Notes: The characters are not mine and the story is! It is intended as a follow-up to Alone Again, Naturally, but I think it can easily be read as a stand-alone. It continues my fascination with Duke as a loner, and, as I have been both in his and in Téa's positions at various times, it's a story quite dear to my heart. The song Desperado by The Eagles provided inspiration along the way, as it is an amazing song that fits Duke in general, and this story, well. Some lines near the end were directly inspired by the lyrics. The story also includes mentions of Seto/Téa, Tristan/Serenity, one-sided Duke/Serenity, and an earlier, failed Duke/Téa. Thanks to Crystal Rose and Kaze for plot help!
Téa exited the Las Vegas hotel's stage, pulling up her pink taffeta skirts as she hurried down the stairs. Her heart was still pounding with the exhiliration of having performed, even though it was by no means her first time. The show---her Las Vegas debut---had gone exceptionally well. Now all she wanted was to return to her room and call Seto. He had stayed in Domino City, taking care of necessary business at the company, but had told her to call when the show had ended.
Though she loved performing and traveling, she missed her husband and her friends and Domino City. The excitement of dancing meant little when she could not share it with her loved ones. Tomorrow Seto would arrive, in time for her second Las Vegas show. She was counting the hours until then.
A burst of loud, raucous laughter startled her back to the present and her eyes widened in surprised shock. She knew that voice . . she thought. It was coming from the hotel's casino. And why would she know anyone in there?
"Who in the world . . ."
Her curiosity piqued, she crossed the hall and peered into the gaudy, brightly-lit room. A crowd was gathered near the back. She slipped inside, making her way over to them. But the group was so involved in their show that they did not even know she was there.
"Hey!" she said in frustration, as she tried to push her way between two big guys. "I'm trying to get through here!"
The laughter came again. She froze, her hands poised on the men's shoulders. "It can't be . . ." she whispered.
The crowd finally parted enough that she could see the craps table. And standing at the edge, casually tossing a pair of dice in the air, was a lanky, green-eyed man. His vaguely wavy raven hair was pulled back in a ponytail that fell slightly past his shoulders. The long bangs were loose, brushing against his cheeks.
"Too bad," he smirked, looking to a disgruntled man at the other end of the table. "Better luck next time. Maybe. But it's not too likely; Lady Luck has the hots for me."
"She's not the only one." A blond woman with too much makeup and a plunging neckline leaned over to him. "You'll have time for me now, won't you?" she purred. "That was the twelfth sucker tonight."
He took her hand and kissed it. "Wait for me in the lounge," he said. "I'll be right there."
She smiled, "Don't keep me waiting too long. Craps are okay, but I can think of much more . . . exciting things." Then she slinked away, her long, slit skirt fluttering aside to reveal her shapely legs.
Téa's mouth dropped open. She looked back to the dark-haired man, her heart gathering speed. "Duke," she gasped. Was this really Domino City's famed dice master---and her old friend and former flame? She had heard about him in the news off and on, and that he had come to Las Vegas after his divorce from his second wife, but this was not what she had expected to find. Not at all. Even though he had been notorious for flirting with girls during high school, this seemed far different than innocent flirting and trying to impress fangirls. And he was not performing simple parlor tricks now; he was actually gambling---or so it sounded. He was risking money---and winning.
He turned, his eyes locking with hers. The dice fell from his hand, bouncing across the craps table. "Téa?" he said, clearly in almost as much disbelief as she.
She shook her head, stunned by all that she had just witnessed. "Duke . . . what's happened to you?" was all she could think to ask.
He regained his composure and shrugged, walking away from the table. "What's happened to me?" he repeated. "Oh, I'd say I've proven Lady Luck is back on my side, twelve times over. Now I'm even richer than I was before tonight." He laughed. "And with a beautiful woman on my arm, what else could I possibly want?"
"She isn't your type," Téa exclaimed.
His eyes hardened. "Oh yeah? And what would you know about 'my type'? It's not like you were around."
She rocked back, the barb going under her skin. "Duke, I . . ."
He waved a hand in a dismissive manner. "Don't worry, I know you've been busy. So has everyone else. So have I. I heard you were performing here tonight and tomorrow. I thought I might try to catch one of the shows, but . . . you know how it is---other things just got in the way."
"Like the Painted Lady?" Téa frowned in concern. "Duke, what were you going to do with her in the lounge? You don't even drink!" This was not the Duke she had known. Something was clearly wrong. And somehow she did not think it was solely due to the divorce.
"I show the girls such a good time, they don't even notice that I'm not drinking," Duke smirked. "And I can't keep her waiting, now, can I?" He moved alongside her. "You should try the slot machines; maybe you'll get lucky. That's what happened to me as soon as I came to Vegas. I'm thinking I'll stick around a while. This is my kind of place. Well, see you around." He strolled past with a wave of farewell.
Téa was left staring after him in shock. For the moment, thoughts of contacting the others had fled. Now she was worried about her old friend. And she knew that somehow, she had to talk to him again and find out what was wrong.
Duke was troubled as he left the casino and headed for the lounge. He twirled a piece of hair around his finger, not even thinking about the action. He was leaving Téa behind him, clearly stunned by the reception she had received.
And he was just as stunned that they had met. Even though they were in the same hotel, he had not imagined they would actually encounter each other.
. . . Or could that have been why he had come to this hotel tonight, subconsciously wanting to meet an old friend, a link to his old life? He had been telling the truth that he had meant to attend one of her shows, but his tardiness had actually been for a different reason. So instead he had gone to the casino to clear his mind.
He was still angry about the divorce---both at the entire situation and at himself. It was ridiculous and foolish, that he had not been able to get over Serenity and throw himself heart and soul into the new relationship. In disgust he had sold the mansion---which he had never wanted to live in all alone---and had escaped to Las Vegas for a while. He had always wanted to go there, and once the divorce had been finalized, it had felt like the right time. Since then, he had become lost in the world of gambling and had made quite a name for himself as a mysterious and charming playboy. There was always someone who wanted to be with him here.
Of course, he was only fooling himself. He knew they did not really want to be with him; they only cared about his money and his winning streak. Once someone more interesting came along, they would drop him like a hot rock. It was just like how it had been with the fangirls in high school, but he was so desperate to not be alone that he accepted it anyway.
He put on a smile as he arrived at the lounge and saw the Painted Lady waiting for him. What was her name again? Billie? Millie? . . . Tillie? One downside of there always being someone new was that he could never keep straight who was who. But he could find a way around it. He always did.
"See, that wasn't too long, was it?" he said smoothly as he slid into the booth across from her.
She smiled, her perfect teeth standing out against the dark red lipstick. "I guess not," she said.
"But it's about to get longer," another voice chimed in.
Duke's mouth fell open. Téa had marched right into the lounge and was coming up to their booth in determination. The Painted Lady was staring, too. Neither could think of anything to say.
Téa arrived at the table, crossing her arms. "Duke and I have some things to talk about," she said. "Alone."
"Well," smirked the other woman, not seeming too bothered, "you sure know how to pick 'em."
"It's not like that!" Duke protested. "I had no idea she was going to . . ."
The blond got up from the booth. "Go ahead and talk to him if you want," she shrugged at Téa. "I'm going back to the casino to see who else is there." She looked to Duke. "Of course, I'll expect an explanation later."
"Me too," Duke grumbled.
"And we'll have to do something extra fun to make up for this," she said, batting her eyes at him before sashaying off.
Téa was practically fuming as she got into the booth. "What do you see in her?" she exclaimed.
"Not much," Duke said. "But there wasn't anyone better around tonight." He narrowed his eyes. "What do you think you're doing, butting into my business like this? That's more like Joey than you."
"Duke, I can't believe you!" Téa retorted. "I remember your flirting ways, but I didn't think I'd see you with someone like that! I didn't think you'd be gambling in a casino, either."
He gave a cold laugh. "Really? I thought everyone from Domino City believed I played around with every kind of woman imaginable and that I did everything imaginable with them. No one had any faith in me, even when I told them the truth."
Téa frowned. "And are you doing 'everything imaginable'?"
"If you have to ask, it just proves my point," he said.
"Well, I'm sorry, but seeing you with her doesn't exactly give my confidence a huge boost!" Téa said.
She took a deep breath. This was getting them nowhere. She had to stay calm, even though she was reeling and even though Duke was making her furious. She wanted to help him, and she would never be able to accomplish that if she could not control her temper.
"Duke, what do you mean, 'no one had any faith in you'?" she tried again, willing herself to speak gently.
"I said what I meant." Duke looked away. "No one really cared whether I was around, either. So I just left to see what would happen. And I bet nothing did, did it? They probably didn't even notice I was gone."
"That's not true!" Téa exclaimed. "Yugi called me worried because he'd heard about your second divorce."
"Funny that he never bothered to come see me," Duke said. "I was mostly in Domino until the divorce was finalized."
"You've both been so busy," Téa said. "He did try to see you, and to call you, but he could never get through."
"What'd he do, try once?" Duke said without humor. "Our businesses were across the street from each other. How hard could it have been to meet up?"
"I don't know how many times he tried," Téa said, "but please believe me, Duke---he was worried."
Duke looked back to her. "Okay, then tell me this," he said. "It's been in the news that I'm in Las Vegas. Did you think about looking me up when you knew you'd be performing here?"
Téa blinked. "Of course," she said.
"But did you keep hold of that idea? Or did it get buried under everything else you wanted to do?"
Téa stiffened at the point-blank question. She opened her mouth to reply, then closed it. Her gaze darted away from him, ashamed and guilt-stricken.
A smirk curled the edges of Duke's lips. "I knew it," he said. "See, if it was really important to you, it would have stayed on your mind as much as everything else."
Téa swallowed hard. "It was important!" she said. "I was hoping we could talk, and that I could convince you to go home, and . . ."
"I'll tell you something, Téa," Duke interrupted. "You haven't been off my mind ever since I learned you were coming. The real reason I didn't show up for your performance was because I didn't feel ready to face that chapter from my past. But I stayed here anyway. I could have gone to any casino in town, but I chose to be here. What does that tell you?"
Téa tried to gather her composure. Duke's words both encouraged her and made her feel all the more guilty. But there had to be something she could say that would bring him home. He would not have lingered so close to her if part of him had not wanted to keep hold of the possibility that they might meet.
"It tells me you really don't want to give up that chapter of your past," she said. "It shouldn't even be your past, Duke; it should be your present! Please . . . don't push everyone away!"
Now his eyes narrowed. He looked downright angry. "Push them away?!" he said, incredulous. "You know, I tried to reach out to everyone. I tried. I was the one being pushed away, Téa. There were so many times I was just brushed off or actually ignored. On those little adventures we used to have, I was never invited. Did you notice? I only ended up going along if I somehow got involved or if I invited myself." His eyes narrowed. "Let's face it, Téa. Yugi would have never forgotten to tell you, Joey, and Tristan about a new escapade. Never, no matter how much stress and pressure was piling on him. But I was the first to drop out of his thoughts . . . all of your thoughts."
She stared at him, at a loss for words. The wounds in Duke's heart had gone far deeper than she had ever imagined. She had thought he had left because of the divorce, and because he had always seemed so aloof and detached from her and the others, but never because of something like this. From what he was saying, these feelings of his had been festering for years.
"Duke, I . . . I had no idea you felt this way," she said at last. "I don't even know what to tell you---except that none of us ever meant to make you feel excluded." She reached for his hand. "Please believe me. If we'd known you felt like this, we would have rallied around you in an instant!"
"So you're only around when the chips are down, eh?" Duke smirked. "What about every day? What about just the average, ordinary days where nothing of particular interest is happening? It's nice to be loved then, too. Because honestly, if you're not loved then, how do you know that any rainy-day caring is sincere?"
He let her touch his hand, but then pulled it away at the feeling of thrill it brought. Maybe he had never completely gotten over her, either. And she was married now; he could not let himself feel any such thing for her, just like with Serenity.
From Téa's eyes, she was clearly puzzled and hurt over why he had just done that. But she took a deep breath and tried to press forward.
"I don't think all the blame should be laid on us," she said. "Duke, you've always acted like you wanted to be alone. If we left you out, I think part of it was that we thought it was what you wanted."
"Come on, Téa, does anyone really want to be alone? Really, no matter what they might say?" Duke crossed his arms on the table, staring into her eyes. "Or do they just say it and act like it because they're afraid? Because even though they pretend to be tough, they're crying out for help? . . ." His voice dropped. "Because more than anything, they want someone to reach out through their cold existence and show that they're cared about and wanted? Even though on one hand they don't want their perfect facade shattered . . . at the same time, they want someone to see through it.
"How is it any different from Seto Kaiba?"
Téa flinched. Duke was right. She had come to see in Seto exactly what Duke was saying. But neither she or anyone else had seen the same things in Duke.
"I guess I just don't understand why I wasn't given the same consideration as Seto Kaiba," Duke said. "Maybe that's the real reason why you and I never made it as a couple."
Téa looked down, sickened. "Duke . . . I'm so sorry," she managed to say. Her thoughts crashed through her mind as she struggled in desperation to sort through them, to find some meaning in all of this heartbreak and sorrow.
". . . It took me years to see anything different in Seto," she said. "And we ran into him a lot more than we did you. . . ." She stared at the table, feeling like she was grabbing at flimsy straws. "There were more opportunities to get to know him. . . ."
"But we actually dated, Téa," Duke said. "Why did you even accept if you thought I wanted to be alone? In fact, why did you think that? For me to ask you out, didn't it make it pretty obvious that I didn't want to be alone at all?"
"I thought so at first," Téa said. "But I was never sure. I . . ." She looked down. "I wasn't even sure if I wasn't just another of your conquests. . . ." She raised her eyes to meet his again. "I was sure later on that you really were trying to make it work, but . . . we both know our personalities just weren't fitting together. It wasn't working, even though we were both trying."
"A toast to the story of my life." Duke mockingly lifted a complimentary glass of water. "It wasn't working with anyone, Téa. Serenity liked Tristan better than me. You and I just weren't compatible. Brittany stood me up at the altar. Kim was a gold-digger. And then Annie divorced me because we 'weren't seeing eye-to-eye.'"
He set the water down, his eyes narrowing again. "It really didn't help that I felt like I didn't have any close friends," he said. "You want to know the real reason I came to Las Vegas? Because it feels better to be around strangers who only want you superficially than it does to be around supposed friends who don't notice if you're missing."
She stared at him in horror, again at a loss for words. Swallowing hard, she leaned back, unable to look away from this shadow of a man she had thought she had known. She had not known him at all. None of them had.
". . . But at the end of the day, when everyone's gone, the emptiness is still there," she said quietly. "You can't tell me you don't feel it then. . . ."
"I feel it every second of every day," he said. "It doesn't matter if anyone's with me or not."
"Then . . ." Téa hesitated, not wanting her next words to come out wrong. "Will you give us another chance, Duke? After the show tomorrow night, Seto and I are going back to Domino City. Come with us. We can't make up for the past, but we can try to make a better future."
For a moment Duke looked surprised by the offer. But then his eyes clouded over again. "For how long?" he countered. "I've been there before, Téa. People tell you it's going to be better, and maybe for a few days or weeks, it is. But then things start slipping right back to how they were in the first place. That happened with my dad . . . with the girls I was dating . . . with friends. . . ."
"That doesn't mean it will happen now," Téa said.
"Can you guarantee that?" Duke said. "I'm sick of broken promises. But I'm also sick of people promising what they know they can't keep."
"Of course I can't guarantee it," Téa said. "All I can do is promise to try my very best. I know the others would feel the same."
Duke looked away, tapping his fingers on his upper arm. "I don't think so," he said at last. "Not right now. See, after it happens too many times, you just get so you can't take it anymore. I'm not ready to face the possibility of it happening again."
"So you're just going to stay here in this fake place, gambling and necking and who-knows-what with Painted Ladies?!" Téa exclaimed.
"You got it." Duke turned back to her. "There are other factors to why I left, Téa. It's so painful to face some people, knowing they're right there and yet just out of your reach."
Her eyes widened. "You mean Serenity," she realized.
He nodded. "It's easier to be away from her instead of seeing her with a guy I thought was my friend," he said. "I don't know, Téa . . . Domino City just doesn't hold the same magic for me that it once did. I feel like I need to start over somewhere else."
She shook her head, her heart twisting. "But here?" she said. "And like this? This is how you're starting over?!"
"I won't stay here forever," Duke said. "I was thinking I'd travel. . . . Maybe hit Europe . . . Paris . . . Monte Carlo . . . Venice . . . those kinds of places."
"You'll never be happy," she told him. "You're just running, Duke Devlin. And sooner or later it'll catch up to you."
"Maybe so," he said, "but maybe on the other hand, I'll find happiness in one of those places. Can you tell me how to find happiness, Téa? Is happiness going back to your childhood home where everything's different and yet ironically the same? Where you feel invisible even though paparazzi are following you everywhere?"
She looked at him sadly. "I wish you'd change your mind," she said.
"They say someone has to hit rock-bottom before they can start getting better," Duke mused. "I feel like I've already hit it, but maybe I've got a way to go yet. And who knows . . . maybe when that happens and I feel like I'm spent, I'll go back. Right now, I'm just not ready."
". . . Then I guess this is Goodbye," Téa realized. "There's nothing I can do to change your mind. . . ."
"I doubt it. But as far as it being Goodbye . . . was it ever Hello?" A dark smirk played on Duke's lips as he started to get up from the booth. When he was standing, half-facing away from her, he paused.
"Break a leg tomorrow night," he said. "And tell Yugi and the others Hi from me. I'm curious to know how they'll react." He hesitated again. "And if you still want to know . . . no, I don't do 'everything imaginable' with the women here." With that he walked away, leaving Téa behind for the second time that evening.
She gazed after him, helpless. Her thoughts and feelings were still tumbling over themselves, in shock from everything that had taken place in the past hour. Tears leaped to her eyes, threatening to spill over and send her makeup running. For all the times and all the ways she had tried to be there for her friends, she had failed to be there for Duke. And though it certainly was not solely her fault, at the moment she felt like she was the one to blame. What was worse, she had no idea how to even help him now. It had come too little, too late.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so sorry. . . ."
She started and looked up at the concerned waiter's voice. He was standing near the booth, watching her with a worried frown. "Are you alright?"
She gave a weak nod, pushing herself off the seat. "Y-Yeah," she said. "Thanks. . . ."
"I noticed you were sitting with Mr. Devlin," the waiter continued. "He's a tricky one. Always has a new girl in here each night, pretty much." A bit of anger slipped into his voice. "I can't stand guys like that."
Téa stared sadly at the doorway through which Duke had passed a moment before. "He's lonely," she said. "He's lonely and feels betrayed. And he's in a cage now---a prison built by the hands of everyone he's known . . . and himself."
The waiter shook his head. "Whatever you say. If you're sure you're alright . . ."
"I'm fine," Téa said.
But Duke isn't, she thought as she walked into the empty and bright corridor. And . . . I wonder if he'll ever be again.
His prison is going through life all alone.
I'm not even sure who has the key.