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To Catch a Tiger Cub, One Must First Enter the Tiger's Lair

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Eventually, he slept. When he did, he slept surprisingly well. The futon was comfortable; there was even a bamboo mat underneath so it didn’t have to lie directly on concrete or grass. The one or two times he woke up, he rolled over and went right back to sleep. What else was there to do, anyway?

It was late in the morning when he finally got and stayed up. Disturbances in the grass and shrubbery around his sleeping spot suggested someone had come looking for him. The fact that nobody had shaken him awake meant they let him sleep without disturbing him, which probably meant they also watched him sleep. No prizes for guessing who. He probably even messed up the shrubs on purpose so Joker would notice without him having to say anything.

Sleeping through breakfast meant, well, no breakfast. However, when Joker hit the bathroom, he found a plastic bucket filled with the toiletries he’d requested and then some—even a razor, if a safety one. Joker groomed himself for the day, including a titanic battle against the tangles in his tousled hair. Once he eventually emerged victorious, he emptied the bucket of everything but a towel, soap, shampoo, and scrub-brush. Then he left for the pool.

Crow wasn’t there. The gawking, faceless cognition crowds were. Joker masked his disappointment and set his things aside, then did a routine of full-body stretches.Had to keep limber if he was going to make his escape eventually.

He was tremendously thirsty by the time his captor arrived with lunch. Today’s meal was… more sandwiches. Crow really didn’t care what he ate. Joker took two anyway and chugged a bottle of water in one go.

“Keeping up your exercises?” Crow observed when he reached for another.

“It’s something to do,” Joker replied, and drained half the second bottle. He set it down on the table, then frowned. “Speaking of, can I get more stuff in here?”

“Stuff?”

“To do. Like, exercise equipment, games, movies… well, maybe not movies,” he amended, considering there was no electricity, let alone a TV, in the enclosure, “but magazines, newspapers, or even things to make or take apart. Books are great, but I need variety.”

Crow’s eyes flickered. “You need it, do you?”

Joker rested his elbow on the table and leaned his cheek on his hand. “Yes. I do. If you’re gonna keep me prisoner and you want me to need you, you should tend to my needs. Just saying.”

He touched a hand to his chin. “Good point. I’ll remember that.” He smiled beatifically. “Thank you for the advice on how to steal your heart, Joker.”

Joker’s frown deepened. He bit into a cucumber sandwich with far more gusto than necessary. After swallowing, he asked, “What do you do all day? When you’re not creeping at me, I mean.”

Crow ignored the jab and replied, “Cooking. Fighting Shadows. Monitoring the real world. Nothing particularly interesting.”

Local Shadows?”

“No, I hit Mementos, unless I need to make a point to the police chief’s Shadow. Keeping him in line is important, but it would be foolish to antagonize him needlessly.”

His thumb curled. “…Have you run into any of the others?”

“No.”

He stared at his lap. “Oh.”

Crow watched him closely. “Are you worried about your friends?”

“Of course I am,” he muttered.

“Ahaha. Of course you are.”

Joker eyed him. Crow gave him a knowing smile. Ah. Right. Naturally he’d make Joker ask for it. He flicked his gaze down to his half-eaten sandwich. Information about Ann, Morgana, and the others… That’d cost a lot, he was certain. As much as he wanted to know how they were doing, it wouldn’t help his immediate situation and it wouldn’t help him escape, either. He’d have to leave that be for now.

“How d’you monitor the real world?” he asked instead. “Can you do that from in here?”

“No, not really. A Shadow like the chief’s is full of useful information about himself, those around him, and their misdeeds, but about the world at large?” He waved a hand back and forth, as if warding off a bad smell. “The cognitive distortions twist it too much. No, I have to actually leave. I don’t enjoy it, rest assured.”

“So do you already have newspapers and stuff?”

“Yes, among other things. But there isn’t much in them that you don’t already know or couldn’t guess at. I’ll bring you something more stimulating.”

Joker suspected he really meant, ‘I don’t want you being informed about current events,’ but who knew? Now that Crow had given up on the real world, maybe he genuinely didn’t care what happened in it beyond what was necessary to know for self-preservation.

“Are you really okay with spending the rest of your life in a Palace?” he asked, following that train of thought. “You spent so much time building up your image as the ‘detective prince.’ Are you really okay giving all of that up?”

He tensed, dark lines underscoring his eyes. “No. I’m not,” he said curtly. “But it doesn’t matter. None of it was ever real anyway.”

He gestured all around them. “And this is?”

“At least it’s fake in a way I can readily identify. There’s no need to hope for something that will never come to be.”

“That’s—”

“Shut up,” he snapped. “You’re putting me in a bad mood.”

Joker shut up and ate. Crow ate with him. When they finished fifteen minutes later, they remained seated in silence. Joker leaned back, propping himself up with his arms, and gazed out at the cognitive crowds. They came and went among the various cages in the area, including his own, but they all looked the same.

Well, no—not all the cages in the area. There was one building that loomed over the gilded cage, crescent-shaped and full of windows. Only zookeepers ever seemed to go near.

“What’s that building for?” he asked, pointing at it.

Crow glanced at it. “Ah, that’s for management and internal supplies. There’s a few in this Palace.”

Joker considered it, then looked up and around. He couldn’t see very far from this vantage point, but… “Is this Palace mostly outdoors? So to speak.”

“It is a private zoo, after all. It’s spread out quite wide.”

“Hmmm...”

“...but before you get any ideas, there’s only one actual exit. Like a real zoo, it might be spread out, but it’s also closed in. Don’t think you can jump the fence, either.”

Great. Joker flopped back onto the concrete. Still, that was useful to know. Like a real zoo… Real zoos had maps for visitors. It was possible this Palace had some, too. If so, and if he could get his hands on one, he could plan a huge portion of his escape. He’d have to confirm if there were any in the first place, though… and if so, and he got his hands on one, he’d absolutely have to have a private space so he’d have somewhere to hide it.

That was that, then. Next step of his plan: strip for freedom.

“I really do hate those crowds,” he remarked to build into it. “The way they point. They don’t have eyes and yet I can feel them staring. It’s degrading.”

“Who cares? They’re just things.”

I care,” Joker countered, pushing himself back upright.

“Just think of them as scenery.”

“Maybe I could do that if I weren’t in a cage, on display to them.”

Crow smiled and resumed eating, watching Joker all the while.

Joker drummed his fingers on his thigh, thinking. Swinging the topic back to privacy had worked well. Now he just needed to seem hesitant, reluctant. He glanced away, ran a hand through his hair, fidgeted for a minute, and then looked back.

“About the whole… coming when you call thing,” he said. “I’ll do that. But two minutes to respond isn’t enough time if I’m in the middle of something.”

“This isn’t a large enclosure. It’s plenty.”

Joker frowned. “But if I’m on the john—”

“Then I’ll be lenient in that specific scenario, but I don’t want you getting the idea you can leave me waiting forever,” Crow interrupted, eyes narrowing. “I’ve already done you the courtesy of saying you can come to me, instead of me hunting you down and dragging you out regardless of what you’re doing at the moment. Shall I rescind that kindness?”

You fucking asshole, Joker thought, nettled. Score one point against falling for Crow. Outwardly, he glared at him, then glanced away. “No,” he muttered.

“Then is there really a problem?

“Yeah, there is. I don’t want to be punished because I was asleep or I didn’t hear you.”

“Then shall I hunt you down after all?”

Joker rubbed his forehead. “You aren’t going to budge on this point.”

“No, I’m not. Pick a different battle.”

“Ugh. Fine.” And, he privately admitted, it was in his best interests to go to Crow rather than the other way around. It’d give him time to hide things as needed. “Then can it at least be a nice private space? Not a tiny, dark hole somewhere?”

“That depends on how well you please me.”

He really does want a strip tease, he thought. There wasn’t a lot of room for ‘pleasing’ someone who was just watching you take a bath. “So, just to make sure I get what you’re saying,” he said slowly, “the sexier it is, the better my room?”

Crow smiled. “We’ll see.”

He frowned. It was better than nothing, he guessed. “Can you at least do something about...” He gestured at the cognitive crowds. “I don’t like the idea of some shitty old man’s make-believe people watching me get naked.”

He tilted his head. “In other words, you want only me to look at you?”

Joker’s heart leaped into his throat. Crow was dead on, way more than he probably realized. He thinned his lips and nodded once.

Crow laughed a little, grin unfurling. “That can be arranged.” He leaned forward a little, stare raw and intense. “So. We have a deal, then?”

“...Yeah. When we’re done lunch, I’ll take a bath and you can… watch. And in exchange, I get a private room.”

“I look forward to the show,” he said with a cheer that belied his quickening breath.

“But only watch,” Joker added. “No touching, got it?”

He smirked. “Are you sure? You’re the one who wanted a nice room…”

The mental image of Crow dancing his fingers over Joker’s wet, bare skin made heat rise in his face and hopefully not anywhere else. “Very sure.”

His smirk remained, but Joker thought he saw disappointment darken his eyes. “Suit yourself.”

Well. He was committed to part two of indulge-Crow’s-domination-fetish now. Joker shoved another sandwich in his mouth to avoid thinking about how putting on a titillating show and getting rapt attention for it was one of his fetishes.