“Tell me more about you.”
Joker paused, gloved hands poised to serve the ping-pong ball across the table Crow had brought specifically so they could play before lunch—blow off stress and work up an appetite, he’d said. After their argument earlier that morning, it had irritated him, and he’d told him so, but Crow promised (as much as any promise from Crow was worth anything) it was their last game before work started. “Why?”
“You know why. A more valuable question would be ‘what.’” He readied his paddle. “And to answer that, I want to hear about your past romances.”
“That sounds like a terrible idea.”
“Because you’re jealous and possessive and I’m not convinced you wouldn’t track down my old datemates and murder them for the crime of touching me before you did.”
Crow laughed, despite it not being funny. “Then what about your past sexual experience?”
“Also terrible, same reason.”
“Leave out the people, then. I’m honestly not interested in them. I just want to know what you’ve done.” He paused. It was heavy with implication. “What you can do.”
Well, damn, when you put it like that, it sounds hot, Joker thought, fingering the ball in his hand. “What do I get out of it?”
Crow smirked. “My eternal friendship?”
“No, I mean, for real.”
“Ha. How about the chance to prove me wrong?”
Joker hesitated. “About what?”
“About holding others at arm’s length because you don’t care.”
How much of themselves has everyone poured into you? How much of yourself have you shared in return? Crow’s words came back to him in a wave. His grip tightened. “You just can’t ask like a normal person, can you.”
“Are either one of us normal, really?”
Point. “Tell you what: beat me at this game, and I’ll tell you whatever you wanna know about the subject.”
Crow’s attention sharpened like a knife. “Intriguing. But?”
“…But if I win, you have to tell me more about this Palace.”
Crow considered this for a moment. Then he nodded. “Very well.”
Joker smirked, and served.
It was a fast and brutal game. Neither of them had played much ping-pong, so it was fundamentally a match of reflexes, speed, and who messed up first. With Arsene resonating with his soul, Joker was faster by far, but Loki had Crow built for soloing just about anything that came his way, which gave him the reflexes to return Joker’s hits. Each of them scratched out points one by one, both scrabbling for the top, neither pulling definitively ahead.
The thrill made Joker’s heart sing. One look at Crow’s broad grin told him he felt the same. But all good things had to come to an end, and they were tied with one point left before either of them won the game. Sparks flew as they slapped the ball back and forth over the net, returning and returning and returning, until finally Joker managed to strike with just a bit more power, a bit more speed, than Crow could match. The ping-pong ball whistled a hair’s breadth away from Crow’s paddle swing and shot past him, bouncing multiple times on the concrete and rolling several feet before finally bumping into a patch of grass and falling still.
Sweating from the exercise, Joker grinned and pumped a fist in silent victory, then set that hand on his hip as he set down the paddle. “A win’s a win. Pay up, Crow.”
Crow meanwhile watched it go, chest heaving. After a few seconds, he faced Joker. “You’re too good at everything,” he remarked, tone neutral. “Fine. We’ll talk over lunch. You must be thirsty; I know I am.”
“I could use a drink, yeah,” Joker said, stretching his arms over his head, already thinking of his questions. Crow was sure to resist giving him useful information, so he had to be careful of how he worded things as well as pay attention to how Crow worded things. He walked with his jailer back to the picnic table and added, “When d’you go grocery shopping next? If you’re gonna stick with mostly sandwiches, at least pick up some condiments.”
Crow pulled lunch out of the basket, which, yup, was sandwiches and rice balls. “If you dislike sandwiches so much, what would you rather have instead?”
“I don’t dislike sandwiches, I’m just sick of having them every meal.” Joker thought for a second as he wiped his face with a napkin. “Maybe ramen? Instant’s cheap, and it’s not hard to spruce up. Let’s see, salad. Any kind of protein on top’s fine. Uhh, miso soup. Spaghetti napolitan. Omurice.”
“What are you, a child?” Crow tossed him a bottled tea. “Here.”
Joker twisted the cap open. “You’re the one who sucks at cooking. I’m trying to make it easy for you.”
Crow stood, a canned coffee in hand. “How conscientious of you.” He cracked his can open and raised it. “To a good game. Cheers.”
Pleasantly surprised by his sportsmanship, Joker tapped his drink to Crow’s. “Cheers.” He downed his tea in one go; he might have won that game, but Crow had made him fight for every point, and his throat was parched. When he pulled the empty bottle away, he gasped for air and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “So anyway, it’s time you tell me about this… Pal… a c e . . .”
His mouth kept moving as he leaned down to discard his bottle, but the world shifted sideways, spun, and fuzzed. He staggered to one side, reeling, and fell; Crow leaped across the low-legged table in an instant and caught him in both arms. The sweat on his brow no longer from his recent exercise, Joker clutched weakly at one of Crow’s arm-belts.
“Crow… something’s… something’s wrong… with me,” he croaked.
But Crow only smiled down at him. “Don’t worry,” he said, voice warbling and echoing as if through water from a long distance away. “You’ll be j u s t f i n e . . .. . .. . .”
A stroke gliding over his hair. Indistinct conversation in the near distance. A stroke. Construction noise, clanging and erratic. A stroke. Something soft but firm under his ear. A stroke. The smell of cut grass and concrete dust. A stroke…
Joker’s eyes cracked open. Someone continued to gently stroke his hair. He stirred, eyes sliding upwards, and was wholly unsurprised to see Crow. He struggled to rise, but his entire body felt heavy, sluggish, and he slumped his head, panting, back onto Crow’s lap.
“Awake, are you?” he remarked, voice as smooth and aurally pleasant as ever. “Shh, no need to get up. Just lie right there and relax.”
“What… happened to me,” he managed to say. His tongue felt thick and fuzzy. Some distance away, he saw the Shadow Police Chief barking orders at zookeepers, who were hollowing out the tallest plateaus.
“Nothing permanent. Just—you understand, don’t you?—we couldn’t very well start construction while you were in a position to try to run away, and I’m afraid I simply don’t trust you to sit obediently in a corner.”
The pieces clicked together. Clarity gave way to anger, and anger gave way to strength. “You drugged me,” he growled, forcing himself upright—
Chink. Something yanked hard on his neck, and he nearly fell over again. He turned to see a chain reaching from his neck to the bars of the cage, where it was locked in place. He yanked again, but it held fast, and he clutched at his neck to feel a thick but pliable collar there. Another lock connected the collar and chain, preventing him from simply undoing it. He tried to stand again, but the chain was too short; there was only enough there for him to get up on his hands and knees. Focusing his will, his dagger appeared in his hand, and he moved to try to slash the collar open, but Crow gripped him by the wrist long before he could get anywhere near. A bit of pressure on that wrist, and Joker’s hand opened like a flower. His dagger clattered uselessly to the concrete and fell past the cage bars down into the waterless moat.
“Please keep your struggling to a minimum,” Crow chided him, voice mild, smirk faint, eyes pitiless. “I would so hate to have to shoot you.”
Joker grit his teeth and glared up at him. “You fucking bastard.”
Crow’s smirk faded as his gaze grew, somehow, even colder. He increased the pressure on Joker’s wrist; Joker winced and grunted. “Now, now. Let’s not reduce ourselves to name-calling.”
He tried to sit upright. There wasn’t even enough give for that. He slumped, head bowed; Crow released his hand with a chuckle.
“I like this look for you, too,” he crooned, cupping Joker’s face in both hands and forcing him to meet his eyes. “Locked up, pathetic, and on your hands and knees… Now you can be beneath me literally and figuratively.”
“Let me go,” he croaked, rage reaching a boil within him.
“Never,” Crow hissed, digging his claws into Joker’s skin. “Never, do you hear me? I will never let you go. You belong to me, you are mine, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you will be at peace.”
Joker spat in his face.
It would’ve had more impact if not for Crow’s face-covering mask, no doubt. But he stilled all the same as it hit the helm on his left cheek. With deliberate motions, he flicked it away; with snakebite-swift motions, he grabbed Joker by the mouth.
“Joker,” he murmured, “as you know, your physical well-being is a top priority of mine.” His claws dug in. “But if you disrespect me like that again, I will break your jaw in at least three places. Got it?”
“If you break my jaw that bad, we won’t be able to kiss,” Joker slurred back.
Blinking rapidly, Crow flinched his hand away. Though Joker couldn’t see his cheeks, he was certain they were beet red under that helm. Bull’s-eye. “That’s—that’s not—you have no intention of ever kissing me, anyway,” he accused, heated.
Joker indulged a brief fantasy of forcing his tongue into Crow’s mouth, pulling back, spitting, and quipping, You taste as vile as you act. The only reason he hadn’t done it already was because Crow’s helm made it impossible to get that close to his lips. “I could be convinced.”
He sucked in a tiny breath, eyes widening. With boyish, hesitant hope, he asked,“R-really? How?”
The sight made the rage melt from Joker’s heart. As angry as he was, as much as he hated him just then, this one little thing meant so much to Crow. Joker couldn’t bring himself to be so cruel as to rip it away. “Never mind,” he muttered, settling his head back onto his lap. “I was only saying it to be mean.”
“…Ah.” A moment’s stillness. Then, slowly, he began to stroke Joker’s hair again. “I wasn’t serious about breaking your jaw,” he murmured. “I only wanted to make it clear that you will be punished for future disrespect.”
Crow sighed. It sounded forlorn. Joker didn’t care. Together, they watched construction until the sky began to darken.
At some point, Joker dozed off. When the power of his fury had waned, Crow’s lap and petting were pleasant, lulling. Maybe Crow had counted on that. Who cared what he thought, though.
When he roused, he heard two voices. One of them was the Shadow Police Chief’s. Instinct told Joker it would be best to pretend to still be asleep, so he kept his eyes shut and listened.
“...busted my ass gettin’ that done on time while you sat back and did nothing,” he was grumbling.
“From where I’m sitting,” said Crow’s even voice, “you spent the afternoon hanging back and giving orders. Meanwhile, I’ve been containing a dangerous beast.”
“That beast wouldn’t need more containing if you hadn’t insisted on fancying up his enclosure,” the Shadow Police Chief continued to grumble. “I agree the best trophies need the best cases to show them off, but now that we’re done followin’ your blueprints, I don’t see how this damn phantom thief gets shown off to anyone. Even you have to agree with that.”
“You needn’t concern yourself with that detail. I already have it settled.”
“And another thing! Is it just me, or’ve you been hoggin’ him for yourself? I didn’t give you co-administrator privileges over this enclosure so you could be the only one to watch him!”
“He’s a special beast, unlike any other you currently have in your zoo—indeed, unlike any you’ve ever captured at all. I’m the only one who can meet his needs, therefore I’m the only one who can be his keeper. It’s only natural that I reap the benefits of my hard work. If you’re dissatisfied with that, I can always relocate him to a more accommodating location.”
“No! No. No need to be so hasty, is there?” the Shadow Chief wheedled. “I’m just letting you know we could both benefit from more exposure, not less! That’s what the public wants, too!”
“If you want more exposure, then arrange for more outdoor exercise and play options. This one bores easily, as I’m sure you’ve noticed by now.”
“He does always romp around when you come to feed ‘im. Fine. But don’t think I haven’t noticed you closing the exhibit whenever you feel like it.”
“It’s only from time to time. Surely there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Joker decided this was a fine time to derail the conversation, so he ‘woke up’ by making a show of stirring and mumbling. Crow’s hand rested on his neck and hair.
“You should go. I need to introduce him to his new habitat,” Crow added.
“All right, all right. But don’t forget what I said.”
“As long as you don’t forget what I said.”
The Shadow made no retort. Joker listened to his footfalls grow more distant. After the creak of the door opening and shutting, he rolled onto his back and looked up at Crow.
Crow smiled down at him. “Good morning,” he said, the false sky dark around him. “How long were you awake?”
He bopped his nose with one finger. “Don’t try to be cute with me. Even if you are terribly cute.”
Someone’s in a flirty mood, Joker thought. “Since somewhere around ‘busting my ass while you sit back and do nothing.’ You two don’t get along, huh?”
“I don’t generally make friends with Shadows,” he said dryly. “Since you overheard all that, that makes this simple. You have your private room now, but do be sure to run about outside from time to time. It’ll make both our lives easier.”
“If he gets too demanding, would you really take me somewhere else?”
Crow pressed a finger to his lips. “Shh. If I did that, I’d have to drug you again, and do you really want that?”
“I thought not.”
“Did something good happen after I conked out? You seem more cheerful.”
Crow slid his hand around to cup Joker’s cheek. “Nothing in particular. You’re just excruciatingly handsome when you’re asleep.”
Joker smiled. Damned if this wasn’t his chance. “Just when I’m asleep?”
He laughed. “You’re so arrogant. Just take the compliment.”
“Well, since you insist.”
“What about you? You seem to have cooled off significantly.”
Joker shrugged. “I won at ping-pong, I’ve got a room, and your lap is nice. I got over it.”
It was too dark to see Crow’s eyes with his mask on, but tension entered his smile briefly. “My lap is nice, but you still want to leave, hmm?”
“Guilty as charged.”
Crow laughed again. It was a nice laugh when it wasn’t smeared with bitterness or misery, Joker reflected— No, fuck that. Don’t let your dick do your thinking anymore, he told himself. You’re only talking like this to lower his guard and widen up the option of seducing your way out if you have to.
“Can I ask you something?” he added aloud.
“What do you want your first kiss to be like?”
Crow paused. Joker could easily picture his flushed cheeks.
“I’m just curious,” he added.
He grasped his chin and tilted his head to one side. “…I don’t have a single, specific scenario in mind,” he murmured. “But… let’s see… it has to be from someone I love, who loves me back. That part is an absolute must. Thenthe situation should be a happy or at least content one—we’ve having a good time together, we’re both having fun and enjoying each other’s company. Some kind of romantic setting, like a boat on a lake or a fireworks display, would be ideal. And it should happen organically. We look at each other, and we both sense the moment is right, and we lean in and… kiss.”
“That’s really cute.”
“D-don’t tease me.”
“I mean it.” Joker reached up and stroked the side of Crow’s helm. “You’re really cute.”
Crow almost layered a hand over Joker’s, but pulled back at the last second. He looked away. “You don’t mean that. You’re just saying it because you think it’s what I want to hear. Because you think if you butter me up enough, I’ll either let you out, or you can create an opportunity to let yourself out.”
He isn’t a detective for nothing, Joker thought. Aloud, he said, “What do you want from me, Crow? When I’m mad, you threaten me. When I’m mean, you get upset. When I’m nice, you get suspicious. What do I have to do?”
At first, he said nothing. Then he made a low tch noise. “Here. I’ll show you,” he said, and produced a key with which he unlocked Joker’s collar.
It fell away with ease. Joker sat up and rubbed his throat, then looked at Crow. He still couldn’t read his expression with it this dark. But he had a good hunch of what he meant—so instead of immediately leaving for his new room, he scooted close enough for their arms to barely touch.
“I don’t hate you,” he said, and left out all the time. “But you need to see things from my point of view. If you lock me up, drug me, and put me in chains, of course I’m going to want to run away.”
“You’d run away no matter what. That’s the nature of a thief and a detective,” Crow murmured. “One will always run away, and the other will always give chase.”
“Sounds romantic,” he joked.
Maybe not the best joke. “So what about the nature of a thief and an assassin?”
“…I don’t know,” he admitted, pulling his legs up to his chest.
Joker waited a few heartbeats. Then he rested a hand on Crow’s closer knee. When he shot him a look, he smiled back. “If you ask me,” he murmured, “a pair of criminals leads naturally to partners in crime.”
Crow stared at him. He lowered his gaze. “…The crimes you and I have respectively committed are incompatible. And anyway, you already have seven partners in crime, if it comes to that.”
Joker’s smile faded. Experimentally, he gave Crow’s knee a gentle squeeze. “Is it not good enough unless you’re the only one?”
He shot up a glance, then looked away again. Slow and hesitant, he rested a hand over Joker’s. “I’m a selfish person, Joker. What I want most, I don’t like to share. And I don’t want a relationship where I’m in constant terror of being cast aside.”
Oof. That… that one struck home. And not just because of what he knew of Crow’s past. Joker… also knew how much it hurt to have your should-be loved ones turn their back on you. He averted his eyes. …He really couldn’t do this to him after all. What Crow was doing to him was awful and fucked up and Joker was starting to hate him for real, butsetting him up to fall in love with the explicit intention of abandoning him… That was Shido-level assholery. Joker wouldn’t, refused to be like that. At least he could be honest about his intentions.
But he had to try one last time, if only so that there was at least one attempt that was sincere. “Is there no way,” he thus asked, “we can leave this place together?”
“I… I can’t. I can’t let you go. I can’t afford to lose you. You’re all I have left. No,” he amended, gripping Joker’s hand, “you’ve never really been mine in the first place, have you? The only reason I can say that is because I have you locked up. So I can’t.”
“…I see.” With care, he tugged his hand out of Crow’s, and scooted a small but significant distance away. “I’m really sorry to hear that. Because it sounds like you and I just won’t work out.”
Crow stiffened. Then he hugged his legs to his chest and looked away. “Did you really have hope that we would?”
Joker picked at the folds of his pants for a moment. Then he rolled onto the balls of his feet and stood. “…I’ll go take a look at that room, then.”
He couldn’t be sure, as he was already walking away by then, but he thought he heard Crow whisper behind him, “That’s what I thought.”