The studio lights are hot on his skin. Jack has been on television before, but never like this. Before, it has always been at tournaments, with all cameras turned towards him as he devastated his opponents. The most personal he has ever gotten has been a few sound bites for the reporters as he leaves the stadium. This is his first appearance on a talk show, and the audience is avid to finally hear a few candid words from him, up close and personal.
His answers are scripted, of course - not by the hostess or the studio, but by Director Goodwin. Nothing can be allowed to slip out that might reveal his past in the slums of Satellite. Everything about his family, his childhood, even the cartoons he watched and the books he read growing up, has carefully been selected beforehand.
The hostess asks him what his favorite food is. The audience laughs when he answers "cup ramen", so he laughs with them and invents a more suitable answer. He is tired of this game. It isn't one he can win at, only drag on.
The hostess leans forward in her chair, giving him an exaggeratedly confidential look. Her perfume is too strong. He fights the impulse to flinch away from her dazzling white smile.
"Now, the question all the ladies in the audience are asking," she says. "What's your idea of the perfect woman?"
He hesitates. The answer is not in his script.
"Oh, I don't know," he says.
"Come on," the woman coaxes sweetly. "You can tell us."
Jack half-closes his eyes, sifting through a haze of half-remembered fantasies from when he was younger and women were desirable but unobtainable mysteries.
"She'd have to be a duelist, of course," he says. "Tall, blonde, elegant..."
"So basically, a female version of yourself?" the hostess quips.
"Of course," he answers, pleased by the comparison. "Why settle for less than perfection?"
The audience loves it. They erupt with laughter and cheers. Jack smiles. He is pleased to have figured that out.
There are no secretaries in Satellite. Having one is a luxury, and Jack insists on having every luxury available to him. The Director has given him a woman to open his mail and answer his phone, rather like someone might give a rawhide bone to a yappy dog: Here, play with this for a while and leave me alone.
She is an excellent secretary, as these things go. She does her job briskly and efficiently, so quietly that he often forgets she's there, without any complaints at Jack's often brusque manner. She is always there when he needs her for something. She agrees with everything he says.
If pressed, he would have to admit that she was an excellent woman, as well. He is watching her now, out of the corner of his eye, as he sips his morning coffee. She is sitting across from him, answering his emails for him, but he can feel her attention riveted on him. She has her long legs crossed in just such a way to give him a good view of the curve of her calves and her slim ankles and dainty feet. She always seems to know how to show just enough and not a bit more. She wears exactly the right amount of makeup and just enough perfume - never overpowering, just the faintest whiff that was there and gone so quickly as to leave doubt it has ever been there at all. Her hands are smooth and soft when they accidentally brushed his. Her eyes are warm and bright beneath their demure fringe of dark lashes. No matter how carefully he scrutinizes, he can find no flaw in her.
Of course. She is there to entertain him, to give Director Goodwin one more hook to hold him in place. It isn't her fault.
She stops typing. She sets her computer aside and raises her eyes to seek his.
"I'm done," she says. "Is there anything else I can do for you? Anything at all?"
Her voice is soft and breathy; he can hear the hope creeping in at the edges. She doesn't know she's a pawn in this game. Whatever feelings she has are genuine. It would be an act of heroism to take her and get her out of this place, take her to somewhere no one has heard of either of them, and try for a better start next time around. He probably deserves a second try, too.
All he has to do is say, "Yes. Kiss me, Mikage," and she'll fall into his arms. It would be a perfect romantic moment, lacking only the surge of background music, and perhaps a sunset. All he had to do was say the words, and she would be his to do as he wanted with. He ought to want her. They didn't come much more desirable. He ought to desire her.
A perfect woman. A perfect moment. He wonders what is wrong with him, that he doesn't want any of it.
"Go away and leave me alone," he snaps.
She slinks away with hurt in her eyes, stealing backwards glances, hoping he'll apologize. He doesn't. If he's going to be wrong, he'll be wrong all the way down.
Jack hates hospitals. In his world, a person gets well in their home, tended by their loved ones, and if they die, at least they do it in the place they wanted to be. Hospitals are impersonal places that smell of chemicals. The fact that he is in one at all is a sign of weakness. He feels weak. His arm hurts the most, but it is hard for him to think of a place that doesn't ache. His painkillers are wearing off, but the grogginess that came with them is still lingering. A small part of him wonders if it isn't just the painkillers. He isn't the King anymore. Fame and fortune are behind him. He can no longer trust his allies, and he is too proud to beg forgiveness from his friends. It only seems right that some of his strength should have left him as well.
The only good thing about this hospital is the man with the wild eyes and the spider tattoo who has challenged him to a duel. Good duels are liable to be few and far between in the future Jack is facing. He'll take what he can get.
There is also the girl. He doesn't like relying on her. He is tired of relying on people, of being in someone else's power. If she hadn't been there, perhaps he could have fought this fight alone and died a hero's death. Her presence forces him to stand up and fight for himself with whatever small scraps of strength and pride he has left. If there was time, he could learn to hate her for it.
But she isn't going to go away. She can't go away, but she isn't even trying. She ought to be. She is a complete innocent, here only by the wildest of chances, and yet she is stepping up to the challenge even as her voice shakes and her tongue stumbles over her words. He should be the one acting the part of handsome prince defending the damsel in distress, and yet here he is, relying on her to help him limp through the one thing he does best. She seems to know more about what's going on than he does. She almost seems enthusiastic about it. An underworld fiend is threatening to drag her down into the depths of the abyss, and she still has more enthusiasm about life than Jack had ten minutes ago before all this started.
She isn't a striking woman. Her haircut is wrong and her glasses are unflattering, and if he had seen her in the street yesterday, he would have walked past her without ever registering that she was there. She is overeager and clumsy, making mistakes that in other circumstances would have him cringing in embarrassment. But now she is standing between him and danger, taking hits from something that shouldn't even exist. She buckles under the pain, and he clumsily tries to catch her with his one working arm.
"I... I'm okay," she stammers, as she tries to pull herself to her feet.
He wonders where she gets her courage from. For a fleeting instant, his blood races, and through the haze of drugs and pain, he suddenly understands what a man feels when he looks at a woman and says, "Damn, she is beautiful."
Nobody invited her. She showed up at the victory party all on her own. She's not even part of their team: Sherry LeBlanc, fellow duelist and competitor in the WRGP. She isn't here to help them celebrate. She is here largely to berate them for not taking their troubles seriously enough - to remind them that they are throwing a party while their enemies walk freely through the city.
Jack thinks she is taking things too seriously. Victories are to be celebrated. What else are they for if not to be savored?
He wonders why she isn't celebrating. She made a stronger showing than any of them did. His team's victory was won as much by the caprice of the other team's leader as by their own skill, while Sherry swept through her duel without ever needing to call on the other half of her team. If he had won that sort of victory, he would take some time out to enjoy it.
He's almost sorry he didn't see it happening. It must have been quite a show. It reminds him, in an uncomfortable way, of his own beginnings in Neo Domino City, of when he was an unparalleled duelist with an unbroken winning streak. He can respect that kind of power in a duelist.
As his female fan club bickers quietly and not-so-quietly in the background, it occurs to him that he should be admiring a lot more than that. Sherry is a beautiful woman. If she hadn't wanted to be a duelist, she could have been on the cover of any magazine she liked. Tall, blonde, poised, and elegant, but fierce and determined as well. She is everything he dreamed of, back when he was just awakening to the possibilities a woman had to offer, and imagining which one he would have when he was a King and could have his pick of them.
He is slightly mystified to realize that he isn't attracted to her at all.
"I just don't get it."
Jack reluctantly turns his attention away from his coffee to look at Ushio. Sometimes he is not sure if the two of them are friends or not. He is aware of the bone of contention between them, even if Mikage remains peacefully oblivious. But the fact remains that all of them are part of each other's social circle. They don't need to like each other as long as they understand that they're both on the same side, at least in most ways. If they see each other at the same little cafe downtown, they'll sit together without thinking twice about it.
"Don't get what?" Jack asks.
Ushio waves a hand vaguely. "About Mikage. You've got to know."
"I know." Jack sips his coffee. "I just don't care."
"I just don't get it," Ushio says again. "How you can turn down a rack like that I'll never know."
"I have a woman. I don't need another one. If I had to pay attention to every damned woman who's fool enough to think she's in love with me, I'd never have time to do anything else," says Jack. "Besides, I'm really more of a leg man."
"She's got those, too."
"Mm." Jack grudgingly acknowledges the truth of the statement.
"You're a weird guy," says Ushio. "I mean, I'm not saying your reporter gal isn't cute, but Mikage's got it all. Beautiful, smart, great personality... she's even a good cook! She's practically perfect, but if you don't want her..."
"I don't like perfect."
Jack blurts it out without thinking about it, but once it's out in the open, he considers it. He hasn't had that exact thought so clearly before.
"I don't," he repeats, and knows then that it's true.
Carly is cooking. Jack had suggested that he would buy dinner somewhere - someplace with dignity befitting a rising star such as himself, but Carly wouldn't allow it. Tomorrow they can go for a champagne dinner at the most expensive place in town, if that's what he wants, but tonight Jack is home in Neo Domino City for the first time since he left to restart his journey to kingship, and she is going to make him a home cooked meal, and he will eat it and he will like it, no arguments allowed. So Jack doesn't argue, but instead wanders around her apartment. It feels small, after the splendor of the suites he stays in, but somehow it is more comfortable than the hotels. It hasn't changed much since the first time he was there.
She is stirring something, her face fixed in a look of intense concentration, as though the quality of her stirring is what will make or break the rest of the meal. Jack wanders up behind her.
"What are you making?" he asks.
She twitches. "Don't do..." she begins, as she turns in place, and things seem to happen in slow motion. He has time to notice her hair swirling around her as she spins, and sees the contents of the pot slosh but not quite spill. Then her foot finds a patch of something invisible but slippery on the floor, and her whole body is thrown off-balance. She makes a wild flail to regain her equilibrium, and the contents of the pot sail in a graceful arc, hanging in the air for an instant like a sculptor's abstract masterwork. Then gravity takes hold, and sauce splatters over the stove, the counters, the floor, and Jack.
"Now look what you've done!" he snaps.
She scowls at him. "Well, you shouldn't have snuck up on me like that!"
He begins to stalk towards the bathroom. Sauce drips down his chest and trickles from his hair. He wipes a hand across his face, and it comes away brown and sticky. He makes a face.
"Maybe if you weren't such a klutz," he says.
He goes into the bathroom and slams the door, but he can still hear Carly shouting at him, even when he turns the shower on.
"There wouldn't have been a problem if you hadn't interrupted me!"
"Well, if we had just gone out for dinner like I wanted to in the first place..."
"Oh, so you don't like my cooking? Is that it?" she demands.
"Your cooking is fine. It's everything else that needs work."
"So you just came over for my cooking, is that it?"
"Well, no, but..."
"Bet you feel really stupid now that you blew it, huh?"
He fidgets under the hot running water. The room is getting steamy, and he's almost a little too warm.
"You haven't even remembered to put the pot down yet, have you?" he calls back.
She doesn't answer, but he hears her footsteps hurrying away, and he knows he's guessed right. He is absurdly pleased that he has scored a point against her.
"So let me get this straight," she says at last. "You don't like anything about me but my cooking? Is that it?"
"I didn't say that."
"Yes you did. You said everything else needs fixing."
"That isn't what I meant."
"Then what do you like? Go on, tell."
He turns the water off and stands there dripping. What does he like? Why does he keep coming back to a woman who is even now refusing to let this stupid argument die down?
He likes fighting with her. He likes that she is willing to fight, to take him on as an equal rather that always letting him win. He likes that she trusts him to win.
"I like your glasses," he says.
He smiles. He has her off guard.
He opens the door. He is still naked, and wet from the shower. The light from the setting sun gleams off his skin, highlighting him with gold and fire. Her jaw drops. He walks across the space to where she is standing, and cups her chin in one of his hands. With the other, he lifts her glasses away and holds the out of her reach, and leans down so that they are nearly nose to nose.
"I like that I'm the only one who ever sees your eyes this way," he says.
She gives a little whimper. "Oh, my God..."
He smiles, eyes glittering. "You can call me that if you like."
Then he kisses her, and she pulls him hard against her, and her shirt clings to the warm dampness of his skin. Her hands wander over his body like lost things, unsure where they need to be the most.
He knows that it's always going to be this way, fighting and flirting eternally giving way to each other, like two trapeze artists without a net, swinging away from each other only to fling themselves across the abyss to fall into each other's arms again, always on the edge of losing each other but never quite falling apart for good. It's a challenge, a battle, and Jack has always loved battles more than anything else in the world. It's not clean or pretty, but it's everything he wants.