know." He held her close to him, feeling the warmth of her breath and the softness of her skin. He loved her so much. . . . Through all of this, she had been his faithful constant, never giving up on him and his ability to heal from what he had been through. He had tried not to make the same mistake with her as he had with his friend, taking him for granted until their time together had almost been over. He counted every moment spent with her as something to be treasured and valued beyond compare.
"I know," she said now, her voice sad. "But it's tearing you apart inside."
"That was what the price really was, in the end," he said. "I was willing to pay it. I thought that if I was the only who suffered, it would be okay." He dug a hand into her long hair. "And what makes it worse is that if I was faced with it again, I'd still do it."
"That still doesn't make you a sinner," she said, her voice quiet. "It makes you human. It means you care. You care so much, it breaks your heart. . . ."
He was silent for a moment. "Tell me honestly," he said. "If you died . . . would you want me to do this for you?"
She was struck dumb with surprise. But then she recovered, searching through her feelings with care before answering.
"I wouldn't want to see you go through this pain for me," she said. "But if it would be worse for you than if I was dead, then . . . yes, yes I'd want to come back. I mean, of course I'd want to anyway, to be with the ones I loved." She looked steadily into his eyes. "All of them. I have a price myself---if I came back, I would want to remember everything."
He looked away. "Even if it was because of me that you'd died?" he said.
"Yes," she said. "But . . . it wasn't your fault about David. . . ." It was useless to say it, but she still tried.
"Yes it was." His grip tightened. "I can't lose you, Serenity," he rasped. "I can't ever lose you."
"You never will," she told him. "I promise."
"You can't promise something like that," he objected. "No one can."
She took a deep breath. "You're right; we can only do our best to try to make it come true for as long as we can," she said.
"And that's the key. Not even the most clever person can outsmart death every time," he said. "And sometimes . . . sometimes idiots cut the time short that we should still have."
Tears glistened in her eyes. "I'm so sorry," she said now, her voice catching in her throat. "Duke, I'm so sorry. . . ."
"So am I," he said.
For a long moment they remained where they were, absorbed in their feelings and thinking of the past, as its cruel memories washed over them. Theirs was a burden that no one else bore, for no one else knew of it.