Fire in the ache of his back, lightning in the twitch of his fingers, Joker’s eyes cracked open to bars of pale darkness. As his body groaned in protest, he pushed himself up, blinking blearily at his barren surroundings. Despite how little there was, it took him a moment to absorb what he was seeing. Once he did, though, it was all too familiar to him:
He stumbled up to his feet and staggered to the bars, which were either gold or plated with it. Impossible to tell for sure, since when he pulled at them, his arms had all the strength of overcooked spaghetti. Joker collapsed to his knees, panting, and rested his forehead on the cool metal. It helped him think, to rearrange his scattered memories.
He and the rest of the Phantoms had been running through the Cruise of Pride… they’d defeated the “cleaner” and gotten the last of the letters of introduction, and Akechi, or rather Crow, had jumped them… they’d all fought with every inch of their strength, trying to convince Crow to join them in changing Shido’s heart, when the cognitive Akechi had shown up… The cognition had ordered the real version to shoot him, only to be shot by him instead… and then the real Akechi had shot a steam pipe… and then there was the explosion, and after that… He rubbed his ears. They were still ringing a little. But he could hear the tap of his fingers on the bars of his cage, so they weren’t ruptured. That, if nothing else, was good.
After letting his mind unfog for a moment, he took another look around. He himself was still in his thief outfit, so this had to be a Palace. However, he’d never seen anything like this in any of the Palaces he’d visited thus far. The cage, specifically, arced up and closed overhead like a birdcage, but two-thirds of the environs around him were either partially elevated like a series of gently rising plateaus, or else depressed, like a nearby pool complete with waterfall. Though everything looked distinctly artificial, it also looked like an effort had been made so this wouldn’t be obvious: shrubbery, grasses, and trees rose from the concrete in patches and tufts. It reminded him of the lion’s enclosure at the zoo. And, indeed, when he slowly walked the perimeter of the cage, which was encircled by a three-meter-wide, six-meter-deep empty moat, he soon encountered the door to it—as well as the bridge, and the sign, just outside it. The sign faced away from him, but he’d bet anything his name, or something similar, was on it.
As he’d searched and explored, a crowd of cognitive people had begun to form on the other side of the moat, behind a safety railing. They looked like normal humans, save for the fact that they were literally faceless: no eyes, no nose, no ears, no mouth, though they seemed to emanate a vague chatter nonetheless. They pointed at him and gabbled among each other. A few tried to take photos, but Joker flinched up an arm to shield his (he touched quickly, experimentally to confirm—yes, still masked) face. However, the flashes blinded him, made him dizzy, and he staggered backwards until he dropped to one knee. The crowd’s wordless gibbering swam through his head until he thought he’d be sick. Sheer stubborn will allowed him to keep his arm up—but then a too-bright spotlight bore down on him from god only knew where, reminding him sharply and vividly of too many police interrogations.
“Weeeell, well, well, what do we have here?” an unfamiliar voice drawled.
Sweating, head pounding, Joker peeked over the edge of his arm. He could barely make out the cage door opening and shutting, the sound of the lock disengaging and engaging again distinct. The outline of a shadow—or rather, a Shadow—against the bright flashes was easier by far to make out.
The Shadow looked like one of those ultra-rich game hunters, with the big-brimmed hat, the khaki top and shorts, the boots, and especially the double-barreled shotgun resting on his shoulder. Grinning ear to ear, he pulled off a pair of mirrored black shades, but with or without them Joker knew he’d see golden eyes. He himself wasn’t anyone he’d seen before, but it was plain this was the ruler of the unfamiliar Palace.
“The leader of the elusive Phantom Thieves… An’ here I’d thought you’d gone extinct already!” The Shadow swung his shotgun down one-handed and leveled it at his face. Joker glared back without blinking, but his heartrate jumped. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve been itching to add you to my trophy wall, you damn cat burglar!!”
“He is not yours to kill,” a second, colder, much more familiar voice sounded.
The Shadow’s reaction was dramatic: his haughty grin twisted into a pale-faced grimace, and he cringed full-body away to one side, out of the way of the one who’d been standing behind him. Striped bodysuit, belts upon belts, a jagged face-concealing helmet…
“Crow,” Joker growled, heart suddenly racing.
“N-now, I wasn’t saying I was going to kill him, Mr. Black Mask!” the Shadow wheedled, wringing his hands around the barrel. “It’s just a turn of expression!” His power-hungry grin returned. “I’m more than satisfied to add this specimen to my menagerie. Rest assured, your generous donation will be here for life!”
Crow strode past him without a glance, approaching Joker with even footsteps. Unfairly even, given that he’d been just as beat up and worn out by the end of that battle. Healing magic, Joker guessed. Asshole.
“I am grateful to you for lending me use of your facilities,” Crow told the Shadow without removing his gaze from Joker. “But make no mistake: just because I brought him here doesn’t mean I’ve given him to you.” He raised a hand and brushed his fingertips along Joker’s curls; Joker froze, torn on how to respond. “This man belongs to me.”
“But without my game preserve, you wouldn’t have—yes sir, sorry sir, I’ll keep that in mind sir,” the Shadow babbled as Crow shot him a hard stare. He then sank into a sulk for a moment before shaking his head and straightening, shotgun barrel back on his shoulder. “Well, whatever. It doesn’t matter who he belongs to. He’s still right here in one of my cages.” He patted his shoulder with the gun in intense self-satisfaction. “That’s good enough for me.”
“Good. I would so hate it if we were to come down with a sudden… disagreement.” Crow slipped his hand towards Joker’s face, but this time Joker slapped his hand away. Unperturbed, he let it rest at his side. “Now that he is awake, I must speak with him. Leave us, and close the exhibit for the night.”
The Shadow didn’t look happy about that, but he wasn’t stupid, Joker guessed, because he nodded once. “I’ll leave it to you t’ lock up, then,” he said, then left for the cage door.
Hawk-eyed, arm still crooked to shade himself against the lights, Joker watched him go. When the door locked behind him and he passed the bridge, he bellowed orders, and the crowds dispersed, helped along by more cognitions, these ones in similar khaki uniforms and mirrored shades. A couple moments later, the spotlight died as well, leaving behind the original pale darkness. He dropped his arm and panted, the throb in his head intensifying before beginning to fade. It might make him vulnerable to Crow, but to hell with it. He was already at his mercy, and they both knew it.
For his part, Crow remained standing, unmoving, watching. It probably wasn’t mercy that prompted him to wait until Joker’s pain receded enough for him to stand, but he took what he could get.
“Why am I here,” he growled.
“You’re here because I brought you here.”
“After I shot Shido’s cognition of me, I meant to shoot an emergency lockdown button next, but hit a steam valve instead by accident. It ruptured and exploded, knocking out most of us who were there, including you and excluding me. I saw an opportunity and took it.”
Joker paused. “...to not kill me?”
Crow smirked, barely visible under his helm. “The only one who ever really wanted you dead was Shido. If he’s just going to kill me after the election, I see no reason to do him any more favors.”
“Didn’t you rant about not caring about him anymore and the only thing you want now is to kill my friends and me?”
“Is that any way to talk towards the man who spared your life?”
There were a million and one things he could have said to that. Joker settled for, “Fuck you.”
Crow laughed. It was cold and unhappy.
But a thought had occurred to Joker, and fear nearly strangled him before he asked, “What about the others? Did you—?”
“No,” he interrupted. “I had enough strength to prioritize one thing. That was to drag you out of there, and into here.”
Which meant his cognitive version had to have been knocked out to allow him that priority, which meant his friends were alive. His shoulders sagged with relief. It didn’t last.
“Why?” he asked. “Why go to that kind of trouble?”
Crow sized him up. Then he moved, slow and deliberate. The predatory gait made Joker take an involuntary step back, and Crow took advantage of it to push him until his back hit a plateau, where he pinned him by the wrists. Joker struggled, but it was a token effort; he already knew he lacked the strength to force him off, and besides…
“I meant it when I said I didn’t actually want you dead, you know,” Crow murmured. “I thought I did for a while, but that was only because I believed that was the one way I could win over you. Yet when I had you there, helpless at my feet… I couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger again. Isn’t that funny?”
“Hilarious,” Joker deadpanned.
“I already knew how empty it had left me when I thought I’d killed you,” he continued as if uninterrupted. “It brought me no satisfaction at all. I dealt with it by telling myself it was in the service of my revenge, but…” He chuckled, low and dark and bitter. “And then you had to go and be alive after all. Alive, and still be a threat to everything I’d worked towards. If that cognition of me hadn’t shown up and revealed the truth, I might well have killed you for real… or died trying.”
“So you’re saying joining us to change Shido’s heart was never in the cards.”
Crow paused. Then he half-chuckled, half-sighed, and released one of his hands to draw his fingertips down Joker’s cheek. “Did you really think I would? Did you really have that much faith in me, even after everything?”
Joker said nothing.
“I’m asking seriously,” he added. “It would be just like you to mean it.”
His tongue lay thick and heavy in his mouth as his hands clenched and unclenched. Eventually, he managed to murmur, “I hoped you would.”
Crow traced his thumb across his lips. Beneath the helm, his eyes were almost tender. “You really are just so…”
“So?” he prompted, hyper-aware of how his lips brushed Crow’s thumbpad.
For a moment, he said nothing. Then he leaned back, releasing him. “…It doesn’t matter anymore,” he said, voice cold again. “You’re my prisoner now.”
His insides froze. “You’re keeping me here?” he croaked, although that much was obvious. “For how long?”
He grabbed Crow by the arms. “Let me out.”
The assassin rammed him against the plateau, knocking the breath out of him, and pinned him anew, hands on wrists, knee between legs, face so close his breath tickled Joker’s skin. Joker held his own breath and kept very, very still.
“I may not want you dead after all, but I really do hate you, Joker,” Crow whispered. “You don’t give yourself to anyone. You always keep yourself free and unattached. Oh, you may let others attach themselves to you, but you always keep yourself in a place where you can shrug them off whenever you please, don’t you? How heartless.”
“I’m not like that.”
“Aren’t you? How much of themselves has everyone poured into you? How much of yourself have you shared in return?”
Joker said nothing.
“You know it’s true. You may not want to think of yourself like that, but deep down you know. Trust me.” Crow let out another low, bitter laugh. “I have lots of experience with self-deception.”
“Let’s say for argument’s sake you’re right,” he murmured. “What’s it to you?”
He laughed again, this time with a frenzied edge. “You really are heartless! Did you never notice all the times I tried to reach out to you, or did you just not care?”
“I mean, you were plotting to murder me in the end, so…”
“True. True. I suppose I have to give you that one.” Crow leaned back some, head bowed. Joker breathed again. “But my core point still stands. It doesn’t matter how I feel about you or how strongly I feel it. You don’t need me. You don’t need anyone, but you especially don’t need me. If I were gone, you’d forget all about me.”
“God, I wish.”
Joker regretted the quip as soon as he said it. Crow burst into laughter, as mad and desperate and rife with despair as anything from during their battle.
“See? You don’t even care,” he spat. “That’s fine, though. I’m used to being reviled. I don’t give a damn if you curse my name for the rest of your life. But if I can’t have my revenge, and I can’t have my new life, then I’ll at least have you. You are mine now, and no one else’s.” He leaned in close, far far too close, and hissed, “I will make you need me.”
A shiver danced up his spine. Crow’s declaration both terrified and tantalized him, and the fact that he had the second reaction at all made the first that much sharper.
Crow loosed more broken laughter, then eased off of him and backed off a step. Joker swallowed hard as he rubbed his wrists, shaking.
“That’s all for tonight,” his captor concluded. “Rest now. I’ll come for you again tomorrow.”
Joker said nothing. He only watched as Crow turned and left, cage locking again in his wake. Then he slumped to the ground, hugged his knees tight, and bowed his head.