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Death Loses in a Beauty Contest

Chapter Text

Kindred had been busy. It was hard to say when, but some time following the Noxian invasion, the once isolationist Ionia had finally, and irrevocably, broken. Beneath its veneer of pacifism showed the unwelcome face of warring factions, secret cabals, and political turmoil. In a place that boasted the greatest level of spiritual enlightenment in the world, asassinations were now fashionable. Such was the power the Noxian war machine, whose efforts required Lamb to keep the knowledge of countless half lives. Now more than ever, their fleeting names and faces could share only a moment of her consciousness before falling back into the obscure reaches of memory, and then nothingness. Only an unusual few managed to, through certain peculariaties, persist.

Killers came and went, and died, but Lamb would be lying to say that Khada Jhin, among them, was not remarkable.

The Virtuoso had long stood at the edge of Kindred's awareness. They both were able to admire his work, which was practiced and violent at once, sometimes at intervals. Most of those he killed met their ends between Wolf's waiting teeth, but in those rare cases when Jhin's victims preferred the arrow, when they were collected about themselves and able to say "this is you, killing me," she remembered why it was the man was so despised. The work was not merely carnage; the work was stolen lives, taking everything someone ever was and could ever hope to be and turning it into an almost.

Tonight seemed to be one of those occasions. Wolf was growling low in his throat, not eager like he usually was catching the scent of fear. The victim in question, a human girl, met his gaze slowly, her wide, hopeless eyes wet at the lashes. His quarry would often cry at the end of the hunt, yes, that was good, but the rhythm of her heart, which Lamb and Wolf both heard very clearly, was only slightly nervous, a mild fluttering; it did not suggest someone who was tired and bleeding out on an empty stage.

The human closed its eyes before them slowly. If it had been scared it might've flinched or kept them open. It was supposed to be scared! Instead it wore the faintest of smiles. A knowing look that asked them, "Well? What will you do?"

No, it wasn't a girl, Lamb supposed. The curve of her back as she sat perched on the piano bench, fingers sliding off the keys and legs pressed together with one foot numbly on the sustain, suggested a woman. A few notes still lingered in the air, their sound fading and blurring as though through the depths of dark water. She had been singing and was now finished. It was a sad song. Lamb understood the words but not the feeling behind them. Wolf didn't know the words but was profoundly unhappy for reasons he could not explain.

Jhin was somewhere in the middle.

About an hour ago he had expected this to be easy. This was a sort of performance-between-performances, nothing special about it, just the usual routine: fire the first three bullets and let them bleed beautifully, watch as his work tried to escape, make his grand re-entrance, relishing the moment despair claimed their features, and establish the finale.

But this one hadn't struggled, nor had she looked for an exit. She seemed to be going wildly off the script. The woman had the sort of figure that'd look nice dead and draped over a piano, so he'd shot her in the shoulder, calf, and upper thigh and hoped she had enough instinct — admittedly he might have been expecting a little much here as most people are idiots — to lean against the one behind her on stage.

By the time he came back for her final scene she was instead poking at the keys carefully.

"How quaint," he had thought, humming softly to himself, "a little music for the show." Amateurs often improvised on his stage, which was a nuisance, though not something he couldn't handle. But it had been no use; her song was in triple meter (terrible, terrible) and no matter how hard he tapped or hummed he had not been able to reset the music in his head which had been startled into silence.

So instead he'd listened, walking quietly towards that stage, without even raising his weapon, and he'd sat in the front row, and he'd heard her strange words, and that's when he'd realized she was singing a love song to her killer.

In the silence that followed the final measure, Jhin noted with some interest the sound of his heart hammering in his chest. He longed to sit there and let the feeling wash over him — in the cold glow of the stage, a woman bleeding there, dying, loving him, a woman he could kill at his leisure, whose heart he would make literally and figuratively burst, the inevitable fourth act hanging over their heads like a heavy blade. He could make love to that picture.

But the Virtuoso would not miss his cue.

He gave her polite applause, the sharp sound of his hands coming together punctuating the musty silence. "Such a lovely performance," he said, rising from his seat, but quickly amended: "Though it was hindered by the clumsy use of 6/8 time."

The woman hardly stirred, though a smile pulled at her features. "The two of us have not been entirely honest with each other," she said, unable to divert her gaze from the pictures she saw on the piano keys. "Do you plan to kill me?" It was a stupid question to ask. Meeting the gaze of his unseen guests was like staring into an endless winter sky.

"My plans have not changed, my dear." Jhin approached the small set of stairs leading up to the apron, running his hand along Whisper's loaded barrel. He gracefully mounted the steps, pausing on each one for dramatic effect.

Wolf snorted and bared his large teeth. "The girl thing is playing a boring game. I want a chase!"

"She is sad, dear wolf," Lamb observed. "She is in love, but this love is not returned." It was an unusual case to be sure, but Lamb recognized the gentle reverence in her gaze as Khada Jhin tilted the woman's face towards his own, wiping a tear with his thumb, as some kind of love. He pointed the gun at her chest as though it were a delicate offering.

Lamb wondered about this man, and what he did in his spare time. Slept, traveled. Convserations, none. Relationships, purely transactional. He too would know the loneliness of death in a place that feared it. Yes, that was the word. His compulsions had forced him to be lonely.

The woman laughed. "Meeting you is so much worse than I'd imagined," she said with fresh tears. "It was so much nicer to think you would care nothing for me than to die knowing it." Jhin was looming over her.

"But I do care for you," he said. "I had thought this would be an ordinary performance but you — your feelings — have inspired me." His fingers moved up her face. "Your unrequited love will be spelled out in blood." She closed her eyes. Unrequited was as much a threat to her as anything else.

How strange this woman was to love such a person, to have placed herself so obviously in harm's way for reasons beyond Lamb's cold, logical approach. Compelling, in its way. Whatever she was feeling had caused Wolf, ordinarily thrilled by the thought of imminent bloodshed, to become sullen and impatient. These were two of the unusual few in the same room.

"No, I suppose not unrequited," Jhin conceded quietly. "In a way, I do love you. Your potential has seduced me, my little pet. And now, together we will perform a masterpiece."

"A magnum opus," the woman said dryly.

"Perhaps even that."

Lamb, who was perched atop the piano, felt the delicate curve of her wooden bow. She met the woman's eyes and wondered if she might be a little spontaneous today. She said, "Beautiful one, this man intends to kill you, just as he has killed countless others. Your own death is at hand. Still you would forgive him?" The woman who sat on the piano bench behind that gun gave an incline of the head, exhaling so softly only the dust in the room was disturbed by it.

"It is stupid," said Wolf.

Lamb glared at him. "Hush." Then, returning: "He has heard your cries and yet rejects you. It is likely he does not understand your feelings and they will not be returned, not as you would like them to be. Still you would pursue him?"

Jhin saw the woman nodding. Desperate little pet, he thought, or perhaps she understood, after all, her purpose in the grand scheme of things, in his work. Such was unlikely — very few truly knew the depths and nature of his genius — but let her think what she likes. It was better this way. Some worrying part of him was relieved to see her at ease.

With the thought of her gentle smile to console him, Jhin let go of her face and pulled the trigger. He tried to imagine what the bullet looked like as it tore through her heart, rearranging the pieces, layer after layer after layer. Normally evidence of a kill on his costume was an annoyance, but at that moment he regretted not getting blood on her hands, her actual hands, so he might keep the two red stains of her desperately reaching out and clinging to him.

"He shot her, Lamb! Strike now!" cried Wolf, circling the scene, the sight of fresh blood reminding him of what he was. But Lamb made no move for her weapon. Instead, with a movement of her fist, the stage flooded with life.

"Not here," said Lamb. "Not yet."

Chapter Text

Dya might have once called herself Demacian. At the moment, however, with a serial killer she intended to seduce sitting two barstools away from her, she was unsure.

She was not supposed to seduce him. When Jarvan III had sent her, he had only wanted the rumors substantiated that Ionia's infamous Golden Demon had indeed been sequestered from his comfortable spot in prison. It was easy enough to verify these claims with a visit to the Tuulan monks who were supposed to have custody of the "demon," (in reality, a mortal man named Khada Jhin) but then she had decided to investigate further, which had been a mistake — because incidental to her now extensive knowledge of how the man found, attracted, and murdered his victims, she had also discovered the fact she wanted to fuck him and that she was a horrible person.

Dya knew the word for this: "hybristophile," a person attracted to criminals, and a synonym for "idiot." She had not known herself to be a hybristophile, because criminals were everywhere, she always dealt with them, and none of her past partners had been anything like this person, this Khada Jhin. They were Demacian. They were nice.

But she must have been one. There was no other explanation for it. Maybe she had always harbored a secret attraction for the absolute worst of criminals, because this obsession, which was neither a mere schoolgirl crush as she had intially hoped nor a passing whim, established its presence at least a couple times a day and every hour of the night, the ghost of his figure appearing beside her at even the slightest notion of intimacy.

She saw Khada Jhin and for the first time she understood poetry.

Sitting at the bar and staring into the glass of gin (a purposeful choice) she had ordered but not yet touched, Dya retraced her steps and tried to piece together when, exactly, she had first become a hybristophile instead of a Demacian, and whether her values had been somehow spoiled by all the cruelty she had witnessed in her life or whether she had perhaps always been this awful without realizing it.

First there was the photograph, taken during his time in Tuula. Khada Jhin was not handsome to an eye which was not oriented towards him, but this was a man who had killed countless people, had been apprehended and imprisoned, and rather than respond with shame or derision, or false platitudes to placate his captors, had chosen to stare into the camera with a look of existential horror. Something that was not in the room had made him deathly afraid, and because this had caused her to look upon Khada Jhin with pity, perhaps she had loved him even then.

They had let her keep the photograph, but they had not been able to tell her anything about his disappearance. He was simply there one day and the next he was gone, and now they, too, were frightened.

The Noxian invasion had fractured Ionia like a gem. The Violet Raven, Xan Irelia, the Order of Shadows — every famous name to come out of the place belonged to a person or faction waging a personal war. If Khada Jhin had been secretly released, it was almost certainly part of someone's deadly agenda. She could not go back without finding out what it was, and what was going to happen.

Using word of his recent killings as her compass, she found herself in Navori. That the Festival of Fire was soon going to take place there could not have been coincidence. In two weeks, under the Blood Moon, there would be another murder. In the meantime, Dya could only keep her eyes and ears open until she saw the man in the photograph.

She was surprised by how unnoticable he was in everyday life. He rarely spoke or met anyone's eyes, and made a habit of clearing his throat when he was nervous. The monks at Tuula had described him as "polite and shy," almost too accurately. She had tried to make conversation with him once, in a pottery shop, though his responses were closed off and trite, as though, even a head taller than most crowds, he was used to being unnoticed.

What was his power? What was it about his killings that made someone want to use him, specifically, as a weapon?

After following him for days and finding none of his activities of any interest, she began to lose hope of ever witnessing the transformation. Perhaps he left traps, poisons or spells that killed long after their owner had moved somewhere else. Perhaps she wouldn't get to see anything.

She was wrong.

Gods, where does one even start? The flamboyant, mocking persona? The mask? The — whatever that was he wore on his shoulder? The gun might be the best place. Its name was Whisper. He gave it a name, and he introduced it, and then he said it was ironic. She wanted to laugh until he started shooting. If Khada Jhin thought nothing of his victims, the gun had even less respect. She had never seen the human figure so badly and deliberately disfigured. By the time she was no longer petrified, a man was already dead and she had done nothing about it, preoccupied as she was with dislodging the sight of his corpse from her memory.

Yet lying awake at night, thoughts of his victim's cries and anguish gave way to more troubling obsessions: the way the Virtuoso moved as he shot them. His voice, his eyes. She struggled to find a name for the feeling that lingered in her chest, mixed sensations of warm comfort and cool pinpricks. "Admiration" seemed wrong for it.

(Adoration and lust. The faintest echoes, pay them no mind.)

The second time she watched him kill something was definitely wrong. Jhin — no, Khada Jhin; he must be referred to formally, by his clinical nomenclature — couln't have known she was there and yet graced the scene of the crime always as though playing for an invisible audience. He coached his victims through the movements between life and death, praising them, scolding them, using words like "precious." "Lovely" was her favorite.

She shouldn't have had a favorite, but that one was. That one did things to her.

But these were probably things he said to countless girls as they lay dying, she told herself. Then she was jealous, and that was worse.

(The urge to protect and to covet. Now it was becoming a list of things.)

The image of the man with the mask, and without it, hung between her ears like a humming sound, a lingering question added to every statement and aspect of life: "but what about him?" His shape was stuck in her head, with words and music of a song she had never sung out loud before, but wanted to sing to him badly. The sound of a face.

The best thing to do would be to return to Demacia City, tell her superiors that someone, or a group of people, had released this force of nature who blended in with daytime crowds while somehow hiding a scorpion's tail, and warn them of the gun he called Whisper, a Hextech weapon infused with profound wild magic which was unlike anything she had ever seen.

But what then? What would be the purpose of this information? To form a preemptive line of defense should he be sent after Demacians? To stem the flow of violence from what was once such an obedient nation, to kill him? The thought that she might do something to kill him paralyzed her.

Any minute now, as soon as the appetite struck her, she would drink and drink from the cup on the bar counter until she was too drunk to think about all this, and then she would pass out.

Or, if she dared, she wouldn't, because she wanted to be fully lucid for every second of him killing her.

If only it was as simple as seducing a man! Jhin was already taken by an idea, an image of himself, and there was something wrong with him. In a way, dying would almost be better, because then she wouldn't have to live with being awful anymore, and there was a chance he would call the remains of her "lovely."

The bartender cleared his throat.

"The way you're staring at that glass you'd think it'd done something to you," he said with a worried laugh.

Dya snapped out of her thoughts. "Oh. Oh, fuck."

He was drying a glass in his hands, unable to hide a look of deep concern. "Will you be... taking a room, Miss? I don't suppose you'll want to be out this late, not with all that's been happening lately."

"I have— I'm staying somewhere else. It's just that I'd heard a lot about this place and haven't had the time until now..."

"Uh... huh," he said with an unsubtle glance at her unfinished drink.

Why was the air here so suffocating?

"Perhaps I could walk you to wherever that is your staying? Miss?"

"No, no no!" Dya shook her head in a panic as the words tumbled out of her mouth before she could catch them. "Don't worry about me. I... fight better when I'm slightly intoxicated." She tried a laugh and the unnatural smile of a woman with her head on a guillotine. Her nerves were singed by gentle flames as she overpaid and her disobedient feet took her out the door.

Then she waited, in front of that tavern, with her hands in her pockets and her breath disappearing in puffs of smoke.

Acting dumb and helpless was not a tool in her skillset Dya had expected to use when she first took on the assignment. Nonetheless she waited as the minutes of her life came to a close and her window for escape closed, until she heard that familiar voice, her favorite voice, offer to walk her home, learn she was a foreigner and suggest a shortcut in the wrong direction. Marks always did.

✤✤✤✤

How could he have been so stupid? Looking back on the events of the evening, it was obvious she had manipulated him, intended her own capture. A woman like that trusting a man like him alone at night would be a laughably obvious trap anywhere but Ionia. No, even here it had been obvious. She had said she was inebriated, but he knew she had not touched a single drop, he knew that and yet he chose to ignore it because he needed this third piece of of his tetraptych by tomorrow and she would have been so beautiful for it, so, so beautiful.

He had been watching her out of the corner of his eye all night, watching as the stars aligned and wearing a practiced face over his uncontrollable glee as this woman made herself so blindly available.

And what about the performance itself? She had been helpless. She had not raised a hand to defend herself and yet here she was, unaffected by a bullet shot point-blank which was supposed to arrange her vital organs into a garden for his enjoyment. But not until the end did she ever act surprised, he realized. He was an idiot.

Khada Jhin did not make the mistake of luring immortals into his realm, not ever. It was a waste of his time and a tremendous risk, and it would not happen again.

The wounds he had so lovingly planned began to patch themselves together by some hidden magic. Undoubtedly she would soon turn to him, with sudden strength and moral clarity carefully hitherto concealed, proclaim she was an instrument of parable and extract from him whatever it was the tedious immortal desired: justice, sexual gratification, perhaps just to see the look on his face. Oh, he hoped it wasn't a spirit of vengeance — the dullest of occupational hazards.

But a vengeance spirit would not have known how to seduce him through his own craft or make him ache. Almost certainly this a demon of lust with unusual tastes. Or a goddess.

Now there was something he wouldn't dare think about.

Let her bide her time for nothing, then. He would hide, at least until his arousal subsided, so this undying and selfish woman would not have the satisfaction. Up until that point everything had been so wonderful. Had things gone to plan, he would have stayed there all night, touching himself, remembering her desperation and love and his unwavering, exquisite violence. She had taken that from him.

Jhin retreated into darkness. By the time her senses returned to her he was gone.

Dya looked up from her stupor, hoping to find him amongst the empty seats, but there was only the sea of dust floating against blinding white. The ringing in her ears subsided, and a hush fell over the place, bringing with it the warm and earthen comfort of the grave. She brushed her fingers tentatively over the spot on her chest that should have been torn open, and to her shoulder which had stinged so terribly she had been afraid to even look at it. She touched her face, which was wet. Had she been crying? Dya didn't remember crying.

She allowed herself a sad smile. He had said her song was lovely. How her heart had soared at that. If she hadn't been so weak and lightheaded and afraid she might have tried to hug him instead of staring at the piano numbly.

What did such a gift mean? What was she supposed to do with it? Alive. The word echoed in her thoughts like it was a part of her brain. She was alive, and the Blood Moon was still rising.

Chapter Text

The Festival of Fire seemed to draw in more visitors from out of the country with each passing year. The once quintessentially Ionian tradition was becoming something of a tourist attraction; foreigners bought painted weapons from the artists' stands to hang up on their mantlepieces, thinking themselves worldly and cultured without the slightest knowledge about the damn things. He might have felt something besides amused if Ionian culture was worth feeling anything else about.

This was just the inevitable watering down of a creatively and politically naive society. These crowds, dressed in all colors of the world, were the surging tides of the times. The world was going to war.

Jhin watched a Piltover man inspect a sword in his hands like a strange loaf of bread. How lacking ordinary people were in any emotional depth or artistry! And there were so many children, scrambling around like insects. He passed a row of booths selling food and trinkets to lines of people, regarding a young boy and girl who crossed in front of him in some sort of chasing game with mild disgust.

He adjusted the pearl white, horned mask over his face and focused on the smell of fresh dumplings and sweets in the air. Craftsmen and chefs had traveled to the Serene Gardens in Navori from all over the country to sell their wares, and he had vague memories from his boyhood of the food here being some of the best he had ever tasted. But the Virtuoso was not here to partake. He was here to perform.

The job was simple enough: take out the festival's guest of honor from Shon-Xan, a famous dancer who would be taking the stage tonight before the lighting of scrolls on the Great Tree. She was a well-known advocate for granting amnesty to Noxian prisoners and returning to political neutrality, evidently two stances his clients were not wild about. Allegedly the Duchess Karma would be in attendance. The thought of orchestrating death in front of a live audience, and that woman especially, made him tingle.

The safest way to substitute her performance with his own was from a sniping nest he had already established early that morning amongst the tall trees surrounding the place. An uninspired approach to be sure, but Ionia's architecture and topography was practically designed for it, something Jhin had come to appreciate since he had started doing work on a contractual basis, along with the concept of fireworks. Fireworks were absolutely divine. Kind of a shock long-range firearms weren't more common really, but that was just one of the many examples of the tremendous stupidity of his fellow countrymen. Perhaps in the resulting chaos he might add a few more actors, some minor roles, to the night's opera before making an exit. Who knows? Performances like this were so easy the Virtuoso could afford a little spontaneity.

Now he was walking around the place, mapping it out, and making note of any potential hiding spots and escape routes on the very, very slim chance something didn't go to plan. A director can't really block a scene without knowing the stage, in any case.

The vendor stalls reached an end as he came upon the Great Tree, where groups of people sat enjoying the shade or affixing scrolls to its tremendous branches. Jhin noted the long table where brushes, inkstones, and parchment were being distributed by two festival attendants. Why not? The Virtuoso had worries as much as anyone else. He casually approached and took a paper from the large stack and laid it out on the table. He stroked a brush against the black stone, and stared down at the blank parchment in thought.

One hand steadying the paper, he began to curl and sweep the brush in elegant lines, lifting and starting again in a steady rhythm until he was finished. Jhin studied the finished product, a collection of black shapes arranged into his fears. He admired his own handwriting, which was long and like the leaves of a weeping willow.

"This used to be so easy," someone muttered behind him.

For Khada Jhin, a familiar voice was always a bad thing. The identity of the speaker was just slightly out of memory's reach, which was even worse, but he couldn't afford to turn suddenly and betray his concern.

From his position, Jhin could make out in his periphery a woman's forearms taking up the space beside him. She pushed back the large red angel sleeves that fell to her wrists and began to write. Jhin tried to back away slowly to get a better view of her. Long, dark brown hair pulled back and tied twice with red ribbon.

"You'd just write something about how you wanted to improve yourself, or something that had happened in the past," she continued to some unseen companion. "I've never been so worried about the present... or the future."

A man appeared in a mask beside her and put a hand on her shoulder. "We are living in a time of turbulence," he said in an even voice that made Jhin's blood run cold. "It may take years to return the balance to Ionia, but with enough patience order will be restored."

Shen. The man whose father had sent him to prison, who would recognize Jhin's voice and hate him for his work. Which must have meant the girl in the red robes was the one from the Kinkou Order, the Fist of Shadow. Her actual name escaped him.

"Did you hear? They said the Blood Moon Cult's on the rise again," she was saying.

"There is no such thing."

"Seven people died. Ionia's been on edge lately. Dark magic—"

"The explanation is often much simpler," Shen said. Not wanting to hear what he had in mind, Jhin turned quietly and left the grove, struggling to keep a relaxed, even pace and not break out into a run.

That man left his parchment on the table, Shen noticed. Was he an outsider, perhaps, who didn't know the custom? Impossible. There were countless hanging papers on display before them, and the man had been wearing a horned Ionian demon mask much like his own: a finely crafted mask, expensive, not the kind being sold to tourists. He had been in a hurry for some reason, almost as though he were disturbed by what he had written and didn't want to be seen with it. Shen studied the abandoned parchment again.

"I may have cheated death," it said.

Shen looked behind him for the man who had just departed, but Jhin had already disappeared into the crowd.

✤✤✤✤

That behavior was just weird and paranoid enough to belong to a criminal. Lucky break the Kinkou Order showed up wearing the same costumes the newspapers pictured them in every year. Dya had been splitting her attention between three potential candidates, but watching this one make a break for it when anyone else might have calmly put their scroll on the tree more or less confirmed his identity.

The scope of his clients' generosity had first become apparent that morning when the Golden Bird tavern owner claimed dumbly to have never seen a man like the one she was describing, one of the perhaps three-at-most patrons of his inn for the past several weeks. Khada Jhin was no longer a random criminal; he could cover his escape trail with money. Fortunately years in this line of work had refined Dya's educated guesses into an artform. He might have relocated since their last encounter, but a couple of hunches could take her right back to him.

Most likely, he was after a target of national significance, and at this time of year in Navori the Festival of Fire was the most probable venue. Knowing that a handful of powerful shadow warriors were after him, Jhin would use the festivities as an excuse to wear a mask, and not his trademark mask, either, which was both unnatural-looking and easy to recognize by his most recent botched target. He was likely paranoid of being detected by her if he assumed she was in town for this festival.

Any meetings he had would be transactional or clandestine, an information exchange. Jhin did not have friendly conversations with people, especially not in a crowd of strangers.

There was a good chance he would wear something fitting his typical aesthetic: purple, white, red, gold, asymmetrical, pointlessly fancy. And unlike many of the festival patrons in disguise, his mask would never be removed. He acquired a theatrical mindset any time he was behind a mask, and chances were he would vastly overestimate his ability to conceal his usual Jhin-isms, which was why she felt fairly certain the first swaggering figure a head above the crowd in a red and white robe she saw was her man.

Dya briefly wondered whether she was overdoing it, but getting a second chance at life had filled her with a determination to track him down at any cost. Dya popped a candied almond in her mouth before looking again through the binoculars. After a moment of careful scanning around the tree area she picked him out again, headed beyond the venue area in a somewhat panicked stride towards a hill which would provide a less crowded viewpoint of the festivities — and where he would be alone.

She stood and returned the binoculars to her bag, making sure not to lose sight of him. Dya pounded a fist on her chest. "Stop it," she said, annoyed that her heartrate had picked up.

Dya gathered her things and, taking a deep breath through her nostrils, set off to meet him.

Chapter Text

Jhin was sitting against the base of a small tree. If he wanted to, he could coax it to grow into unusual shapes of his own design, to reach up like the last grasp of desperate hands or become like sharp pillars on which to impale a corpse. He had done both before.

He watched as the clouds towards the horizon became ever redder as the sun sank low behind them. The first festival he had been able to attend since his childhood was on an evening so cloudy the Blood Moon would be impossible to see, but this mattered little; his performance began at sunset and would end shortly after.

He thought he was alone until a voice sounded behind him.

"You are a hard man to catch," it said, jolting him out of his thoughts. Its owner stepped out in front of him, oblivious to the glare concealed by his mask. "But I'd be bad at my job if I couldn't do it."

The demon. The spirit. The devil. The woman. Didn't matter. He kept very still despite the sudden feelings — was this anger? fear? anxiety? — that flooded through him. How had she found him so fast, and in disguise, and after he had paid the innkeeper to say nothing? She was like a dog chasing after his scent. Jhin wouldn't be able to run without raising suspicion, and Whisper was packed neatly in its case at the sniper nest about a half mile away. He was cornered.

The artist met her eyes. The Thing didn't seem especially threatening this time either, more like... soft. No. That was how she had fooled him last time. He would not fall for that doe-eyed expression again.

Jhin cleared his throat. "My hour of reckoning, is it?" he swallowed. "I suppose you've come to collect your... winnings from our last encounter, so to speak. Just make it quick."

"I wasn't aware I'd won a prize," she said, taking this as an invitation to kneel in the grass beside him. "I actually just wanted to give you something." She pulled a round bamboo container from her bag and opened it. Inside were two large steamed dumplings that smelled of pork. Jhin looked at them and tried to feign disinterest.

"I... what?"

"They're pork buns," she said stupidly.

"Yes, but why?"

"I... thought you'd be hungry?" she answered like it was obvious. That hadn't been the aim of his question, though. He wondered why she wanted to feed him. Perhaps they were poisoned. "Please take one or I'll eat both and regret it later."

"I'm not indulging you. You denied me a masterpiece."

"I thought you said you loved me," she said.

"I loved you as an idea. I don't even know your name. As a person you are nothing."

She offered him a pork bun with both hands. "Eat." He snorted with annoyance and looked away. Realizing she wasn't giving up any time soon, he took the dumpling from her so she would at least stop staring.

The woman picked up the remaining bun and bit into it without much thought, her attention returning to the festival splayed before them. "Oh wow, wait. Oh wow." She looked at the bun. "This is really good. Excellent choice by me."

After taking a moment to make sure no one was around them, Jhin pushed up his mask just enough to expose his mouth. He took a small bite and chewed thoughtfully. "I suppose you're not entirely useless," he said.

"... well, actually not a choice, since I've kind of been trying everything," she was rambling. "I think I just really love Ionian food. Do you eat this kind of stuff every day?" Her eyes lit up. "I have so much to ask you!"

So she wasn't here to torture him, but... to interrogate him? Oh. Oh no no no no. Not one of those spirits, the lonely, whimsical ones that do as they please with humans and hang around where they're not wanted forever. He'd never be rid of her.

"You want to... ask me questions," he repeated in an even tone. "About my work, I assume."

"Well, no. Well yes, but no not primarily. Primarily I just want to spend... time with you. That sounds weird, doesn't it. Okay. Yeah. I... To be honest, I never really thought I'd get this far."

He was close enough to reach out and touch.

"I don't think we've properly met," she said, extending her hand. "I'm Dya. Last night you killed me." She seemed relieved to have found a line of conversation to settle on.

"And yet you've returned," he said bitterly. "Unfortunate. A beautiful piece of work completely destroyed." He took another bite of the dumpling, making it clear he had no intentions of returning a handshake. She withered a little.

"You probably know why."

"Why you refused to die and have now come back to haunt me?" he asked. "No idea. My best guess is that it's cosmic irony. Some god is laughing at my expense, I'm sure. A god upset that gods have gone out of fashion, and that my work has taken the spotlight."

She gave him a patient smile. "Well, if you're not going to shoot me or get out of here I think I will ask a few questions."

"You get four," he said sharply.

Dya hesitated. That was about four more than she was expecting to have. How would she spend them? The one she most wanted to ask was lodged in her throat and at first only came out as a little squeak. "Ok. First: Did you mean it when you said my song was... lovely?" she managed.

"Did you mean it when you sang the words?" he said.

"Of course!" she cried in a voice much louder than she'd intended. She took a moment to regain her composure. "Of course."

"Interesting."

"That's not an answer."

"I did mean it, and I also meant it when I said the use of triple meter was in poor taste," he shrugged, "but on a whole the composition was not... terrible." Such a curt summary belied his true feelings on the matter, but he refused to tell her anything of substance. He would reveal nothing if he could help it, partly out of petty stubbornness and a little bit from fear. Knowing what he did now, Jhin wished he truly was as dispassionate as his words suggested, and cursed his past self for having been so accommodating.

Dya sat up a little straighter with a sudden swell of confidence. "So you get it was about you, right?"

"Yes. Two more."

"W-Wait, that was a follow-up question, that doesn't count!"

"Two more."

She sighed. It wasn't worth pushing. "Alright. Have you, um... Have you ever had feelings for someone — living person I mean?"

Jhin folded his arms and leaned back against the tree, regarding her with wary annoyance. "Let me ask you something. What is it you hope to get out of this? I guarantee you are wasting your time, and mine."

She snorted. "With all due respect, neither of us have anything better to be doing."

"That depends on how you define better."

"Assuming that's a no," she began, steeling herself. "Would you be willing to try?"

"Try what?"

She tugged at her ponytail in mild distress. "Liking someone. A relationship. I guess."

A lust demon, he was absolutely certain. And how insidious she was! To go after such a difficult target, the thing must have known exactly what it was doing; she had found a man who was feared and despised by many, a man she assumed was hardened by this and thus behind it all must have some vulnerable center he kept carefully sequestered. He would try to kill her, but she would survive, follow him to the ends of the earth and gnaw at his willpower until at last he blossomed for her sweet release. Only by appearing so helpless herself could she ever make him lower his own defenses, believing himself in the position of power, and no doubt this apparent bashfulness was a facade for a monster and a sadist. Imagining the dark desires for hurt behind those probing eyes invited the gentle hands of arousal to briefly cross over him.

Just what would she do when he refused to yield — when at last realized there was no vulnerable center to be found?

Jhin chuckled. "Oh, Dya. Dya, Dya, Dya, my darling," he said, trying her name. It sounded like "dying." He ran his fingers along her cheek. "How do I say this... It simply wouldn't work. The actress cannot be in love with the artist. That would direct attention and criticism to the form itself."

"Oh, but Jhin, she so very much is." Dya leaned into his hand, a beautiful act.

"Meta-narratives are cheap and overused, my dear. Find someone else I can put onstage."

"No," she said. "There is no one else."

"Perhaps you imagined you might serve as my muse."

She smiled ruefully.

"Perhaps you thought you might change me. Tch. It's cute but... uninspired." He pulled away. "Many have tried and failed. I cannot rid myself of my compulsions."

"I don't hope to change anything," she said, looking down. "I only wish to be so loved that I could inspire a moment's hesitation in a man known to lack mercy."

Jhin scoffed. "I give meaning to people's lives. I make sure they are remembered. Only a fool would call that a lack of mercy."

She said nothing, looking down at the grass.

"I... hesitated," he confessed. "If that's the right word. I'll admit your performance caught me by surprise."

"I guess that's all I can ask for." Finished with the dumpling, Dya rose to her feet slowly and took a few steps away to look out over the festival. She turned to glance over her shoulder. "Are you going to leave if I look away?" Either it's supposed to be a nervous tick, tugging on her hair like that — Jhin thought to himself — or she thinks it's cute. It isn't.

"You already asked me four questions," he responded. But he made no attempts to leave.

She laughed like a stupid, tinkling bell, her very presence, alive and unharmed, a mockery of his art and an embodiment of his failure. Dya risked turning her back to him again.

Jhin studied her, an attractive woman by ordinary standards, one who would certainly have no problems with her usual quarry: men and women harried by war, starved for intimacy. He did not count himself among them. For the artist's eye, however, her looks offered nothing. The only thing that saved her from symmetrical monotony was that ponytail she wore towards one side. This hadn't been her style during their last encounter; then it had been straight back, he knew, because he had made a point of letting down her hair to improve the composition.

Her festival garment — purple, wrong for the occassion — had been tied together blindfolded, by the looks of it, in a decorative bow that was limp and lopsided. The moment he at last noticed it it was as though nothing else mattered. It had to be fixed.

"Come here," he said, rising to his feet. She came to him obediently, awaiting his judgment. "Oh, my dear, my dear. Please don't tell me you went all day looking like that. Your whole ensemble is tied incorrectly. Absolutely horrid. Turn." Jhin clicked his tongue, surveying the damage. "Look at this." He untrussed the silk ribbons. "Do you just... destroy works of art wherever you go?"

"You can take it off if it bothers you." He pulled especially tight on the ribbons to make a show of it. "Hey, it was a joke!"

"I'd suggest you stay home from cultural events next time lest you embarrass yourself."

"I think you're the only one who noticed." Dya cocked her head to one side. "But I didn't see a lot of purple so I guess I might have stood out." She felt nothing but the warmth as his fingers accidentally brushed against her.

"Most people would pick up on that kind of social cue and realize their color was inappropriate," Jhin said sharply. "There. That's about the best I can do for it." His hands ghosted at her waist, and Dya turned in his loose hold to face him.

"Is it beautiful?" she asked, unable to read his face from behind that white mask.

"The ribbon is... nice. Of course, everything attached to it is beyond even my talent." Her lips were slightly parted. "Making a silk purse from a sow's ear, I believe the phrase is."

She was hurt by that, he noticed. Good.

"Well at least one of us can be lovely," she said, trying to recover. A breath shared between them, lasting a minute in her time, a moment in his. "You... should go. I imagine you have to get ready soon."

"Is that your little magic trick, knowing more about people than you should?"

She winked. "A woman's job is to know these things."

"That's going to get you killed," he said. If only she could die, he added silently. He managed about two steps down the hill before she called after.

"Ah, wait! How can I find you again?"

"I believe you've misunderstood," Jhin said, turning on his heel. "I'm afraid this is going to be our last conversation. You are going your way," — he waved his hand towards some random direction — "and I am going mine. There will be no more discussion about it." He began marching away.

"Alright. Do you want like a... ten minute start? Or do you think you can manage?"

"Manage what?"

"Well, I'm wondering if I should go tell Shen right away to have the place evacuated or whether it would be more fair to give you a chance to set up first."

She underestimated how fast he could get to her with his long legs, and how easily he could lift her by the waist and slam her against the tree. His mask was close to her, his furious breaths audible.

"You have just crossed the line from nuisance to enemy, and I guarantee you will regret making an enemy of me."

"Oh... crap. I was hoping to cross to the other side of the line. Can we start over?" She held her hand out. "Hi, I'm Dya, and I think it's my destiny to help you."

"Your destiny was to die and you defied it." He refused a handshake for the second time. Maybe they didn't do handshakes in Ionia.

"There have to be parts of your job that you hate, right? Let me handle them. I want to help."

"I. Don't. Collaborate."

She tested him with the saddest look she could manage. He wouldn't budge. At last, Dya looked down at her feet and let out a sigh of resignation. "Okay, I understand," she said.

Satisfied, Jhin lowered his guard just long enough for her to duck under his arm and run down the hill screaming for Shen.

His long legs made him quite the sprinter when it was necessary.

✤✤✤✤

Another one of Jhin's talents was tying knots. If you were to lean over and glance in the full-length mirror, which adorned the far wall of that dimly lit room at the Married Spade where he had just that morning taken up residence, you would notice, as Dya did, the impressive level of artistry he afforded even in a task as simple as affixing a demon's arms to a bedpost.

"Everything you do is pretty," she said approvingly.

"If only the rest of the world held the same opinion, you stupid witch." He looked her over, sitting on his haunches, wondering whether he shouldn't try to gag her as well. It wasn't likely she would call for help, apparently under the impression this was all a game, but letting her run her mouth as she pleased bothered him regardless.

There was no time. "Stay here and don't make a sound," Jhin said. "If I'm not back by midnight it means something has gone wrong, and in that case, congratulations, you are the sole heir to the Golden Demon's legacy." He rose to his feet and gave her a mock bow.

"I'll try to make you proud," she said.

"I would implore you not to," he said, opening the door. "You'd do a piss-poor job of it and then my ghost would be forced to come back and haunt you."

"You promise?"

The door shut.

She made a sound that was something between a giggle and a sigh. Her arms were starting to get sore, but she had gotten herself into such a wonderful mess.

Chapter Text

What poetry it would have been to leave her to starve there. He told himself it was only because he'd left most of his costume under the bed that he just barely resisted the idea. His mask was invaluable, and the body suit was made of eel skin imported from Bilgewater, which these days was so expensive...

The room was totally dark when he first cracked the door open, the light from the hallway sconces falling just shy of revealing his prisoner. She was still there, wasn't she? Jhin stepped inside to set down his festival mask on the dresser and on the floor the case full of parts he used to extend Whisper into a long-range bloodied fountain pen. The prized weapon itself went in the empty drawer of the nightstand. Then he moved silently to the window, drawing open the curtains to let in what scant red light of the Blood Moon the cloud cover let through.

Sure enough he could make out the girl's shape, silent and totally still. She must have fallen asleep, but he kept his distance as he knelt by the bed, just in case.

Jhin pulled out the thick leather bag that held his signature clothes from under it, wanting to make sure its contents were all in place before he left. His hands went towards the thick gold buckles which kept the bag closed but he discovered them already undone. That was impossible. His head shot to Dya, who must have worked the rope somehow and was probably waiting to lash out at him. He slowly rose so as to not make a sound, opened the nightstand drawer and wrapped his fingers around Whisper's comforting grip. He circled around, pointing it towards her, but keeping his finger off the trigger. She was watching him, though the shadow of the bed kept her face obscured.

"Whatever you're planning isn't going to work," he announced.

"Wait," she cried out, "please don't shoot me. I couldn't get the buckles closed with my toes. I promise I tried." He didn't know what she was talking about, and wouldn't so long as the room was still shrouded in darkness.

Still aiming Whisper between her eyes — or where he supposed they would be — Jhin backed away one step at a time, as though challenging her to strike out with each step, until he was able to reach the lantern on the dresser. He carefully holstered his gun and fiddled with the bulb until a flash of orange lit the room.

Her hands were still tied as he had left them. His mask was on her lap.

"How—" He breathed in, rubbing his temples in frustration. Dya looked up expectantly, waiting for him to finish his thought, but Jhin was at a total loss for words. "How?"

"I was looking under the bed for something sharp with my feet and found this instead," she explained.

"You what?" Jhin crouched in front of her and snatched the mask away, cradling it and inspecting it for blemishes as though the marks of her skin oil and mediocrity might be visible. He returned to the bag once again and retrieved a patterned navy handkerchief. Whisper went back on the bedside table, and he sat on the edge of the bed to focus on wiping the mask down.

"Sorry. I really wanted to see it up close. Your mask is... gorgeous."

His hand came to rest. "Yes," he said quietly. "It is."

A moment passed between them. She let out a breath. "I really don't mean to be annoying, Jhin. I'm just... not myself lately. I've never felt like this. I've never felt this way about anyone. I'm so in love with you I'm sort of starstruck."

"It's nice to find someone who appreciates my work," he offered, "but you cannot be in love. You know nothing about me."

"I saw you and heard you. I don't need to know you to fall in love with your movement and your shape."

Why does this child have access to poetry? He started to swab the mask again, each part in careful sets of four. He had never had an admirer before, someone who recognized him for his genius and his beauty and lavished him for it. And he had spent all day among people; unable to find a moment's peace even in the privacy of his own room, he was losing the energy to argue with her. "Such elegant words, so stupidly arranged," he muttered, the best he could manage.

"Yes, elegant, that's it!" Dya's face brightened. "You're elegant. The way you dance and speak and walk, even. Could be a serial killer yes, but there's a part of me that thinks when you're not on the stage, you're just a sweet intelligent man trying to make sense of a world that is inherently senseless."

"And that part of you is very stupid," Jhin said. Four times on the curve of the brow bone, four times on the widow's peak, four times on the chin. He took note of her silence and awkwardly cleared his throat. "But I will allow it to continue complimenting me, if that is its wish."

She sat up a little straighter, grateful to be wanted. "Okay. Um, I think people are too reductionist about you. The Golden Demon is not merely savage and ostentatious. There's an actor behind it. And an actor is a servant of his audience."

"I am more than a mere actor, my dear," he said, running a hand through his dark hair. Four on the right cheek, four on the cupid's bow, four on the left cheek.

"He turns and bows, tucking one foot back and sweeping his hand, to thank his audience for the honor of performance. And then, when he goes offstage, he removes his mask, he's polite and shy, and he hates crowds. That's the asymmetry of it. One half is covered, and one on display. But which eye is red, and which eye is blue?" Dya paused a moment to consider. "You could argue the red eye is the face of bloodlust, but that side of you is still so... flamboyantly submissive."

His gaze wandered to Whisper. At this hour, and in an inn with every room filled, planting a bullet in her head would only warrant his own death sentence. But it would be so satisfying to blast the smile from her lips.

"Also, I love whatever it is that makes you call things 'precious' and 'darling.' Oh. And 'lovely,' for the stuff that takes your breath away." Dya wanted to gesture wildly, but her enthusiasm was contained by the rope which kept her arms tied above her head.

Four again, four again, four again. And then there were all the nooks and crevices of the beveled swirls he had insisted on. They afforded such complexity to the piece, but there's no denying those things were a dust trap, even when nosy demons weren't touching parts of his costume.

"I almost already did," she was saying, "but I'd give my whole life for you to call me lovely. Really."

"Oh, Dya." Jhin chuckled and shook his head. "If only you were." He hoped that the resulting silence was a sign he had finally gotten through to her regarding her own undesirability.

Instead she said quietly, "I adore your laugh," and then let him continue his work until he was finished. Four more times on the forehead would have to make it clean enough. He knelt down in front of the bag again and set the mask on top of his other things with the kind of Ionian reverence so deep in his bones it could never be unlearned.

Dya tugged against her restraints. "Jhin, I can't feel my arms."

"That's a shame," he said.

"Pleaaase? If you cut me loose I won't say anything else for the rest of the night."

Jhin exhaled and got up, crossing to the dresser. She followed him with hopeful eyes as he approached holding a switchblade. He let the blade's silver lip hover just above the frayed edge of the rope, and met her eyes very seriously.

"Not. Another. Word." She nodded.

He sawed into the knots until they came apart and the loose remainder of what was once a rope fell to the floor. She leaned forward, wrapping her arms around his neck and kissing his cheek in gratitude.

Jhin pushed her away, and wiped the spot in question with the back of his hand. "Don't do that." He moved away from her and sat on the bed again, tired but not wanting to lie down lest she take that as an invitation. He buried his face in his hands while Dya climbed to her feet and tried to work out the soreness in her arms.

When she was done she looked to him as though expecting orders, rocking back and forth on her heels. She lasted about a minute before speaking up. "Will you at least consider it?"

"Consider what?!" he snapped, his eyes bulging at her.

"Accepting my help."

"I work alone. And I told you to shut up. That is the end of the discussion."

"You barely remember to feed yourself, Mr. Genius Virtuoso." She walked over a took a seat next to him, unbidden. "I'll do the boring logistic stuff, and you can focus on your assignments. We'll both get to work on something we're passionate about."

Jhin sighed in annoyance. "I will think about it. If you ask me again my answer will be no. Now please, please go to sleep and let me hear my own thoughts."

But loving another person and not a thing was pointless; people were fragile, people were disloyal, people were ungainly and ordinary. Jhin had long known this, and that it was better to channel his passion into beautiful shapes than to offer it fruitlessly to those who would reject it or squander it all together.

Of course if everyone knew this truth there would be no beauty in showing it; the privilege of the vanguard was that it did not take long for the world to take notice or for fear to spread outwards wherever you touched.

Art was not a devotion that faltered, nor was it frivolous; it could not be changed by reading koans or studying the philosophies of the masses, for this passion was like a beating organ, which he cherished, and in the end was there any love more secure and more true than that one has for oneself?

Yes, she was decidedly stupid. For this reason she continued to look at him as though her eyes were taking pictures. Jhin knew the expression well; the gaze remained perfectly still while the mind arranged things into their rightful places; but her compositions emphasized a willful, moving subject, and they were pedestrian, aesthetic only insofar as they served a domestic purpose. His mental images were framed in museums and hers in living rooms; here the parlor's olive green was cool and muted, went decently with the gold and cream and Tyrian red he so liked to wear; here the dinner was warm and the tea was ready so that he would come home and smile for her; here the bed frame was long enough because he was so tall, and the v shape of his broad shoulders was so kingly against the master bedroom pillows, and his arms so strong, and he was naked beneath the sheets.

What a disgusting, ridiculous woman.

But Dya was right: she wasn't completely useless. As they boarded the boat she did carry his stuff without complaining.

Chapter Text

Rule 1: The Virtuoso's assistant does not speak unless spoken to.

Rule 2: The Virtuoso will not be cuddled, caressed, or mollycoddled. Highly sensitive to soft tactile sensations, becomes irritable when lightly touched. Comment that this had to do with not being hugged by his mother was ignored.

Exception to Rule 2: Virtuoso will tolerate massages. Sometimes loses his train of thought during the process. Sweet nothings delivered during this time are not reciprocated, but he does make nice sounds.

Rule 3: Be very careful when stealing the Virtuoso's mask to masturbate with. Got away with it in the ship's cargo, but anywhere else might be a risk.

Update 1: Whoa, it feels so much better doing it in our cabin. Let's see if I can do it again in a few days.

Update 2: OH GODS, I would not wish the scorn of a raging Khada Jhin on MY WORST ENEMY. I tried to tune him out and focus only on the number of times he called me a whore, which was 47. 47 in a fifteen-minute speech. Holy shit.

Rule 4: The Virtuoso's assistant is only allowed in the cabin at night, and is required to fall asleep first. Mask has been subjected to every known cleaning agent on the ship. Jhin is concerned I face-fucked it. I told him I did not. This was a lie.

Rule 5: The Virtuoso does not accept sheepish daytime glances as a form of apology.

Rule 6: 90% of the other passengers are more approachable than the Virtuoso.

Rule 7: Cabin bans are temporary on account of the fact the Virtuoso enjoys having someone to admire his genius. This will be phrased as, "I don't trust a whore to keep herself from the men on this ship."

✤✤✤✤

The little stagecoach thundered along the dirt road and its passengers watched the sky warily, expecting rain. They had been fortunate enough to avoid the storm while at sea but it persisted alongside them from coast to mainland like a steady vengeful eye. Beneath the gathering darkness, the Noxian countryside was the same as Noxian anything: grey and soul-sucking, as though the earth knew where it was and the grass was ashamed to grow.

A former Demacian spy was trying not to steal furtive glances at the serial killer who, sitting her opposite, had been watching her wordlessly now for over an hour, and who would no doubt catch every single one. His was a hard gaze to meet, and though they had spoken many times now, meeting his eyes still made her terrified and wonderfully lightheaded, like being discovered in hiding. Today she lacked the energy to wrestle the twin instincts which told her to simultaneously flee and caress the source of her fear.

She couldn't ask why he was staring at her. Though his posture was relaxed, his temper might explode again at any moment, she knew, because his eyes were steel blue — a warning color. This was a most unnerving blue, the kind that turns people to stone, with a ring around the iris suggesting two unnatural rooms lit by an unseen source.

Hailing from the land without magic, Dya still had no idea how he changed the color of his eyes. On any given day, they might be blue, red, or even amber, depending on the occasion; blue when furious, red when jovial, amber when he was caught off-guard, since that color was so warm and powerless, and since their encounter at the festival he had been hiding it from her, hoping she would forget. Those were his only three moods.

"I want your opinion on something," he said, breaking the silence.

She blinked stupidly. "Huh?"

Jhin leaned forward until his elbows were on his knees. Shifting his weight caused the worn out carriage to creak loudly in protest. "How would you have felt if I had called you Heartbroken?" He paused, measuring her reaction.

"If you had what?" Perhaps he wasn't still mad about the incident on the boat. Perhaps he was merely... this.

"The work, dearest. I was going to call you Heartbroken, had I succeeeded. The idea being your broken heart would have been both the cause and the effect of our encounter." He focused intently on the space in front of him. "But that's so... obvious, isn't it? Here I was so convinced at the time it would be perfect, but the more I think on it now the more it strikes me as cliche."

She snorted in disbelief. "Is this what you think about all the time?"

"It just horrifies me, the thought that had I finished the masterpiece a ridiculous title might have ruined it," he said. "You deserve better than that, don't you think?"

"I think I deserve not to be murdered, in all honesty."

"Yes, and that's because you are shallow," he smirked. "It takes a certain artistic quality in a person to appreciate my genius." Jhin retreated back to his original position, and after a moment Dya looked away too, leaning against the window.

"Be careful what you perceive as shallow water isn't just a trick of the light," she muttered, not intending him to hear. He awarded her a rare, genuine smile.

The coach driver sounded the horn that meant they were coming up on a way station. Jhin reached down towards the bag at his feet.

Dya fidgeted, sensing a shift in the mood. "Are you still mad at me?" she asked, but he answered by pressing a finger to his lips, intently listening for the driver's next movement.

Hearing nothing, he turned to her and said brightly, "I think today shall be a performance day, don't you, my dear?"

"Ha. ...That's a joke, right?"

"Not at all. I take my work extremely seriously." Jhin retrieved the folded eelskin body suit and laid it out on the seat beside him, running a hand over its smooth fabric. "I would expect my assistant, of all people, to know that." He undid the sash around his waist and shrugged off his shirt, knowing she would be staring — counting on it.

"Find a way to distract them while I get prepared. Seduce them if you must, since that is your... talent."

Her eyes narrowed. "What the hell does that mean?"

"It means whatever you think it means," he shrugged.

Dya leaned in and replied in a harsh whisper: "So you're going to kill him, and then what? I'm supposed to learn to drive a horse-drawn wagon?"

Jhin let out a single guffaw. "Of course not. I doubt these horses have been sensitized to gunfire. It shouldn't be more than ten miles to Krexor, in any case."

The carriage slowed to a stop, then rocked slightly as the driver hopped off and began unfastening the animals' harnesses.

Dya sighed, weighing her options. "How much time do you need?" she asked.

"Not more than a few minutes. The theatrical term for it is a quick change."

She rubbed her temples. "Fine," she said, trying to muster some authority, "but that's it. I'm not doing anything else."

Jhin chuckled to himself. "No, no no no, my dear, you are going to watch." She was verging on defiance, but a man of his talents could persuade her easily. "I am nothing without my audience..."

Something interesting about pairs of criminals, Dya noticed: the burden of uncertainty which would otherwise fully incapacitate one person can be easily mitigated when working as a unit. One person can feel wholly guilty and still be complicit in an act of killing so long as they are being shepherded by one who is unrestrained.

At the point he pulled her in and kissed her, Dya was not technically planning a murder, but the way she became limp and melted against him she was not likely to obstruct one either.

"...and I am nothing without you." The lie was so gentle.

The young woman cracked the stagecoach door open just enough to slip through it without revealing her half-dressed companion to the world. She stepped down into the grass and surveyed her surroundings: the gentle downward slope that divided the road from the swing station, and the station itself, an unremarkable stone building sharing one corner with a corral full of waiting Noxian horses.

She watched as two hostlers approached to relieve the team of animals, which they led back towards the stable. A fourth man watched them work from the open doorway of the stone building. Dya stepped forward, hugging herself to protect against the afternoon chill, and began an idle stroll to stretch out her legs.

Noxian horses were ash-black and bred for strength. The one waiting in the furthest stall to be rotated in was especially large. It stared back at her with dark, glassy eyes, nostrils flaring slightly. Horses had always sort of unnerved her. It was hard to believe such a majestic, powerful creature could be tricked into sleeping in a wooden stable and coerced into idle, manual tasks. Unable to read the intention behind those black marble eyes, she always felt she was pressing her luck around a horse, as though at any moment it might change its mind and trample her. In this fashion, Khada Jhin was not unlike a horse, and the act of taming him was perhaps nothing more than an exercise in hubris and optimism.

"Hope it doesn't rain before you get into town," said a gruff voice, interrupting her thoughts. From the stone doorway, the station keeper, a man in his fifties or sixties with salt-and-pepper hair and a square face covered in gray stubble, chewed a wad of something and gave her a bored once-over. "What're you in Noxus for?" No doubt he had picked out she was a foreigner. That much was obvious from her appearance.

"Business," she said vaguely.

"Yeah? What's your trade?"

Murder, she thought. Perhaps in Noxus that was an acceptable answer, but she wasn't about to find out. "Fortune telling."

The man made a non-committal sound that suggested he had no interest in the matter, and then the conversation was over.

Dya looked back to where the carriage was, but the curtains were drawn and the door closed. How soon was "a few minutes?" Was she supposed to be doing something in particular? Perhaps he only needed the men to be turned away when he stepped out with full guns and costume. That on its own could be managed, but she wasn't going to use her "talent" and risk confirming Jhin's strange belief that she was some kind of sex addict. Instead she was going to use her talent of being Dya, which usually ended up being much less attractive. She took stepped into the middle of the courtyard and fell face-first into the cold, wet grass.

"Ow," she announced.

"Oh, uh. You alright there, miss?" the station keeper asked, leaving his post for her.

Dya propped herself up and rolled over. She grabbed her left leg and stared down at her foot with a whimper. "I think so... I'm such an idiot. I must have twisted it."

"Can you stand?" he asked, offering an uncertain hand. Dya took it, but didn't yield in the slightest, wanting to appear weak and heavy. This got the reaction she wanted; he hollered to the other three men and got them looking in their direction. The younger ranchhand hurried over to assist, a boy with a long face and spider-like limbs who was impossibly, grossly skinny. The two supported her under her arms on either side, not gentle by any means, and lifted her up to a limping position.

"There's a cot inside. You'll be able to rest for a bit," said the older man, ushering her in.

The inside of the cabin was dark and somber, holding not much more than the bed itself, a desk, and a shelf for various supplies. A low fire crackled in the hearth on the far side of the room, clearly on its way out. They brought her to the cot where she could lie down and nurse her pretend injury.

"Try to keep it elevated," the keeper said. She nodded, wanting to seem desperate but agreeable. Satisfied, the man returned to the desk on the other end of the room, while the boy stood in front of the fire fidgeting, uncertain of whether he was still needed. The cot had thin sheets and the smell of frequent use. Dya bent her knee, not having anything to prop her foot on, and waited in nervous silence.

Minutes passed. Then it began.

First a loud bang from outside. Then the shriek of startled horses, then shouting. She sat up and felt her stomach drop.

"What the hell?" The station keeper instinctively grabbed the well worn Noxian battle ax hanging on the fireside wall, which she thought might have been decorative coming in, but in Noxus she ought to have known better. "Damn robbers think they can get the run of the place just because we're out here away from civilization. Not on my watch."

"Wait—" Dya said despite herself. If you go out there you'll die.

"Stay here," he said, halfway out the door, and the boy stumbled after. The door swung shut behind them, leaving her alone in the murky room.

She stood to follow, but all the courage she had in her suddenly drained out her feet and into the dirt floor, rooting her in place. What had she done? It was one thing to watch a murder from the shadows, but now she had played a part in it. Next time, would she be the one firing the gun?

What if Jhin gets hurt?

A second gunshot thundered out.

He had told her to watch. He would be mad if she didn't. The fear of making him mad won out just slightly over the fear of whatever she would find out there. Still, it took all of her strength to reach the doorway.

Dya pushed the wooden door open. The sky was turbid and gray. The large horse from earlier was thrashing in terror and crying out. Then she saw him, fully costumed, out in the open, brandishing a gun behind that beloved mask with its unreadable smile.

And then she looked down.

Dya flinched almost immediately, but even then the afterimage was burned into the back of her eyelids. Two men down, one lying prostrate, but the driver's face she'd seen, and it had a lot of red, like half of it had been blown straight off. He hadn't even been curled up to protect himself. The sudden pain had blindsided him, leaving him frozen and wide-eyed like a stunned fish.

The station keeper too was staring at the carnage, standing there uselessly with an ax and an open mouth, like he had been expecting a gang of underage hoodlums with smokebombs and wooden swords. "What... What the hell is this?"

"An ax. How barbaric," Jhin replied with obvious distaste, though she could hear him smile behind the mask. "But at least one of you is armed. That does add to the drama."

"What do you want, huh? Horses? That about all we got in a place like this." He tightened his two-handed grip on the ax handle and risked a step forward. "Or did you just come here with a gun 'cause you're a sick fuck?"

"I'm so sorry." Jhin walked towards the man, closing the distance between them dangerously. He gave Whisper a well-practiced twirl before pointing it forward. "We're going to have to cut your scene short, I'm afraid. Your dialogue is terrible."

The man sneered, a laugh tempered with visceral disgust. "Hiding behind your gun and your costume. You're a sick fuck and a coward—"

Dya jumped when the gun went off, but damn it all if her heart didn't flutter watching him spin around and fire like that. A clean shot to the neck, executed like a signature dance move. It felt wrong, like decorating a stranger's casket with her favorite things.

"Everyone's a critic," Jhin mused aloud, pressing four new shells into the magazine.

He couldn't let his gaze linger there, but he felt the greatest twinge of excitement when he saw her watching from the cabin doorway and didn't know why. Instead his eyes roved to the last trembling farmhand. "That leaves the boy then," he said, pretending he hadn't just been distracted.

With a fluorish, Jhin produced the scope attachment which turned Whisper into a long-ranged rifle, lunging backwards to steady his aim for the finale.

"Dance for me, will you?" he called out. "Something graceful." The boy stood completely rigid, his eyes dilated and ribcage expanding with shallow breaths.

Without warning he began sprinting in the other direction, gangly limbs cutting through the air at sharp angles.

She had the faintest hope he would escape.

There was a crack, and his left calf erupted in blood. He skittered forward into the mud, then began dragging himself onward, pushing with his skinny forearms and kicking with his good leg in a frog stroke.

"No, no, tarantella is no good!" Jhin shouted. He feigned dismay but it was obvious he was toying with his prey, deciding rules on the fly of an unwinnable game that would justify murder. "Death is the jaws of a wolf. It is not a spider bite. If you can't do anything with your legs that isn't ugly then you might as well lose them."

The Virtuoso fired again, this time hitting the boy's right upper thigh, bringing his desperate clambering in the mud to a halt. He fired again, laughing, at the shoulder, but too close to the spine — the boy convulsed uncontrollably, now covered in a red blanket. The more he was wounded the less graceful he got. Only death would finish the piece. One shot to the back of the head and at last the boy went still, leaving the Virtuoso and his assistant alone with the approaching storm, the horses, and the sound of frightened crows, the last of them scattering from the treetops in all directions.

Then there was silence.

Khada Jhin stood to his full height and began disassembling the gun while humming tunelessly. He twirled Whisper around in his fingers once before returning it to its holster, then, for the first time, studied his masterpiece in its entirety.

This was not a performance that would be forgotten. The rains would come and partially taint it, but he did not mind because an audience had witnessed it at the time of creation, and that was so thrilling. Every kill was like a gift to himself; waiting just long enough between them made each performance feel like he was coming alive for the first time.

Beneath the body suit his skin was hot and flushed like it always was after killing: partly from the rush of power, partly from the shame, which would grow, later, and consume him hours after the fact, and partly from the arousal somewhere low in his stomach. He took in a deep breath through his nostrils to slow his heart rate, letting it out with a shudder.

He tried to walk away and failed.

This was always where Icarus fell. No matter how divine he made himself out to be, Jhin's humanity was inextricably linked to the performance. Acts of intimacy which to him otherwise were but meaningless contact of muscles and teeth suddenly made sense after he killed. When he made art he wanted to be intimately touched, to feel hot and frantic and wet against someone else's body.

But he knew, as he always knew, that giving into this need would make the guilt that came later so much worse. This ecstasy would subside, this dreamlike state would dissipate, and with nothing left to feed on, his thoughts would turn to self-loathing, the urge to claw out his own flesh so he could dispose of that sick, oily part of his body that lulled his hips forward, made his penis hard and stripped him of godhood by holding pleasure out in front of him like a carrot on a stick.

Once he had considered cutting it off, the whole thing, just to be rid of it, yet the blade of the Virtuoso, who was so intimate with flesh, who disrupted the human body so easily, had wavered at the thought of permanent self-mutilation. His own recognizable human confines, which he numbered and labelled and traced over the years like a handful of stars, were a running joke at the expense of his higher self. Who was this person, this human avatar, to degrade the Artist which used him as a vessel, to defile Him with these disgusting aches?

It was man's only hope to strive towards perfection. It was his fate, it seemed, to fall from grace and reveal himself nothing more than an animal. But this time he would resist the urges, because Khada Jhin was not an animal.

He was not an animal until he turned and saw Dya, who was frightened and shaking, who was in awe of his work, who was helpless, and who would feel warm around him, so much warmer than his hands.

She looked down when he approached and it began to drizzle. How pale she was, how unusually pale. Breaking open her skin. Warm blood. His cock twitched. Jhin said nothing and waited for her to look at him, but it became apparent she wanted to avoid meeting his eyes. This reaction displeased him. He wanted her to be afraid of him but feel safe with him all at once.

It was the click of the gun that got her attention. Dya's head snapped forward and she gasped. Her eyes followed down Whisper's barrel to find him looking at her expectantly, same smile as always.

"Wonderful," he said, replacing the gun in its holster. "It seems you're still alive after all. I was worried you had been frozen in place and I would have to leave you."

"No... No, I'm good." She knew what he wanted, which is why she tried to sidestep him, to slip away, but Jhin followed, trapping her against the wall with his palms on either side.

"You did well, my dear," he said in a tone he hoped was gentle, inviting.

"It's going to rain," she said. Why did she say that? What did that have to do with anything? He pressed his hips into her and she felt it everywhere in static.

"Perhaps a... celebration is in order?"

Dya looked at him, really looked at him, and he wondered to himself whether this was the same wanton woman who had been so desperate for him and who was now staring back, a frightened girl, hair dampened down by humidity and eyes watering and looking for all the world like he had just slapped her in the face.

"It's going to rain," she said.

"Then we shall go inside. I cannot have my assistant catching cold." He lightly touched her chin.

She didn't move. "Jhin... Not now."

"This cannot wait!" he snapped, surprising both of them. Jhin steeled himself. He couldn't get angry. Scaring her would make this more difficult, and the longer it took to finish the more opportunity he would have to stop and hate himself for what he was doing. He might've just taken her wordlessly against the wall there as soon as the urge came to him, but in truth he needed her guidance. He had no experience with another living person.

Jhin reached back and removed his mask, holding it out for her. "Perhaps you require... inspiration," he said softly. Dya took it with some hesitation, then stared down at it. She seemed remorseful, running one fingertip down its center. She looked at him, face now covered solely by the black bodysuit, and picked out the shape of his mouth.

With one hand on his chest, she moved her face towards his until a metal finger touched her lips. "You know what I want. Nothing else."

"It's going to rain, Jhin!" she cried out in frustration, because she could not think of anything else.

Jhin grabbed her jaw with sudden force and glared down at her. "I worked very hard to perform for you," he whispered,single eye shining — cherry red, for the costume. "The courteous thing would be to return that performance."

"Not like this! I can't do this right now!"

"You have no right to refuse me." His strong hands went for her clothes, unfastening her belt and pulling her pants down roughly. She didn't stop him. She wanted a different Jhin, one with a vulnerability. This one thought he was invincible.

The sky opened up to him and so did she.

Chapter Text

Sometimes Jhin did dumb things like locking the same door four times. There he was, standing with the room key twisting and untwisting, each time with a pause, until he was satisfied the room was totally secure. It was not secure until he did this four times. The same process in reverse was required every time he went out, which is why it was usually better for Dya to handle these sorts of things, but she had been so tired it hadn't even occurred to her.

"I think something's wrong with you," she mumbled, knowing even face-down on the bed exactly what he was doing. Jhin ignored her. When he was done, he headed straight to the washroom and closed the door.

Dya listened to the pattering of heavy rain, thinking of nothing but the tautness in her calves from walking ten miles in the rain with heavy equipment on a road that was sinking. Soreness in her legs, bruises on her shoulder blades, and a chill that had soaked into her bones.

The word she had put off for a while, as they walked, was rape. Now it was lingering in the room with her, daring her to react, and yet she had no reaction for it. "I guess I was raped," she said into the bed linens, nonplussed, popping the p sound like a cherry. "Rape."

She tried to remember how it felt. Friction and cold, mostly. The storm had been a welcome distraction. Somewhere buried deep inside was anger, but closest to her heart was the simple frustration that he would not hold her and keep her warm afterwards. She had been so cold.

But the act itself was no more devastating a blow than anything else he had done. Her body was a fortress whose sanctity and solitude she had given up long ago, when she first started working intelligence. It was strong but it was no longer safe or quiet.

Dya rolled over onto her back, staring up at the bed's canopy with her hands behind her head. "So, me too, huh?" she asked no one in particular. "You thought I couldn't just forgive him for hurting others, that wouldn't be enough? It had to be me too? You think I wouldn't forgive him for that? Well you're wrong, I'm very stupid." And she was -- kind and stupid and infinitely patient.

In the other room Jhin was having a staring contest with the mirror and losing by a wide margin. A stupid game. He brought his hand back in a tight fist intending to smash the disgusting man in the glass. Too much noise. There was no use drawing unnecessary attention to the tenants of his room, not if he wanted things to go smoothly here.

Every moment surrounding what had happened at the way station was so painfully clear. Standing outisde the fact looking in, borrowing their clarity, it was so easy to condemn himself for having been careless. Jhin was used to guilt, little dull pangs of it splashing in his stomach like rainwater. This was not guilt. The filthy water had become ice, dagger-shaped, which expanded by the minute and was rending him in two.

A violin played softly enough sul ponticello has a sort of relaxing quality, the gentle hissing noise of rosin against string emitting shrill harmonics. For a moment, the sound of it in his head soothed him. It had no musical quality; the bow whisked along slowly, on the inevitable track towards a precipice. His entire insides a muted scream.

Dya had enchanted him. How he had danced to her tune like a mindless doll! The Golden Demon amazed her with a private performance and instead of showing humility or gratitude she used whatever that magic was she keeps so well hidden to seduce and defile him as recompense. Dya was the witch, the demon of lust, she was the whore and he was the pure one. She tricks and sullies him and then has the gall to blame him throughout the charade, as though he is the aggressor. Between the two of them Dya was the real demon, conniving under that infuriating facade of innocence and purity.

But that couldn't be true. As soon as it had arrived the thought fell away, and other ones came, familiar ones with names for him he knew all too well. Monster. Disgusting. Low as dirt. Awful, how awful he was. Magic or not, he had fucked her because he couldn't control himself. Khada Jhin had been given all these tools and nice things, this gift from the gods, and he had to waste it being human! One after another the thoughts arrived, so effortlessly, so relentlessly that they must have belonged there, they must have been true. No one worthy of calling themselves an artist would give into lust as easily as he had. He was merely a monster pretending.

His thoughts had an inclination towards sharpness. There was a straight razor among the shaving things provided for guests on the countertop, but no, not here. The location was too peaceful and domestic; it would confine the limits of the damage he wanted to do.

He opened the door and crossed the room without so much as looking at her.

Dya followed his movements sleepily, unable to find the energy to ask where he was headed. If he had intended his departure to look dramatic, the effect was somewhat dampened when he was forced to unlock the door four times and then secure it another four from the other side. She wanted to laugh. Then the sounds of his footsteps disappeared down the hall.

That was the first night Jhin came back with injuries. Sometimes these were accidents from his work (as it turned out, Noxians were considerably more paranoid and harder to kill), but more often he earned them, intentionally, as a habit, to show to her like trophies. When he wanted to be Jhin was already extremely punchable by pacifist standards. Krexor and its bored mercenaries by the barful could be provoked to much deadlier ends.

The first time she had flown to him like a worrisome bird, prompting him to uncross his arms so she could tend the wounds with a dampened washcloth, he swatted her away. The cuts themselves were an incidental detail of which he would remind himself between thoughts by digging his nails into them. Pain kept him anchored to the world as he stared at the window with a look of utter despair. He told her he wanted to bleed. He said, "This world is so ugly it's gotten inside of me and won't get out."

But she would still insist on dressing his wounds every time, as much as Jhin bristled. Eventually the novelty of being tended to won out over the need to let himself suffer. He would watch in curious silence as she dabbed herbs and wrapped bandages around his cuts, as though expecting at any moment he would learn it was a all trick and she had poisoned him.

"How can you be like this?" he asked. He had never had friends. She looked at him with gentle eyes, overcome by this obvious and sudden truth.

"Like what?" she said.

"The way you are. This behavior is... deviant. Explain to me what you're doing right now."

"I'm putting bandages on an idiot."

"For what reason?"

Dya brushed the bangs out of his eyes.

"Because seeing him hurt makes me unhappy," she said quietly. Between the drawing salve, the tea tree oil, and the yarrow poultice against his raw flesh wounds the man hardly flinched, but a single peck on his ear made him fidget and hiss as though it burned.

"You-- misunderstand the purpose." With his arms stretched out on the table for her inspection, he had nothing with which to push her away. Now he was twisting and writhing to dodge her playful kisses, with little success. "I am hurting myself for your sake, my dear."

Dya scoffed. "For my sake." She tended a cut between his neck and shoulder with the warm cloth.

"As penance."

"Penance for what? Killing people?"

He wouldn't say.

Chapter Text

Jhin was in total darkness. There was something on top of him — earth, the entire earth. He had been buried underground, a shallow grave only about a foot beneath the surface. He knew it was raining, because he could hear it thudding down from within the earth, and the ground above him was cold and wet, dripping downwards and turning the cradle of dirt around him into mud.

He knew there was someone about to dig him up, and that the dirt was fresh, so he could easily push his way out if he wanted to, but he was deadly afraid of what — or who — might be up there. If he didn't move, would he eventually drown? Did they have a shovel? If they dug into the shallow grave, overestimated its depth, would the shovel's blade carve into his face? He heard the muffled sound of their voice and knew they would start digging soon. They might dig with their hands, or just rip off the earth like a bandage, all at once. Jhin couldn't breathe. But he didn't want to be seen like this. He didn't want the light to expose him as he was, helpless and covered in muck.

The voice sounded again. It was deep, and male. He didn't need to hear the words to know it. That was Kusho's son, Shen. Shen was coming to dig him up. Shen was coming to hurt him.

All at once the grave was opened. But he couldn't see anyone; just white light.

"No!" he cried out, sitting up suddenly. The room was dark and quiet. He heard the muted splash of rain from outside, but it was just a sprinkling, not suffocating like it had been in the dream.

Jhin was breathing and he was alive, and Shen was not after him. Or at least he wasn't close.

"Gods," Dya whispered next to him, more stunned than anything. That had been the weight; she had been curled up on top of him and had tumbled off when he'd bolted upright. She was not supposed to be on top of him — no physical intimacy in bed without his permission was one of his hard and fast rules — and must have thought she could get away with it once he was asleep. She rubbed her eyes and tried to make out his shape in the dark. "Okay, point taken. Virtuoso gets night terrors if you fall asleep on top of him."

He glanced over his shoulder and caught the moonlight winking in her eyes, which were wide open and shiny, like a doll's. Kill her and they would stay open forever.

"I've told you many times, I require a great deal of personal space in order to function," he said at an impatient clip.

"I know, I... I did not expect that. I wasn't even asleep yet."

"You know, and yet you keep doing these things that cause me to suffer."

"I can't not cuddle with you, Jhin. You're so cute." She reached forward to rub his shoulder. But Jhin was faster, catching her forearm in a vicegrip before she could touch him and returning a cold glare. Her smirk fell as she barely made out the hard lines of his face.

"Sorry," she whispered. The lines became more severe.

"Why do you continue to disregard the things I say?" he sneered.

"You have to understand I've never met anyone like you, Jhin. I'm... still learning. I need you to be patient with me." Her arm was frail. With the pressure he was applying now, it would be so easy for him to break it. "Please."

"I don't have that kind of time or patience."

Jhin got up from the bed, still gripping her arm, and pulled her along with him into the bathroom. He forced her against the sink while her stomach made untidy knots and then shut the door, eclipsing the room in total darkness. He was familiar enough with the layout; there was only a second before the sudden hiss of a match was struck and the golden kerosene bulb came to life, and then she saw the look on his face and missed being blind.

He reached for her arm once again and wrestled without much resistance until it was face-up on the countertop, swathed in an amber glow. He kept it pinned down towards the elbow with his left hand.

"What..." The color drained from her face.

In his right he was twirling a straight razor, staring down at her exposed and hairless wrist as though imagining lines on a canvas.

"I do have a switchblade, if you prefer," he confessed, a smile pulling at his features. "But it would be so much fun to see how far we get into the carpal bones with this one."

"No, no no." Dya covered her face with her remaining arm. "Jhin, I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry." But as much as she appeared to struggle, she did not try to break free of his grasp.

The lack of defiance was almost an insult to him. She couldn't have possibly thought this was all an act to intimidate her. He had no qualms dismembering someone if he thought it would solve a problem — and she knew that. So why was she making this difficult, standing there without the slightest resistance, showing him mercy when it was not her right or her place to do so? It would be easy to begin cutting if he could see her as a petulant child, and yet she would not allow it. He gritted his teeth.

"You will learn that testing me is a mistake," he said, digging the blade just enough so that blood bubbled around it — a warning, enough to get her to flinch and cry out. It was red and like sparkling syrup in the light and lovely.

"I'm so sorry, Jhin," she mewled. "I know I made you unhappy. But please, just talk to me."

He looked at her. "I have been talking. You have chosen not to listen."

"Talking— I mean talking— without any games."

"Games?" Jhin paused for a moment. This was the apparently the wrong thing to say. "Do you think I'm playing games with you? I'll tell you a game, darling. It goes like this: My father holds my mother like this, in this same position, intending to cut into her arm the way I am going to do to you now. The person being cut is not allowed to win. The lights must be off; a child stands in the doorway, awake and restless because he had been sent to bed hungry. She is complacent, like you're trying to be, because he has already played this game with her so many times. Allow me to demonstrate."

He made a thin slice across her arm. She hissed in response, the adrenaline making her sensitive to his every movement.

"At some point," he says in a low voice, "the human spirit simply surrenders. It's beautiful."

"Jhin. Put the razor down. Please."

"I was not yet twelve," Jhin said over her, "but because I had told him I wanted to be a musician and not succeed him as the head of his failing martial arts school, he decided my poor mother, the singer and dancer, would be punished. I tried to stop him from cutting her and for my impertinence he took the index, middle, and ring finger from her left hand. There is not one day I think of it and have not felt guilt wind around my stomach like a snake."

His words were punctuated with lines. He was drawing flowers.

"This was a no-name town in Zhyun. A useless town, meaningless. Small. An act of such violence ripples out like a current. One day, suddenly, all the people who had been so content to let her suffer in silence wondered what happened that caused their favorite songbird to lose three of her fingers and become so nervous she never uttered a note again. What they were told is that the left-handed woman lost them in a cooking accident, as though anyone would be stupid enough to believe such a thing." He had drawn tiny, criss-crossing ribbons up the length of her forearm, and now stopped, looking down at his work. "But they pretended to. No one ever tried to help. And that... stupid bitch did nothing but protect him, right up until he died. You're both the same. Little song birds who fall into a spider's nest and bless the spider. Do you know what she said to me on the day of her rescue? It was not gratitude I saw in her eyes; it was fear. And she asked, 'what have you done?' 'what have you done?'"

Dya was crying without making sound. "I'm sorry," she said.

"They always said I took after her." He cupped her face, tears running down her cheeks and onto his fingers. The memory of his father repulsed him, but he couldn't deny the exhiliration of having this much power over someone. And if she was going to keep letting him do as he liked, then she should have been expecting this. Jhin did not need anyone. He was giving her his time and company as a favor. Dya had failed to respect his rules. She couldn't expect mercy for that. "But you know me so much more intimately, my love," he said. "I think you'll find I'm rather much more like my father."

"No, you aren't, Jhin. You're not like this. You don't hurt people because you're angry!"

Jhin laughed at that darkly, until his face fell into a sudden scowl. "Oh?" he asked. "Why is it I 'hurt' people, then?"

She avoided his eyes and swallowed as though the answer were stuck in her throat. "Because you can't do anything else," she said quietly.

He threw the knife to the floor.

Chapter Text

Angry people had so much money. Dya sometimes went and spent small sums of it on useless things, as she did that morning, because Jhin either didn't care that his money went missing or didn't notice. Most likely he didn't notice. Material and logistical things tended to slip into the background when he was devising his plans; it was as though he made a point of forgetting to eat or to wash himself, because it was when he was immersed and forgetful of these things, of the banality of his own existence, that he was happiest. No doubt the money he made was only a means and its exact amount was of no consequence.

Jhin had left before the knife had even finished clattering against the hardwood floor, presumably to gather his thoughts, as though he was the one who had been hurt. The morning light was just barely creeping over the horizon, and Dya was left alone to wait until the shops opened before she could spend his money.

Her mind was settled on the local pharmacy. It was her most frequent destination owing to a certain someone's self-destructive habits, but even when she wasn't in need of first-aid supplies, she still enjoyed browsing their collection of unusual concoctions and adulterants. What Noxus lacked in hospitality, at least, it more than made up for in its thriving trade of illicit goods. Imagine that little bottle of aphrodisiac on display in a place in Demacia or Ionia! A pervasive and sturdy moral code such as theirs soaks into the very infrastructure of a place. Here the people thought nothing of it.

Of course, any mischievous plans for aphrodisiac belonged to an erstwhile and more optimistic version of herself. The Dya whose hand had nearly been severed this morning instead let betrayal and hurt turn into anger, and then anger into the singular determined vision of water hemlock.

She bandaged herself, tired but too frightened to sleep, then sat down at the table with a quill in hand and flipped open to an empty page of her weathered notebook. It had been diligently maintained, once, back when this had been something about keeping track of a serial killer. She passed the time writing frantically, desperately.

✤✤✤✤

Jhin couldn't be sure if he was just lousy at street fighting or he was never really trying. He was used to holding his pride like a close secret, so allowing those hooks to land and bruise him to the point of earning a reputation as the unnamed tavern punching bag didn't bother him. Whatever sense of accomplishment they felt from bruising him was meaningless, knowing as he did that these boorish men he so detested were so cosmically insignificant. He was only allowing himself to be abused as part of an exchange — for them, a stroke to the ego and a means of physical release, almost sparring, and for him the raw pleasure of being beaten within an inch of his life. For now the feeling was merely cathartic, though under better circumstances he might let his opponent's hands find their way to his neck or not work so hard to inhibit his bodily responses or keep his breathing even.

Imagine his father's shame if he could see him now, returning battered and bruised to the room at the inn after purposefully (he hoped) losing yet another fight. By Father's rules, any one of these scuffles should have begun and ended by staking an enemy's hand to the table or severing an Achilles' tendon before they even knew what had hit them. He used to quip that only an idiot began a duel by asking for one, but the philosophy of the surprise attack wasn't one Jhin had ever agreed with.

Still, he had to wonder if, through the years of developing his own technique of wild magic and elaborate weaponry, he had neglected his hand-to-hand combat skills beyond repair. He had not been able to dodge quite as many blows as he intended, which was a problem. Something in the back of his mind told him that he may not find anyone waiting to nurse his wounds as he opened the door.

He entered the room, shielding his eyes as the sudden late afternoon light blinded him from the facing window, and shut the door behind him. He didn't lock it. There was no point. Instead he looked around the place with a practiced neutral gaze that belied his internal panic. He was waiting for something to jump out at him, to point at him and demand justice for what he had done.

When there was no sound, no accusation, it was almost worse. The room had been cleaned, his bag of things waiting for him on the bed, clothes folded neatly inside it, and her absence thudding against his chest like a second heartbeat.

And what did you expect? a cruel part of him asked. Cutting her hands, and not as part of a performance, but because he was helpless, because he was angry at her continued existence. He knew he had been right to feel angry, he was sure of it, but now another feeling crawled in his chest and settled uncomfortably beside the indignation. Sadness, almost. Fear.

Since Dya kept her things tucked in the bureau — or had taken them — the only evidence she had ever been there was a leather-bound journal left on the table and the writing utensils beside it. The journal might have been new, but he couldn't be sure, because Jhin had never cared enough to look through Dya's things. There was probably nothing inside of interest, but he would be remiss not to at least check for a parting message.

As he approached it and made to sit down he caught a glimpse of a figure in the corner of the room.

Jhin turned, steadying himself as though expecting to be ambushed, but his caution was unwarranted. It wasn't moving. He recognized that body on floor next to the bed, curled into a ball.

What had she done?

He crossed the room in a hurry. Surely she could not be dead, but there were still ways an immortal could wound itself. But as he moved to inspect for injuries, he found none. Her chest rose up and down gently and without effort. Beneath her bandaged forearm, held tightly against her body, was a pillow dressed in one of his red shirts. Dya faced him with worship even still. He caught himself smiling and corrected himself at once.

Jhin turned away. He had no explanation for her position on the floor, but it seemed she was only asleep. Relief loosened at his muscles, dissolving the tight grasp of worry. Neither of these sensations were welcome to him, nor was the elation he felt that someone had survived Khada Jhin, twice, and could sleep easily, despite everything. The sensations gripped him all the same.

The quiet afternoon settled around him, bringing with it the silence he so dreaded. Silence was the drawn curtains and empty stage on which his most terrible thoughts danced freely. His ears were ringing from the lack of sound, and he briefly considered waking her. He had always called Dya's constant chatter an annoyance, but in truth only her words, which were so meandering and pointless, bothered him; the sound had become a welcome distraction.

But he could not bring himself to wake her.

He sat at the table where she had been writing and stared at the journal. Its cover revealed nothing of what might lurk inside. He pried it open carefully, as though it were a delicate artifact which might easily tear, and started to read.

  • "Left Golden Bird SE exit 16:42."
  • "Target has no apparent relation."
  • "Apparently uses blades — where??"

The earliest pages were dated a month previous. The entries were terse, each line with a new observation or discovery. She had been stalking him far longer than he'd realized, but for what reason would a vengeful demon keep such a meticulous data log of their quarry?

The lines became increasingly more distressed as the days passed.

  • "Killed a man and I watched."
  • "Fuckkkk"
  • "This will keep happening. This will keep happening."
  • "Why Demacia involved?"
  • "Can't sleep (05:00). Dreams again."
  • "Kisses and a beautiful mask."
  • "Dance with me. Sing for me. La La La."

They carried on until the night of her failed murder.

Jhin ran a finger down the page. How could anyone find him insane, or evil? Whatever had so long ago possessed him into becoming the Golden Demon had taken her, too. She had seen him — she had seen the flower! — and her reporting changed to notions of beauty, that thing which could not be observed dispassionately, which is not documented for truth, but because the disease demands to be committed to memory. That's how it spreads. That's how he gave it to her. She caught it by observation.

After a handful of blank pages the writing changed. A page was cross-hatched entirely black, the spaces between the lattice tight and claustrophobic. The strokes had been deliberate, frustrated, obsessive even. He traced his finger along where the metal nib had torn through the paper.

On the facing page was a diary entry, all previous discretion and initials forsaken for girlish intimacy. Khada Jhin, Khada Jhin, Khada Jhin, written in the handful of distinct cursive styles she could muster, surrounded by drawings of flowers. She wasn't much of a sketch artist, he noted. Then she wrote:

"I want him to remove my heart. Then I won't have to put up with it.

Khada Jhin tried to cut my hands off last night. He was scared of something, and I wanted to help him. A mistake. I don't mind living like this, but sometimes it's so hard not having anyone else. Without that third person in the room you start to lose your reference point for what's normal. None of this is normal. I'm not crazy.

He killed four people the other day and then raped me. I feel horrible writing that down. Yes, all I've wanted to do is sleep with him, and I am awful! I know! And maybe I deserve this. But I was so scared. I couldn't close my eyes this time so the dead bodies were in my head like they were burned there. He looked like he was going to kill me if I didn't listen so I just let him do what he wanted.

I spaced out for most of it. Marvel of the human mind, that. All I could think about was wanting him to hold me. Like, please just hold me because it is so damn cold outside, and if you hold me it will make everything okay, it would all just be a dream. Noxian rain is freezing.

I'm going to get rue for tea. And some other things. I was on the fence but him cutting me like that made me sure. Could I be a mother? Sure. But I'd never let a child inherit his mind. Smart and unsatisfied are the two worst things anyone could possibly be.

I can only tell you why I'm doing this when I hear his voice. When he stops talking or I can't see his face I forget, and I think I hate him. Then I look at his stupid photograph, or remember his laugh, or his olive skin, and I love him so much I can't stand it. And then he hurts me."

An old photo of him — where the hell had she gotten such a thing? — was being used as a bookmark on the last page. He had never seen a picture of himself. There wasn't much about it, just an ugly man staring at the camera. It didn't hold his attention for long though — he was much too preoccupied by everything else she had written.

She kept a photo of his ugliness and then wrote how he had hurt and forcefully copulated with her. Jhin was so filled with disgust that if it were possible he would violently kill the man in the pages. He couldn't, of course. Even if he burned the diary, the truth would linger in the smoke. Rape was an ugly word. Very, very ugly. He did not like that at all.

Still, despite everything he had done, she wouldn't call him a monster, only "smart" and "unsatisfied." She continued this show of undeserved kindness, and for what? Trivial things that blinded her to the creature that was eating her.

A creak sounded from behind him. Jhin shut the journal and turned sharply to find the woman, who had been trying to approach him unnoticed and was now paused mid-step on the offending floorboard.

"Dya." He said her name pointlessly, her real name, the boring one, because a petname would sound oblivious and entitled, which were not the things he wanted to be if he could help it. He worried that any wrong thing might cause her to shatter.

He wouldn't say anything about what had happened if she didn't. He didn't want to acknowledge it, because trying to explain why he had begun to stab her would be a long and pointless effort. No one could ever understand the deep and untrodden well of self-hatred behind his motivations. Not even Jhin. Especially not Jhin.

"Did you read everything?" was all she said.

He closed his eyes for a long moment, grateful he wouldn't have to go through such a process. "Yes," he replied.

"Look, if something happens... I'll take care of it." She pulled at her hair unconsciously. "This is Noxus after all. You probably don't have to... worry about anything."

"What exactly was I supposed to worry about?"

She half smiled. "You are such a guy sometimes." He didn't know what that meant, and she didn't explain any further. He ran a hand through his hair, wishing that the thick, awkward thing standing between them would disappear, that he had never read her words, that he had never taken her with him, that he were somewhere else. He could not suffer the shame of hurting someone else with his inadequacy. He stood to match her level.

"I haven't... I don't often sleep well." What the hell was he saying? "You know I have a performance tonight, and it's very important to me that I'm well prepared for it." The moment he said it, Jhin had no idea what any of that was supposed to mean.

"No, it's my fault," she said. "I knew this wouldn't be easy." Her expression was pained. That was not forgiveness. He realized how foolish he was, how he had mistaken her for a wanton idiot desperate for his attention and guidance. While he was out pitying himself, she had already resolved this issue in her mind, had taken it in as her own private burden, and moved beyond it. She did not need his explanations. She was tolerating him. The thought was horrifying.

Almost on impulse, he reached out to touch her. He wanted to establish control. It was his elegance, his grace, after all, that had first lured her into this nightmare. These were talents he still posessed. He would allow her to take advantage of them now, to compensate for having exposed her to his weaknesses. Dya liked his self-restraint. She liked his gentle caresses. Yes, those were good things.

He tried not to notice the way she flinched when he put a hand on her cheek, rubbing gently with his thumb.

Dya hadn't expected to be kissed. The part of her that was a traitor felt a tingling in her womanhood that made her want to drag him onto the bed and force him to reschedule. The part of her with dignity broke it off after only a second.

Jhin almost said the words "thank you for not leaving me" as she moved away from him, but rather than embarrass himself so fatally he settled with the announcement that he was going to get ready and she should not wait up for him that evening since he would be back very late.

Like she even would.

Chapter Text

Dya had a boring face. Jhin knew it was what others considered beautiful, because other women had said as much: "Such a pretty wife," they said. He let them think she was his wife, poor thing, because it was easier than explaining she was some kind of secretary-slash-one-woman-fanclub whom he had once decided to hate and was now very, very unsure about. She would smile at them so graciously when they said that, as though she enjoyed the thought of marriage to him of all people, which must have made her a goddess, but Jhin looked at her full lips and soft cheeks and round eyes and saw not beauty but raw, unused potential.

Khada Jhin was out of chances, which troubled him. If he hurt her again she would leave him, but he could not rely on words to express such pure emotions — only by stabbing her enough times could he show her how he truly felt. How he didn't like it when her eyes only followed the bartender instead of meeting his. How he wanted to play the games of a loving couple.

This was not obsession. Why would he be obsessed with her? It was only a little fear that had taken root inside of him the moment he realized Dya had, and had always possessed, the ability to stop pretending. If she did, she would leave him, and then there would be no one else who so desired to control the Golden Demon that they could deny the man behind its mask was ugly. Everything would be out of place. That realization alone had awoken something deep inside him, something which had noticed she was on an outward trajectory and begun to quietly panic.

Jhin wanted to appease her, but he also didn't want to say he was sorry. "Sorry" was too simple, too much of an approximation; instead, he would allow her to extract her own retribution. Dya could be as mad and as cruel as she liked, and start arguments, so long as she would stay.

The last argument they ever had began as an announcement between bites of bread at the tavern: "You're ambidextrous," she said. "I never noticed it before."

"Yes," he said, assuming an air of confidence although he was uncertain of where this was going.

"It ruins my whole plan." She smiled wickedly. "I was thinking I could pay one of the bored assholes at this bar to go ambush you after a performance, and I would ask them to break your right hand, so that you couldn't shoot with it until it healed, and for a while, we would be happy."

In truth it had not been so much a plan as a passing whim, but there was a pleasure to be had in this kind of meanness. Much to her delight, the color in his face changed just slightly.

"If you had sent a man to witness the Virtuoso in all his finery, dear, all you would've gotten out of it is a dead man," he said, doing his best to recover.

"I'm not sure if you've noticed this, but Ionians were the last people to discover violence." She sipped at a glass of ale. Dya had, at some point, stopped trying to do things that would only make her look feminine. That image he was so in love with of her almost dying was not one worth preserving, not anymore. "It's given you this very cute impression of how reality works. You really have no idea how much everybody else in the world expects to kill and be killed."

"But they never expect to be killed my way."

Dya ignored him, looking suddenly conflicted and staring into no where. He patiently ate some of his soup and waited for her to gather her thoughts.

"You know they sell poison here?" she said after a long pause. "Just... over the counter?" She reached into a pocket of the satchel she wore at her hip, and in the next moment she was flashing a wax capsule between her fingers for him to see. "Like this one?"

"Are you trying to liven up my performances, dearest?" he asked with mild amusement. "I appreciate the thought, but poison is by far the lowest form of death on the stage. No drama or artistry about it, one merely clutches his throat and succumbs to his demise."

"Oh, not to worry!" she said. "This one is water hemlock." Jhin didn't respond, prompting her to raise her eyebrows. "Violent convulsions?" she prompted. "You won't get bored."

"If you wanted to make an interesting death you could have just asked me. I wouldn't mind taking on a student." He moved his spoon around the bowl, carefully avoiding its edges. Four times clockwise, then four times counter-clockwise to make it even.

"You don't even seem concerned over how I'm planning to use this," she said incredulously.

Jhin continued at his idle task, still smiling to himself. "That's because I don't expect you to manage to kill me," he said.

"Kill you." Dya was impressed. To Jhin, it was like no one else in the world existed. Everything she did had to be about him. She supposed she was partly to blame for that. "No. It's for me, idiot."

He looked up, still stirring.

She looked at him, numb, wide-eyed, serious, her voice now monotone. "If you try to hurt me again, I won't give you a chance."

He returned her serious gaze for a long beat. The spoon slowed to a stop.

"Okay?" she asked.

"Yes, very good, yes," he said with a slight smile, almost holding back laughter. Gods, this woman was insane. Jhin supposed she'd have to be to like him so much. An immortal demon threatening suicide because he had hurt her feelings was almost too much for him. He chuckled under his breath. "You do so tickle me, Dya."

A solemn nod. "I should have expected this would be funny to you." Dya closed her eyes and thought to yourself. The point of a threat wasn't that she was going to do it — though she would, if she had to — it was that she could, which should be enough to scare him. If Jhin didn't give a shit, then there was nothing to stop him from ruining everything. At that point she had two options: wait until that happened, or go inside her head and burn down the shrine she had built up for him there permanently.

Killing someone like this, in your mind, was a part of life, but this time would be difficult because she had never come so close to worshipping someone before. But she had done it, and she knew how to do it. He had never seen the shrine, never really looked at it, and he wouldn't miss it anyway. She said it to herself: you only ever loved the Jhin that got along with you, the Jhin you made up, the Jhin that does not exist. You only ever loved the box you stuffed him into. That one day he is a god and the next you cannibalize him and that's okay, because everybody is nobody and all it ever is is roles that must be filled, and they all do the same to you too, we can't help it. Going about our lives, hurting some and winning the adoration of others, we can't help but shift inpermanently between the highest and lowest castes of memory like a trick of the light, and it is so impossible to fix goodness or love to any specific person, only to specific people at specific moments in time.

"Okay," she said again, at last, but not to him. Jhin quirked an eyebrow. For him nothing had shifted; it had only been a few seconds. She brought the glass of ale to her lips, drank it all in one swig, and slammed it down. "Okay. Then it's done." Dya stood up from the table, and she walked out of the tavern.

Her satchel bounced at her hip, and she returned the capsule to it discretely as she walked. The light in Krexor, too, shifted, as the moment passed from afternoon to sunset, and she regarded her surroundings with a fondness forged by necessity. These buildings, these faceless people moving en masse had been her silent companions all the times Jhin had made her upset, and here they were again, faithful as always. Dya had no fixed destination, but intended to move at a brisk pace until the distance between her and the tavern was a comfortable one, and then she would worry about plans.

She heard his voice calling after. The particular clatter of his heavy boots. Dya had honestly not expected him to come after her and found herself stumbling in surprise. Damn his long legs! Even with her head start and through that crowd, she could hear him catching up to her. But she would not run, even as panic rose in her throat, because if she began to sprint he would do the same, and would still catch up to her, and worse, it would cause a public scene, forfeiting what little dignity still made her superior to him.

"Stop, stop, stop... stop, please," he said. He would sound impatient and not heartbroken. He had to. He had to stay in control.

"Go away, you're already dead to me," she called over her shoulder.

"I don't understand why you're angry!"

She raised her voice but didn't break her stride. "I don't believe that, Jhin. I think you're smart enough to figure it out and just don't want to admit you're an asshole." Then he was in front of her in an instant — she slammed into him on accident, but he kept one foot further back and handled her momentum without difficulty, holding her gently by the wrists and guiding her to a stop.

Eyes flashing with rage, she looked up at him with an almost audible snarl. Jhin's expression was more soft, situated uncertainly on the line between a stranger's concern and a lover's guilt.

She tried feigning right, then left, but his grip on her wrists became firm, and again he used his advantage of height and broadness to trap her. Her mind's eye flashed to that hated afternoon in the rainstorm, an electric current working its way suddenly through her insides. Not again. Never again.

"Pretend I am not smart enough," he said. "Indulge me."

She said nothing, looking blankly in front of her, wanting to be somewhere else.

"Dya."

The woman shook her head in disbelief. "Why are you doing this?" she whispered. "What is the point? None of this means anything to you."

"Why do you say that?"

"I made a mistake, I get it, I really do." Dya gestured a little bit, testing how much leverage he would grant her. Jhin enfolded her hands in his own. They were so warm. It broke her heart because she realized he was trying. He was. He just couldn't help but ruin anything he touched.

"What mistake?"

"This, all of this. Us." Her eyes were watering now. "Jhin, I know I've done nothing but bother you. I forced this onto you because... it was something I really wanted. I get that, and that's why you hate me, and I am so, so sorry." His expression remained tense, almost confused, but revealed nothing else. "But I get that now, and I'm trying to walk away! This is your chance to get rid of me like you've always wanted! So I don't... understand... why you won't let go of my hands."

"Because I don't want you to leave."

She laughed bitterly. "No. Not now. You don't get to change your mind now! You don't get to laugh at my suicide and then change your mind because you don't like that it made me walk out the door."

"I don't understand this suicide fixation!" Heads started to turn as they raised their voices. Neither of them paid any mind.

"I am so terrified you're going to hurt me again that I would rather kill myself," she hiccuped. "What do you not understand?!"

"The fact that you threaten suicide yet you cannot die!"

"Is that the only reason you haven't tried to kill me? Because you think I'm immortal?" The edges of her heart which had started to fray upon seeing his face and feeling his hands began once more to stitch themselves together. The rest of it stopped beating. Now she was cold, and certain.

"I— you—"

"The reason I lived that night is because Death itself believed I could mean something to you. The Lamb asked me if I would forgive you for murder, for everything you had done and were going to do to me, and I said yes, and she set me free." His hands fell, and she took the opportunity to push past him. "I guess we were both wrong," she said bitterly.

"Don't walk away from me!" he commanded in a voice that was twisted, furious, almost not his own. His usual eloquence was failing him. There was the want inside his chest, stronger than anything else, but not all the nicely worded reasons for it that he needed to control people. All Jhin could do as the moment passed him was ask time to stop moving. She would not leave him. He needed her. He didn't want to be alone again, in a room, with the now irrefutable knowledge that he was above all else, a monster. He needed her to protect him from that. Jhin reached out, without thinking, to grab her arm and pull her back. He needed her.

And she turned and slapped him.

He touched the place where it had connected. The breath shared between them shuddered as it moved back and forth.

"Please," he whispered. "I don't know how to ask for this."

Dya closed her eyes. "I know. And it is so terrifying how easily loyalty falters," she said quietly. When she opened them, they were still shining. "But here it is, isn't it? In the end, no matter the platitudes, the love songs, the poetry, all anyone can actually ever do is look out for themselves.

"Religion is a luxury," she said, "love is a luxury that comes only once we have guaranteed our survival or forsaken it." A tear rolled down her face. "I'm not ready to die yet Jhin. I hope you will be. I hope that one day when you get pushed to that edge, you can kill the animal inside you that wants to exist first above all else, that you don't have to live long enough to ever betray that thing you love so much. That you never have to find out that, in the end, beauty is so... meaningless."

He watched her walk away until she eventually turned at the corner far down the road and disappeared out of sight. He didn't move his fingers from the red spot on his cheek all the while, and nor did she ever turn to cast one last glance at him.

By the time he moved his hand from his face the mark had faded, and then she was completely gone.

Chapter Text

She had left some of her things. Among them was the journal that had called him names and conveyed such terrible secrets. Jhin kept in correspondence with his clients, using the same cipher that they always did, wherein the names of the dead were replaced with comments on spices and rare inks, and when his job in Noxus ended, he traveled to Piltover for the next, all the while keeping a contentious relationship with the hated thing. On the one hand it was his last reminder of her, the proof that she had indeed seen him in all his forms and decided he was nonetheless beautiful, at one time even deserving of her love. On the other it was evidence that he didn't deserve it.

Without Dya around, the other person in the room was once again his thoughts, which were not nearly as generous with their praise. Instead they wondered how he could devote himself to the Art as though, at the end of all things, if it were to behold him, it would find him worthless and ugly despite all he had done, because of something he could not control: the fact he was born human and not divine. How he hated that reality.

Yet the Art itself was blameless, as it was not the judge. The judge was Truth, which he hated but could not deny. He wore a mask to hide from it, bone-white with hollow eyes, a decorated skeleton who could, by his orchestration of it, enjoy for a moment the sense of finality and significance of things conveyed only by death. But the truth was that eventually the performance ended, and after them his breathing was not labored, his heartbeat was steady, and when the mask was not on he moved and acted in the perfunctory, machine-like manner that was required of him by the unspoken rules of everyday life.

Life conferred the ability not to cling to things as an identity because there would always be a second chance, and as a result people were duplicitous and equivocal, and the reality of that — the inherent banality of being a living person — that was what haunted him. The near-dead could not afford to lie. In order to exist, Jhin would have to. That was the Truth.

Jhin didn't want the judge to be Truth. He wanted the judge to be Dya.

In the first set of blank pages in that diary, he wrote her a letter she would never find, in old Ionian script she could never read:

A white bird came to my window. I frightened it away. Before I frightened it away I tried to kill it many times. I broke its wings, I cut its stomach, but I would not touch its throat because it kept singing to me. I have never had one sing to me before.

Humankind is not innately good. However, whatever inside me that kept my hands from touching the white bird's throat was not something I learned. Some part of my chemical signature responded to the sounds its little throat made. The bird was familiar with it.

It is this same part of my signature that allows me to recognize there is something wrong with me. It is that I am deaf to whatever language it is that gives value to the bird's life or the rest of its body. Only music could ever stop me, and even then only barely. In the end, the bird still flew away.

The language of value is also the language of suffering and enough. I am still deaf to it. I know no system of bargaining; forgiveness is in the language, and justice is always something I have imitated but not felt. I know I am supposed to ask for forgiveness. Instead I want to know the bird so intimately I memorize every part of its body, inside and out.

The world of goodness turns and I am outside of it. I have only known it because a bird flew up to the edges of it and sang to me. If you asked me the describe the nature of good and evil, I would implore you to ask the bird, for the bird knows better than I.

And then years passed.

Chapter Text

The former traveling spy now lived comfortably in Castle Lightshield. Dya had had enough of adventure, she'd decided, and now relegated her efforts to simpler information handling — translations, code-cracking, archival work. Easy, easy stuff.

She had not told them much of the particular demon who still occupied her thoughts nightly, only that she had gotten too close in her research and was almost killed, which was true. Demacia's aversion to magic meant they had little understanding of hextech in particular, so she'd even told them about Whisper, just to have something to show for the two months she had been gone. She kept the rest of Khada Jhin's secrets carefully folded and safe in her thoughts.

At first she had worried he might come and find her, silence her permanently. Dya was a liability, after all — she knew his routine intimately, and even had a vague understanding of how his flower traps worked. Every night for weeks and weeks, more than enough nights to get from Noxus or Ionia to where she was, she had locked her doors and even her second-story windows and had slept in her closet and waited.

No one came. Even after all that time, no one came. Then she remembered the reason she had left him in the first place — he didn't care. Not about her, not about anything. He was an impulsive hedonist, and would be one until his last breath.

Yet asleep in her closet, her heart was still foolish and insisted on dreams: chasing dreams, longing dreams, dreams full of rainwater, which she supposed were to be her punishment for watching his work and letting him walk free. Usually she was just trying to catch up to him, but the Jhin produced by her memory was elusive, and often she would turn the corner running after him only to find scenes of everyone dead and the Virtuoso vanished.

Only once did she ever see his face in her dreams. Jhin was gently crying, his gaze fixed somewhere beyond her, like a statue. She tried to wipe the tear that had rolled down his cheek, but her finger left a trail of dark liquid behind. She touched this, too, with her whole hand now, leaving behind an inky smudge the size of her palm.

When she looked, there was nothing on her hands, but as she continued to wipe new tears away, more and more liquid came, until he was covered in black ink.

Most nights, however, she would have the same dream: she stands at the top of the stairs. They're playing a game. She knows in order to win she has to reach the bottom of the staircase, but also that he won't let her. Jhin looks impatient in his usual finery, but he's empty-handed, lacking even a holster, so she hopes he might not do anything. He shoots her every time.

When she dreamt of Ionian Lullaby, it was a song she played at her piano lessons as a little girl, and it was always referred to by its true name: Suicide.

✤✤✤✤

A gun was not only stronger and faster, but it hid its magic well, better than would a set of floating knives. This came in handy in a place like Demacia, a nation somehow even less advanced and yet more cloyingly virtuous than Ionia, where magic was verboten.

Jhin had been to Demacia for his work a few times. Never willingly. He preferred work almost anywhere else, but the planets of the Runeterran galaxy, so carefully arranged, continued to move, and every revolution seemed to bring him back to this place, each time closer to its beating heart. This time his clients had their eyes on a Mr. Cavel Redblood.

Dya had idly mentioned her heritage once or twice. Back then he hadn't paid it much mind, but now, in the emotional vacuum, he spent his idle time musing on the clues she had left in their conversations and in the pages of her diary, trying to resist connecting the dots.

✤✤✤✤

Despite his size, Jhin could usually blend in without much effort. Today he was a florist, putting centerpieces on every table and large floral arrangements by all the exits, flowers mixed with blades that nobody would ever notice, in preparation for the upcoming ball. The castle staff believed he was a florist because he had told them he was one. Truly they deserved to die when they made it this easy.

The vase made a gentle thud as he set it on the round table: flecked white stone with an arrangement of goldenglows and scarlet gilliflowers inside, and at the very center of each one, a single devil's maiden. The Ionian-native blossom was deadly and beautiful, and as long as Demacians didn't know any better, Jhin would enjoy a little foreshadowing when he could afford it.

Of the wagonload of crates he had brought today, each full of arrangements in this style, only one remained unloaded. The pottery had come from a shop downtown. The flowers he had grown himself with wild magic. It was actually ridiculous how much effort he put into some of his swindles.

Having not anticipated a florist and busy with their own tasks, the maintenance staff had given him some vague instructions and then left him to his own devices. While convenient for purposes of setting his stage, the lack of company made it impossible to ignore the electricity in the air and the ghost breathing down his neck.

He knew this ghost well. When he performed, when he pleasured himself, she was his sole audience, praising him for his talent, admiring his work, watching him dance. Playing hide and seek with guilt, it was her hand guiding the blade against his skin, her words absolving him of blame, her voice forgiving him over and over. Dya's image filled any negative space, in whatever shape he needed.

Those were the positive things. She had also left behind less desirable gifts over the years: chronic headaches now, cuts all over his body because Jhin deserved them, and a hatred of crowds that was stronger than ever. Every time a woman looked like her from behind he had to remind himself to breathe. Then he had to look, every time, even though he knew he would end up feeling disappointed, because he had to make sure.

For example, the women he heard laughing over the second floor balustrade, which looked out over the decorated ballroom, could not have been Dya. Jhin did not allow her to laugh or to have friends in his mind's eye, because that would have meant she could be happy without him. A cruel fate for his prisoner, he realized, but he was a talented man. He could play the role of anyone she ever needed, if she just gave him the chance again. The women carried conversation while walking, chatting idly about the upcoming festivities, obviously not Dya.

He had to make sure, though, and no one was watching him anyway. Jhin set down the vase he had unpacked without looking and moved to the broad curved staircase at the end of the room. His hand just hovered over the railing as he shifted his weight from one foot to the next, gliding up the steps without a sound as though slowly moving opposite the sun.

By the time he reached the landing they had turned and gone down the hall. He kept against the wall as he approached, listening for any stray notes of their conversation from the open doorway.

"... would you have them do?" The sound was getting quieter. He waited a second before rounding the corner to continue his pursuit. The women walked side by side about twenty feet ahead, their skirts swishing just shy of the marble tile in near-perfect sync. They stopped at a door on the left with a long silver handle. Jhin pressed himself into a nearby alcove, trying to listen in.

It was a waste of time, following people around like this. Why continue playing this game just to have his hopes dashed? For all he knew, Dya was probably on the other side of the globe. She could courting another criminal, for whatever purpose that served, saying all the same things she had said to him, laughing at what an idiot he was while this other man kissed her or, gods, fornicated with her, laughing at how stupid she was to have ever found him beautiful.

Jhin felt warm all over, heat settling just beneath the surface of his skin from shame and anger. Didn't she understand the Art required no less than total commitment? That he lacked the time, the experience with human beings to be everything she wanted?

"I just think he should be able to spend more time with each suitor before he has to choose," the second woman said. "It's not a position I envy, really."

His anger dropped from him like a silk robe. In its place was nervousness, because Jhin always got nervous when he heard a familiar voice.

"Okay, so I'll see you in about twenty minutes?"

"Probably sooner. I just need to change clothes." She was there. She was right there. If that damned friend of hers weren't around he could reveal himself to her, but perhaps it was better this way. He would let the tension build. He would remember where this setting was, and find it again. And then, when all the elements were in place, the Virtuoso would make his grand entrance and everything would be perfect again.

Perfect.

"See you then," the first woman said. The sound of solitary footsteps against stone followed her away.

Dya didn't notice the shadow that had followed her down the hall. When she turned to look behind her, it had already vanished.

No, Khada Jhin would not disturb her now. He needed time to prepare for his performance.

Chapter Text

The night that would end with silence began filled with music. A lively orchestra in one corner of the Great Hall played arrangements of Ere the Veiled Lady and old Demacian mountain songs as men and women whirled on the dance floor, adorned in delicate jewelry which twinkled in the amber glow of the sconces and the magnificent chandelier hanging above them.

On one end of the ballroom stood the tables where the banquet would be served. King Jarvan III and other members of Demacian royalty mingled with foreign dignitaries and anyone else important enough to be seated at the higher tables. Dya might have once been up there — an extra pair of the king's eyes and ears — had she not been voluntarily demoted to less exciting work. Right now she was trying to be here for fun, though the lack of an ulterior motive at these sorts of gatherings was still something new to her.

"Gods, I wish I could dance," her friend Marianna sighed next to her. They stood in the shadow of one of the marble columns, too unsure of themselves to do anything for the past hour but look longingly at men and sample passing plates of hors d'oeuvres.

"Find someone who will let you stand on their feet," Dya offered. Her friend only pouted in response.

On the side closer to where she was standing, the orchestra played and people danced before a set of dual curved staircases, each decorated with delicate glowing lanterns shaped like flowers. A number of guests conversed on the second floor landing. Among them, visible to Dya yet unnoticed by the surrounding patrons, Lamb stood robed in regal white, poised with her ancient bow. The Demacian felt her blood run cold at the sight of her, then stop moving entirely when their eyes momentarily met, or whatever those lights were supposed to be behind that charcoal mask.

Lamb appeared to give a slight nod, though perhaps she only imagined this, which was not entirely reassuring. Then the creature returned to patiently observing the crowds, looking but perhaps not seeing, because the Kindred did not need sight to know the course of all things.

Dya touched her friend's elbow, still focused on the unexpected guest in the balcony, for fear that even the slightest doubt or turn of the head would cause Lamb to disappear. "Marianna," she said in a harsh whisper, "look over there. Do you see something?"

Marianna looked up at the balcony, squinting and tilting her head a little. She considered the scene for a long moment before leaning in. "Yeah. That guy's cute," she whispered conspiratorially.

Was she going to die for real this time? Or, worse, would it be someone else? Why to only her had Lamb made herself again visible? Was Dya supposed to use this knowledge of impending death — but not whose death — to change the course of fate, or was she just supposed to suffer with it? If the people here were in danger, the burden to save their lives was on her, and she was completely frozen with it.

The musicians came to the end of their song. The dancers bowed, and spectators gave their polite applause. Then there was the bell-like sound of someone hitting metal against glass which snapped her out of her reverie.

Ting, ting, ting. A voice called out against the metal sound. "Ladies and gentlemen," it said, "if I may have your attention please — the show is about to begin."

All the pieces snapped into place. No. Not this again.

Oblivious to her fear and the imminent danger, the people around her merely shrugged and began to take their seats. No one knew there was going to be a show. Evidently the band members didn't either, as they too exchanged puzzled looks.

She was completely frozen.

The man who made the announcement cut an unusual silhouette, the same one she feared and loved and despised, and stepped onto the platform where the two curved staircases met, taking in his makeshift audience. He wore an elegant cream cloak which concealed some enormous, ugly apparatus on one shoulder, and which was closed at the front beneath his plum-colored shirt collar with a sparkling green gem. His boots, along with his right hand, were encased in gold. He wore a gun on his hip, only Dya knew, and dark purple trousers, and a rope belt that looked Ionian.

And he wore a mask.

"Tonight," the man purred, "I have for you a very special performance." He gestured to his left, where two young women stood in waiting, giggling nervously when they realized they were in the spotlight. "I am aided by two very brave, very admirable volunteers, whose names are not important now, to help me tell my story."

"Who's the mystery man?" Marianna whispered. "That voice is delicious."

Dya only stared in response.

"This is a story which will perhaps sound familiar, because love stories often rely on the same cliches. However, as trite as it may seem, it is one that has touched me... personally."

She had to leave, but she had to stay to see how it ended. Kindred kept watch from the second floor.

Jhin waved for the first of the two women to join him, the one in the blue dress with curls in her hair. He took her hand and faced the audience, taking in a deep breath of anticipation.

The room was silent for a moment.

"Play something," he prompted the orchestra out of the corner of his mouth. They obliged him with a slow waltz. Jhin began.

"There once was a beautiful woman," he said, gesturing grandly to his assistant before bringing her hand to his stone lips, "...who fell in love with a terrible demon."

He used this same hand to pull her closer, wrapping his free arm around her waist and guiding her in a simple dance.

"At first she had intended merely to study this demon, but every night she watched him she became more and more enamoured."

The room was so large that only the closer half was paying attention, but they were rapt. Or confused.

"Night after night, falling deeper in love." Jhin raised his arm so that she could twirl underneath, and when she was finished, pulled her in close so her back was to him and their arms were entwined. "...Until at last she could no longer stand it.

"She decided she would reveal herself to him, to explain how she felt, to sing to him, in the hopes that this demon, despite his cruelty, would show her kindness."

A pause.

"Can you sing?" he asked under his breath.

"Uh," the girl began.

"Nevermind, don't bother."

He returned to his narration, his tone suddenly serious. "Reality is not often so poignant." Jhin released the girl, allowing her to spin outwards and away from him. "As soon as she confessed her love," he said, stepping away into the shadow so that she alone took center stage, "he shot her."

With a flourish of his cream cloak, the Virtuoso pulled the gun from his holster, turned his back towards the audience and fired a bullet in one movement. The crack! of the gunshot reverberated throughout the hall in front of the stunned crowed. The woman crumpled into a heap, one last look of surprise attached to her face. From her chest emanated both a trail of smoke from the bullet and the shaft of a crystal-white arrow.

His audience broke into uneasy murmurs, unsure as to whether this was some kind of stage magic. In a minute he would have the whole room's attention. The orchestra, which had been jarred into silence, resumed a nervous tune.

"Fear not, my friends," Jhin assured them with a hidden smile. The gun went smoothly back into its holster. "For while she should have very well died, at that moment, the Lamb and Wolf took pity on this woman who would let herself be killed just to touch the heart of something so evil. They had hoped too, perhaps foolishly, that she might be able to change him. And so... they gave her a second life."

Jhin dragged the second woman on stage, who was now much more reluctant than she was a moment ago. The dress she wore was white, and her face had paled a sickly shade.

"The woman again found the demon, and begged to accompany him on his travels." Jhin dipped the girl, who arched her back so that her head nearly touched the floor. Then he hoisted her up and held her bridal style, spinning slowly around and bringing her to the back wall, facing away from the crowd. The woman locked eyes with him all the while, and a shiver ran through her.

"He eventually accepted." The Virtuoso brought her upright and then lifted her, by the waist, so that she could be seen by the crowd even partially obscured by his figure, before setting her down and pressing her back to the cold stone wall.

"She exposed herself to him, body and mind. Not always willingly." He guided her hands above her head in a v shape, as though she were being crucified. Then Jhin walked away, leaving her there. He paused before the crowd a moment, seemingly in contemplation. "Despite her compassion, she could find nothing in him that was redeemable.

"He kept hurting her, and hurting her," he said through gritted teeth. Whisper returned in his hand. "So much pain," — bang! her hand was completely shattered — "so much anguish!" — bang! the other met the same fate — "all because of a desperate and futile hope." The actress was screaming at the top of her lungs, so he had to raise his voice over her. "Tearing away little bits of her strength until there was nothing left!" Jhin was tired of this woman being noisy, so he fired his last shot dead center, blowing the top half of her head clean off. The wall behind her, once so boring and white, was newly painted with a brilliant dark splash. Looked nice.

A thick ugly dust of realization settled over the room: this was most certainly not a stage performance.

"Holy shit," said Marianna, her eyes wide and shining in fear.

"Orchestra!" the Virtuoso said in his twisted voice, twirling his wrist in the direction of the band. "You've gone quiet again! This is the climax. I won't have it set to silence!"

Knights across the hall began unsheathing their swords.

"...And something more uptempo this time," he said, taking note of this. "Your repertoire thus far has been... well, lifeless, for lack of a better word."

The musicians stared at him in bewilderment. Some looked at each other for a cue. The fourth violinist hesitantly moved into playing position.

Jhin sighed in annoyance, then turned and shot the harpist, who slumped over her instrument.

"Music," he repeated.

The orchestra began to play a hurried, chaotic piece.

By now King Jarvan had stood from his seat at the high table and was sending out orders. They would put an end to this show.

"She was so devastated!" Jhin cried. "She was hurting!"

Dya felt a yank on her dress sleeve. She jumped and let out a scream.

"Come on!" Marianna said, trying to drag her away from the scene. "We have to get out of here!"

Dya resisted.

"Dya!"

Her mouth fell open wordlessly. She shook her head. "I can't," she said. "It's him."

"I'm not leaving you!" said Marianna.

Dya looked her in the eyes quite seriously, and something between them was exchanged. Marianna didn't know what, but it was heavy and cold. "You have to," Dya said, and she understood.

Marianna looked confused, or hurt. But she left.

Guards hurried down the stairs on either side of the demon's stage, but as they descended, the decorative flowers he had left on the steps sprang to life, blades whirring so that several guards tripped and fell face first while their feet were cut to ribbons. Jhin used the borrowed time to toss a grenade at each group, bringing their siege to a charred and bloody halt when the smoke cleared.

Jhin began to climb the stairs, managing as best he could around the carnage and rolling his eyes when he got blood on his boots anyway. "Eventually," he carried on, loading a second clip, "being in the throes of despair convinced her that love, and beauty, and whatever it was she had once decided was worth giving her life for, were meaningless!" As he ascended the scarlet staircase, more guards approached from below, heralded by the sound of party-goers screaming wildly in all directions.

"As though living were more interesting on its own than beauty!" Jhin cried out. His next two bullets were precisely aimed, severing the ropes at each end holding up the grand center chandelier. Tenuous things, really, seemingly designed to be broken and cause the whole thing to fall down.

The encroaching guards looked up, but only too late. The massive glass structure dropped on them like a guillotine.

Jhin covered his mouth in mock surprise. "Terribly sorry, everyone. I get so clumsy when I'm nervous." Jhin was not actually sorry. He was angry and a little bit excited, because on the one hand these people were a terrible audience, but just look how riled up they were!

"Hmm, hmm, hmm, now where was I?" he hummed. "Ah yes. It was only then that he felt, for the very first time, the terrible burden that was a broken heart. How sad it was, how truly sad."

The Virtuoso surveyed the far end of the room for any sign of Redblood. A number of guests were taking cover behind the grand mahogany table, which had been overturned for just this purpose. The King had a throng of bodyguards around him now, attempting to usher him safely out of the Great Hall past the traps. No matter. Doubtless that man too would someday be a target, one of his greatest performers yet.

Jhin reached into a large decorative vase by one of the doors in which he had stored the parts of his sniper rifle hidden among decorative bamboo. "Perhaps I shall show some of you what it is like to have a broken heart." The familiar scope snapped into place as he strolled down the second floor balcony. "I mean that quite literally."

Dya watched as he eyed his prey like a hawk from the second floor. Not once did he look at her.

Glancing down again, he spotted Redblood near the edge of the makeshift barricade, unmistakable in those hideous epaulettes. Jhin would solve that problem. He lunged back, peering through the scope to adjust his aim, took a deep breath in, and squeezed the trigger, reeling slightly from the recoil as the thing shot. Redblood, on the other side of the room, heard only the sound before he was overcome with a look of agonizing pain, as his chest caved in on itself, petals of flesh curling around the point of impact. And oh, the magnificent blood splatter.

"Redblood," he muttered to himself. "Aptly named, though perhaps not in the way he might have hoped."

Truly Noxus was keeping the real Demacians tied up. Anyone who might have put up a decent fight here was on active duty somewhere far, far away, and the people left behind were the cowards, cowards and their king.

Jhin carried the rifle in two hands as he turned and headed back for the first floor. Everything was going according to plan so far. Throughout the ballroom, men and women trembled in fear, against the walls and behind tables, surrounded by bloodshed, blindsided by his talent. This was a night people would remember.

"Finally," he announced, "the demon decided that it was his nature to do evil, such as it is, and that it was his fate to let the misery of his actions consume him. And so, for years he was simply consumed." Navigating around the blasted remains on the stairs was a bit anticlimactic. "But he didn't give up, not—" Jhin nearly stumbled and fell — "not entirely." He made a mental note to keep stairways clear for this sort of thing next time.

Dya was walking towards him as she watched him descend. She didn't want to be, but her feet were betraying her, kicking up shards of glass as she went towards the dual staircase. Her entire body was numb — numb with fear, numb with denial, and totally exhausted. It was hard to tune out the bloodshed all around her, the sobs of pain from the survivors. How many people had to die before it was enough?

Kindred lingered in her periphery. Apparently there would be another.

The demon disassembled the sniper rifle as he talked. "Craving her forgiveness. knowing she had every right to harden her heart and despise him, hoping for a miracle." Finally, Jhin stopped on the landing, about ten feet away from where she was, and allowed himself to meet her eyes for the first time that night. "He met the woman one last time."

He hazarded a step.

"Unfortunately, only one of us knows how this story ends." He raised Whisper in front of him, staring her down over the barrel.

And then he turned it, offering her the grip.

Dya walked forward, closing the distance between them, and put her hand on the gun. Her hand was shaking.

Before relinquishing it to her, Jhin leaned in close and whispered in her ear.

"One shot," he murmured. "Better make it count."

Chapter Text

The future was balancing on a single bullet. Whatever future that was, whether she shot him or turned the gun on herself — because maybe, maybe if he didn't understand the sadness of death, this would finally get to him — it depended only on the slightest movement of a finger.

They were still close together. Dya kept the gun carefully trained on Jhin. Nostils flaring slightly as she steeled her nerves, she reached towards him and carefully lifted up his mask, sliding it off his face. Jhin didn't stop her. Behind it was a night sky lit by one red moon.

She looked at the mask now in her hand. She didn't want to kill him. She just wanted things to be better than this. Or just... not this.

Was she mad? Yes, she was mad, but she was courting a dream that still attached itself to the shape of Khada Jhin. A little part of herself that had hidden away for years poked its head out curiously as winter melted into spring. So long as the dream was attached to him, it was Jhin she would have to deal with, and so long as Jhin was happily married to his work and his values, all she would ever be was the other woman.

Dya wasn't pointing the gun at the thing that had gotten between them. She was holding it.

"Your destiny was to die and you defied it." His words from so long ago echoed in her head again. Someone was supposed to die that night, just as someone was supposed to die now, but they didn't.

Thank you for your service Lamb, but if Dya wanted something like this so badly, she was going to have to wrest it out of Wolf's teeth.

She ran.

The act of her turning and leaving only vaguely registered to Jhin first. He was mostly confused, rather than delighted, and all of this seemed dream-like, as though he were still on stage and nothing was real.

No, it was definitely real that she had taken his gun and his mask and bounded out of the room, through one of the doorways where his traps had already gone off and left a bloody trail from the last party guests who'd tried to flee. He would have to go after her if he wanted those things, his things, his very expensive and hard-to-replace things, back.

He took off after her in a leisurely stride, unwilling to break a sweat dealing with this unexpected turn of events. Whoever Khada Jhin was, the man that used to be a lowly stagehand before him had died long ago. Running was for stagehands.

But when he got out of the Great Hall, he realized she was already quite some distance away. Rather serious about this, he thought. It seemed Jhin would have to embrace the past if he wanted to catch the woman running away with his present and future, so he started running too.

Dya meant to turn the corner, but stopped herself short when she saw it was bustling with people. The last thing she needed was for panicked guests to see her holding the weapons of the man who had just killed dozens of their people. She passed it, instead detouring down the next corridor (thankfully empty) and up the flight of stairs.

Then she heard those metal boots against tile, a heavy set of footsteps bounding after her, and she remembered with a note of dread that Jhin had been blessed with the longest legs in the world and was apparently the top sprinter in his class.

"Why must you always improvise on my stage?" she heard him shouting from a little ways off. Dya picked up her pace, leaping over the last three steps entirely and having to catch herself when she landed.

She was too out of breath to respond, but it was only a little ways now. Down the hall and around one more corner, she could see her room coming into view. Evidentally Jhin could climb stairs two at a time, because he sounded much closer now. Dya clamped the mask under her arm and desperately snatched at her doorhandle, at last yanking it open and throwing herself inside the bedroom before slamming the door shut.

There wasn't even time to lock it. She backed away in a panic, throwing the mask on the floor so that its enigmatic smirk looked up at the ceiling.

The doorknob jiggled before the door itself burst open, causing her to jolt even though she knew this was coming. Jhin was so tall he took up nearly the entire door frame, a silent, fuming shadow breathing heavily, whose eyes were wide with fury as he stared her down.

"Stop or I'll kill her!" she snarled, aiming Whisper with both hands at the mask on the ground in front of her.

"Dya—"

"I mean it!"

"Dya, we need to talk about this," he said, stepping forward.

BANG! Then a crackling sound like a fireplace.

Dya stumbled backwards, reeling both from the kickback of the hextech weapon and the surprise at what it felt like to shoot a gun for the first time — and hopefully the last. She watched the ghostly tail of white smoke coil out of the barrel in horror and fascination. Jhin had his hand stretched out to stop her, but had frozen when the gun went off, confusion written all over his face. They both looked down at the result.

The mask was shattered, its nose blown out completely and the eyes connected by the crater in its place. Around the point of impact the rigid material was now covered in cracks that split and jagged along like lightning, with the largest one on the forehead.

Just then, this large fissure split open even more as something green emerged from it — the first signs of a thorny stem, growing unnaturally fast. One small wisp sprouted from its side, unfurling into a dark, ragged-edged leaf that got larger and larger. Then a second appeared on the other side in the same way, as up and up the stem grew. When the stem was done growing, it ended in a small pointed bud, which split open into four pieces (images of the lotus trap flashed through her mind), revealing its blood red innards. The shy flower spread apart slowly, scarlet petals stretching and pulling and curling away from the center until they had last made a beautiful, intricate spiraling shape.

But the stem was too tall, and the flower too large. The rose drooped.

"Why is it so big?" she asked, nonplussed.

"I— I had intended that to come out of a person," Jhin offered as explanation. "M-Myself, probably." He had planned this down to the last bullet — only one had been enfused with that sort of wild magic, the one for him. As was her wont, Dya had once again spoiled everything, and he was so, so happy. Someone had a gun in their hand pointed at the Golden Demon and had chosen not to fire. Only once had he ever been shown that kind of mercy, from Lord Kusho, but whatever could be said of that man's mental fortitude, Kusho had made the right choice for the wrong reasons, notions of balance and pacifism, while Dya had done it out of passion. A passion that inspired someone not to do something. There was a thought.

He realized she had turned and was walking away now, to the far end of the room, still holding Whisper. Jhin hoped she would give it back now that the clip was empty, but he didn't want to ask, because they were playing by her rules tonight. They had been for years.

She opened the door that led out to the balcony, stepping into the night air. Now that he had the chance to actually look at her, he noticed her long hair was pulled into a half-pony adorned with small silver flowers. The asymmetry of the hairstyles she had once worn, and which he was ashamed he so well remembered, had been part of the ruse. Perhaps they had both been wearing a mask, once.

Dya looked up at the night sky, leaning on the balcony and feeling the cool breeze play with her clothes and brush against her cheek. How conscious the human body was of the hollow spaces at night when there was someone you loved who was so distant from you. The world was large and empty when it could not be tight and warm.

She shrugged it off.

And then she chucked Whisper over the edge.

Jhin's eyes widened. "Oh." It wasn't so much that he said it as the sound simply came out of him. He was going to have to retrieve that later, he thought, until he heard the sound of a distant splash. "Oh."

Dya turned and came back inside to find him gaping at the balcony in complete shock. "You're kidding me," he said miserably.

"Nope," she replied, brushing past him and heading straight for the wardrobe that stood on the other side of the bed, next to the full-length mirror. Her face became serious. "They're going to be looking for you. Change out of those clothes if you want to stay. Or, do me a favor and get out of here, and we'll agree to never see each other again."

He blinked, still a little stunned by all this. Of course, Jhin didn't do favors for anybody, so instead he started unfastening the hook behind the green gem that held his cloak together and sighed in annoyance. "And what am I supposed to change into, exactly?" he asked, laying the delicate costume piece out on her bed.

Dya opened the doors to the armoire, peered at her collection, and furrowed her brow. She started to yank things out one after the other, with no discernible pattern, and tossed them all over the room. "That's your problem, isn't it?" she huffed, but she was looking for clothes for him, too.

"Darling, I am a character actor of the finest calibre, but I don't think I'll be fooling anyone by wearing a dress." He set the large shoulder piece against the nearest bedpost and pulled his shirt over his head.

"Listen, I've had a long fucking day and I'd like to go to bed now, so you'll just have to wear something girly and deal with it until we leave in the morning."

"We... We're leaving in the morning?" "There is no 'we,'" a cold part of him echoed. Shut up, Jhin said to Jhin, kicking off his boots.

Dya turned around with some kind of robe in hand. "If you don't want me to come with, you better leave now. But I'm taking off all the same. Thanks to you, I don't have any other options." Her smile was all icicles. "That historical stunt you pulled just ruined my life, among other, probably more important things." She crushed the clothes in an iron grip and fisted it in the ballroom's direction. "What you just did in there? That's on me. Take this." Jhin looked up from undoing his belt just long enough to catch the garment she lobbed to him, and then Dya returned to digging through her things.

He set the robe on the bed and examined it as he pulled his pants off and folded them for the pile of discarded clothes. Dark blue with a gold trim: a little gaudy, but Jhin wasn't about to complain. Finally, he took his time removing the black eel-skin body suit, his last layer of protection against the world, which he also folded and placed gingerly on his stack of things, while Dya sighed loudly to herself.

Now he was almost entirely naked — in more ways than one.

Jhin grabbed the robe, which was slightly crumpled and slipped it over his shoulders, noting with dismay how it was barely big enough to close over him. He wasn't sure if she had done that on purpose.

"Smells like you," he remarked. Then, after a moment: "I've missed that smell."

Dya rolled her eyes. "Oh, shut up." But the power behind it had evaporated.

He moved to her, grateful for the gift of silent footfall, trying to keep out of the way of the garment projectiles she continued to throw carelessly behind her.

For a moment, there wasn't even room in his thoughts to hesitate. He risked his hands on her waist, ever so gently, and braced himself for her inevitable, violent reaction.

Dya stopped what she was doing, but rather than turn around and push him away, she waited, like a lion cub gone limp when picked up by the ruff of the neck. Jhin hesitated — was this all a trap? — before stepping closer, closing the gap between them, and wrapping his arms around her fully. He let out the breath he had been holding tight in his stomach and eased into her.

She sighed, disappointed in her own weakness, in her keen awareness of how wonderful it felt, and in the fact that fear and anger more justified than her love would ever be were pushed back to the recesses in order to feel this way. She reached back to caress his face, fingers trailing down his neck so she could feel his pulse: life and movement and warmth.

"I'm sorry."

Dya only offered a sad smile. "You came back." She shook her head, closing her eyes as tears threatened at them. "When you didn't come kill me at first I thought you were never, ever going to come back. I hate you for this."

"I know," Jhin murmured, though his mind was wandering elsewhere; he was catching up on a lifetime of this, this thing he had been missing, whatever this was. He was thinking he should have brought her flowers, as ridiculous as that was, but he hadn't even expected to be alive, to be shown the sort of kindness he had not known since before his mother died, not even at the monastery. The Tuulan monks had only used their kind acts as a way of looking down on him, never genuine, and could never truly hide their fear or disappointment at who he was and what he had become.

He could have given her the flowers at his performance, but he needed to know this would happen first. If he had appeared with a rose in his hand and she had still hated him he would have died of embarrassment.

In any case, you were supposed to give flowers to a woman you thought was like a flower, and he didn't think Dya had ever been a flower sort of person. She was kudzu. Lots and lots of kudzu.

He kissed her neck gently, sending goosebumps over her skin, but if anything this seemed to snap Dya out of her reverie.

"Jhin, stop," she said, breaking out of the embrace. "I can't." He had killed all those people, and she wouldn't like him, and that was that. Yes, that was that, she decided, even as her heart knew it wasn't. She pulled the waifish white nightgown she had left sticking out when he'd interrupted her and walked towards the bed.

"You put me in lingerie," Jhin protested.

"Sorry I don't have anything in Size Giant." Dya dropped the gown on the bed, and then turned her attention to the shoulder apparatus on the floor next to it, which she hoisted up and began lugging towards the back door.

Jhin perked up in alarm. She was going to chuck it over the balcony.

"Dya. Dya, no." He quickly caught up and lifted her into the air from behind, so that she began to kick her legs and squeak.

"Little flower," he chided through his teeth, "my things come from a very expensive armory, and certain sponsors of mine are going to be very upset to find you have thrown them off a balcony."

"Stop killing people with them then!" she squirmed.

"That's what I do for a living, my dear."

"Do something else!"

Jhin set her down in front of the bed, prying the expensive piece from her arms and putting it aside. Then he lightly pressed her onto the bed and looked at her for who she was, completely. A warm smile crept over his features.

Dya was weak, and though she sighed, she also couldn't help but smile back.

He moved in slowly, first pressing his lips against one cheek, in a kiss that was as light as a feather, then against her nose, and then the other cheek, soon peppering kisses all over her face, running his hands up and down her sides. She had told herself she wouldn't let him do something like this, but the way he kept a sort of laugh in his throat all the while, humming and smiling as he kissed her, dissolved her willpower completely. Dya wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him on top of her as they locked lips.

If not his willing muse, she would at least be his umbrella.

Jhin could never change who he was, not completely — such was his curse. She wouldn't accept the part of him he loved best, but instead adored an aspect he'd thought he'd long ago thrown away. No, Jhin could never stop being a performer, but he could rest if it was for her. For a moment, the Virtuoso would pause, movement of the piece would stop, and Death would take his cue.