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

Chapter Text

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:

A cage.

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.”

“How?”

“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?”

“Forever.”

He grabbed Crow by the arms. “Let me out.”

“No.”

“Crow—”

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.

Chapter Text

Morning, of a sort, came. Joker had slept in fits and spurts, but he had slept. His aches had eased for the most part, but getting up felt like trying to unbend molded plastic. When enough of his joints had popped, he managed to stand upright and press his back to the plateau. The concrete’s coolness, if nothing else, was soothing.

The cognitive crowds were back again, the faceless ones ogling eyelessly as they pointed, the shades-wearing ones looming as they kept watch and maintained order. This time, Joker was able to ignore them and their amateur photography, and he did stretches until his body had limbered up enough. Then he explored the enclosure anew.

The grass and trees at the top of the plateaus hid a narrow cove with a toilet and sink in it. Small favors, that he didn’t have to shit in front of a crowd. It was too small to try to hide away in, though—even smaller than the bathroom in Leblanc, as astounding as that was—and there weren’t any other hidey-holes that he could use as a makeshift bedroom or anything like that. Like the zoo beast he’d been forced into being, his life was on full display.

The bushes and tree leaves could be uprooted and plucked, though, so he could at least gather them together to make a soft-ish spot to sleep. He picked one of the taller plateaus, which had a couple of yet taller plateaus on two sides. It gave him a good view of the only entrance, and this way he could have some of himself blocked off from public view. The finished “bed” wasn’t really comfortable, per se, but it was better than parking his ass on the cold concrete all night. He laid down, arms folded under his head, and considered his situation.

He was currently trapped in an unknown Palace. The only one who knew where he was was Crow, or rather, Akechi. Akechi had no intention of letting him leave—might not have any intention of leaving himself, given what he said about losing his revenge and his future or whatever. It wasn’t totally impossible for his friends to find him, but it was also vanishingly unlikely, therefore he couldn’t hold out for the possibility of rescue. He’d have to escape on his own.

There was only one entrance and exit. He wasn’t sure how it locked; based on how the Shadow and Crow had interacted with the door, it seemed to engage on its own without any outside input, but the Shadow had said he’d ‘leave it to Crow to lock up,’ so there had to be some effort of will or something involved. Trying to force his way out while Crow or the Shadow there was impractical; he didn’t know if he could solo the latter, and he definitely couldn’t solo the former. Even if he could, he had to expect that past them would be legions of regular Shadows and demons. Plus, Crow might have said he didn’t want him dead after all, but Joker suspected that if his options were “murder Joker” and “let Joker escape,” he’d pick option one. Stealth was the way to go. Unless he got a specific plan or information to change that, trying to leave through the obvious exit was a no-go.

Now, if he tried to make a different exit, he’d have to deal with a moat he couldn’t jump and sure as hell wouldn’t be able to climb. It was possible he could try creeping along the edge until he reached the bridge, but he’d still have to make that exit. Was that feasible, though? He’d need to regain more of his strength first to be sure.

For now, he mentally reviewed the Personas currently dwelling within him: Titania fused for nuclear and support magic, Dominion fused for bless and ice magic, Siegfried fused for strike attacks and single healing, Dionysus fused for a balanced mix of physical and lightning magic,Trumpeter fused for debuffs and status attacks, resummoned and lockdown-improved Arsene for devastatingly strong curse magic, Unicorn fused for group healing and support (which had taken a lot of time, which was why he still had it even though the rest of his fusions outclassed it),and then a variety of others he’d collected during the run through the Cruise of Pride with the intent of fusing them later in the Velvet Room. Lucky that Dominion, as a Justice Persona, complemented his dubious bond with Akechi; it might make him easier to deal with. Less lucky that it was weak to gun attacks. The universe had a twisted sense of humor.

Anyway, with Siegfried’s power, he should be able to force his way through the bars, but it would draw attention, and Crow no doubt expected him to attempt escape. If he were Crow, he’d warn the Shadow to put up precautions against Persona summoning… or no, would he? Would the extra superpower he had be enough to counterbalance the disadvantage that’d create? Joker sat up, considering this; then he raised a hand and focused his will.

Persona!”

The mask flamed off his face as Siegfried materialized. Joker smiled, then spread his arms as his mask reappeared. The Nordic warrior responded to his will and lifted his blade; powerful healing energy washed over Joker, taking with it the rest of his pain and fatigue.

“Ahh,” he breathed, eyes shut. So his Personas would work. Valuable information.

Would they work against the cage bars, though? He considered an attack, but ultimately let Siegfried vanish. As much as he longed for freedom, better to be patient and gather more information first. Even if he got out of this damn prison, he didn’t know the layout of the Palace. If he got captured before he could find the exit, he might blow his chance. And, again, Crow would expect an attempt. He had to make the best of his first shot, because it might be his only one.

He hopped down the plateaus back to ground level, briefly enjoying the sensation of moving his body freely. Crow had said he’d be back again today, and Joker had no doubt he’d keep his word. When he arrived, he wanted to be mentally ready for him. He faced the cage door, leaned against the plateau, folded his arms, and waited.

He didn’t have to wait long. Maybe some of the cognitions had reported back about him, because it was maybe fifteen, twenty minutes before Crow approached with a pair of zookeeper cognitions(? maybe they were masked Shadows) at his back, one carrying a large basket, the other carrying a checkered blanket, a low-legged bamboo table, and a pair of cushions. Joker eyed them, then Crow; Crow met his gaze and held it, even as the cage door swung open at a touch. The cognitions set up what they’d brought with speed and efficiency, then left without being told to. Once they were gone, Crow gestured with one hand, and the door swung shut and locked.

Then he sat at the table that now rested on the blanket between them. “Sit,” he commanded.

I prefer to stand, was his knee-jerk retort… but if he wanted information, it was smarter to keep Crow in a good mood. He drifted down onto the cushion on his side, keeping his expression poker-blank.

Crow opened up the basket. Inside was a picnic… breakfast, he supposed. It was obvious from the start that that was what he’d been going for, but the absurdity of it all still made Joker snort.

“It’s real food,” Crow remarked as he set out sandwiches, rice balls, and bottled and canned drinks. Nothing that required utensils, he saw. “As you know, Palace food won’t sustain you.” He paused, then glanced at him. “Did you know that?”

“I did.”

The corner of his mouth creased faintly upward. “I thought you would.” He set out the rest, then plucked up a sandwich. “Eat with me.”

Don’t order me around. Joker bit back those words and picked a couple of rice balls.

It was for the best. He hadn’t realized how damn hungry he was until he swallowed that first bite. The taste was merely okay, but fuck, his stomach gave it a hearty welcome all the same. The first one had a pickled plum in the center; the second, tuna and bonito flakes. He devoured a roast beef sandwich next, which could have used some spicy mustard but at least came richly supplied with lettuce and tomato, then washed it all down with a bottled tea, which he knocked back in one go. Letting a satisfied sigh loose, he draped himself on the cement, arms under his head, eyes shut. A cool breeze from who-knew-where tousled his hair. If he weren’t in Metaverse prison and eating with his jailer, it might almost have been nice.

After a moment of digesting, Joker cracked an eye open. At this close range, he could actually see Crow’s eyes through the tinted eye-holes of his helmet-mask, and Crow’s eyes were on him. He had his elbows on the table and armored chin on his hands, at that. The pose was almost charmingly boyish.Joker turned his gaze up at the false sky beyond the criss-crossing bars sparkling gaudily in the light.

“Why the gold?” he wondered.

“Because you’re the crown jewel of this Palace,” Crow replied. “Isn’t it only natural to set a treasure in gold?”

“Creepy.”

He laughed a curt heh.

Joker pushed himself upright. “Whose Palace is this, anyway?”

“The chief of police’s. He sees the Tokyo PD headquarters as his private zoo and game preserve, where he and his subordinates hunt down and capture ferocious beasts—that is to say, criminals like yourself—at their leisure, for their and the law-abiding public’s viewing and occasionally executing pleasure.”

“Classy.”

“Isn’t it just?” he replied, tone light. “His Shadow has given orders for you to be shot on sight if you’re found outside this enclosure unescorted, so I recommend you don’t try anything… undesirable.”

“Thanks for the tip.”

Crow smiled. “You’ll of course try anyway.”

Of course, but he wasn’t going to say that. Instead, Joker picked up another sandwich, this one turkey and cheese. The turkey was dry, but the greens were crisp, at least. After he swallowed the first bite, he asked, “Did you make these?”

“Yes.”

“You’re a mediocre cook.”

“They’re nutritious and filling. That’s all that matters.”

Joker peered at him. “I could swear I’ve seen you waiting in a long-ass line just to get some popular new release cream bun or whatever it was.”

He shrugged. “Trendy foodstuffs are useful conversation pieces. Everyone eats, and most everyone wants to know what’s good to eat. Personally, though, I don’t really care about the taste.”

“That’s obvious.” But he took another bite anyway.

Crow fell silent. Joker ate the rest of his sandwich, then cracked open another tea and drank. When he set it down, he looked over his companion. He hadn’t had more than his one sandwich, and was nursing a canned coffee. Joker ran a mental scenario of what would happen if he attempted to knock the table over onto him. Given that the door was locked, nothing good. He discarded the thought, no matter how satisfying it was to imagine.

“Did you find the bathroom?” Crow asked then.

Joker eyed him. “Yes.”

“Good.”

Another silence, more awkward than the last. Joker wondered if every interaction with his jailer was going to be like this from now on.

“What happened with the others?” he added. “Do you know?”

“They’re alive, to my knowledge. All of them.”

Good, he thought, squelching the coil of anxiety before it unfurled inside himself. “What about Shido?”

Crow gave him a grim smile. It pronounced the dark lines under his eyes. “Your friends failed to follow through. As of today, he’s now Japan’s new Prime Minister.”

The anxiety coil sprang back to life and strangled his insides, including the last of his appetite. “You’re lying. You have to be.”

“I am not.”

He slapped his hands on the table and shoved himself to his knees. “Don’t lie to me. Not about this. It’s only been a day, damn you!”

Crow didn’t stop smiling, but his eyes behind the mask softened with what might have been pity. “I take it you don’t realize how long you were asleep.”

No. No. No no no no no— “How long?” he croaked.

“Three days.”

Three— The world spun around Joker for a moment. That… that would do it. It would explain why he’d been so weak and hungry, too. He slumped down as if weighted by lead balls. Why hadn’t they explored that Palace sooner…? That way, even if anything happened to him, the others could carry on, get the job done… After how hard they’d all tried, how could this have happened?

“No one outside your immediate group has noticed you’re gone,” he added. “Of course, since you’re ‘dead,’ that’s only natural.”

Joker’s hands clenched. “Do you like rubbing salt in it?”

“Is that what you think? I just thought you might be worried that someone would miss you.”

The bite of sarcasm was unmistakable. Joker bowed his head and grit his teeth until he thought they might break.

Crow drained his coffee can. “...If it makes you feel better, no one misses me, either.”

Joker shot an uncomprehending look up at him.

His smile had thinned into something bitterly ill, hands circling his empty can. “I overheard while food shopping early this morning. ‘Where did Akechi-kun go all of a sudden?’ said someone in the supermarket. ‘Who cares? More importantly, about the election...’ was the reply. The conversation moved on from there. Only a few days missing, and already here we are.”

“I hope you don’t think I feel sorry for you.”

“I know you don’t,” he snapped, can crumpling in his grip.

Joker pursed his lips. “How are you ‘missing,’ anyway? You were literally right there.”

“After I recovered from our battle, I liquefied my bank accounts, packed some essentials, and retreated here. It’d be too late to go into hiding after the election, after all.” He shook his head slowly. “When I went shopping, I dressed down to avoid detection. A grubby hoodie worked so well for you, after all.”

“Then this really is for the long haul. For you and me both.”

“We’re both dead men walking, after all. It’s too dangerous for you to be outside.”

He slammed a fist on the table. “It wouldn’t be dangerous if you hadn’t fucking kidnapped me!!” he snarled. It was an absurd statement—if he’d been unconscious three days, he’d have slept through the deadline whether he’d been kidnapped or not—but he didn’t give a damn.

Crow laughed faintly and reached to caress Joker’s jawline. “I love the way you look when you’re angry. The inferno in your eyes could cremate the world.”

He slapped his hand away with force. “Don’t touch me.”

Crow kept his hand up where it halted. His eyes narrowed. “You’ve gotten your strength back already. You realized you can summon your Personas, then?”

“And if I did?”

For a tense moment, Joker thought Crow might attack; he even hoped he would, give him an excuse to fight back. When it passed, though, he simply started packing up what remained of breakfast, including the trash.

“You’re taking this calmly,” he noted.

“Because it doesn’t particularly matter,” Crow replied. “In a one-on-one match, I’m stronger than you by far.”

Wanna bet? he wanted to shoot back. He kept it to a wordless growl instead.

“It seems you comprehend that too. Then you also realize it’s in your best interest not to abuse your Persona privileges, which I am allowing you to keep.” He set the refilled basket aside and stared into his eyes. “I’ll only say this once. Any misbehavior on your part will be punished accordingly. The freedom you’ve lost can be curtailed yet further. Do you understand?”

Joker glared at him with all the hate he could muster. Then he made himself avert his eyes to seem subservient. “…I understand.”

“Do you really? Well, regardless, I appreciate your cooperative attitude,” Crow said, “even if I’m sure it’s only with the intent to make me lower my guard.”

He said nothing. Some things didn’t need a response.

“Incidentally, all your meals from now on will be with me.” He reached out again for his face. “There’s no point in making you mine if I don’t get to admire you.”

Joker lanced him with another glower as he slapped him away once more. “I’m not yours. I’m not a thing to be kept and displayed.”

But this time, Crow chuckled. “Of course you’re not a thing. How dreadfully boring you would be otherwise.” He paused, considering him. “…How about this? As fine as these enclosures are for mindless beasts, I’m sure you find the accommodations… lacking. If you continue to cooperate, I’ll grant you reasonable requests in return.”

That way laid madness, Joker knew. But he thought about the single tiny bathroom and absolutely nothing to do, and the offer tempted him. “…Cooperate how?”

Hunger more primal than any wild animal flooded his eyes. “Let me touch you.”

His heart leaped into his throat. That way laid madness. That way laid— “Where?”

Crow leaned forward. “Nowhere inappropriate. Let’s say, the waist and up?” He licked his lips. It reminded Joker of a puma eyeing a haunch of meat. “I just want to feel you.”

“…For how long?”

This time, he hesitated. Joker wondered if he hadn’t seriously thought he’d play along this far. “Fif… fifteen minutes. You can’t push me away, struggle, or fight back.”

Joker’s hands opened and closed. He tugged his gloves down unnecessarily to distract himself from what he was saying: “What do I get out of it?”

“What do you want?”

“To get out of here.”

Crow snorted. “Try again.”

He tugged harder. “…Privacy.”

“What… kind of privacy?”

“Somewhere—somewhere where I don’t have to get leered at like an animal. The only place like that is the bathroom, and it’s tiny. I want a personal space.”

Crow dragged his fingertips along the table’s surface. “...That’s reasonable. But it will cost you more than fifteen minutes.”

God, no. Fifteen minutes would be bad enough. Any more than that and he might realize the truth. “Add another condition, then.”

“…You can hide from the rest, but you’re not allowed to hide from me. If I call for you, you must appear. If you don’t do so promptly, you’ll be punished.”

He swallowed hard. “What if I’m sleeping? Or using the toilet?”

“That’s my condition. You fall asleep and wake up in seconds anyway.”

“Then how promptly is ‘promptly’?”

“Two minutes.”

“Two—?!”

“But if you’re using the restroom, I’ll be reasonably lenient as long as you call back to say so.”

Joker fell silent and dropped his gaze. This was a bad idea. It was a terrible, awful, incredibly stupid idea, and he should call the whole thing off while he still could. His top priority had to be escape. He couldn’t let himself go along with Crow’s homoerotic power fantasies.

But if you go along with it, whispered a certain part of him, he might let down his guard after all. He might grant you crucial ‘requests’ that’ll help you escape. And look at him. He’s so desperate just to touch you a little. He said he’ll make you need him, but that just means he needs you. Play your cards right, and you can wrap him around your little finger and enjoy yourself while you’re at it.

He swallowed hard. It was a brutally pragmatic thought. Pragmatic, and far too honest at the end. He had to (shut this down) (refuse him outright) reel it back.

“Too…” he whispered, then swallowed again. “Too much. What about a futon? Is that worth fifteen minutes?”

Crow’s eyes lidded. “…Thirty.”

He shut his eyes. This was a bad idea. This was a bad idea. This was a bad idea.

“…okay.”

Chapter Text

Crow’s breath hitched. He leaned over the table, and so Joker could better see the way his red eyes lit with a desire so palpably powerful Joker thought he might choke on it. “So, you’ll let me touch you where I like from the waist up, for thirty minutes, without struggle or protest, starting now, and in return I’ll arrange for you to receive a futon. Is this our understanding?”

Starting now?! But I’m not emotionally ready!! He licked his lips. “A-actually… can you give me a moment to think it over? This is making me nervous.”

He paused, then leaned back. “Certainly,” he said, and though he tried to make it sound casual, his stare only smoldered harder.

Joker rose to his feet. “I’m going to wash my face. I’ll be right back.” Without waiting for a response, he fled for the bathroom.

Mask and gloves laid on the side of the sink, he turned the cold water knob and let it fill the stoppered sink. His hands shook as he splashed his face. As it dripped, he gripped the sides of the sink and stared at his reflection. At just Ren Amamiya.

This was bad. This was bad, this was bad, this was bad. If there was anything Akechi was right about, it was that he kept large pieces of himself hidden from even his closest friends. He didn’t think any of them would approve of him being romantically attracted to the backstabbing detective/hitman, after all. Duality and danger were the two biggest traits Joker found attractive in a person, and Crow had both in spades; it’d been what had drawn Joker to him in the first place even though he knew he couldn’t trust him. If he let the currently extra-dangerous, duality-flipsided Crow feel him up for half an hour… god. The fucked-up Palace prison situation aside, how many of his fantasies had started out like this? What if he got hard? What if he started moaning? What the hell would he do then? There was no way he’d be able to explain that off.

But at the same time, he wanted it. He wanted it as much as he wanted his freedom. He hadn’t realized that Akechi had been attracted to him too, but no one looked at anyone with that much raw desire without being at least in lust with them.

But what if he ended up Stockholmed? Ren smeared a bare hand down one side of his face. Akechi wanted him to need him. What if that happened? What if Ren ended up needing him so badly he’d give up escape to stay with him? He couldn’t stay here. He needed to get out, to find his friends, to make sure they were safe and let them know he was safe. He needed to… needed…

To what? The Phantom Thieves had already failed to change this rotten society. Shido had won the election. Ren clutched his chest and rested his forehead on the cool glass. If he returned to the real world and was caught, where would he go if not to a different jail, where he’d probably get killed? Plus going back might end up endangering everyone. Even if it didn’t, where could he actually go?

No, that was him trying to make excuses to give in. He bit his thumbnail. He was overthinking this. He wasn’t afraid of Akechi, but he was afraid of falling in love with him. But, really, was that going to happen? Akechi would screw it up someway, no doubt. No, fuck him, he already had. This was just him indulging the little asshole’s domination fetish in return for creature comforts. Such exchanges were as loveless as one could get. He just needed to steel himself and endure it.

(though it was kind of cute that he was implementing this fetish so chastely)

“Okay,” he said aloud to interrupt that train of thought, then clapped his cheeks twice. “Okay. I can do this. It’s just a little touching.”

He dried his face, replaced his mask and gloves, took a deep breath, and squared his shoulders. Then he marched back to where Crow awaited.

Tension rode in Crow’s shoulders as he returned. He looked up at him, but waited until he was close enough to say, “Well?”

“Set a timer. One that’ll announce when the thirty minutes are up,” Joker replied. “If you can do that, we have a deal.”

Crow rose to his feet, smartphone already in hand, and stepped over the table. As he worked the phone, he approached Joker. Joker retreated step by step until his back hit the plateau. Crow lifted his phone, and it showed a timer app set to 30:00. He glanced at it, then gulped. This was it, then. No backing down now. He met Crow’s stare and nodded once.

Click, went the timer app. 29:59 and counting. The smartphone vanished somewhere, and Crow pressed his hands to his chest. Joker tensed and pressed his hands flat to the plateau, but didn’t resist. A moment later, Crow settled in very close, hips brushing up on his, and slid his hands up Joker’s neck.

Hunger and fascination and wonder and delight suffused Crow’s mannerisms. A slow smile unfurled, and he laughed throatily as his fingertips traced Joker’s jawline, cheekbones, ears, hairline.

“I can’t believe it,” he crooned. “You’re really mine. You’re mine, no one else’s but mine…” He caressed Joker’s cheek, slid his fingers through his curls; Joker clenched his jaw, turned his face away. “What’s the matter? Do I disgust you that much? Well, I don’t care anymore. You can stand there and put up with it.”

Yeah, that was a turn-off. That helped, because the way Crow’s fingertips traced the contours of his cheekbones and followed them down his jawline to his carotids and down further to his collarbones and under his coat didn’t. Oh—oh—that was him sliding his coat off his shoulders, exposing his upper arms; his “shirt” had a high neck, but no sleeves. Crow made a noise of delight like he’d discovered a Treasure. Joker twitched, wondering if he should cry foul; he’d never said Crow could undress him. Then again, he’d never said he couldn’t, and he did agree not to protest anything he did. Fuck.

Down his hands went, taking the coat with them; once they got past Joker’s elbows, it fell to the floor of its own accord. Crow cupped Joker’s hands in his own—Joker’s fingers spasmed, but he forced himself still—and Crow laughed faintly as he slipped his fingers around to trace his palms.

“Do you hate that?” he whispered. “Do you hate the way I touch you?”

No, but I kind of hate your pillow talk, Joker thought.

He gripped his hands and pulled them up, fingertips kneading the palms, lips on the backs. Joker’s breath hitched. That was nice. Dangerously so. He chanced a peek his way as Crow threaded his fingers through Joker’s and kissed his knuckles. Crow caught his eye and gave him a wan smile.

Do I disgust you? You still haven’t said,” he murmured. “Don’t worry. I disgust me, too.”

He blinked at him, lips parting a crack. In that instant, it hitJoker how much homophobia a queer kid must internalize if he spent all his time around shitty conservative power-hungry old men. How much self-hatred that must result in. His first reaction was to feel intensely sorry for his captor.

His second reaction was, Shit. I’m getting Stockholmed.

He looked away again.

Crow chuckled darkly, probably getting the wrong idea, and let his hands go. Joker let them fall back to his sides. “Look at you. You’re so wonderful,” he murmured, pressing his palms to Joker’s abs and kneading. “Handsome, clever, charming, athletic, good at making friends, a powerful sense of justice and the will and strength to carry it out…” His palms traveled around Joker’s waist to his spine and the small of his back. “If it weren’t for that one incident that got you arrested, where would you be now? Would we have ever met, I wonder?”

“I don’t think about that,” Joker murmured. He twitched again as Crow pulled him close and leaned his face down to Joker’s neck; he had to master the urge to return the embrace.

“Ha. Of course you don’t. You don’t concern yourself with what-ifs and if-onlys, do you? Unlike me.” He paused; then he nuzzled Joker’s neck, bringing his lips to his Adam’s apple. Joker sucked in a breath and held it. “Do you regret it now?” Crow murmured into his throat.

“…No,” Joker murmured. That had to be his answer. Because— “Even if we failed to change Shido’s heart, the things I’ve done up until now have still been worthwhile.”

Because if he was going to carry on, that had to be his truth.

“God, you really are brilliant,” he breathed, resonating with admiration and envy alike. “Is that why fate demanded you live in the shadows? You shine so brightly, it blinds me.”

“You were already blind.”

“Do you think so?” A beat; then he chuckled and leaned back enough to let Joker breathe. “No, you’re right. I willfully blinded myself to so much.” His fingers traced languidly up and down Joker’s sides; Joker involuntarily shivered. Crow chuckled, let his touch linger at Joker’s waist, and then pressed it north. “We both worked so hard, didn’t we? We gave our respective paths everything we had, and we both lost it all in the end.” He rested one hand on Joker’s chest and slipped the other back up his neck. “You want me to let you go. What if we went back to Shido’s Palace and killed him together? Wiped out his entire party, one by one?”

Joker stared at him.

Crow met his stare for a moment; then he averted his eyes with a faint chuckle. “I’m joking, of course,” he murmured. “That would throw all of Japan into chaos. Even I’m not that twisted.”

Joker said nothing. After a moment, Crow sighed and leaned on him, head on Joker’s shoulder, arms slipping around his back and pinning his arms in place. Then he just… stayed that way, for a while. After what felt like an eternity, Joker peeked down at him.

Maybe he felt him shift, because Crow murmured, “Joker. Will you do something extra? I’ll bring you something nice in return.”

“What is it?”

“Hold me.”

Joker paused. Perhaps taking that as refusal, Crow straightened, let him go—oh, no, he slipped his arms around his waist and pulled him close again, one hand settling on his back, the other on the spot between his shoulderblades. Joker swallowed; then, slowly, keeping his gaze down, he completed the embrace. He heard Crow suck in a sharp, tiny breath. Then he slid his hand up Joker’s neck and pressed down. Joker let him make him bury his face in his shoulder, just as he then let him squeeze him tight and lean his head on Joker’s.

It really was dangerously nice.

Before either of them knew it, the timer alarm rang. Crow jolted away from him as if stung, breaking out of his embrace and staggering back several steps. Joker let him go, sighing in equal parts relief and regret.

For a moment, Crow only stood there, hands clasping and unclasping. Then, motions deliberate, he took out his phone and turned off the alarm.

“You’ll have a futon by the end of the day,” he said, voice abruptly robotic, stiff. “Do you have any favorite authors?”

Mind still on the warmth lingering on his skin, Joker echoed, “Authors?”

“Or genres. Your bonus reward is books. I know you read. You do it all the time on the train.”

How do you know that? he wondered. Then he decided some things are better off unknown. “Uh. I’ll read whatever.” He even once read a book of pick-up artist tips to see how bad it would get. At least it’d been useful as a guide on how not to treat women. “But fiction’s good. Any genre.”

Crow smirked humorlessly. “If you can’t have escape, then at least you’ll have escapism, hm? Fine. I’ll bring you some personal choices with dinner.”

“Uh. Thanks. I guess.”

He turned away. “There’s no need to thank me. It was a transaction, after all.”

Joker didn’t know what to say to that, so he said nothing. After a moment of silence, Crow picked up the picnic basket and left. The picnic tableau, he left behind. He supposed it’d be easier than setting it up every time.

Once he was gone, he let another, more powerful sigh burst from his lungs. Then he retrieved his coat and shrugged it back on. That hadn’t been too bad, but…

How much more intense would these “transactions” get before the end?

Chapter Text

Crow made good on his word. He returned again for lunch but didn’t linger; at dinnertime,the futon and books both came with him. As minor Shadows set up the latter in the spot he’d chosen—so much for gathering leaves—he sat with Crow at their low-legged table and reviewed the titles he’d chosen: Demon of the Lonely Isle by Ranpo Edogawa, Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, and Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami.

“It’s just like you to be an Edogawa fan,” Joker remarked, setting the first aside, picking up the third, and settling in with it. ‘Settling in’ wasn’t precisely comfortable, but he did what he could, draping himself on the floor, propping himself up on the cushion, and occasionally reaching for food from the table.

“It’s only natural, for anyone who enjoys the mystery genre,” Crow said, tone nonchalant, as he knelt across from him. “So… I take it you didn’t care for that one.”

Demon of the Lonely Isle? Nah, I’ve just read it before.”

“Oh? What did you think…?”

“It was good.”

A long pause. Then: “Is that it?”

Joker turned a page and picked up a rice ball. What, you want me to go into a dissertation about the gay doctor and the guy he had a crush on? Try to be a little less transparent, Akechi. “Yeah.”

“Ah.”

Another long pause. Joker turned another page. After a moment, Crow reached into the basket. Dinner was the last of the leftover sandwiches and rice balls, so nothing worth paying attention to even as they ate, but this time he’d brought several pieces of fruit for dessert. He picked a clementine and studiously began to peel it.

Joker, for his part, kept reading between bites. He pretended to focus solely on the book, but he snuck the occasional glance at his captor/companion over the top of the pages. As Crow separated the clementine by slices, he ate them one by one, but only half; the rest he set up in meticulous order on a napkin. When he was done, he slid it across the table to—

“Oh, thanks,” Joker said out of reaction more than anything else. He paused; then he popped a few slices and went back to reading.

Crow said nothing. He only watched him for a while, then repeated the peel-and-share with another tiny orange. Joker let him. It had to be a bizarre tableau, watching from the outside. Worthy of a Murakami novel, although Sputnik Sweetheart was strangely normal for him so far. Though he supposed in fairness he’d only read a few of his short stories and a couple of his other novels, weirdness was what he was known for.

At length, he set the book down and rested his head on the cushion. He wasn’t anywhere near done, but he could use a break.

“Not a fan?” Crow asked, tone studiously neutral.

“Mmm. It’s so-so,” he replied. He’d intended on leaving it at that, but something made him add, “Murakami’s good, but I gotta say, I usually have trouble getting into his protagonists.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, it’s obvious he’s projecting himself into them and it’s weird. They’re always these dry, boring guys who get thrust into fantastic situations, or in this case, a one-sided crush on his lesbian best friend. And what’s with him being a sex magnet for older women?”

“I thought you’d be able to relate,” Crow deadpanned.

Joker choked and broke into laughter as he sat up. “Oh my god. Fuck you. Just because I ended up fake-dating one older woman

“But you would date an older woman, wouldn’t you?”

“Well, uh, that’s—look, is it my fault my doctor is super hot?” Among other older women he knew, but— “How do you know about this, anyway? I’m pretty sure I never talked about her with you.” Or. Any of his non-Leblanc friends. Come to think, did he really talk about any of his friends with any of his other friends? Consistently the first time a lot of them ever met was when one happened to run into him while he was hanging out with another.

“Ichiko Ohya is a reporter, and I am a detective,” Crow replied, mild on the surface and an edge beneath. “It’s only natural for the two to talk.”

“…ah.”

Awkward pause. Crow picked up his canned coffee and drank.

“So,” he continued, “how many women have you ‘pretended’ to date?”

“Why are you so interested in my dating history?”

He sighed. “If you don’t understand already, I don’t think there’s any point in telling you.”

Fair point. Joker did understand, at that, but… was he ready to confront Crow about it? He rubbed the back of his neck, and decided not. “So what’s so great about this book that it’s a personal pick for you?”

“If I told you, that’d spoil it. Just keep reading.”

“Ah.”

If they got any more pauses in here, he’d turn into a cat like Morgana. Joker considered picking the book back up then and there, but he had to make it last. Instead, he cleared his throat.

“So is Murakami one of your favorite authors?” he prompted.

“Yes, actually,” Crow replied. “His characters are colorful and interesting, and he has a true talent for weaving the mundane together with the extraordinary. I particularly enjoy his use of perception and the psychological.”

“I’ve only read a bit of his stuff. Which of his books is your favorite?”

Crow paused. “…1Q84.”

Joker had to smile. “You mean the one that stars an assassin for justice?”

“Yes,” he said stiffly.

“I actually never finished that one. It was interesting, but it’s so long. I got distracted early in and never got around to continuing it.”

“I’ll bring you a copy! I’d love to talk about it with you.”

Joker paused at the sudden enthusiasm warming his tone. “You know, I think that’s the most normal thing you’ve said to me in a long time,” he mused.

Crow didn’t reply.

“What else do you recommend?” he prompted.

“Let’s see… In terms of striking impressions, there’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World…

“Oh, I read that one! I liked it, too.”

Crow perked. “Really?”

“Yeah, the story really pulled me in. I loved how the two separate narratives gradually wound together, completing the story, and the way the perspectives interchanged kept me reading. By the time I got to the end of a chapter, I wanted to know what happened next, so I’d hurry into the next so I could get back to it, only to want to know what happened next by the end of that chapter.” Joker smiled. “I ended up blitzing through it.”

Crow smiled back. Well—“smiled” was a poor way to describe it. Even through his black helm, his face lit up with boyish joy. Joker wished briefly he’d take it off so he could have a better look. “I had a similar experience! It ended up having a profound effect on me. There’s something about how two pieces of the human mind can be so indelibly separated while simultaneously being so intimately linked, and of course you understand how familiar the concept of entering the world of the mind is…”

So, without having quite intended on it even though he’d guided the topic there, Joker ended up having a rousing conversation with Crow on the particulars of the novel, from the distancing effect of none of the characters having names, only epithets, to the Wonderland-side narrator’s desperate attempts to save his own mind despite his lack of attachment to his world, to the concept and consequences of losing one’s mind and self in the process of losing one’s Shadow. That turned the discussion to the Town and its denizens, and how those within became empty, complacent shells of their former selves the longer they stayed. An hour or two, Joker had no way of knowing for sure, wiled away with ease this way.

Things soured a note, though, when their conversation eventually wound to the destination of the End-side narrator’s attempts to escape the Town with his Shadow.

“Anyone in his position,” Joker said, “would want to return to the world they belong to.”

Crow frowned. Joker held his glare. It wasn’t a subtle statement, but then, there was nothing subtle about his desire to leave this place, either.

“Anyone in his position would be out of luck,” Crow said curtly. “Ultimately, none of his attempts would ever succeed. Once the Wonderland narrator had The End of the World created, his split self was always going to be trapped there forever. Whether the second world overlaid the first or not was always dependent on the success or failure of the Wonderland narrator’s efforts, so nothing the End narrator did had any meaning. That’s the tragedy of his refusal to return with his Shadow to the real world; his decisions are all dictated by something greater that he’s incapable of knowing. In short, even when he has the vestiges of his mind, he still has no free will.”

“That’s a depressing take.”

“You don’t agree?”

“The two narrators are one and the same; it’s just that one’s unaware of the other, and the other doesn’t remember the first. The Shadow, who remembers everything, is basically the Wonderland narrator himself. He’s the one who spurs the End narrator to explore the Town and work on an escape plan once they’re both trapped inside the Town. Even if the narrator’s situation is dictated by what happens in the Wonderland half, that doesn’t mean that the End narrator’s actions are meaningless, and it sure doesn’t mean he has no free will. The Shadow is his free will, and it’s the Shadow who motivates him throughout the story.”

“But he abandons his Shadow in the end and ‘chooses’ to stay in the Town,” Crow argued. “He claims it’s to take responsibility for what he’s created, but escaping the Town means returning to the real world, which he doesn’t realize he’s physically incapable of doing thanks to the Wonderland narrator losing his chance to have the second world isolated. He never had a real choice. He’s simply manifesting the results of the events of Wonderland.”

“I mean, if you want to argue that, then the existence of the Town itself is the result of something neither narrator chose to do.”

“You’re starting to understand! That’s the entire point of the book. If you take it back a moment, to the Wonderland narrator missing his chance, that window flies by him almost halfway through the book, when he discovers that the Professor’s equipment has been destroyed, and doesn’t even realize it until much later when he finally reaches the Professor at great effort. Both narrators are subject to forces completely outside their control.”

“Okay, but if we’re backing out to the Wonderland half, the narrator there then spends the rest of his day doing all these things he wants to do before his consciousness fails. He busts his ass getting out of the underground specifically so he can make the most of his last day as himself. Maybe he does end up succumbing to the workings of outside forces, but when faced with that reality, he makes the choice to do what makes him happy and meet his end on his own terms. That’s significant. And it’s reflected in the Ends narrator’s decision to take responsibility for the Town.”

Crow heaved a sigh. “Is that really taking responsibility, though? By sending his Shadow back, he consigns it to death, and himself to mindlessness. How is he supposed to take responsibility as a husk?”

“Does the Shadow really die, though? If it managed to hang on that long, it’s entirely possible it could’ve survived even after being sent through the whirlpool. If so, he might not be a husk.”

“There’s no way it survived. It was already on the verge of death. Besides, even if it did survive, what’s the point without the End narrator? The only place it would have to go is back to the Wonderland narrator—”

“—and his mind gets caught and overlapped by the End consciousness, meaning it’d come right back to him, or at least be able to wait for him.”

Crow shook his head, but the corner of his mouth twitched up. “You’re so stubborn. I almost wonder if you’re arguing just for the sake of arguing at this point.”

Joker half-smiled. “I seem to remember a certain someone once saying the meeting of two opposing views leads to the truth, or something like that.”

He laughed. It actually sounded genuine. “Hmm, I seem to remember that, too. It feels so long ago now, doesn’t it?” He sighed. It actually sounded wistful. “I never imagined back then how influential that chance encounter would be.”

“Same.”

Silence followed for a moment. Crow bowed his head. “…If only this moment could last for eternity,” he murmured. “Like the Wonderland narrator’s consciousness fade.”

Joker bowed his head too, chest tightening. Then he looked up. “It won’t really last forever, you know.”

He blinked up at him. “Pardon?”

“The narrator’s eternity,” Joker clarified. “Remember, the Professor’s granddaughter says that she’ll put his body in cryostasis and revive him once the technology to untangle the two consciousness modes exists. She’s tough and smart; I have no doubt she’ll figure it out eventually.”

“Oh.” A beat. “You have a point. I suppose it’s not impossible… But if his other self has already sacrificed his mind, there won’t be anything to restore.”

“But the End-side Librarian shows it’s possible to not actually lose one’s mind, just have it...” He gestured with one hand. “Lost, scattered, sealed away, however you want to call it. That describes the situation with the Shadow, too. If the Shadow’s alive, that means the narrators can eventually become one and return to the real world.” He paused, then decided to pointedly add, “You know. Where they belong.”

Crow glared. “You have an astonishingly positive view of the ending,” he said, ignoring his emphasis. “And by ‘astonishingly positive,’ I mean ‘hopelessly naïve.’”

Joker rolled his eyes. “Okay, smartass, then what’s your take?”

“Like I said, it’s a tragedy. There is no way out of the Town. We’re told this from the start, but the narrator and his Shadow refuse to accept it, and this spurs their struggle, which is rendered meaningless not just by events of which they’re unaware, but by the events in which they themselves take part. By betraying his Shadow and choosing to stay, the End narrator indulges in an illusion of choice all while falling irrevocably into a place from which there is no return.”

Joker glowered at Crow. Crow met it with a flat stare.

“You seem pretty damn insistent that the narrators are basically helpless and fucked over,” he said. “Why is that?”

“Because they are. You seem insistent that there’s some reason to expect a happy ending after a man literally loses his mind. Why is that?”

“Because there’s hope.”

“Oh my god,” Crow groaned, rubbing the side of his helm. “Never has there been a word more trite than ‘hope.’”

“Are you kidding me? Are you saying you’ve never had hope in anything?”

“None that wasn’t ultimately betrayed,” he muttered.

“Oh, wow, I wonder what that feels like.”

“Then you should understand where I’m coming from,” he said sharply. “To fight for the future you want with everything you have, only for it all to crumble moments before the finish line. To be powerless to defeat the forces that would control you. How can that not resonate?”

He raised an eyebrow. That was bold as hell of him to say, but the fact that he had made something click. “Crow. Do you have control issues or something? Is that why you trapped me here, so you can have someone in your power to feel less powerless yourself?”

Never before had Joker heard anyone say nothing so loudly. The two stared each other down for a moment; then Crow uttered a low tch and looked away. “It was such a fun conversation,” he mumbled. “Why did you have to ruin it?”

“Sorry, do you not like being reminded that you shoved me in a cage and made me let you feel me up in exchange for a damn bed?”

Crow made a scandalized noise, which Joker thought was hilarious in a completely unfunny way.

“Anyway,” he continued, “if I have to deal with being your prisoner, you can deal with the occasional cutting observation.”

He huffed, but for some reason, this made his feathers settle, so to speak. “You’re right. I do have control issues. What of it?”

Joker stared for a moment. Then he buried his forehead in his palm, suddenly weary. “Absolutely nothing, apparently.” He paused. “Am I going to have to trade my ‘cooperation’ for everything I need?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, just as an example, there’s no bath in here.”

Crow pointed at the pool. Joker squinted at it, then at him.

“There’s no privacy here,” he amended.

“Of course there isn’t. You’re on display, for my viewing pleasure.”

He scowled. “Okay, what about soap? Shampoo? Towels? Hell, toothpaste and a toothbrush? Hairbrush? Floss? Razor? Shaving cream? Do I need to do a strip tease before I get any basic toiletries?”

Crow paused. That hunger from before gleamed in his eyes. “Yes.”

Joker groaned and buried his face in both hands. “I just had to fucking ask.”

He laughed as if sincerely amused. “I’m joking. It’s in my best interests to allow you to groom yourself properly, so I’ll bring you those things regardless.” He paused. “But…”

Here we go. “But?”

Crow licked his lips. “…once I do, I want to watch you bathe.”

He rubbed his temple. Don’t think about how hot that sounds. “So I really do have to do a strip tease.”

He laughed again. “You don’t have to. But it’s a fine bargaining chip for the next time you want something from me. Do keep it in mind.”

“Is it enough for a private space?”

“Perhaps… but you’re still not allowed to hide yourself from me.”

“Do you understand what ‘private’ means?”

Crow picked up the bamboo table, set it and its contents to one side, and knelt before Joker. Before Joker could try to avoid him, he pushed him down and pinned him to the floor by the wrists, a knee between his legs.

“I understand. I just don’t care, because you belong to me now, and I intend to do with you as I will,” he said softly. “Control issues, remember?”

Squirming, Joker frowned to mask the rabbit-race of his pulse. “Not funny.”

“That would be because, this time, I’m not joking.” He leaned his face into the crook of Joker’s shoulder and breathed in his scent. “I want you. But I know you’d normally never want me back. So the obvious solution is to offer you compensation. Then you’ll have a reason to want me, even if it’s solely practical. And of course, if I’m bringing you what you desire, you’ll need me too, won’t you?”

“You don’t—” Aahhgh, his lips were so close to his neck “—have to… do that…”

“Don’t I?” he whispered, breath tickling his ear. “And what do you suggest instead?”

Joker said nothing. None of his thoughts, let alone words, would line up.

Crow chuckled. Mercifully, torturously, he leaned back onto his knees and sat up, releasing him. Joker let out an explosive breath, then panted. He didn’t dare look up at Crow; he fixed his vacant stare on the nearby pool.

“You look good like that, Joker,” Crow whispered. “Flushed and ruffled and just a little off your game. It’s sexy.”

“Shut up,” he rasped.

He cackled in delight and got to his feet. “We’ll leave it at that for tonight, then. Just remember: all you need to do is please me. Is that so hard?”

He laughed all the way out of the compound. Joker neither acted nor spoke. However, as his panting slowed and he stared at the artificial waterfall, he wondered if it would make things better or worse if he admitted to Crow that, actually, he did want him back.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Lunch ended too soon and also not soon enough. As Joker fetched his bucket of bath things, Crow went over to the cage door. A panel opened up next to it, and he input some kind of code; a moment later, a strange, translucent sort of drapery unfurled around the cage, darkening the sides and leaving light to pour in up top. The crowds vanished from view. Joker relaxed a little, looking around. The top of that administration building still loomed, but at least he didn’t have to see faceless people. Much as Joker loved attention, those cognitions creeped the hell out him.

When Crow returned and draped himself down, seated on his cushion, one arm leaning on the table, he knew he couldn’t delay it any longer. He avoided meeting Crow’s eye as he set his bathing things on a dry rock next to the pool, but he could feel Crow staring at him. Excitement deepened his breath, nerves made his hands shake, and fear fluttered in his belly. He dared to shoot him a glance. Crow’s pose was languid, but while he couldn’t see his face under the helm from here, there was a certain sharpness to the angle of his head. Joker lowered his gaze.

I want to see him looking at me, he thought, and knew he was doomed.

“Can… I ask you for something else?” he murmured.

“What is it?”

“Can you take off your mask?” He slipped a hand up the side of his neck. “If you get to see my body, I should get to see your face.”

Crow paused for a long moment. Then, voice low, he said, “Let me touch you from the waist up.”

You greedy bastard. “Neck up.”

“Chest up.”

Neck up, you weird pervert, or you can keep the mask on.”

“Hmph. Fine.” Another pause; then he lifted his hands to the sides of his helm. Joker held his breath as he watched him pull the top with its curled horns off from the neck brace-like bottom and shake out his hair. He set the horned helm on the table, out of the way; then he pinned Joker again with his rapt stare.

God, he was handsome. The light shone on his auburn hair in a way that made it look smooth as silk, that called for long fingers to sift through their strands. Unfairly, it had fallen perfectly around the hexagonal guards at the sides of his head, framing his smooth cheeks and soft lips and graceful chin. His red eyes burned with desire, no more masked than he was now, and it ignited warmth in Joker about four inches below his navel. The intensity of Crow’s stare—the way it was focused wholly on him—was the stuff of dirty daydreams.

He swallowed hard. Focus, focus. Don’t let him know he’s got you going. Your body is your only bargaining chip with him. Joker took a deep breath, raked a hand through his own hair, and set his gaze slightly above and to the left of Crow’s face. Enough to see him see, but not enough to be obvious.

He settled his fingers at his throat, where his costume top’s clasps lay hidden. One by one, he worked them open, letting his chest peek through inch by inch. When he was done, he let it hang there, open but not parted, and slid his gloved fingers onto his hips and around his waistband, then up the lapels of his coat to briefly cup his chest. Once his hands were level with his collar, he tugged on his right glove, first down out of habit, then up to just past the first knuckle of his thumb. A glance at Crow to make sure he was still paying attention proved to be a mistake; their eyes met, and Joker’s breath caught in his throat at how captivated his captor looked. A pleasant tingle washed over his skin, and he licked his lips.

Then, without breaking eye contact, he bit the tip of his right glove and slowly, s l o w l y peeled his hand out of it. Crow made a low, lusty noise deep in his throat and shifted his legs, and Joker resisted a smile. Instead, he turned himself to a 3/4th angle and repeated the process with his left glove—only this time, he trailed his tongue up his palm, up to the tip of his finger, before baring his teeth and squeezing down on the end of his glove. He went slow pulling it off at first, and when it passed the threshold of resistance, he ripped it off the rest of the way, whipping his head back. Crow shifted again, tension riding up his entire profile. Joker smiled for real this time, but kept it hidden behind his gloves for the moment before he half-turned and tossed them to one side.

When he turned back, he faced Crow directly, chest rising and falling with a gradually quickening rhythm. Crow never tore his eyes away, watching him with such intensity that Joker had to squeeze his own eyes shut to keep himself from getting carried away. He crossed his arms in an X over his chest, hands on his shoulders, head tilted away, in a show of faux shyness. Lips kept slightly parted, he turned his lapels back and loosened his coat; one side slipped off his shoulder, then the other, baring the muscular upper arms beneath. His fingers kept its descent off his arms unhurried, and he pressed his thighs together, demure as a virginal maiden. When his coat finally reached his elbows, he clutched it tight there for a moment, eyes shut, lips pursed. Then he let his eyes flutter open, and gazing at Crow from the corner of his eye, he let his arms drift down to his sides. It fell with fluid grace, and he caught it by the neck with the fingers of his right hand. Turning to show himself to Crow in profile, he hugged the coat to his chest; then he folded it, one hesitant crease at a time.

Crow not only ate it all up, he licked the plate and demanded seconds, all without a word. It was amazing, really, how eloquent a stare could be: a little twist of the hips, a flex of the hands, a flash of tongue on his lips, and the lust in his piercing gaze became a duet of desire and need. It made him gorgeous, and it made Joker feel gorgeous. He could just take him in his arms right now and…

He shuddered, the tiny movement racing up his spine. Crow half-sighed, half-groaned. He, too, looked like he was thinking something along the lines of he could just take him in his arms right now and—and Joker didn’t dislike the new ending Crow was writing in his head, or maybe more accurately in his pants. He drew a deep breath to calm himself; then he set down his coat and finally, finally, pulled his top apart. Crow made another noise, this time more groan than sigh, as Joker let his bare chest shine. The top he folded and set down, too, but this time he kept his arms low so Crow could appreciate his pectorals and abs.

Once he was topless, he took a momentary breather, both to calm himself and to let Crow drink in his appearance. He’d left on his mask—he intended on removing that last—but aside from that, he was now bare from the waist up. How long had it been since he started stripping? It felt like an eternity ago, and he was only half done. Crow had to be fit to nut himself. Or so he thought as a joke, but then the idea of him orgasming just from Joker’s show made another, sultrier and more insistent shudder course up his body, prickling his arm hairs and hardening his nipples. To cover it up, he interlocked his hands and stretched his arms, first in front of him, then over his head. He allowed himself a peek at Crow; one hand gripping the table, the other hand’s thumbnail between his teeth and fit to tear, his entire body was taut as an over-tuned piano string and just as liable to snap. Joker arched his back as he stretched that much harder and higher.

With a ballerina’s grace, he extended one leg and folded himself in half, fingertips touching his sole. Like this, he couldn’t see Crow’s reactions, so he trusted in himself and his natural sensuality as he caressed his boot from bottom to top. Once he reached the top, he loosened it and slipped it off, then repeated with the other, and set them neatly next to his folded coat and top. From there, he trailed his bare fingers up his long, long legs as he stood upright, until finally they hitched themselves in the waistband of his pants.

This time, he didn’t dare to look at Crow. Instead, he focused solely on the deft dance of his fingers as he caressed the buttons at his crotch and snapped them open: one, two, three. He burrowed his fingers beneath his waistband, loosening his pants as he held his drawers in place—

Joker,” Crow moaned.

fuck, fuck fuck fuuuuck, Joker nearly moaned too. Worst yet, that—nngh, yes, that was his cock twitching with far more honesty than he could allow himself. He’d let this go on for far too long. In whipping Crow up in a desperately thirsty lather, he himself was on the verge of dropping all pretense along with his pants and straight-up begging his captor to pin him to something, anything, and pound his ass with all the passion that threatened to scorch them both. Wasn’t that fucked up.

Sweat prickled his face and collar. He half-turned, tugged at his pants, and then half-turned again, so that when his hardening dick sprang free, all (“all”) Crow got to see was his ass. He arched himself down, down, down, once again bending himself in half as he slid his pants and drawers off together, then arched his heels as he stepped out of them. Still bent over, he folded his pants and set them to one side, but when he stood up again, he kept his drawers in hand.

He glanced over his shoulder at Crow, who looked liable to break that damn table in half, possibly by throwing the both of them on top of it. The inferno in Crow’s unwavering gaze made Joker’s cock twitch again, and he bit his lower lip hard to keep from betraying himself. Then, meeting and holding that smoldering stare, he held his drawers up—up—up—and let go, letting them drift down and drape on top of the rest of his clothes.

Then he let himself smirk. Crow stilled as if struck to stone at the sight. Joker raked one hand through his hair again and set the other on his thigh, almost onto his ass. He looked forward and crowned his clothing pile with his mask. When he sashayed into the water, he put a grinding swing into his hips as he traced circles in his sweaty skin.

Because god help him, he wanted Crow to want him. He wanted him to go back to wherever he roomed, stumble in a lusty haze into his shower, and rub one out to the memory of this strip show so hard he chafed his dick. He wanted to coil himself around Crow and moan his name—no, scream it, as Crow gave himself over entirely to desire and thrust into him without pause or hesitation until they both climaxed at the top of their lungs, nails carving bloody trails into each other’s backs.

God, I better get an amazing room out of this, a part of him thought distantly.

The pool had its own plateau stairway, presumably for ease of climbing in and out. He soon reached waist-high water and exhaled a long sigh as its coldness tamed his burgeoning erection into flaccid obedience. For the best, but—nngh, guh. He shook his head and dove into deeper water to let it shock the rest of his lust out of him. Sadly, it worked; when he breached the water, the only thing he shivered from was the air chill.

He sat on one of the underwater plateaus, bringing the water to his shoulders, and splashed more on his face. Behind him, he could hear soft footfalls. He pretended not to notice and reached for the soap.

Crow blocked the way, kneeling on the edge between him and his things and reaching for the water. Joker pulled back, but didn’t lower, his hand, and watched as Crow splashed cold water on his own face several times. Then he passed him the bucket before plucking the towel out of it.

Joker accepted it in silence, took the soap and scrub-brush, and began to lather up the brush while Crow dried his face. Soon he put the towel back and moved to sit behind Joker; there, he immediately made good on his bonus and stroked Joker’s wet hair. Joker froze, then relaxed.

“You’re so insufferable,” Crow murmured.

He swallowed, but kept his tone even: “That’s unfair. You told me I should try to please you.”

“Such cheek,” he said with open affection, slipping his hand onto Joker’s cheek. He probably thought he was so clever. It exasperated Joker a little that he thought so, too. But then: “I really ought to punish you for it.”

He paused long enough for that comment to ring in the cool air. Then he set the soap down and started scrubbing himself. Some things you just didn’t risk engaging.

Crow caressed the side of his neck as he washed. He, too, said nothing further, seeming content with the moment as it had become. It wasn’t bad for Joker either—not bad at all—and after a moment, he began to hum a nostalgic tune, a song to sway the heart and whittle it down. A brisk breeze rustled through the trees in the enclosure. Strange; all of a sudden, the mood had gone from “raw me as hard as you can” to “let’s cuddle and spoon.” Probably it was just him, though. Also the general chill. It wasn’t cold cold but, having been given the chance, it definitely cooled their passions before they got the better of either of them. Weird for a zoo-themed Palace, in his opinion.

Eventually, he’d washed as much of himself as was above water. He dipped back into the pool to rinse off the soap, then surfaced with a gasp and pushed his hair back from his face. Crow’s gaze journeyed down his bare chest, down his wet stomach, down to where the water barely covered his groin, and meandered up again to his face. The glitter in his eyes warmed Joker from the inside out, and he hurried to settle back into his previous spot. He reached for the shampoo still in the bucket, but Crow rested his hand on top of it first.

“Sit on the edge,” he commanded. “I’ll wash your hair for you. That’s acceptable, right?”

Was it? Joker hesitated as he considered it. It fulfilled the requirement of staying neck up, and it wasn’t sexy, it was just… washing hair. Kind of an odd offer, though. “Do you have a hair kink or something?” he asked, dubious.

Crow burst out laughing. “God, no!” He stretched his clawed fingertips out to brush his cheek. The look in his eyes was almost tender and emphatically affectionate, and it made Joker’s heart flutter. “I just want an excuse to touch you more. I thought you knew that about me by now.”

He frowned, still uncertain. However, even though he knew it was a bad idea, he said, “Well… okay. Just don’t make it weird.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he replied airily.

Joker snorted, but left the obvious lie alone. He slipped up to sit on the edge of the pool and began to soap the rest of himself up. As he did, Crow knelt behind him andslowly worked a glob of shampoo through his curls. A handful of water helped with the lathering, and—oh. Oh damn. Crow caressed it through, trailing his glove claws along Joker’s scalp. They left a pleasant tingling in their wake, and Joker paused and let his eyes drift shut.

“Does that feel good?” Crow murmured, keeping up the massage.

“Uh.” He swallowed hard, licked his lips. “Yeah. Actually.”

He leaned in as he traced twin lines behind Joker’s ears. “How good?” he whispered.

This felt distinctly like a trap, so Joker made a show of going back to scrubbing himself.

Not that it seemed to bother Crow. He leaned back, chuckling, as he worked his hands. “By the way, Joker. Have you ever heard of something called the suspension bridge effect?”

“The—the what?”

“Basically, when a woman walks with a man onto a suspension bridge, which then sways in the wind, the swaying causes her heart rate to rise out of fear. But since she’s with a man, she mistakes that racing heart for feelings of love towards her companion.” He laughed again, this time with a distinctly unnerving edge. “Isn’t that amazing? How easily someone can confuse love and fear…?”

“Um.”

“Don’t you think that means the two are fundamentally similar?”

“U-um.”

“Joker… no,” he whispered, leaning in to his ear as his clawed fingers dug deeper into his hair, “Ren Amamiya… Do I make your heart pound?”

He didn’t speak. His heart, hammering frantically on the bars of his rib cage, said it all for him.

Crow chuckled again. “It’s fine if you don’t want to say. I just want you to dwell on it.” He leaned back. “I want it to possess your thoughts, day and night, like you possess mine…”

And there he left it. Crow fell into silence to focus on massaging Joker’s scalp, a sensation that remained so pleasant and soothing that he could have drowned in it. For his part, Joker hid the tremor of his hands by scrubbing until his skin was nearly raw.

When he was done, Crow rinsed his hands in the pool, then filled the bucket with water. He poured it over Joker’s head and shoulders, rinsing away the shampoo and soap in a river of suds. Twice he repeated this, even after Joker slipped back into shoulder-height water. After that though, he contented himself with brushing the backs of his fingers on Joker’s cheek, and then to watching when his captive dove and swam away towards the waterfall.

Joker knew this because he made no attempt to stop him or call him back, even after he surfaced. The waterfall provided some convenient cover, and he peeked around it to confirm Crow’s attention was still on him.

He pressed a hand to his chest and breathed. That had been… what was the opposite of intense? It’d been like sinking into a bed of cotton balls. A sensation like completely giving himself over to someone else. As much as he loved his thrills, it hadn’t been a bad feeling. And that made it dangerous, and that made it heady and thus appealing. God. Why did he have to get turned on by danger? Love and fear blurred hard indeed when you were into that.

He stepped under the waterfall and let it pour over him for a moment. After that, though, his bath was pretty much done. Glancing at Crow told him—yeah, of course he was still watching. Joker glanced up at the fake sky, then resolved himself and swam-walked for the shallows.

Crow kept watching as if entranced as he climbed out. Joker ignored it as well as any man could ignore his fetish in favor of picking up his towel and starting to dry off.

“The show’s over,” he added lightly.

Crow sighed. “All too soon.” He rolled onto his feet. “Very well.You’ll have your… private space.”

“Great.”

“You could sound happier about it,” he added sharply.

“You think I’m happy about any of this…?”

His eyes flicked down as he sighed. “No, I suppose not.” A beat. He composed himself, more or less, and added, “You have a splendid body, and you know well how to display it. I could scarcely tear my eyes from you.”

Joker turned away to hide his smile. “Oh?”

“…which makes me wonder how many times you’ve done this sort of thing, and for how many people.”

Danger. And not the sexy kind. “If I’ve done anything like this before, it was from before I met you.”

Crow paused. Then he chuckled. “And you’re hardly going to do it for anyone else, either. Fine.” He gently scraped the back of Joker’s neck, sending a shiver down his spine. “Feel free to sell that one to me again. I enjoyed it immensely.”

Joker buried his face in the towel, pretending to dry himself off with vigor. “Uh, by the way,” he said, muffled. “What about laundry?”

“Ah, that’s one thing you don’t need to worry about. Just will your costume on again and it’ll appear around you, whole and clean.”

Is that it? But as he looked down at himself and wished to be dressed, his costume, still folded near by, went up in blue flame, then wreathed him in the same. A moment later, and he was back in style, complete with mask.

“…Convenient,” he admitted.

Crow sighed wistfully. Then he said, “There are lots of little tricks like that you can pull in the Metaverse. It’s just a matter of taking the time to figure them out.”

Joker raised his eyebrows. “D’you feel like sharing any more?”

He smirked. “Only the first one’s free. What will you do for the rest?”

“How much would a kiss get me?”

To his bafflement, Crow blushed and recoiled as if scandalized. “A k-kiss?!”

“Uh. Yes?”

“That’s—that’s out of the question!! You can’t just—sell a kiss! It’s unacceptable!”

What.”

“How many women have you kissed where you can make an offer like that like it’s nothing?!” he demanded, still red-faced. “Do you spread your legs for anyone who wants a fuck, too?! You… you Jezebel!!”

Joker stared. “…Gonna ignore that last comment,” he decided. “But by some chance, have you never been kissed before?”

“S-so what if I haven’t?!” He folded his arms and turned away in a huff. “One’s first kiss is supposed to be special! You can’t give it away to just anyone in just any way!!”

Joker stared harder at the man who had lied to, betrayed, almost murdered, kidnapped, caged, and sexually coerced him, declaring in all seriousness like a blushing tsundere maiden that his first kiss should be special. Then he turned around, strode over to the plateau wall, and slammed a fist against it as he slumped, shaking.

He’s too adorable!! Is this what they call gap moé?! he wondered furiously, other hand covering his mouth. I can’t handle it!!

Crow was yelling at him some more. What was he saying? Shit. Probably something else precious. Shit. He was so fucked.

Bracing both hands on the wall, Joker sucked in a deep breath through his nose and stood up straight. Seven seconds of holding it later, he let it out through his mouth for eight. Then he nodded once, tucked his hands into his pockets, and sauntered back over to Crow.

“Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention,” he said, blasé. “So, kisses are no good. Does this mean sex in general is out? If you’ve never been kissed, I’m guessing you’re a virgin, too.”

“You guess correctly,” he said stiffly, grimacing in irritation. “Are you going to laugh about that, too?”

“No. I’m just surprised. You really did only want to touch me.”

A shadow of unhappiness flitted across Crow’s face as he glanced away. “I’m not… uninterested… in sex. With you,” he said with difficulty. “But it...”

“Should be special,” Joker finished. “It’s okay. I get it. Your first time… your first kiss… you want to cherish it.”

Crow met his gaze, then glanced away again, lips slightly parted, cheeks faintly pink, one hand up to brush his hair back. In that moment, he looked so unsure, so vulnerable… so beautiful. Joker resisted the urge to close the distance between them and pull him into his arms. He didn’t think this was an act or a trap, but that didn’t mean Crow wouldn’t take advantage if he sensed weakness.

It was good, though. For one, this was a real relief. If Crow had hang-ups about his firsts, then he wouldn’t demand those things from him. For another…

For another, if he played his cards right, it might well be possible to seduce his way out of here.

He’d have to leave that for a last resort, though. Joker was sure he could do it; he was significantly less sure he could do it without falling for Crow, too.

“What about a massage?” he offered. “I’m pretty good at those.” Thanks to Ms. Kawakami, he didn’t add. Crow was already unreasonably jealous without bringing up someone he might know.

“I’m not… I don’t…” He shook his head violently, then glared at Joker with open hostility. “No. I’m not exposing my back to you. You’d take advantage in a heartbeat.”

“That seems unfair.”

“I know you’d run from me if given half a chance. You’ve made it repeatedly clear your top priority is escape,” Crow replied, eyes narrowing. “I won’t let you. You’re mine. I won’t let you go.”

Joker sighed. “Right, right.” He paused in thought. “Then how about something like this?” With even steps, he approached his captor, who tensed. When they were less than a foot apart, Joker stopped and met Crow’s suspicious stare; then he swept his coat back and sank to one knee. He reached for one of Crow’s hands and brought it to his face. “How may I serve you today…” He gazed up at him, lips grazing his knuckles. “…Master Crow?”

Crow’s eyes flew wide. A couple of seconds later, they settled as he smiled and turned his hand to stroke Joker’s face. “Hmm… I don’t dislike it.” He traced his thumb over Joker’s lips. Joker held his gaze and layered his hand over Crow’s; Crow’s smile grew. “Yes, there is a distinct appeal. But for now, I still have to get your personal room processed. It may take a couple of days, so you’re aware. Do you have anything you’d like in particular for it?”

“A light,” he murmured, “for reading. A table, maybe. A cubby for the futon. Extra pillows to go with it. Bookshelves. Maybe a portable stove or space heater? It gets cold in here.”

“Hmmm… Furnishings will cost you extra… but the rest, I’ll see what I can arrange.”

Joker let the side of his mouth pull up in a teasing smirk. “Thank you, Master.”

Crow chuckled, slipped his hand under Joker’s chin, and tilted his head up. “I look forward,” he purred, leaning in almost nose to nose with his captive, “to when I’ve broken you in enough that you call me Master for real.”

Joker’s smirk peeled away from his teeth. Gap? More like a canyon.

Chapter Text

After Crow excused himself, Joker read until he admitted to himself that he’d repeated the same page thrice. Then he went up to his futon and stared at the bars of his cage while thinking of the smolder of Crow’s stare at his undressing. His fingers drummed a thunderous beat on his thigh, so close, too close, to where he wanted them to be, but the return of the faceless crowds stayed his hand. After that, he ran ten laps around the encampment, including a climb up the plateaus and leap down from the top, until finally he’d worked out the last of the nervous energy he’d built up. It rendered his bath from earlier meaningless, but whatever. Some things needed doing.

At dinner, Crow brought board games and a deck of cards. They played Go Fish best two out of three (Crow won), then a pair of games of Othello. Then they paused to eat. However, dinner was yet more sandwiches and rice balls.

“Do you know how to make anything else?” he complained.

“It’s simple and convenient, and anyway, that’s what I bought ingredients for. Stop whining,” Crow replied.

So Joker trounced him at their last round of Othello out of spite, and at the next two on top of that when Crow demanded best three out of five. After that, he magically had something else that needed doing. Too bad, since there were lots of games left and all of them required two players. He spent the rest of the day on the tallest plateau, scoping out the crowds and Palace around him for clues about the layout and if there were any maps or not.

The next day, Crow brought a pair of baseball gloves and a ball. There was something hilarious to Joker about playing a game as wholesome as catch with him, but it got them moving, so he went along with it. They played while arguing about whether or not the character Professor Moriarty was his own distinct person (Joker’s position) or if he was actually a persona of Sherlock Holmes’s, created to give himself a rival capable of matching him (Crow’s). The argument got so heated that catch turned into dodgeball. After inflicting each other with multiple counts of blunt trauma, they demolished breakfast, called a truce, and tended to the other’s injuries with their Personas. Crow had a High Pixie, Joker noted. It didn’t seem like a result of fusion.

Lunch and dinner went similarly. Crow would bring a filling but boring meal, and they’d spend an hour or two playing games while chatting and/or arguing about their mutual interests. Spending time with him wasn’t… bad, but the contrast of the times when Crow was there and when he wasn’t was even more keenly obvious by the next day, when Joker’s private area still hadn’t been… made? Set up? He wasn’t sure how that was going to go, he only knew that no work had been done on it so far as he could tell. Crow had said it might take a couple of days, but he thought he’d at least see some movement. He spent his time in between meals doing more observations, but even spotting what was definitely a pamphlet-map in one cognition’s hand wasn’t enough.

So over breakfast the day after that (more rice balls), he asked, “How’s the private space coming along?”

“It’ll be ready soon,” Crow replied.

“How soon is ‘soon’?”

“You’ll see.”

Joker frowned. “You are working on it, right?”

He frowned back. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means exactly what it sounds like.”

Crow set down his canned coffee. “Are you trying to say that I wouldn’t keep up my end of the bargain?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time you lied to me. Wouldn’t be the second, third, or fourth, either.”

“I am working on it. But I have a lot of other things to do, too, and it’s a big request. I already told you it might take a few days. Just be patient.”

“I’ve been patient. I can’t be anything but patient. My entire life right now is spent waiting on you,” Joker said flatly. “If you’re so damn busy, maybe you shouldn’t be spending so much time hanging out in here doing nothing.”

Crow’s eyes narrowed. “I’m ‘tending to your needs,’ as you put it the other day. Would you rather be bored?”

“Making me dependent on you for anything to do isn’t ‘tending to my needs’! We made a deal: you watch me bathe, and I get a private space. I’ve seen a lot of you playing, but I haven’t seen any of you working!”

“Tch.” Crow fell silent for a moment. “Very well. I’ll move the timetable up. But there’s something you’ll need to do first if you want it to include some of the things you requested.”

Joker rubbed his temples. “Is it bathe in front of you again.”

The ends of his lips tugged up. “It doesn’t have to be that specifically, but if you’re offering…”

“Fine.” He shoveled the last of his rice ball in his throat, chased it with half a bottle of tea, and shoved himself to his feet. “Let’s get this over with.”

This time, he didn’t bother to put on a show. After fetching the bucket with his bath things, he stripped with no ceremony and stormed into the water. Mostly it was because he was pissed off, but a part of him also wanted to see how Crow reacted to the difference.

His reaction was, essentially, displeasure. When Joker surfaced and settled in to start washing himself, Crow was already walking over to the pool’s side, frowning. He sat down near the edge, but Joker ignored him in favor of soaping his brush.

“You don’t need to be so angry,” Crow called. “You’ll get what you want.”

He glared at him. “I want to get out of here.”

“…You’ll get the other things you want.”

“At least one of us will.”

That didn’t come out nearly as clever as it sounded in Joker’s head, but it shut Crow up all the same, so whatever. He turned his back on him and started washing.

As the silence stretched on, Joker’s temper gradually cooled. Embers of it still remained, but it was easier to be rational about it. Crow held him captive, and he wouldn’t stop being angry about that. But it was true that he’d listened to his complaints about being bored and taken efforts at no cost to Joker to keep him stimulated. Then again, it was also true that all those efforts required Crow to be there, too. He hadn’t even gotten a replacement book for him yet, the asshole. Though, he guessed he wasn’t actually through Sputnik Sweetheart yet, let alone Kitchen

With a sigh of irritation, both at Crow and at himself, Joker glanced over his shoulder. Crow remained at the shore, watching him, one leg sprawled, the other bent to his chest. With his helm still on, it was impossible to read his expression, but his body language seemed unhappy. Which served him right, but Joker didn’t like the idea of getting to the end of this bath and Crow was so unhappy that he refused to pony up. Then again, that was precisely how all this had started.

He tossed the wooden brush aside in deeper irritation, then dove into deeper water. As he swam, he spotted a few drains throughout the bottom of the pool, but they were too narrow to be useful for escape. He surfaced under the waterfall, letting the flow pound over his head and shoulders. It wasn’t any warmer than the rest of the pool, but it helped clear his head some, let him make a decision. From there, he fetched the brush and waded back to shore, where he’d left the soap. Crow watched his every movement. Joker pretended to ignore it until he reached the bucket; then he leveled a flat stare at him.

The two of them watched the other for a tense, wordless moment. Then Joker shifted his gaze to the horns of Crow’s helm.

“You didn’t take it off,” he noted.

“I have no reason to,” he replied.

Joker scowled. Then he picked up the shampoo and half-tossed, half-hurled it at Crow. Crow caught it one-handed with ease, and looked down at it, then up at Joker, as Joker seated himself on the edge of the pool.

“It’ll go faster if you wash my hair for me,” he said tersely, re-soaping the brush without looking at him.

Crow stared at him, inscrutable under his mask. Then, slowly, he removed the top of his helm and set it aside. After shifting himself to sit behind Joker, he began to lather him up.

It was still a pleasant, soothing sensation—so soothing that it was hard to stay angry, or even annoyed. This was especially so when he ran his claws gently along his scalp to dig the bubbles deep. Joker breathed a faint sigh and sat up straight, partly to pull up his legs for washing, partly to allow

Crow better access. Crow made a soft noise, then began to massage him with the heels of his hands, leaving little concentric circles in a chain between his ears. Oh. Oh, yes, that was so soothing, soothing enough for Joker’s hands to still and his eyes to shut and to simply let Crow touch him.

At length, Crow murmured, “You like that?”

“Hnh? Yeah...”

He breathed a chuckle. “I’m glad.”

Joker prepared himself for follow-up creepiness, but it never came. That was a refreshing surprise. It was such a nice moment despite everything that he was loathe to spoil it, and so he resumed scrubbing himself in silence.

When they were both done, Crow rinsed his gloved hands, then poured buckets of water over Joker’s head until the suds had all washed away. Joker wiped the water from his face and reached for his towel; Crow grabbed it first, but handed it to him.

“I’ll get things started today,” he said. “You have no complaints with that, do you?”

Joker dried his face, then slung the towel around his shoulders. “No.”

“So you know, I haven’t been doing nothing,” he added. “This isn’t my Palace. Changes like what you’re requesting have to be processed through the Shadow Police Chief, and they have to be processed by changing his cognition. Things like that aren’t easy working solely from the inside.”

“I get it.”

“…You’re still angry.”

“As long as I’m in this cage, I’ll still be angry. But I get that you’re not doing nothing.”

“Well… fine, then.”

Joker stepped out of the pool and dried the rest of himself off, pretending to not notice the way Crow tracked his every stroke, his every stretch. So show or not, he’d still pay close attention… He didn’t dislike that, but he did dislike the flutter it put in his stomach.

“Can I ask you something personal?” he added.

“What?”

“When did you figure out you were gay?”

Crow’s entire body tensed, shoulders hitching, spine locking in place, mouth pulling into a thin line as his jaw clenched. He looked away. “…When I was fifteen, in my last year of middle school. I’d been waiting for years to start feeling attracted to girls like the rest of my peers were. At first I’d thought I was a late bloomer in that regard; then I started to worry I was broken. I did my best to pretend otherwise, claiming I liked girls who were massively popular with the other boys and thus unattainable, so as to fit in.

“Then one day, I overheard a conversation between a few of my classmates, who were describing their heartbreaks and one-sided crushes. Listening to them, I realized their anecdotes perfectly described an experience I’d had the previous year with an upperclassman I’d admired. I was struck with the revelation that I wasn’t attracted to girls; I was attracted to boys.

“Since then, I’ve been terrified of people finding out. Being a detective was a blessing in that regard, as I could always pretend I was too busy with work to be concerned with romance. After a while, it even became true. Once that happened, I was able to safely compartmentalize how I felt… until I met you.” He paused a beat. Then he razed Joker with a murderously icy-hot glare. “Is that the kind of pathetic sob story you wanted to hear? You piece of shit.”

For a moment, Joker said nothing, wiping the last of the water off himself. Then he dropped the towel, and his costume flared into existence around him in a blaze of blue. Turning, he sat down next to Crow, legs bent up to his chest, and he stared out past the pool, past the bars, past the boundaries of the Palace around them.

“For me, I was twelve,” Joker said then. “My best friend at the time was panicking about meeting girls when we started middle school in a few months. He was kinda plain, see, and he thought he wouldn’t be able to get a girlfriend with his looks. So, he asked me if I’d help him practice kissing so he’d have experience on his side. I said yes. We made out. I liked it.” He paused. “The end.”

During his brief story, Crow’s expression had morphed from anger to frowning confusion to shock to blushing astonishment. “Wh-wha… Y-you mean you’re also…?”

“Pansexual. Technically. Gender doesn’t matter to me. I didn’t work out that nuance ‘til late middle school, early high school, though.”

“O-oh.” Crow fell silent. In the distance, above the shadow curtain, clouds sped by. While shooting Joker several brief, nervous glances, he cleared his throat and toyed with his hair. “I… So… I mean… i-if that’s the case, then—”

“Don’t get the wrong idea,” Joker interrupted him, keeping his stare unrelentingly forward. “Just because I like guys, doesn’t necessarily mean I like you, specifically.”

“Oh.” One could hear the hope that had been bubbling inside him pop. “Yes. Of course,” he added, now flat. “Why would someone like you ever love someone like me, after all?”

Joker said nothing. He could not afford to betray the queasy squirming in his guts.

Crow stood up and strode away several steps, horned mask flaring back into place. “I’m out of your league, anyway. We both know you’re beneath me. You’re just a passing fancy of mine. If you weren’t the leader of the Phantom Thieves, I would never have bothered with you, Joker.”

“Sure, Crow. Sure.”

“Kgh—!” And with that, he stormed—no, sprinted out of the cage, barely stopping long enough to bid the door lock behind him.

Joker watched him go, guilt sloshing hot and sour inside him. This was different from deliberately crushing him at board games. He’d known that would hurt him, and was ashamed of himself for it, but… Crow wasn’t the only one afraid of loving.

Chapter Text

“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.”

“Why’s that?”

“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.”

“Right.”

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?”

“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?”

“Mmph.”

“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’s that?”

“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.

“J-Joker?”

“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.

“Mm.”

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.”

Chapter Text

The private space was small but honestly nicer than Joker had expected. There was a doorway and a window, both of which were covered from the inside with thick drapes, and when he pushed the door drape aside, he found a cozy little nook inside. That was somewhat impressive, considering it was all carved from concrete. There was a white rug on the floor, though, on top of which was a small Western-style table with two chairs; the table had a white-and-blue plaid tablecloth on top, and a plastic vase at the center with a few fake flowers. To the left, there was a space heater up against the wall, already turned on; it radiated a pleasant warmth.

A few feet away, on the far wall, there was a makeshift stove fashioned from a two-burner portable stove plugged into the wall, and next to it, a small counter and a smaller sink. No faucet, though. Joker wondered how the Shadow Police Chief had managed to get electric wiring set up through presumably solid concrete for the stove and the space heater. Then he decided it probably didn’t matter. This was a world of cognition, and chances were good he was the type to think that as long as you had something plugged into an outlet, you’d get power. The bathroom plumbing probably worked the same way, thinking on it. Convenient.

He took a closer look at the stove. A teakettle rested on one stove burner, and a frying pan large enough to cook for two on the other. Shelves had been carved into the concrete over this tiny kitchen, and when Joker opened the thin hinged wood, he found plates, drinking glasses, and various wooden utensils for both cooking and eating inside. No sharp knives, though. In the ceiling, a single light had been installed with a long chain to turn it off and on. A lampshade that matched the tablecloth hung over it.

When he looked to the right from there, he realized there was actually a second window, which opened up behind the waterfall. A bucket hung on a hook next to it. Past the window was a narrow set of stairs, and at the top of it was the previously installed bathroom. When Joker returned downstairs and walked past the kitchen/dining/living room, he found a second room, of sorts. It was barely more than a cubby, which was carved into the wall at about knee height, with multiple shelves carved out of the opposite wall higher up. The space heater was close enough that it could be moved into this mini-room with ease, which he did. The shelves had several books, board games, card decks, and even an ancient-looking speaker lined inside. Beneath them was a worn dresser. The dresser had a modestly-sized desk mirror on top, to his surprise, and next to it was set a portable electric lamp, currently on.

There was a rug on the floor in here, too, and another drape hung over the cubby. When Joker pulled the drape aside, he found his futon there, as well as a wall-to-wall lining of pillows. There was enough height that he could sit up without hitting his head, and, as it so happened, enough depth to accommodate two people if needed. He pulled off his boots, coat, mask, and gloves, set them inside or next to the dresser as appropriate, and climbed into the bed/futon/cubby. With the bamboo matting underneath, it was actually quite cozy. He pulled the drape shut and laid down. As he lay there in the dark, surrounded by softness, he reflected that one could live here in modest comfort for a decent while if they were so inclined.

He was not so inclined. And even if this private space was far nicer than he’d had any reason to expect, he wasn’t going to give up on his goal of escape. He would get out of here. He would see his friends again. And they would rally from their failure to change Shido’s heart and make a comeback. They’d see. The whole world would see.

Joker shut his eyes, reassured by his own determination, and fell asleep.

 


 

He awoke an indeterminate amount of time later. He blinked blearily, rolled his head towards the lamp light—hadn’t he shut the bed drapes?—and seized up when he saw Crow sitting next to the cubby futon on one of the kitchen chairs, watching him.

“Already settled in, hmm?” his jailer wondered softly.

Joker reined in his racing heart and let out a faint sigh. “There’s a lot more to it than I’d expected. Now I’m surprised you got it done so soon.”

Crow reached out for his face; Joker intercepted his wrist and warded his hand away. Crow let it settle on his knee. “…I’m glad you’re pleased with it. I was looking forward to seeing your reaction.”

Ah. So that was why he’d been in such a good mood when he woke up earlier. He sat up and half-turned to face him. “There isn’t a food pantry, through. Or a fridge or freezer.”

“I determined there was no need. I bring you all your meals and take all leftovers with me. Did you want one?”

“Not that bad.” He paused. “I notice there’s a lot of spots for two in here.”

“In case I ever stay to keep you company.”

“Where do you stay at night?”

“I have a suite elsewhere in this Palace.”

“Where?”

“Why should I—”

“Because I beat you at ping-pong, asshole. Now fucking tell me already.”

Crow paused. “Fine,” he said curtly. “It’s in that building that overlooks this enclosure. Whether near or far, I’m always watching you.”

“Ultra creepy.”

“You asked.”

“What about the rest of the Palace? Why’s it always so cold? You’d think a zoo-slash-game preserve would be hot and muggy, like a safari.”

“It’s a reflection of the police chief’s real-world personality. He’s a cold man who neglects his unwanted wife and child in favor of his career, whose only thrill comes from the chase and arrest of criminals, so there’s a perpetual, pervasive coolness in the air. His wife and daughter have budding Shadows in Mementos, too, as a result of their family’s dysfunction, but that’s another story.”

“Give me the cliff notes.”

“I understand their union was the result of a marriage interview that their respective parents pressured them into. Their child is likewise the result of family pressure. The police chief provides them with plenty of money and material goods, but spends no time with them and has no desire to. His wife is a depressed day-drinker who soothes her loneliness with a shopping addiction, and their middle school-aged daughter is on the verge of becoming a delinquent just to get a scrap of attention.”

“That’s really sad.”

“Yet another worthless, selfish father,” Crow spat bitterly. “I’d have killed him long ago if he hadn’t been of use to me.”

“And to Shido?” Joker added archly.

Crow said nothing. But then, he didn’t need to.

“So tell me about the Palace’s layout,” he continued, laying back down and folding his arms under his head. “How far is it from here to the exit?”

“Since you’re the prize of this Palace, you’re almost as far away as it’s possible to get from the exit. Not quite Treasure level, but close.”

Meaning the police chief’s Treasure is nearby, Joker interpreted. Not that that helped him any.

“The zoo’s layout is mostly flat, and spread out wide, with various enclosures like this one in all directions, broken up into seven main areas. For those not meant to be here, you have to make your way through the main areas one by one, fighting the ‘animals’ caged within to find the path forward. That path is winding, too, not unlike a maze. It’s easy to lose your way if you aren’t careful, and sometimes even if you are.

“The way out is even worse; after all, this is a place that’s meant to keep people in, not out. The doors will lock behind you. Shadows will jump you. Traps are set to capture you, and alarms will sound if they go off, whether they snatch you up or not.

“It’s possible to turn off the traps, or even adjust them to work against the zookeepers. You do that by infiltrating the administrative buildings, of which there are three. The main one is the one that overlooks this enclosure; the Shadow Police Chief’s quarters are there as well. However, turning some off will turn others on, so using this technique involves a lot of backtracking, which will also increase your odds of being found and caught.”

Joker considered this. Turning some traps off turned others on… If you had to backtrack to work these controls, then wouldn’t it be impossible to get through the traps without having to put them back on again? That struck him as unwieldy. There had to be another way around the traps. Maybe a secret route that opened up when you adjusted the traps… There was no way Crow would tell him about that, though, and he knew better than to ask. This made a map more crucial than ever. If he could get his hands on one, then he could even risk a flashy escape. He’d need his Personas for that… so for now, he had to pretend to behave. Or keep pretending, he supposed. The timing was good. With his new private space, he could act like that had him satisfied for now… or better yet for assuaging Crow’s easily bruised ego, defeated.

“You make it sound pretty hopeless,” he said aloud, following that train of thought. “Though as long as I don’t have a way out of this cage, it’s a moot point, anyway.” And then a sigh, for a touch of the dramatic.

Crow leaned on the cubby wall. “Oh? Are you starting to understand there’s no way out?”

Joker stared at the ceiling for a moment. Then he turned his head away. “You really want me to be miserable, huh. You hate me that much?”

“…I do hate you. With all my heart and soul,” he murmured tenderly. He brushed his fingers through Joker’s hair. “So I’ll make you suffer forever, in this cage, here, with me.”

Never before had Joker ever heard such a twisted confession of love. He rolled over to turn his back to Crow. “Creepy,” he mumbled.

Crow didn’t even chuckle. Joker watched the shadows dance on the wall for who knew how long, until finally, Crow got to his feet and pulled the drapes shut. Joker listened to the click of the lamp and the ka-klick of the ceiling light and Crow’s footfalls until they faded in the distance; then he shut his eyes and let himself fall back asleep.

 


 

Because he crashed so hard and so early and for so much of the previous day, Joker awoke well before the dawn, long before any of the zookeepers or civilians were up and about. With this stillness, the Shadow Police Chief and even Crow had to be asleep, too. He used that time to experiment with his Personas, see what they could do within his golden confines. The most useful thing he discovered by far was that while he might be trapped within the bars of his cage, they were not, so long as he was right next to the bars and willed them to appear in front of him—or, say, right over the moat.

One of his Personas, Dominion, was able to make a bridge of ice for him; another, Kurama Tengu, was able to generate a whirlwind powerful enough to retrieve his dagger from the bottom of the moat. That same wind magic was strong enough to blow small, light materials over from the other side of the moat into the cage. Meanwhile, Cerberus had powerful fire magic, so if he used him to super-heat the bars, then had King Frost flash-freeze them, Joker could potentially shatter them, giving himself a way to take advantage of Dominion’s bridge.

For now, he had his Persona shatter the bridge and render the ice shards to light. Joker wasn’t ready to make his escape just yet, but he had his plan now. He couldn’t afford to let his jailers catch on that the day he freed himself was nigh.

He returned to his concrete cottage. While he had a teakettle, he had no tea or coffee or… really anything that would make boiling water worthwhile (god, he could go for a cup of the Boss’s coffee), but he did want to test out the mini-stove, so he filled the kettle up from the waterfall and put it on to boil anyway. Then he went upstairs to do his business, and after washing his hands, he returned to the bedroom-cubby to inspect the contents of the shelves more closely.

It included the books Crow had already given him plus several more works by Haruki Murakami, including 1Q84 and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and a variety of other books both fiction and non-fiction. He’d almost finished Sputnik Sweetheart, which had finally crossed its weird phase, so he grabbed that and 1Q84; picking a book that thick would make it look like he was expecting to be here for a while, and Crow would be happy to be able to anticipate discussing his favorite book with him.

Wait. Joker mentally paused as he sat at the kitchenette table. Crow will be happy, knowing he can discuss his favorite book with me soon

It was obvious, given that it and things like it were all Crow had been doing up until now. However, when he thought of it like that, it re-framed everything.

Crow really was in love with him.

It wasn’t just lust, or possessiveness, or a desire for someone he could control, or any of the other twisted emotions poisoning what Crow felt. Crow—no, Akechi loved him, and was happy being with him, and possibly even wanted him to be happy as long as it didn’t involve letting him go free. But had Goro Akechi ever had a healthy, positive relationship to model off of in his entire life? Joker suspected not.

He picked up Sputnik Sweetheart, Akechi’s original pick for him, and flipped through the pages for a passage he’d recently read. Along the way, a passage from a subsection within the novel, Document 1: Sumire’s Dream, snatched his attention: “I can’t be like a spineless little barber digging a hole in his back garden, revealing to no one the fact that I love Miu. Act that way and slowly but surely I will fade away.”

Joker stared at these two lines for a moment, thinking of his complex feelings for Akechi, of the complex feelings Akechi had for him. Then he shook his head violently and moved on.

He couldn’t find the passage he had in mind. But he found another one instead, and it struck him in a way it hadn’t the first time he’d read it:

 

Miu pursed her lips and was lost in thought. “Do you hate me?” she finally asked.

“Because Sumire disappeared?”

“Yes.”

“Why would I hate you?”

“I don’t know.” Her voice was tinged with a long-suppressed exhaustion. “I have the feeling I’ll never see you again, either. That’s why I asked.”

“I don’t hate you,” I said.

“But who can tell, maybe later on?”

“I don’t hate people over things like that.”

Miu took off her hat, straightened her fringe, and put it back on. She squinted at me.

“That might be because you don’t expect anything from anyone,” she said. Her eyes were deep and clear, like the twilit darkness on the day we met. “I’m not like that. I just want you to know that I like you. Very much.”

 

Joker shut the novel and set it down with great care. That might be because you don’t expect anything from anyone… He’d told Crow before that he had trouble getting into Murakami’s protagonists, and he’d meant it; in the case of K, Sputnik Sweetheart’s protagonist—or at least its narrator—Joker had been less than impressed with the straight man’s abject refusal to get over his crush on his lesbian best friend. She’s not into you, she loves Miu, get over it! he’d kept yelling in his head. But if, strictly for the purposes of comparing it to his own life, he set aside matters of gender and sexuality, then it became a story of loving someone with whom one had a unique and powerful connection, but who nonetheless did not return those feelings the same way. When he thought of it like that, he felt like he could understand the message that Akechi was trying to send him.

There’d been another passage, earlier on in Document 1: Sumire’s Dream. Sumire had described how everyone lives with what they know and what they don’t know, and how the two things can often collide, causing pain. “So what should we do to avoid a collision?” she wrote. “Logically, it’s easy. The answer is dreams. Dreaming on and on. Entering the world of dreams, and never coming out. Living there for the rest of time.” And then in Document 2: The Tale of Miu and the Ferris Wheel, Sumire had written of the story Miu had told her of how her hair had turned white, how she’d seen her other self and somehow slipped across to the ‘other side.’ That was when the book had taken a sharp left turn for Joker, but even then, he’d understood. He, too, lived in a world where you could step back and forth in between this side and the other side, and how where you were defined who you were.

Akechi had clearly decided to abandon who he was in the real world and live on in the world of dreams, to put it metaphorically and also fairly literally. He’d done that because he believed he had nothing left on that side, that all he had now was Joker himself, here on this side. But that wasn’t true for Joker. He still had so many things to live for, so much to fight for. He couldn’t possibly let himself get dragged down and caged here forever. But what if there was another ‘other side’? One where he would be willing to give up the real world and stay with Akechi in this gilded cage where he could hide from his failures? One where, in turn, Akechi was willing to respect his wishes and leave with him for the real world and all its ugly consequences? If the two of them could each cross over to that other side, would they finally reach a point where they could be together?

That wasn’t possible, of course. Reality wasn’t fiction, even if fiction could help one understand reality. Metaverse or no, all either of them had were themselves, whether they were Joker and Crow or Ren Amamiya and Goro Akechi. And since all they had were themselves, all they had were their feelings—about themselves, about the other, about this world and the other and how they wanted to relate to each. Joker had concluded after his conversation with Crow yesterday that they just weren’t compatible; Joker could not accept staying here, and Crow could not accept letting him leave. Even so, Crow’s feelings for Joker on the whole probably hadn’t changed. And, it had gradually occurred to him as he’d re-read those passages and re-considered what they meant to him, neither had Joker’s for Crow.

Which was a whole lot of bush-beating and navel-gazing and mental pontificating for one simple but profound self-realization:

Shit.

(The teakettle began to scream.)

I’m in love with Crow, too.

Chapter Text

Joker finished reading Sputnik Sweetheart. By the time he was done, early light peeked through the window next to the door, whose drapes he’d pulled aside to let in fresh air, and the boiling water had cooled enough that he could wash his face in it without scalding himself. After that, he returned to the bookshelf, but not to return the novel to its place. There had been some kind of stereo, and the silence in the wake of everything was so overwhelming he couldn’t stand it. When he pressed the play button, though, nothing happened. Of course. There was nothing inside, though he wasn’t sure what the hell you’d put inside this weird smartphone-shaped slot that popped open when he pressed the correct button.

Next to the stereo, though, there were a bunch of cartridge-looking thing s that looked to be about the same size, each of them inside a transparent plastic case. Each one was labeled with Crow’s meticulous handwriting. Joker rifled through them and picked one that read: Relaxing Music. Bland title. But he guessed it’d make the specific contents a surprise. He opened it up, fumbled with how to put it inside the player for a minute, and then pressed play.

Scratchy silence rolled by for a couple of seconds. Then a classical number—Bach, maybe?—began to play on piano. True to the title, listening to it soothed the soul. He returned to the kitchenette table, rested his chin on his interlocked fingers, and shut his eyes.

Halfway through the piece, a knock came at the doorway. “Joker,” Crow’s voice called.

“Come in,” Joker replied without opening his eyes.

The doorway drape fluttered, and footsteps sounded for a second until Crow crossed from concrete to rug. The chair opposite Joker’s scraped, then creaked. A subtle thup on the table told Joker he’d brought breakfast with him.

“You got up early, I see,” Crow observed.

“Yeah.”

“And you worked out the tape player. Most people our age don’t even know what a tape player is, you know.”

“The basic symbols are still the same. It wasn’t hard.”

Crow chuckled. “It’s a relic all the same. I found it elsewhere in this Palace. I had to mix and record the tapes myself, though. Do you like this one so far?”

“Yeah. It’s nice.” A beat. “Who’s this piece by? Bach, right?”

“That’s right. It’s called Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

Joker opened his eyes.

As always, Crow was watching him. He did so from behind the safety of his helm-mask. Before he could consider whether it was a good idea or not, he blurted out, “I want to see your face.”

Crow sat up a little straighter. “Why?”

Partly by way of response, partly to give him a reason, Joker took off his own mask and set it down. “It’s only the two of us in here. C’mon. You can at least be that honest.”

For a couple of seconds, Crow didn’t speak. Then he lifted off the top of his helm and set it to one side. His voice had sounded calm and even enough, but his red eyes looked tired. Perhaps to keep Joker from noticing, he dropped them towards the books crowding the small table.

“You finished Sputnik Sweetheart, then? What did you think?” he asked.

Joker thought of the last page and its inexplicable happy ending, and how he’d read it and re-read it and re-re-read it and re-re-re-re-re-re-re-read it, thinking all the while of himself and Crow and their hopeless, dead-end love for one another. “I didn’t really like it.”

“Oh.”

“But I’m starting 1Q84 next.” He gestured at the hardcover. “I figure I’ll start over from the beginning. It’s been a while.”

“I hope you enjoy it.”

“Yeah.”

They both fell into awkward silence. Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring came to a gentle end, and the tape transitioned to a new melody, this one all strings. Joker didn’t know it either. He listened for a minute, then cleared his throat.

“What’s for breakfast?”

In response, Crow opened up the basket. Inside were bento boxes, to Joker’s surprise, and inside those were rice, meatballs, and stewed vegetables. The meatballs were burnt and the vegetables looked overdone, but Joker was impressed and a little touched that he’d tried to cook all the same.

“It’s not very good,” Crow said with a note of unhappiness as he pulled off the lids and handed Joker a pair of chopsticks. “If you have to throw it out, I understand.”

“Don’t care. I’m starving,” Joker replied, and proceeded to stuff his face.

Crow had understated it. It was beyond ‘not very good’; it was terrible. The meatballs were bland on top of burnt, the sauce was too thin, and the veggies were just as mushy as they looked. Only the rice, which was merely decent, saved it from being a completely unpalatable meal. Joker ate every last crumb anyway, and savored Crow’s faint but warm smile when he was done.

“Thanks for the food,” he said, leaning back in his seat and shutting his eyes.

“You really must have been hungry, to force down all that,” Crow, who was only about halfway through his own meal, remarked. “I don’t care that much about taste and even I don’t like it.”

“Yeah, it sucked,” Joker replied. “If you’re going to cook for real, just bring the ingredients here. We’ll do it together.”

“I—okay,” he uttered, sounding stunned. After a moment, he added, “I’m sorry to serve you such terrible food. I tried to follow a recipe, but it ended up like this anyhow, and I didn’t have the time or ingredients to do it over.”

“You’re sorry to serve me bad food, but you’re not sorry to kidnap, drug, and imprison me?”

Crow emphatically said nothing.

“Whatever. It’s fine. About the food, I mean,” Joker clarified, opening one eye. “You tried. I appreciate that, honestly.”

“Oh… Really?” Befuddled, Crow paused, then frowned. “You aren’t just saying that?”

“I’d honestly rather you try and fail than never take any risks.”

He stared at him for a moment; then he smiled, breathing a faint and rueful heh. “You know, I actually think you might mean it.” A pause. Then he boxed up his half-eaten breakfast and set it and the other lunchbox back in the basket. “Enough of that. Would you care for a game a chess? We haven’t played in ages.”

“Sure.”

That seemed to cheer him up, if the way his smile warmed was any indication. He got up to fetch a chess set from the shelves across from the cubby, and Joker watched him go as something in his chest clenched hard and tight. Sitting here with him like this made it clear all over again: he loved Crow. He enjoyed being with him, talking to him, hanging out with him, debating with him, playing with him, fighting with him. It didn’t matter (though he knew it really, really should) that Crow was a liar, a traitor, and a serial killer; being around him made him happy.

Yet he was also his warden, and what killed Joker’s soul worse than anything else was being a prisoner. He couldn’t forgive him for trapping him here. He loved him and hated him at the same time. And Crow loved him and hated him back at the same time, too.

Talking it out wouldn’t lead anywhere either, just like it never would have lead anywhere. When they’d first met, Ren was the leader of the Phantom Thieves that celebrity detective Akechi had spoken out against, and getting cozy with the guy who wanted to arrest him was the height of stupidity. When they got to know each other better and even let Akechi join the team, Akechi was too committed to his revenge plan to refrain from murdering Ren in cold blood, and Ren sure as hell wasn’t going to show more weakness than necessary. Maybe after their cathartic battle in the Cruise of Pride, things could have been different, except then Crow had kidnapped Joker and locked him up, and now here they were. There had literally never been a good time for a frank discussion of their mutual feelings. The closest they’d gotten was last night, and that had ended on a Warheads-level sour note. Like the suspension bridge, love and fear were too much the same.

God, why did their relationship have to be so fucked up and messy and complicated? Why couldn’t they have a normal star-crossed romance like all the other gay guys? Joker flicked his gaze down. Hold me, he wanted to say all of a sudden. But he couldn’t.

Instead, he gazed out the window, chin on his palm. There wasn’t a proper sunrise or sunset in this Palace, but the ambient light did brighten and darken, and right now it glittered off the golden bars of his cage. He breathed out a faint sigh.

I’ve got to get out of here.

“What are you thinking?”

Joker glanced at Crow, who had returned and paused in the middle of setting up the chessboard to watch him. Then he lowered his gaze so Crow wouldn’t be able to see his face.

“I’m just a little depressed, I guess.” And that part was true. But: “I’m never getting out of here, am I…?”

I will get out of here. I swear.

Crow watched him a moment longer. Then he continued setting up the chess pieces. “Is it really so bad here?” he murmured. “You’re safe; you have a decent amount of comfort. I’ve been taking good care of you, haven’t I?”

You literally drugged me into unconsciousness just yesterday. “Maybe” A beat. “No, true,” he faux-amended, looking around the tiny room. “It’s not so bad here now.”

“You see?” he said, brightening. “You’d be amazed what people can get used to.” He set up the last of the pieces and positioned the board, Joker as black, himself as white, like usual. “Well then, shall we play?”

Joker cast one last stare out the window for the effect of it; then he looked down at his lap, and finally up at Crow. “Yeah,” he said. “Okay.”

 


 

When they parted after breakfast, Joker noted that Crow was in a much more stable mood than usual. Were it not for the fact that he was literally living inside a cage, it might have even felt normal. Still, Crow hadn’t said anything particularly creepy or possessive. Maybe it was because he thought he was finally succeeding in wearing Joker down. No need to be insecure when his prize was secure. And at this point, well, they both knew exactly where the other stood in regards to romance, didn’t they? Even if Joker had rejected him, at least there was no longer that element of uncertainty. He considered asking Crow about it for half a second before discarding it as the bad idea it was.

At lunch, Crow brought ingredients as Joker had offered. Ground pork, eggs, bread, whole fruit, whole vegetables, miso, no other sauces or spices. Yeesh. No wonder breakfast had been so bland.

“I only really know how to make two things, curry and coffee, and even I know you need to spice food to make it taste good,” he remarked, rummaging through everything, including the drink bottles. “Plus it’s gonna be hard using these vegetables with no knives for chopping.”

“I’m not giving you extra knives, Joker.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” He pulled out the tub of miso. “We can make a decent miso soup, I think. We’ve got green onions and potatoes and, uh, miso. Then we can make an omelet with the eggs and ground pork and put that on bread… and just eat the apples as-is? Yeah, that should work.”

“Impressive,” Crow noted, and he sounded like he meant it. “Only a moment looking over everything and you can compose a menu right away. You really only know how to make two things?”

Joker rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, I have basic cooking sense thanks to that, I guess. So that counts for something.”

“Something else you have that I don’t,” he mumbled.

“It’s something you can pick up,” he said, a little sharper than he’d intended. But since it had been sharp, he continued, “Now shut up and stop feeling sorry for yourself, and let’s do this.”

And that had worked surprisingly well. Joker washed the ingredients with Palace water and filled the pot with real world water, that being what would actually quench thirst. Meanwhile, since Crow wouldn’t let Joker have a knife for cooking, he had to peel and chop himself. When Crow was working on cutting up the peeled potatoes, though…

“Hey, no, no, do not cut like that,” Joker warned him, grabbing Crow’s knife-wielding wrist. Crow flashed him a look that could only be described as murderous, but he ignored it and circled around him, standing at his back while he released his wrist and reached around to touch the back of his other hand. This time, Crow tensed in a way Joker had to force himself to ignore. Leaning in like this into his back, layering his hand on Crow’s, put them less than a breath’s-span apart. How had he described it before? Ah, yes: dangerously nice.

“You want to curl your fingers back—like this,” he said aloud, demonstrating. “Like a cat’s paw.”

“Ah, um… l-like this?”

“Right, that’s better. You won’t cut yourself by accident that way. It’ll let you go faster, too.”

And indeed, Crow chopped faster without having to mind his fingers, and maybe to put his mind off someone else’s fingers. Joker peeked over his shoulder, then nodded. If he lingered a moment before stepping away, well, he could say it was to make sure everything really was fine first.

When everything was ready—food prepared, table served, drinks poured—they sat together and ate in comfortable silence. The miso soup was good, perhaps in part thanks to how well Crow had diced the potatoes, and Joker savored its warmth. Sure, it was supposed to be a breakfast food, and what they had for breakfast probably should’ve been for lunch, but who really cared? It was… satisfying.

He noted, though, that Crow had a little difficulty with the bowl, thanks to the chin guard of his helm. Even with the top removed, it looked like it was hard to make sure not to spill as he drank with it in the way. Joker watched for a moment, then asked, “Does that not come off?”

Crow paused. “What?”

“You know, the—” Joker gestured at his own chin. “The bottom half.”

“Oh. This.” Crow touched it briefly, eyes flicking down. “Yes, it comes off. I just didn’t feel like bothering.”

“Isn’t it awkward to eat with that on? It’s like a neck brace.”

“A bit, but it doesn’t matter. It’s ten minutes of inconvenience.”

“…You really don’t care about food at all, huh?”

Crow furrowed his eyebrows to him. “What does that have to do with anything?”

Joker considered pressing the point, decided against it. “Nothing, I guess.”

Frowning, Crow didn’t respond. Joker let the topic drop too. While it would’ve been nice to see the rest of that helm come off, Joker privately knew he didn’t want it gone because of the food. Best not to give himself more temptations, or serve Crow more false hope.

After they cleaned up, they went outside—such as it was—to shoot hoops with a basketball and net that Crow had brought with him. That was genuinely fun as they took turns cooperating and competing, but all of a sudden an hour had gone by and Crow had to leave. He left the items with Joker, telling him to feel free to play on his own, and Joker did, but it wasn’t the same. He lost interest in five minutes and abandoned the ball in ten, opting to try climbing the basketball hoop and seeing if he could jump off it onto any of the plateaus. He took a few nasty tumbles, but he made it eventually, and Siegfried ensured his injuries didn’t last.

At the end of it, he sat on the plateau that overlooked his room’s front entrance, legs dangling off the edge, and watched the cognitions and zookeepers watch him. Now that he had the option to retreat from their eyeless stares, having them around wasn’t nearly as stressful. That was good, because now he could concentrate on them—on their movement patterns, on what they carried, on their shifts. The pamphlet maps were rare; he caught sight of one and that was it, in the hands of a family man cognition. He noted that this cognition had a wife and daughter. Thinking of what Crow had told him about the chief of police, he looked for other similar groupings. Like the map, he didn’t see any others in that configuration, but… something to remember for tomorrow.

Twilight approached, and the crowds began to thin. The zookeepers kept up their beats at the same time and consistency, though. To experiment, Joker summoned a few Personas in a row specifically to put on a show: first Arsene to open with a cloak of darkness and an air of mystery, then Titania to burst in with a dome of nuclear magic and dance through, then Kurama Tengu to whip it all away with a whirlwind, and then finally Unicorn to parade around and look pretty and fierce and send healing sparklies through the air, because who didn’t like unicorns? Losers, that’s who.

At the end, Joker had Unicorn circle around him, then nuzzle his outstretched hand, before finally vanishing in a fiery cloud of blue light. The cognitive crowds ate it all up and gave him a roaring round of applause. Much as Joker hated those unnerving cognitions, he loved their attention, and bowed with a grin and a flourish in all directions. Several of them, mainly children-shaped cognitions, threw things at the cage—mostly peanuts and other bits of food he had no interest in eating, but also coins, bottle caps, and other tiny trinkets, for some reason. Parents pulled children from the railing to keep them from falling over, which Joker watched with interest. If he could set up a performance when there was a map-dad in the crowd, then do an encore with Kurama Tengu to whip the map away from him and into the cage…

“This is a zoo, not a circus, you know.”

Plotting derailed, Joker turned to see Crow leaning near the exit, giving him a wry half-smile. He’d already removed his mask, or rather the top of it at least. Joker smiled and faced him.

“So what?” he replied. “If I’m going to be a spectacle no matter what, I may as well give people something worth looking at.”

Crow shook his head, though he seemed amused. “You really are a show-off.”

Joker grinned, winked, and dipped into another fancy bow.

“Just don’t get carried away,” he added, now approaching, dinner basket in hand. “I don’t care if you put on a show to alleviate your boredom, but we will take exception to any attempts to escape or harm the crowds.”

Joker raised his eyebrows. “The crowds aren’t real people, though.”

“It’s the principle of the matter. They may be the literal ‘faceless masses,’ as the Chief sees them, but he still considers them under his protection. Consider it a matter of pride, I suppose.” Crow stopped near the bamboo table and sat there. “Come join me.”

Joker did so without thinking twice. That second thought only came after he’d already sat with him, and it came on the heels of the unhappy realization that he was getting used to following Crow’s instructions.

This time, there were three plastic bins inside; one was full of mini-meatballs in some kind of rich wine-red sauce, one full of rice with a pair of pickled plums at the center, and the last with some truly hideous-looking vegetable omelets, more scrambled eggs than anything else.

“I picked up more ingredients and gave cooking on my own another try. I think I’ve improved,” Crow said as he opened the containers up and pulled out bottled drinks. “At least, I didn’t burn anything this time.”

“That’s promising.” Joker grabbed a bottled tea, then paused. “…By the way, how’d you manage to drug my drink without breaking the cap?”

“Hm? Oh, I used a syringe, then covered the hole with wax. Since it was under the label, which I pulled back on afterwards, I figured you wouldn’t notice.” He flashed him a too-shiny smile. “And you didn’t.”

“Hrmmm.” He pulled the plastic label off, searching for any signs of tampering…

…until Crow remarked, “I could just as easily drug your food.”

Joker set his drink down. “Why did you have to say that.”

“Ahahaha. I haven’t, just so you know. I have no reason to.” He plucked up a meatball with a pair of chopsticks and held it out to Joker, a hand cupped underneath. “Say ‘ahh.’”

Joker stared at it, then at him. “What are you doing?”

“Feeding you. Don’t try to fight me on this. Say ‘ahh.’”

Fuck it. He was hungry. “Ahh.”

After he’d had a moment to chew, Crow asked with a hint of nervousness, “How is it…?”

Joker swallowed, blinking. “Really good?” he uttered in amazement. “ A huge improvement. The meatballs could still use more spice, but that sauce was delicious. It made up for it in a big way.”

Crow sighed in relief, a broad smile softening his face. “I’m so glad.”

And Joker found himself immediately lost in admiration in how much more handsome that smile made his already dead gorgeous self. Fuck. He was so happy over an accomplishment so small, it made Joker’s heart flutter. It made him want to lean over the table, whisper, Here, taste for yourself, and kiss him…

Flowers all but blooming over his head, Crow offered him another meatball. “Say ‘ahh.’”

Joker blinked out of his reverie. Damn, that was dangerous, really dangerous. He hesitated. He shouldn’t let Crow keep playing doting housewife on him. That fantasy was beyond dangerous. On the other side of that sweet smile was a man who’d shoot him to keep him here.

And, unfortunately, he found that superbly hot.

He ate the second meatball.

“I found the recipe online,” Crow remarked, upbeat, as he continued to feed him. “The sauce is actually quite simple—you just have to blend two ingredients in a saucepan with the meatballs. The meatballs themselves, you brown them for a bit, then put them in a rice cooker with the sauce to cook the rest of the way. It worked out much better this way. I thought they tasted much better too, but I didn’t know if they’d suit your palate or not… It was worth it to try again.”

Fuck me, he’s so cute, Joker thought, chewing. He swallowed and looked over at the ugly omelets. Yes! A distraction. “Uh, what about those?”

“Ah…” Crow deflated. “I tried rolled eggs. It didn’t work out so well. They taste all right, I think, but…”

“Well, as long as it tastes good.” Joker looked around. “Where’s my chopsticks?”

“I told you, I’m feeding you today.”

He stared at him. “What, all of dinner?”

Crow nodded. “And dessert. I brought grapes.”

“…Why?”

“Because tonight, I want to spoil you. You’ve settled down quite well today, and good behavior deserves positive reinforcement.”

That bit about positive reinforcement rubbed Joker the wrong way, and he seized on that mentally to ground himself. He bit down on his knee-jerk retort of, What if I don’t want you to feed me, though?, though; he was supposed to pretend he was giving up. He thus ducked his head and rubbed his neck.

“That sounds kind of romantic,” he said slowly. “You aren’t… getting any ideas about us, are you?”

Crow’s eyes lidded. “Why would I ever do that?” he replied, sarcasm lacing his words.

Joker looked up. “I don’t want to lead you on. That’s all.”

His eyebrows curled up. Then he smiled ruefully down at dinner. “…Well. I appreciate your consideration, at least.” He shook his head. “No, I just want to spoil you. I realize you must be under a lot of stress, and I know that’s my fault. I’d like to help alleviate that.”

You can alleviate it by letting me go. But the fact that he acknowledged his culpability actually improved Joker’s mood while letting him keep his thoughts in order. If he couldn’t afford to let him go, this was the next-best thing by Crow’s thinking, wasn’t it? He was trying. Joker let his appreciation for that much, at least, show in his smile, and it wasn’t even just to lower Crow’s guard. “Thanks. I’ll take you up on that, then.”

Crow’s smile warmed, and god, the sight of it made Joker’s heart flutter all over again.

And so Crow fed him the rest of dinner, which might have ended up being all of what he’d made had Joker not insisted he eat too. He even managed to convince Crow to let him feed him back, which, once he was actually doing it, was disturbingly enjoyable. By the end, they were sitting next to each other and laughing together and accidentally-on-purpose bumping their heads and hands together, which Joker knew he shouldn’t let himself be doing but did anyway.

He did at least reel himself back on the grapes. As something they could hand-feed each other, that could have been incredibly intimate and sensual, but he cited not being hungry anymore and invited Crow to help himself to the bunch. Crow only set out a napkin on the bamboo table and left the bunch on top, though—for Joker to snack on later, he claimed.

“For now, I need to get going,” he said, packing up the rest.

“Already?” Joker said, and didn’t like that he meant the spike of disappointment. “It’s earlier than usual.”

“Not to make a pun or anything, but cooking ate up a lot of my time today. There’s lots of things I need to do.”

“Oh.”

Crow paused, then gave him a smile that he probably meant to be teasing or flirty but came off as awkward. “What, are you going to miss me?”

We’ll see each other again tomorrow. It’s not such a big deal. But even as he thought it, it was a lukewarm sentiment. “Maybe a little.”

Blushing, Crow ducked his head and brushed back his hair, which shimmered in the light. God, he was beautiful. Joker hated how he couldn’t stay angry at him for long. Yesterday should’ve been a dealbreaker on top of a dealbreaker, but now he was basically over it for real. Love makes fools of all of us, he thought.

“Is… there anything you’d like?” he murmured, hand on his chin. “For me to bring you, I mean. If I’m able to, I will.”

He especially hated it when Crow got all shy like this. The gap between this and his smug arrogance, and the further gap to his irrational creepiness, really was charming.

“What would I have to do for it?” he asked to keep himself in line.

“Nothing,” Crow said. He smiled. It did amazing things to his eyes. “I told you: today, I want to spoil you.”

Fuck. Okay. Then he’d just have to push his luck. Crow was bound to push back if he overreached. And the biggest reach he could think of was— “Then… could you find out and tell me how Morgana and the others are doing? In detail.”

Sure enough, Crow’s expression clouded, smile sinking into a frown. “I was thinking more along the lines of… a souvenir.”

A souvenir of the real world? “You won’t do it?”

“It’s not that I won’t, but… that’s a risky and time-intensive request. You’re asking me to track and observe seven different people and report back on them, without getting detected.” He paused. Then his eyes flicked up, darkening with suspicion. “...unless you were hoping I would get detected?”

Joker let himself get offended, narrowing his eyes. “You’re the one who offered. I just told you the first thing that came to mind.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t grant that request. Not for free,” he replied coldly. “Pick something simple.”

And that actually did irritate him. “Why are you getting angry at me for caring about my friends?” he demanded. “That’s unfair.”

“How so?”

“You accused me of not caring about anyone. About keeping people at arm’s length. And now that I demonstrate caring about someone, you get upset and shut me down.”

Crow lifted his chin and narrowed his eyes back. “If you’re so insistent on this, I can do it. It just won’t be free.”

He shook his head in disgust. “I knew it. That’s what it always comes down to—what you can get out of it.” He got to his feet. “Forget it. You have to get going, right? Don’t let me keep you.”

Crow laughed coldly as Joker stalked towards his room. “I knew it. You don’t really care. You just thought you could take advantage of an opportunity.”

Joker stopped dead in his tracks. Then he whirled around and marched right back to Crow. By the time he returned, Crow was on his feet too, and the two glared daggers into each other’s eyes.

“What’s your price?” he whispered.

Crow smirked, chuckled, and then outright cackled. “You don’t appreciate what I do for you enough,” he murmured, cupping Joker’s face in both hands. “I want you to bow before me. Kiss my feet, sing my praises, and worship me.”

“You’re out of your mind.”

“I assure you, I am extremely sane.” He caressed Joker’s hair. “And I don’t mean some limp, one-minute lip service. Your Master Crow will have you demonstrate.”

He tried to jerk away, but Crow held fast. “Ugh. How?”

“You’ll see once you accept.”

Joker clenched his hands. “Then I’m not doing it until after you have everything for me. You’re not going to jerk me around like you did with the room.”

Anger flushed through Crow’s features. “I told you it would take a few days, and I got it done within the time frame I delineated! It’s your own fault for being impatient!”

He smacked one of Crow’s arms away and stepped out of his reach. “I don’t give a fuck. Payment on service.”

“You don’t seem to understand the position you’re in!”

You don’t seem to understand how sick I am of your bullshit!”

Crow grit his teeth; then he lowered his gaze, grimacing. “…Why do we always have to fight like this? Today was such a nice day. Why did you have to ruin it?”

Joker shoved his hands in his pockets. “Try asking yourself that.”

He scowled, then turned away, mask top flaring back into place. “I’ve spoiled you too much today. You’re starting to go rotten.”

He snorted and rolled his eyes. “Oh, sure,” he muttered bitterly. “You make me utterly dependent on you for everything, make me go along with your every demand just to survive, but I’m the one who’s rotten. I see how it is.”

Either Crow didn’t have a comeback for that or he didn’t care enough to bother with one, because he strode off without a word. Joker glared at his back, then fumed his way back to his room. He might not be able to stay mad at Crow, but he sure as hell could still get mad. That was good. He needed that anger to fuel his will to escape.

He picked out the tape marked Invigorating Music, set it in the tape player to play, and limbered up for the night ahead.

Chapter Text

Crow didn’t come back the next day. Or the next, or the next after that, for almost a week. The biggest shock was on the first day, when Joker pulled the front drape aside to find the Shadow Police Chief bossing around several zookeepers, who were carrying in a large box of groceries. Given Crow’s possessiveness, it immediately gave him a bad feeling. He peered at the subordinates, then their boss.

“We ee ll, well, look at you,” the Shadow Chief sneered, catching his stare . He swung the shotgun from his shoulder and pushed Joker’s chin up with it; Joker went dead still. “You’re lookin’ healthy, for a criminal. The Black Mask’s been doing his job, I’ll give him that much. The public likes those shows you’ve been puttin’ on too. Make sure you keep them up if you don’t wan t to get slapped around while your keeper’s gone.”

“Gone?” Joker echoed, barely moving his lips. “Where’d he go?”

“Somewhere. Who knows?” He shrugged, nonchalant.

“When’s he coming back?”

The Shadow Chief swung the shotgun back, then around at him. Luckily, the movement was slow, nigh sluggish Joker suspected purposefully so— so Joker dodged it with ease, but he retreated back inside his room, peeking out the doorway with a mistrustful eye.

“You ask too many questions,” the Shadow Chief sneered. “Mind your mouth, jail trash, and don’t talk back to me.”

Joker took an instant disliking to the man. Still, he bit down on a retort that he hadn’t been talking back. That would definitely count as talking back.

“The Black Mask insists you have to have special food that only he can bring, so here you are,” he added, gesturing disdainfully at the box. “ It’ll do ‘til he comes back, so don’t you go starving to death on me, jail trash. A phantom thief’s a rare creature indeed!” He grinned broadly, golden eyes leering over his mirrored shades. “What’ll we do if my prize beast kicks the bucket before we even get a chance to run you down in a hunt, huh?!”

He barked out a full-bellied laugh. Joker said nothing. As tempting as it was to call up a Persona to punch him in his stupid face, he resisted. He was technically outnumbered, and he still hadn’t gotten a map. Fortunately, the asshole and his retinue left after that, leaving Joker with the groceries and the knowledge that Crow was gone and wouldn’t be back until who knew when. He decided to start with the basics and bring the box inside.

It included two 36-packs of bottled water, a large loaf of bread, two sticks of margarine, a carton of pasteurized eggs that wouldn’t need refrigerating, several packets of dried fruits and nuts, paired salt and pepper shakers, a small bag of uncooked rice, a bottle of bonito rice topping, a box of instant curry packets, half a dozen cans of soup, two bags of root vegetables, and a box of teabags. Aside from the food, it also had a rice cooker, a bread box, a butter dish with a lid, and a letter addressed to Joker written in Crow’s handwriting. Joker opted to put everything away, insofar as he could do that with no pantry, before he sat at the table to read.

Dear Joker, it read, I’ll be away for a short period of time. I’ve estimated that the groceries I’ve provided with this box will tide you over in the meantime and then some if I take longer than expected. They may not be exciting, but they’ll keep you alive and healthy. Behave yourself, for your own sake. You’ll find the Shadow Chief is a far less kindly keeper than I am. Signed, Crow.

Joker rubbed his temples as he put the letter down. The tone was civil enough, but he’d bet his mask this was ‘punishment’ for their fight last night.

Well, whatever. He could survive however long Crow was gone.

 


 

And he did survive. He put on shows for the faceless masses, kept up his exercise and reading to stave off boredom, avoided further confrontation with the Shadow Chief and his henchmen, and even started climbing the bars of his cage just to see if he could. By the end of the fifth day, he managed to get a map-bearer to drop their map into the moat during a show, which was thrilling—he had to pretend not to notice so no one else would notice, because someone would definitely notice if he summoned Kurama Tengu to whirlwind it out of there and into his hand. He retrieved it later, under the cover of night, and as tempting as it was to attempt escape immediately, he held off one day to give himself time to study the map first and prepare, just in case.

But he was also intensely lonely. He had more company when he was faking his death than he did now, and all his activity could only distract him so far. The first two days were fine, but by the third, he found himself missing Crow and wondering what was taking him so long. By the fourth, he was pining and worried sick. By the fifth, he was almost willing to strip for the damn Shadow Chief if it meant getting Crow back. By the sixth, between his solitude and the freedom that hung so tantalizingly close, he was wound so tight his fidgeting habit had him practically full-body vibrating when he wasn’t pacing circles tighter than a rubber band pulled taut.

Dinnertime saw him doing both as he put the kettle on the stove for tea to calm his nerves. Actual cooking would come after that, as he was too agitated to even try putting something in his mouth. For the time being, as he waited for the water to boil, he pace d with increasing speed as he kept pulling his gloves unnecessarily tight.

He hadn’t been worried about Crow at first, partly because he was mad at him, partly because of the note. But as the days had worn on and he’d heard nothing further, he couldn’t help but remember that Shido wanted him dead. What if he’d been spotted and caught? Was he still alive? Was he okay? Had he just gotten sidetracked somehow? Or was he double-hiding out, unable to return to the police chief’s Palace for some reason? It didn’t help that they’d parted on bad terms. Joker had meant everything he’d said, but he didn’t want the last thing he ever said to Crow to be so hostile. If he escaped tonight, as he was planning, would that mean he’d never see him again? Wouldn’t that be the smart thing? Yet Joker found himself already formulating excuses to wait just a little longer, just one more day, just in case. In case of what? That didn’t matter.

The sound of footfalls outside stopped him dead in his tracks. Joker shot a sharp stare towards the window, whose drapes he’d closed to keep out the cold. The Shadow Police Chief again? What the hell did he want? Cautiously, he eased over to the stove, turned off the burner, and curled his fingers around the kettle ’s handle, just in case. If he’d come to run Joker in a hunt like he’d implied before, or if he’d noticed Joker had stolen a map, there wasn’t anywhere Joker could run or hide from him, but he could at least give the Shadow a mark to remember him by.

No one barged inside or called for him, though. After a few minutes of low murmurs and scuffing noises, the footsteps receded, leaving silence in their wake. Joker breathed again. The hell was all that about? he wondered, abandoning the stove to poke his head out the door.

The answer was obvious and immediate. A spotlight glared down from above, illuminating an ornate throne that had been set in the center of the concrete yard. The brightness of it was made sharper still by the veil of darkness around the cage that signified that the exhibit was ‘closed.’ Seated upon that throne with legs crossed, all but glittering in his off- white regalia, was none other than—

“Crow!” Joker called, relief surging within him. He broke into a sprint and skidded to a halt in front of his nemesis/rival/friend/jailer/beloved. Where have you been?! I was so worried!”

Crow, who had been smirking until just now, lifted his chin from his hand. “You were?”

“Yes! I had no idea how long you were going to be gone! Or if something happened to you! I...” He trailed off as his brain finally caught up with the rest of him. Crow looked up at him with a faint but fond smile, but he was still seated on a throne, clad in his princely Robin Hood outfit. Joker straightened, staring at him, thoughts reversing through time to the subject of their last fight. “Crow. Where did you go?”

He flipped a pair of photos out of his sleeve and up between two fingers. They were both candid shots of Ryuji. “Where else?”

He could only stare at Crow. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that this was what his long absence had been for. Hadn’t he said that he wouldn’t pay the sexual favor Crow wanted until he had the information to trade for it?

Perhaps at the look on Joker’s face, Crow smirked anew—and then held the photos out to him. Numb, Joker took them in hand. One showed Ryuji in a crowd of Shujin students, presumably around the end of that school day based on the lighting, scowling and glowering at the street. The other showed Ryuji sitting alone eating ramen, but clearly not enjoying it. Both were shot at an angle from a near distance; it was clear that Ryuji wasn’t aware he was being photographed.

“Your ‘partner’ has been in a perpetual foul mood ever since the incident on the Cruise of Pride,” Crow said, tone even and pleasant. “Sakamoto still attends school, but he leaves immediately after class is over, and he appears completely unable to concentrate on anything. Finals just ended, and it can be reasonably assumed that he failed all of them. On the plus side, Shido’s men appear to have no interest in him; there’s no sign of a trace, nor has anyone been following him but me. There could be a bug in his home, as I wasn’t able to gain access to check, but I find that fairly unlikely. In summary, while he is experiencing acute emotional distress, physically, he is quite safe.”

“Th… thank you,” Joker uttered, lifting his stare from the photos to Crow. “Um… the others…?”

Crow raised his eyebrows and folded his hands in his lap.

A lump formed in his throat. Right. What was it Crow had said? ‘I want you to bow before me, sing my praises, and worship me’… Joker wasn’t sure how to translate all of that into action, but the first step, at least, was obvious. Carefully pocketing the photos, he took a step backward for space, then drifted down into a kowtow, forehead brushing the ground.

“Master Crow,” he began, “if you could please—”

No, no, no, no,” Crow interrupted, unfolding his legs and leaning over . “Groveling doesn’t suit you at all. Sit up. On one knee— yes , that’s much better.” With a blissful smile, he cupped Joker’s face with both hands and made him look him in the eye . “Servile, but still with a streak of defiance That’s the you I want to see bow before me. Now.” He leaned back in his throne, smirking anew. “As you were saying, my dear Joker ?”

Joker narrowed his eyes, but rested a hand on his chest and bowed his head. Right. “Master Crow, please… bequeath me with the fruits of your superior detective skills and stunning intellect.”

“Mmm, a good start, certainly…” He re-folded his legs and hooked one foot under Joker’s chin, pulling his gaze back up. “But I’ll tell you right now: you won’t get the rest of what you want until you’ve satisfied me, dear Joker.”

His jaw tightened. “…What do you wish of me, Master?”

Oh? Did you forget?” He twisted his foot around to stroke Joker’s neck with his shoe. “Kiss my feet. Sing my praises. Worship me.”

Joker swallowed hard. Ah. Yes. He had forgotten that one part. Slowly, he brought his hands up to cup Crow’s foot, then pressed his lips to just under the strip of gray that arched over his shoe. “Master Crow… please…”

Please what?”

Please what indeed. He had no idea where Crow wanted him to take this. To buy himself time, he pressed another kiss to his shoe and ran his fingertips up his ankle. When he felt him shiver in response, and shot him a glance to see his expression fog with desire, he got an idea.

“Please… allow me to touch you more ,” he murmured, meeting Crow’s smoky stare.

Bingo. He could see Crow’s breath hitch, see his smile uncurl like a cat stretching in front of a fireplace. He leaned forward to brush his fingertips along Joker’s jaw.

“How can I refuse you, my dearest servant?” he murmured. “Show me how much you adore me, your master.”

Joker tried to suppress a smile in return, but he felt it twitch up regardless. He wasn’t all that into this master-servant play, but he was into the way Crow couldn’t take his eyes off him. A fetish for a fetish… Sure, that seemed fair. If he could keep him entranced just a little while longer, it was worth pretending to be the detective prince’s loyal subject.

So: “Yes, Master Crow. Thank you very much,” he murmured, caressing Crow’s calf under the st arched fabric of his trousers. He sketched a line of kisses up his shin, too, cradling his leg like a lover. God, his legs were so long , and so slim and elegant, and yet so hard— even these faint touches told him a tale of muscles toned by years of cycling. You wouldn’t tell that part just by looking, either; you had to actually touch, to feel past the outer layer, and to do that he had to actually allow you close enough to touch . What a fitting metaphor for Crow himself.

Tell me what you’re thinking,” Crow commanded then.

Naturally he had to say that just now. Then again, at least Joker had plenty of material. “I’m so honored to be able to touch you like this, Master,” he murmured, gazing up at him as he caressed him . “Your body is a work of art: a natural complement to the subtle complexities of your mind. To study it up close is to know you even better, and nothing could bring me greater joy.”

Crow sucked in a sharp breath as he gripped the throne’s arm rests, and scarlet colored his cheeks even as his smile grew. He really liked that…? Did he have a praise kink or something? Wait, what was he thinking. There was a 100% chance Goro Akechi had a praise kink.

Which was actually intriguing. Not in the sense that it was a kink of his, that was the most obvious thing in the world in retrospect, but in the sense of how to engag e with it. In Joker’s experience, it was actually pretty hard to consistently compliment someone without either sounding trite or repetitive , insincere or sarcastic, or debasing yourself or someone else in the process. In short , it was a challenge. And Joker loved challenges.

Dammit. He was so fucked.

Joker slipped his fingertips up past Crow’s knee to his thigh. “May I…?”

Without looking away, Crow licked his lips and nodded once.

He leaned in closer, sliding a hand under Crow’s thigh, pressing more kisses past. When he traced his other hand up the inside, Crow gasped again, leg arching in Joker’s grasp. Naturally, that only made it easier to get in even closer, even further. He kept his hands away from anywhere ‘inappropriate,’ as Crow would put it, but… aahh, he wanted to hear more of those sweet sounds. He wanted to hear him moan his name…

Joker shivered. No, no. He couldn’t let himself get carried away. Before he could reel himsel f in, though, Crow cupped Joker’ s ch in and tilted it up.

Such an industrious servant I have,” he murmured, eyelashes heavy with lust. “So eager to please.”

Joker nipped and kissed his thumb, never breaking eye contact. “I live to serve you, Master Crow.”

He smirked. “ S o eager to tell bald-faced lie s , too. But I don’t mind that. As long as you know your place, you can lie to me as much as you wish.

Wow. That was depressing. Although he wasn’t exactly wrong… It put a real chill on the mood, though. (And why do you want the mood to stay hot? he asked himself, to which he answered, Shh.) He pulled his hands back to spread Crow’s knees and positioned himself between them. “Know my place? Is this the place you meant?” he lilted, flashing him a saucy grin.

Crow the virgin blushed, as he thought he might, and swatted him. “ It is not , and you know it,” he chided. His slow smile and the way he threaded his fingers through Joker’s hair took any bite out of it, though. “Honestly… were you always this enthusiastic? I don’t dislike it, though. Did you really miss me that much?

Joker’s eyes lidded. How could he tell him how empty and lonely he felt as the days dragged on without him, when he planned on escaping within a night or two? “I pined without you, Master Crow,” he murmured.

Crow chuckled like he didn’t believe him but was fine with that. “ Is that so? Perhaps I should leave you by yourself more often, if it’ll make you this obedient.”

Joker averted his gaze as his chest squeezed. That would be convenient for his escape plans. Very convenient, and yet his heart rebelled against the idea. Rebelling against rebellion, how about that? What an idiot he was. An idiot in love. His jaw clenched.

“Oh? Does the idea bother you?” Crow accurately interpreted, amusement suffusing his tone. “How cute. I might start to think you really did pine without me.”

Joker pressed his lips back onto Crow’s shin in lieu of a response , but this time traced them and his fingers back down. By the time his kisses reached his ankle, he’d slipped Crow’s shoe off like a reverse Cinderella. His sole was calloused and hard, telling a tale of many long nights on his feet. Joker kissed his ankle again and caressed his foot.

“You always work so hard, Master,” he murmured. “These last few nights must have been hard on you, too. May I massage your feet and ease away your pain?”

To check Crow’s reaction, he then glanced up. Given that he’d refused a massage before, Joker wasn’t sure how he would take this, but he must have done something right, because his expression had gone misty, even longing. When their eyes met, Crow nodded once.

“You may.”

Joker smiled, both because Crow would like it and because he wanted to. He eased back into a kneel, one hand at his side, the other pressed to his chest, and bowed his head. “Then if you would please grant me a moment to prepare, Master Crow...”

A hint of amusement: “Granted.”

Joker kissed his other ankle and slipped that shoe off too. Then, after lining them up neatly next to the throne, he rose to his feet, bowing, and retreated—what was it? Four steps? Five steps? He picked five steps, just to be sure, before standing up straight again. When he gazed at Crow, Crow was still watching him, barefoot legs folded anew. Mmm… good. (Good? Is this really good for you? part of him asked, to which he said, Shut up.) He strode back inside and fetched the bucket and the kettle. The kettle water inside had been almost to boiling when he turned off the burner and was still too hot to touch, so he cut it with waterfall water in the bucket until it was just above pleasantly warm, but well under scalding. Then he brought the bucket outside and placed it before Crow.

Please place your feet inside here, Master Crow,” he instructed as he knelt again. He was going to get up again anyway, but Crow would probably like that extra bit of servility. “The heat will ease your aches while I prepare further.”

Crow gave him a searching look, then cautiously dipped his feet in. The bucket was barely large enough for both—it would’ve been better to have two, but this was what Joker had—and Joker made sure to roll up his slacks to his knees as he let them sink. Finally, when he was settled, Crow sighed in apparent contentment and relaxed. “Don’t take long.”

Joker rolled back upright and bowed. “I wouldn’t dare keep you waiting, my master.” Then he hurried back inside and went upstairs to fetch the soap and scrub-brush. A pumice stone would be ideal, but again, this was what he had. A second thought made him snag the towel too before he returned.

I don’t recall ordering you to wash my feet,” Crow remarked with no heat as he approached.

But you did order me to worship you, Master ,” Joker pointed out, “and they say cleanliness is next to godliness.”

Crow laughed outright at that, loud and strong. When he was done, it left behind a fond grin. “What a conscientious servant I have! Very well. Proceed.”

Joker grinned back despite himself. Still not his fetish, but this was getting to be kind of fun? He’d have to work in some more compliments next, jiggle Crow’s praise fetish again. He really liked making him feel good.

When he knelt before Crow, he set aside what he’d just retrieved so he could pull off his coat and fold it up. His gloves were next, and he made sure to make eye contact with Crow before pulling them off with his teeth. Sure enough, Crow held his breath, fixated on the display. It was so good. He tossed his gloves on top of his coat without a second glance, then finally, finally caressed Crow’s legs anew. He lifted one, warm and dripping, and felt his heel and sole; not softened up enough, but he probably wouldn’t be able to scrub off that callus anyway.

So Joker washed it as it was, scrubbing with brisk, gentle movements, humming a nostalgic tune again, occasionally rinsing with water scooped up in both hands. He summoned his dagger to trim Crow’s nails, which was almost a big problem when he jerked back; however, when he explained his intentions, Crow relaxed and nodded him on.

He’s starting to trust me, Joker realized , and felt both warm and cold.

He repeated the washing process with the other foot, letting the first dip back into the warm water. When both were clean, he set the bucket aside and toweled them dry. Then he adjusted his own sitting position to better face Crow and began the massage.

Your feet are so slender, Master Crow,” he murmured, kneading his soles with his knuckles. “It’s a pleasure to touch them.” He smiled up at him. “Though you’re so handsome, I’d rather touch the rest of you.”

Crow made a small noise of enjoyment , shifting in his throne, and smil ed back. “Oh?”

Yes.” He rolled into Crow’s arches and the muscles and ligaments there. “You have such a graceful face, soft hair, and beautiful eyelashes… and such strong hands. When I imagine how the rest of you must look, my heart can’t help but pound .”

Crow stroked his hair, chuckling. There was a certain breathlessness to it. “Do you want to undress me?”

Joker’s hands stilled as he shot him a wide-eyed look. “ Y ou’ d let me do that?” he asked, and he forgot to couch it in a servile tone.

But Crow only slipped his fingers under his chin and stroked his neck as he pulled his hand away. He leaned his face on it, still smiling. “Perhaps,” he purred, “if you’re very, very good.”

Joker’s breath caught in his throat. He ducked his head down and focused back on the massage to mask his excitement. “So,” he murmured, “as good as you, Master?”

Crow sucked in a breath , short and sharp, that terminat ed in his throat. “As me?”

“Yes.” He pressed a little harder, a little more deftly, a little more tenderly . “You’re so good, Master Crow… You’re wonderful .”

He gasped again, this time into the back of his hand, as his cheeks turned pink. Watching him from the corner of his eye, Joker kneaded his ankl e and pressed a nother soft kiss there.

And so the rest of the massage went, Joker playing up his role as servant as he showered Crow in kisses, caresses, and compliments. By the time he was done the other foot, Crow was practically putty in his hands. Joker hummed with satisfaction to see it—his ‘master,’ fully relaxed and unguarded, eyes shut with those gorgeous lashes he’d mentioned, seated above him and yet utterly exposed. He could only be more exposed if he were naked, which was a n attractive thought in many ways. Joker wondered if he’d get to undress him after all. The thought made him lick his lips in hope.

Is there anything else I may do for you, Master Crow?” he murmured, voice low and sensual.

“Mmm… ” Crow shifted without opening his eyes, as if he might drift off where he sat . However, he then gestured forward with one hand. “ Come. Sit on my lap, dear est Joker. I would hold you close.”

Yes, Master.”

And it was nice, cuddling up to Crow, legs swept under the throne’s arm rests, Crow’s arms curling around his waist and thigh. Joker leaned his head next to Crow’s, one hand on his back, the other on his chest, and let his eyes lid to half-mast, then shut entirely. For a moment, he listened to Crow breathe while Crow stroked his hip and leg. This really was dangerously nice, and he was starting to not care anymore.

After a period of time both too long and too short, Crow’s hand stilled on his upper thigh. You’ve done well, my darling servant,” he murmured, “and your master is pleased with you. Complete one last task for me, and I will give you what you desire.”

“Anything for you, my master,” he whispered, slipp ing his hand up to Crow’s throat, where the hooks to his uniform were, in anticipation .

Crow held his chin and tilted his face until they were almost nose to nose, accounting for the beak of Crow’s mask . Joker stilled, heart fluttering, and he wonder ed if they were about to kiss .

Instead, though, Crow leaned in to his ear and whispered, “Strip, and pleasure yourself.”

Hi s thoughts s tuttered, and so did he: “Wh-what?”

Crow pulled back enough to meet his eyes. Now Joker could see the sharp teeth behind his growing smirk, the voracious hunger in his red, red eyes . “Strip yourself naked,” he enunciated, “and then pleasure yourself while I watch.”

Fuck. Much as he wanted to kiss him, that was approximately a million times hotter than what he’d expected. He squirmed, trying to hide the way his cock twitched. “That’s, uhhh...”

“What’s the matter? You don’t want to?” he wondered, tone light and delicate, stare smoldering like a pair of coals .

He felt himself blush. “I-it’s embarrassing.”

Oh?” Crow’s fingertips traced a line up from Joker’s thigh to his ribs, curving along his body line. “And because of that, a mere servant defies his master?”

Was this part of his fetish too? Pushing the comfort zone of his ‘servant’? It made sense. How could you tell you were in charge if you didn’t push your subordinate a little further than they might want to go? If he weren’t telling Joker to do something he was into anyway, it might have killed the mood. But a fetish for a fetish. Ohhh god, he was so fucked— maybe literally, at th is rate.

P-please, have mercy, Master Crow …” he whispered, not wanting to seem eager.

Crow’s hand glided over his own, and he pulled it up and around to bare Joker’ s wrist. Two tiny, gentle butterfly kisses, and then one sharp little bite over the capillarie s beneath , teasing and warning at the same time. He flicked his eyes up to meet Joker’s.

“Strip,” he repeated, each word, each syllable forming crystal clear around his forked, silver tongue, “and show me how you like to be pleasured. That is an order .”

Joker bit back a groan, and so it came out as a hiss instead. Really not much better. “Yes… Master,” he rasped, easing off of Crow’s lap. He backed off a couple of steps, just enough to give him an excellent view, and rubbed the heel of his palm on his crotch. When he got naked and Crow saw he was already half-hard, he wanted to make sure he had an excuse.

From there, he flicked the buttons of his pants open and let them sag on his hips. Rather than pull them down, though, he drew his hands up higher, unhooking his top from the bottom up. Crow’s stare lifted with them, save for the occasional glances and smiles he shot Joker’s face. When it was done, he pulled it apart, but let it hang just off his shoulders while he brushed his fingertips back down. Crow followed the movement as closely as a cat eyeballing a mouse, and licked his lips like one, too. The flash of his cute little tongue was incredibly erotic to Joker, and it was an active effort not to groan at the sight. Not like it mattered, because the increasingly insistent twitch of his penis betrayed him anyway.

Crow smirked. Enjoying yourself already?” he lilted.

Joker swallowed hard. Who wouldn’t, with you here ?”

“Ha ha.”

I mean it, he thought, seeing how his smirk darkened with sarcasm. God, I want you.

His fingers tucked under the band of his underpants, and he pushed them and his slacks down while feeling up his own hips. They snagged on his dick, and he gradually increased the pressure while working his shoulders to let his top slide further down his arms; when they dropped, they all dropped, and in one burst Joker was nude. Except for his boots, but—

“On your knees,” Crow commanded, eyes glittering as he took in the sights. They lingered in particular on Joker’s dick, and Crow bit his thumbnail through his glove.

Joker obeyed, letting his discarded clothes cushion his knees from the concrete. The way Crow stared had him breathing harder, had him growing harder. At this rate, Crow was sure to figure out his attraction, and was that such a bad thing?

(It’s a terrible thing, said that same part of him, to which he said, So what? And it frightened him that his acceptance was what finally silenced it.)

One hand went north up his stomach to his chest, and the other south to rub his thigh. Take it slow, take it easy. Keep his attention rapt, keep him waiting for more. Joker let himself gasp out soft noises of desire as his fingertips caressed his nipple, his inner thigh. Crow stopped biting his thumbnail, but he did shift forward to the edge of his seat, elbows barely still on the throne’s armrests. It felt like any moment he might swoop down like his namesake and pin him down and—fuck. Joker shuddered and moaned for real this time. Why did Crow have to be so goddamn particular about his firsts? Couldn’t he see how much Joker wanted him? Fuck you. I hate you, he spat mentally. This was its own kind of bittersweet torture.

Fine, then. Turnabout was fair play. Joker would just have to test Crow’s limits. He met his burning eyes, favored him with a coquettish smile, and brushed the hand on his chest up to his mouth. While maintaining rock-solid eye contact, he flicked his tongue out to brush and coil around the tips of his middle and index fingers, extended in unmistakable imitation. Crow’s breath hitched and stopped as he gripped the armrests hard, his entire body rocking forward maybe a quarter-inch. His breath released in a rush when Joker slid his tongue down their length, all the way down to the base, and began lapping catlike at his palm.

This could be you, Joker thought, and projected that thought as powerfully as he could through his stare. This could be your cock instead of my hand. I know you’re imagining it. How long will you last, just watching, when you could be experiencing?

For a decent while, it turned out. Crow’s entire body was fraught with tension, and he clearly couldn’t look away, but he also didn’t leave his throne. Joker sighed into his palm, now slick with his own spit, and traced his tongue back up his fingers. This time, he took the tips into his mouth and suckled on them with deliberate noise. Crow the virgin might or might not know the tip was the most sensitive part of the penis, but Joker kept up that eye contact anyway.

Still didn’t leave, but his one hand fell from the armrest to his knee, and his breath grew heavier still—not outright panting, but close. So, so close… Joker angled his hand back and deepthroated his fingers, letting his tongue coil around them and coat them in saliva. Crow’s left leg developed a sudden and acute jitter as he watched each thrust, but still, still he held back.

An eternity of a minute later, Joker pulled his fingers from his mouth with a loud gasp. “Enjoying the show so far, Master?” he half-rasped, half-purred.

“Nnnghkhgh,” Crow replied eloquently, vibrating in his seat, back to biting his thumbnail.

Joker smiled sweetly. “If you’re feeling a little worked up, Master Crow, you can always join me. As your beloved servant, it would be my pleasure and yours to stroke you off.”

“You haven’t even started stroking yourself off, you infuriating little tease. Get on with it!”

He had to laugh at that one. “As you wish, my master...” And he settled his saliva-soaked hand around the base of his cock, held firm, and began to pump his length with smooth, languid strokes.

God, it felt—‘good’ wasn’t even the word anymore. It was far beyond that. If there was a primal plane of goodness, this would be damn near its peak. Joker hissed and gasped with pleasure as he flicked his tip with his thumb, but it was Crow hissing and gasping with him that set his cock a-quiver. He’d deliberately set the pace slow to start, wanting to indulge in Crow’s attention, but all too soon he was unbelievably hard, so hard it was almost painful, so hard he couldn’t help but moan as he dug the nails of his free hand into his thigh. Crow moaned too, almost as though they were one, and the sensual, needy sound sent fireworks crackling through Joker’s brain.

Look at me, he whispered with his eyes, trying to beam that message directly into Crow’s mind. Look at no one but me. Look at what I could do for you, if you’d just let me.

But if Crow somehow managed to hear, he still didn’t make a move. It was clear he wasn’t content to sit back, with the way his gaze blazed with desire and his body was one snapped nerve away from smothering Joker’s, but somehow he held on.

So he had to hold on too. He switched hands to let himself slow down a little more, the left now reaching down to massage his balls, the right focusing on the end and tip of his dick. Crow made the most beautiful sounds as he watched enraptured, smothered and strangled as he tried desperately to hold himself back. Joker wished he knew what reel Crow was playing in his head. Was he picturing himself stroking Joker off as Joker squirmed and struggled beneath him? Was he picturing Joker’s hands jerking his own cock, caressing his sack? Or was he too intoxicated by the scene before him to think of anything else?

Goro … what are you waiting for? Go ahead and do it. We both know you want t o.

He couldn’t help it: his hand sped up. Wondering what Crow was picturing had made him picture it himself, and the idea of jerking Crow off as he cried out in his arms was just— nngh , he wanted to make it happen so badly . He wondered how upset Crow would be if he just went ahead and did it: abandoned his masturbation and tore open the front of his slacks. Probably really upset. But that didn’t mean Joker couldn’t fantasize about it as his jerking quickened , as Crow stared at him with such open need. Hell, if Crow wanted to finally snap and shove him down and grab him by the dick, that was absolutely fine and maybe even preferable.

C’mon. P in me down. Taste every inch of me. Fuck my brains out. I’ll help you do it.

Arching his neck and back, Joker moaned, the litany of his internal pleas in time with the throb of his co ck. He was already close to coming, and when Crow moaned too, he shuddered with desire, then slumped over himself. His lungs heaved as he pressed his free hand to the ground and his other hand slowed and stopped. When he’d caught his breath, he grit his teeth and revved himself up again. This time, he leaned back, propping himself up with his free arm, letting the spotlight that shone down on Crow illuminate his bare body as he worked his cock, faster and faster, thumb working his tip just the way he liked it. Crow nearly rose to his feet—actually got up an inch—before he forced himself back down, gaze on fire.

You wanna know how I like being pleasured? Take a good, hard look.

He gasped and moaned and cupped his sack anew, kneading with vigor . Then he caress ed his inner thigh, then squeezed and smacked his own ass, then felt up his abs and chest, then thumb ed his nipples, then traced the contours of his neck, and finally ran a hand up through his hair, all while jerking off with rapid, rhythmic speed. Crow drank it all in. Joker hoped feverish ly he was memorizing all of it, because they were all features from his fantasies with him. If he wanted this show to know how to make Joker come, then Joker would show him everything.

I’ll do whatever you want, just please, please kee p look ing at me

But working himself from bottom to top meant heating himself up more than he could bear any longer. Already he was on the edge; he could feel the pre-cum dribbling over his fingers. He slowed his pace to try to pull himself back from the brink, but with little success. Maybe he would’ve had better luck if his favorite fantasy weren’t live and in front of him.

“Crow,” he rasped, sweat slicking his skin. “I don’t… I can’t… I’m about to—”

“Do it,” Crow hissed back. “And be loud about it. I want to hear your voice.”

Fuck, fuck, fuckfuckfuckfuck, he couldn’t take it anymore. He abandoned himself and all pretense to grab Crow by the sleeves. “You do it,” he panted. “Push me down and finish me off.”

In other circumstances, Crow’s owlish gape might have been comical. Right here, right now, it just made him beg: “ Please !! I need you. I need you right now , Crow!!”

Fuck ,” he gasped, and abandoned his throne to push him down.

The next ten seconds were the most electrifying of Joker’s life. Their hot, rapid breaths intermingling, Crow ran his hands down his chest, down his torso, all the way down to— yes , yes yes yes YES, god, he pumped him so hard and so fast and Joker dug his nails into his back as he bucked his hips to fuck Crow’s hand and he was loud about it, he was so loud, he moaned and he keened and he screamed Crow’s name until the instant he erupted with desire finally, finally sated.

Chapter Text

Then it was all over: over his thighs, over his clothes, over everything. Joker’s pant ing slowed as the spotlight glittered in his sweat and his eyes. It was blinding… the illumination, Crow’s attention s , the golden glint of the cage around them. Slowly, Crow released his still half-hard dick, and Joker’s hands slipped from Crow’ s back to his sides. In the wake of his orgasm, he felt a sudden, powerful need to be held… but having Crow on his hands and knees over him excited him too much to want to cool down with cuddles just yet .

Well. There was no hiding it now. Joker found that as much of a relief as coming had been.

Crow,” he murmured.

“Joker,” Crow rasped back.

I really did miss you.”

I really do love you. Whether Crow understood his confession for what it was, Joker reached for Crow’s mask and pulled it off with gentle, trembling hands. Crow’s red eyes, Crow’s long lashes, Crow’s longing stare, were all so much more beautiful without it.

May I…” Joker arched up and slipped his hands around the back of Crow’s neck. “…kiss you?”

His breath heavy, Crow clutched one of Joker’s hands. “…No,” he decided. “Not yet.”

Joker groaned and shut his eyes. “You’re killing me here, Crow.”

Crow chuckled, somewhere between mischievous and affectionate. “Instead… ” He pulled Joker’s hand down, knelt back, pulled Joker up, and cupped that hand over his crotch. “I want you to do something about this .”

He sucked in a sharp breath. Crow watched him, eyelids heavy with desire. As erotic as that was, it had nothing on the feel of Crow’s trapped erection. Joker leaned in and rubbed his heel down, and this time Crow grasped and clutched his shoulders.

“H-hurry,” he added, voice tight.

Delight flooded Joker, setting his heart pumping and his cock twitching. Gently, he pushed Crow’s back against the foot of his throne, then settled himself between his legs. “What would you like me to use? My hands? My mouth? Or my ass?” he purred.

He shot him an incredulous look. Still, he managed, “Your hands.”

Still so chaste, even in the middle of his first lay . God, he was adorable . Th at was okay, too, anyway ; this way he could keep looking him in the face. He rubbed his groin harder, and when Crow threw his head back in a body-long shudder, Joker hummed in approval.

“Tell me what you like as we go,” he murmured, reaching to undo Crow’s belt. “I want to make you feel good .”

He panted for a few seconds; then he shot him a smirk. Just good?”

“Good. Amazing. Incredible. Better than you’ve ever felt your whole life.”

“That’s a low bar.”

And Joker laughed, and Crow laughed with him, even though when one really thought about that statement it was incredibly depressing, but his belt had come undone and Joker was pulling it out and he was reaching for the waistband of his pants except it was weirdly hidden somewhere under his coat, and this fancy embroidered princely coat looked like it ought to be easy to take off but he was having a devil of a time—

“Crow, where the hell are the buttons on this thing,” he breathed.

Crow paused. “Oh—sorry, actually—” Blue fire lit on his chest, then erupted in a circle outwards until it had passed along his entire body, burning away the Robin Hood outfit and leaving the Loki outfit in its wake. “The other one’s just an illusion. This is what I’m… actually…”

Joker stared. Right, that was right, it was fake from the start. That didn’t matter, though. What mattered was that the Loki outfit, on top of having a much more complicated mask, had approximately a million belts. He grimaced in frustration even as he attempted to undo the ones that looped around his shoulders to hold his tattered capelet in place. Fuck—Crow, why does your costume have to have so many goddamn fucking belts—

I don’t know! I didn’t ask for that!” he half-panted, half-snapped, as he pressed the sides of his helm and pulled them apart from his neck. “I didn’t go to a tailor and explicitly request a one-piece suit with half a dozen belts in places that don’t need belts!”

Obviously it’s a physical representation of what an unnecessary asshole you are,” Joker quipped, abandoning the belts to help with the helm. When it had come apart, he promptly hurled the half in his hands as far away as he could.

You’re probably right,” Crow admitte d, and flung his half somewhere over the back of the throne.

Joker reverently cupped Crow’s face, now finally fully free of his mask. “God, you’re beautiful,” he breathed. “You have no idea how badly I wanted this.”

Crow’s gaze glimmered as his breath stopped; then he nipp ed at his hand. “Show me.”

And Joker almost kissed him then and there, but he remembered himself in time and instead kissed, then bit, his left ear. Crow’s gasp sounded so sweet, he gasped in return, making Crow clutch his bare back. Right, right, getting Crow naked. With the helm gone and the waist-belt already off , he could at least start on unbuttoning the front—at least this thing had clearly visible latches—but haste and desire made him fumble the first several so badly that he gave up and just ripped the damn thing open, down his chest, his abs, his waist, and at last to his crotch. When his erection sprang free, Crow—dear, sweet, precious Crow—blushed and looked away.

Embarrassed?” Joker purred, pushing his knees even wider to admire him.

Crow pressed the back s of his fingers to his mouth, blush deepening . Then he murmured, “…How do I compare to your other lovers?”

Joker shook his head. “There’s no comparison. You blow them all out of the water.”

He smiled. “Really?”

He grinned and pulled himself closer, knees spread under Crow’s, left hand on his waist, right on his dick. With all his ample deftness, he traced delicate lines up and down Crow’s cock, his deliciously smooth, long, thick cock, then circled under and around to cup his balls. “Really,” he whispered as he squeezed.

Crow half-gasped, half-moaned, as he clutched Joker’s shoulders. He felt the claws of his gloves prick his skin, but the pain only made every other sensation sharper. With a hiss, he slipped his hand up to grip Crow’s cock at the base.

“Fast? Or slow?” he whispered.

“S-slow. I want—I want to savor the moment,” he whispered back.

So Joker pleasured Crow with long, languid, luxurious strokes, and drank in his every gasp, moan, and shiver. Watching his expression twist each time was almost as good as being watched, and he licked his lips as he found and maintained a good rhythm. Once he did, Crow melted in his hands—so pliable, so eager, and always, always so gorgeous. What had he ever held back for? Just seeing him squirm and writhe from his touch was getting Joker aroused all over again.

You’re so good, Crow,” he whispered after a long, hard while. “You’re everything I ever dreamed of.”

He gasped and arched and shuddered and clutched him harder. “T-tell me more.”

Joker kissed his earlobe. “I’ve fantasized about you for age s,” he murmured into his ear. “Just like this, in each others’s arms, touching and stroking each other ‘til we can’t take it anymore. When I masturbated at night, just like this— ” he flicked his thumb off Crow’s tip , “ your name was on my lips as I came… Goro .”

Crow cried out , shuddering more powerfully than ever ; Joker felt his cock throb under his fingers. “ Why?” he moan ed, voice tiny and plaintive. “Why did you make me think you felt nothing?”

He nuzzled his neck as he caressed his waist; he pumped Crow with a little more speed. “What you said about suspension bridges,” he whispered. “Something about love and fear being alike.”

A ragged laugh burbled from Crow’s throat. “ So you were— ahn —the same as me— ahh —all along,” he breathed. And Joker thought for a moment he would leave it at that, except he gripped him and leaned in close, so very temptingly close. “ Faster ,” he commanded, low and harsh.

So he sped up from languid to brisk—maybe a little faster than Crow probably wanted, but Joker wanted so much to see how he looked when he orgasmed. “Like that?”

“Aaahn—agh—yes, yes, perfect, ahhh, Ren ,” he moaned, eyes squeezing shut, head lolling back. Joker took advantage to kiss his exposed neck, hard and hot with teeth scraping over his Adam’s apple. Crow’s moans pitched high, desperate and needy and intense, and Joker moaned with him, thrill and desire heating him up from the inside out.

He thrust his hard-on up onto Crow’s thigh as he worked him harder and faster, wanting to come again as much as he wanted to see Crow come. Crow twitched and spasmed, and Joker’s dick slipped off his leg to pound on his abs. Why the hell not? he thought, and paused in jerking Crow off to slide their cocks together and grind . He intended to resume the hand job after that, but Crow squeezed his eyes and teeth tight and thrust back, legs shaking as he wrapped them around Joker’s waist.

“Fuck,” Joker breathed. He sped up his hips, sharper, more insistent, as he braced himself on the throne with his now-free arm and pulled Crow closer with the other . “Is this really your first time? You know just how to get me going.”

I’ve fantasized a long time about you, too,” he whispered, hands slipping up to cup his face. “My romantic and erotic daydreams both —you were always there. I’ve never felt this strongly for anyone but you…” He groaned, shivering against him. That shiver reverberated through Joker and back against Crow. “I wanted our first time to be—be perfect.”

Of course it’s perfect. Anything with you involved has to be,” he whispered back .

Crow hissed and bucked against him, arms encircling his shoulders. “Joker…!!”

Crow!!”

Their passionate cries intertwined as they both thrust and ground against each other. Crow came first, and when Joker felt his seed spray hot against him, he groaned, bucked his hips a couple more times, and came too. After his second orgasm, he felt delectably weary, and oozed boneless into Crow’s arms as he panted.

It felt so nice, too, to be in Crow’s arms. To have him hold him. That powerful need, now met, became a deep and comfortable satisfaction. Joker let his eyes drift shut as he slipped his arms around his back to hold him back, and made a vague noise of approval when he felt Crow stroke his hair.

And then Crow murmured, “I love you.”

Joker lifted his head to blink at him, heart leaping into his throat. He knew this, but he hadn’t expected Crow to say it. There was something about those three words that made one so vulnerable. He looked vulnerable too, lips slightly parted, gaze painfully yearning even with him already in his arms.

“Do you… love me too?” he added, hesitant.

How could words sum up the way he felt? The way the tangle of their arms and legs felt like a jigsaw puzzle finally completed? The way his chest tightened at Crow’s confession? The way he couldn’t help but smile in relief and even joy now that this charade was over at last and they could be true to themselves? No, words were hopelessly insufficient. But Crow had put himself out there, put these same feelings into words in the hopes they’d come across. He couldn’t say nothing.

So Joker murmured, “Yeah. I love you, too.”

He’d seen Crow smile before. Charming smiles, smug smiles, empty smiles, unhinged smiles. But this was the first time he’d ever seen one so happy, lighting him up from the inside out. It was so beautiful, it stole his breath away. He leaned his face in as if he might be able to steal it back, but hesitated an inch away, searching Crow’s so-very-close face for permission. Crow met his eyes, breath quickening as if Joker’s had given him speed, and for an eternity, they gazed at each other.

What was it Crow had said? They’d look at each other and just know? The moment didn’t exactly have all the romantic trappings he’d described as ideal, but even so, his eyelids drooped, and he tilted his face forward as they shut. Joker met him the rest of the way, and their lips pressed together, slow and sweet. It was a precarious balance, letting Crow have control while still leading enough to keep it a good and not awkward experience, but Joker always did love a challenge.

The kiss ended up like a pair of butterflies dancing together, seeking nectar but never moving past the surface, and the chasteness of it after they’d both been consumed by lust made it all the headier. Even so, when they finally parted, Joker flicked the tip of his tongue on Crow’s lips to leave behind a promise of more to come. The surprise it sent shooting through his expression was precious, as was the way it dissolved into a warm smile. Crow then nestled his head in the crook of Joker’s shoulder, and Joker rested his head on top as they each held one another.

“How was your first kiss?” he wondered, low and throaty.

“Not what I’d imagined,” he murmured back. “But in a good way.”

He smiled and stroked Crow’s hair. “Glad to hear.”

Crow made a happy noise—he’d had a feeling he’d like that, considering how often Crow did it to him—and cuddled a little harder. After several minutes of hair-petting, he stilled his hand and let himself space out, to bask in sensation without thinking of anything. It was incredibly nice.

He almost drifted off, too, except then Crow spoke up, shy and halting: “Joker? What do you like about me?”

“Mm?” he said at first as his brain rebooted; then, “You always keep me on my toes. Whenever we’re together, things are more exciting. It doesn’t matter if it’s something as normal as arguing about the themes of a book, or as Hollywood as if I’m fighting for my life against your traps; I love that thrill you give me.”

Crow made another happy noise, like a breathy little laugh. “Honestly...” He basked for a moment. Then he said, “That’s very similar to what I like about you.”

“What’s that?”

“The way you always surprise me and change things on me. Just when I think I’ve figured it all out and have you pegged, you upend everything.”

“That’s something you like about me?”

He laughed. “It also vexes me tremendously, I admit. But whether I’m charmed or vexed, that aspect of you always draws me in. You’re never dull, and I can’t help but want more.”

The compliment warmed Joker’s heart. Considering one of his city friends had once maybe-not-jokingly called him Prince Boring, that was actually quite flattering. He trailed his fingers up Crow’s jaw. “Oh? What kind of ‘more’ were you hoping to get tonight…?”

To his delight, Crow blushed as he lifted his head. He really was goddamn precious. “You’re still not satisfied? You insatiable beast.”

He smirked and crossed his wrists behind Crow’s neck. “I’m the insatiable beast you love, so you should count yourself lucky.”

He smiled back. “I do count myself lucky.” He hesitated; then he smirked. “Then what’s the ‘more’ you had in mind?”

“Mmm… I was thinking we’d go wash up in the pool first…”

“Mhm?”

“Then we’d towel off, and head to bed…”

“Yes…?”

“…where we’d cuddle and hold each other as we fall asleep.”

Crow paused. Joker maintained his poker face. “Are you having me on?”

He broke into a wolfish grin and winked. “What can I say? I’m a real sex machine.”

Crow burst out laughing. “God, you’re so… you.” He stroked Joker’s hair as he gave him an adoring, affectionate smile. “That sounds lovely. I’d like that.”

Joker smiled back as he eased onto his feet and offered him a hand up. “Then let’s do it.”

And so they did. They splashed each other and laughed in the bath, and dried each other off with the one towel, and drifted off in each other’s arms under the futon covers… It was all so incredibly nice, and Joker couldn’t think at all of why he’d resisted this happiness so vehemently.

Until the next morning.

 


 

The smell and sound of frying meat roused him from slumber, though it took several minutes more to want to get out of his nice warm futon. Eventually, his stomach posed a most persuasive argument, and he pushed back the drape and slipped out, barely covering a yawn. A turn later, and he saw Crow at the stove, smiling and humming to himself as he tended to a pan with a spatula. His Loki costume was back on, though he’d taken the time to completely remove his helm. Joker leaned in the entryway to admire the way the early light shone off his hair until Crow looked over at him.

“Good morning, Joker!” he chirped. He paused to give him a significant once-over, then smirked suggestively before giving him his broad, obnoxiously charming TV smile. “Perhaps you should get dressed for the day?”

“Getting dressed is for suckers,” Joker deadpanned, padding over to him and hugging him from behind. He nuzzled his neck, which made Crow sigh the most beautiful sounds, and then peeked down at the pan, where a pair of eggs and link sausages sizzled. “Breakfast smells good.”

His smile turned rueful. “Ahaha… Hopefully it tastes good, too. I’m still learning as a cook, so please don’t expect too much.”

Joker slipped his hand down Crow’s arm. “Want some help?”

His breath caught for a second; then he shook his head. “Thank you, but no. Or rather, not right now. I’d like to try on my own first.” He tilted his forehead onto Joker’s. “Why don’t you have a seat and make yourself comfortable? I already set the table.”

“’kay.” He yawned again as he stepped over to his chair, but stopped before sitting.

When Crow had said he’d set the table, he hadn’t mentioned it would include an array of photos. Photos of his friends, Joker realized as he slowly picked them up. Candid ones. Just like the ones Crow had given him of Ryuji.

Of course, that they were there wasn’t a shock. That was the nature of the agreement they’d made. It was all logical for the situation. And that was the problem.

Because he’d forgotten. He’d forgotten he was trapped in a cage; he’d forgotten he was exchanging sexual favors for information.

He’d forgotten his friends.

A cold, hard lump settled in the pit of his stomach as his costume flared onto him. Oh, yes. Last night had been nice—but he’d neglected to keep the ‘dangerously’ part in mind. So what was he doing now? Was he seducing Crow like he promised himself he wouldn’t do? Was he giving up for real? Was he going to commit to escaping, even if that meant leaving Crow behind? He sat heavily, chair creaking beneath him. Everything had seemed so blessedly clear and simple last night, and now it was more muddled and complicated than ever.

Click. The stove burner turned off, and Crow bought over the pan to slip a fried egg onto the slice of bread already on Joker’s plate and a sausage next to it. He served himself next, then put away the dishes and sat with him.

“When did you get more groceries?” Joker asked, staring at his plate without touching it.

“Just before I returned. I thought you might be running low,” he replied. “I see you’ve gone through the photos. Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it looks.”

He shot him a sharp look. “What’s ‘as bad as it looks’?”

Crow’s eyebrows rose. “None of them look happy in those shots, do they? Candid photos do a great deal to reveal a person’s state of mind.” He picked up his egg bread with one hand. “None of them are in harm’s way, though. They’re just unhappy.”

Joker’s gaze sank. “…Because I’m gone.”

Crow paused. “That’s the long and short of it, yes. They’ve been searching for you. With no success, obviously.” He paused again. Then, delicately: “Aren’t you going to eat?”

Joker’s hands curled into fists. Why did it have to be like this…? Where he could have love or freedom, but not both? Slowly, he looked up at Crow. Crow watched him, and though he was trying to keep his expression politely bland, he couldn’t keep the anxiety from his too-rapid blinking. Joker removed his mask and picked up a fork. “Yeah,” he managed. “Thanks for breakfast.”

“You’re welcome,” he replied graciously.

He ate in silence. Crow started out the same, but once he was done the egg bread (pretty good) and moved on to the sausage (dry and overdone), he launched into a calm, even informational. The public had moved on from the Phantom Thieves of Hearts to Prime Minister Shido, but his friends hadn’t given up on him yet. Ann had put a hold on modeling to focus on the search, Makoto hadn’t done well on finals and was stressing out about it, Futaba had stopped going outside beyond the space between her house and Leblanc, Yusuke had entered another art slump, Haru seemed distracted, passive and lost, and Morgana was constantly on the prowl.

The stories matched the photos spread out before him of his friends fatigued, worried, spaced out, and/or angry. The telling of it reminded Joker that last night’s sweet passion had started out as a manipulative trade of sexual favors for information, and that Crow was now fulfilling his end of the bargain. He made himself finish his meal, and felt sick by the end. How long had they been trying to find him? They really were amazing friends. And he was absolute scum, forgetting them over his desire for Crow.

No. Censuring himself wouldn’t do shit. This was a call to action. A call to choose.

But…

“Are you all right?”

Joker stared up at Crow, who couldn’t quite mask his worry: as personable and light as his tone and expression were, it was there in the tension in his brow, the fidget in his chair, the too-tight grip on his fork. The light gleamed auburn off his hair, inviting kisses and caresses alike. If Joker wanted to—not right now, he was in no such mood, but if he did—he could pull him close and shower him with both. Was he really ready to give that up already?

But that was the essence of the choice, wasn’t it? His friends or his rival. His comrades or his lover. Freedom or a cage. It was no choice at all.

He pinched the bridge of his nose, elbow heavy on the table. None of this was fair. He kept playing games that’d been rigged from the start, and it filled him anew with angry frustration. “No.”

Crow set down his utensils in an X over his plate. The air thrummed with tense silence. Then he cleared his throat. “I’ll… give you some space, then,” he said quietly. He took the time to push his seat in and wash his dishes; then he left.

Joker watched him go, saying nothing the whole while. If Crow had been hoping he’d ask him to stay, he must have been sorely disappointed. Made them even, he guessed.

He retrieved the map he’d hidden under his futon and began to study it in earnest.

Chapter Text

The gilded bars shattered under the crack of Joker’s bootheel, and he took grim satisfaction at the glitter of the superheated-then-flashfrozen fragments as they fell. No alarms, either; as he’d suspected, this late at night/early in the morning, not even Crow or the Shadow Chief would be up to notice what he was up to. He slipped past the opening he’d made for himself, summoned Dominion to create an ice bridge, and crossed it to the other side of the moat.

Free. At long, long last, he was free. It took every ounce of willpower he had to not run wildly through the streets of the zoo, but he did indulge himself a moment to stretch and breathe and smile. He wasn’t out of danger yet, but just being past those bars made his heart lighter.

Now he had to get out of the Palace. He pulled his red gloves taut, grinned in anticipation, and swept into the shadows.

 


 

“Tell me what you’re thinking.”

Crow had returned later that evening for dinner, later than usual and without having come by for lunch. Joker had put away the photos in his pockets and hidden the map again, and Crow’s absence since morning had thrown him off. Maybe he’d banked on that, because when he’d left dinner on the indoors table and pulled him to bed, Joker had let him. It changed his original plan for how to deal with Crow prior to his escape attempt, but it was too late to regret that now. He’d just have to think up something else.

“Mmm...” He shifted, naked and un-self-conscious, under the futon covers, to better look Crow in the eye. “I think I wanna kiss you.”

Crow smiled, caressing his face with one hand. Getting him naked had been a feat that had been well worth the effort. The remains of his costume were torn and discarded on the floor, and Crow himself cuddled him, one leg pulled up between Joker’s. “How badly do you want it?”

Joker answered by way of wrapping an arm around him and leaning his face up. Despite his coy words, Crow met his lips with lips, pressing and shifting and clinging with a rake of teeth and hint of tongue. When they pulled apart several minutes later, his cheeks were flushed and his smile was pleased.

“Do you like being here with me?” he murmured.

And Joker had met his gaze and told him the truth:

 


 

No one was around. No surveillance equipment in sight, either. All clear. Joker nodded to himself, then dashed down past the door puzzles he’d finally solved, down the pathways to the next zoo exhibit, leaving behind Dangerous Big Game (the seventh and innermost exhibit, where he had been caged) for Massive Herbivores.

Elephants, giraffes, rhinos, moose, and hippos languished in cages arranged in an unknowable order. Joker felt for them, but he didn’t stop for them. Each one had a human face, which was creepy enough before reminding himself they were just cognitions, too.

He’d had good luck so far with noticing and evading traps before walking into them. Crow had said that setting one off would turn on the alarms, and he wanted to get as close to the exit as possible before messing around with combat. He was reasonably confident he could take on any average Shadow in this place, but the alarms would draw the Shadow Chief and especially Crow out. If he could get out of here without seeing Crow again, that would be ideal. He didn’t want to see his reaction when he woke up and found the bed empty.

He snuck past another checkpoint, the late-night Shadow guard dozing at his seat, and silently crowed,

 


 

“Yes.”

Joker touched Crow’s face in return. They smiled at each other, and Crow pressed his hand over Joker’s.

“I’m glad,” he breathed. “I was honestly worried after the way you acted this morning.”

Joker’s eyes lidded. “Are you still on about me not actually caring about my friends?”

“No, no, it’s not that—” He lowered his gaze. “I mean I was worried you’d want to leave me.”

He puffed out a faint breath, slipping his hand down to Crow’s shoulder. Their bare chests prickled where they touched, with Crow draped on top of him, half on, half off. “Didn’t think you cared about that,” he remarked. “You wouldn’t let me leave, anyway. Right?”

“Right.”

Naturally. It had barely even needed confirmation, even after their relationship had changed. Just as Joker thought that, though, Crow continued.

“But…” He frowned in contemplation. “Let me think how to put this… I enjoy when we argue, but I hate when we fight. Does that make sense?”

“No.”

His frown tugged deeper, and he leaned down to touch his forehead on Joker’s. “You said you loved me, too,” he murmured. “And I’m not accusing you of lying, but… it still feels so fragile. Like the slightest wrong touch will shatter it, and I’ll wake up from a wonderful dream into harsh reality. Does that make sense?”

“…Yeah.”

Crow stroked his cheek. Joker slipped his other arm around him, and their breaths intermingled. “I don’t care about anything else anymore,” he whispered. “I just want to be with you. I’ll do whatever it takes if it means we can stay together.”

Joker’s pulse sped up, and he slipped one hand up to the back of Crow’s neck, fingers digging through his semi-long hair. Crow made a beautiful, soft noise of surprise when he slipped his tongue into his mouth, and they turned longer and more beautiful the more their tongues curled together. When they parted, they did so with a gasp, Crow panting for air.

Then, bodies grinding together, he dipped down again and

 


 

That was a close one, Joker thought as he panted. The snake exhibit, so far, was frankly bullshit. He’d evaded a nest of spitting cobras only to walk right into the hanging coils of an anaconda Shadow, which had looped itself around him with terrifying speed. A dagger to the ribs had gotten it to relax its grip long enough for Joker to summon Dominion and hit it with a Hamaon. Even after the Shadow had been torn to shreds with banishing light, his bones still creaked.

He shook his head and crept on. No alarms so far, still. That was a blessing. He did wonder what would happen if he got in over his head and the zookeepers had to rescue him, though. That would sure as hell be something: having to be saved from his own escape attempt by his jailers. The look on Crow’s face would be

 


 

blissful, even enraptured, as Joker alternated kisses and bites down his neck and shoulder. His moans, reedy and excited, were so enticing as he held him close.

“You like that?” Joker purred, knowing full well the answer, now the one draped on top of him.

Crow nodded, eyes still shut. “Uh huh,” he gasped.

Joker leaned in close, rocking his hips over Crow’s, drinking in his gasps like a particularly intoxicating wine. “Then look at me,” he whispered.

His eyelashes parted, and Crow, beautiful Crow, gazed up at him. “Joker,” he whispered back. “I want more of you.”

He shivered, letting out a gasp of his own. “What do you want next?”

“I want—I want…”

“Do you want to hear what I want?”

His breath hitched as he nodded.

He leaned in and whispered into his ear: “I want to take you in my mouth and lick you top to bottom. I want to make you shudder with pleasure. Please, let me suck your dick, Crow.”

Joker,” he moaned, thighs arching up around his own. “I—I want that too.” But when he started to move down, Crow grabbed him by the shoulders. “But first,” he whispered, “kiss me again.”

How could he refuse? He leaned in and let his tongue dance again with Crow’s, bodies undulating together as sinuous as

 


 

a sea serpent, which was somehow even more terrible than the snakes in that it was a million times longer and slimier and it was only one of a thousand other terrible aquatic creatures that somehow saw fit to leap out of their water tanks and body-slam Joker if he passed by too close. Like he had, just now.

He ducked and rolled out of the way of a spray of spines from a pufferfish, which embedded themselves instead in a squid. The squid’s tentacles thrashed and writhed from the paralytic poison, even though Joker was fairly sure real-life pufferfish didn’t work like that. He called up Dionysus anyway to hit the three sea creatures all at once with bolts of lightning, then followed up with a single powerful Ziodyne to the pufferfish. It burst apart into shadow with a burbling keen. One down, two left to go.

The sea serpent hissed and sped towards him, hovering in completely unrealistic fashion over the floor before smacking Joker across the room with a flick of its webbed tail. Joker crashed into a viewing bench, but grit his teeth against an involuntary cry of pain. The squid was still paralyzed for now, so he had to take the sea serpent out quick before the status effect wore off. Changing masks within his mind, he called forth Titania to nuke the shit out of it with a Freidyne, then, when that did the trick, repeated the maneuver with the squid, which would be even more vulnerable.

Once they were all dead, Joker took a moment to breathe. Then, taking much greater care to avoid the tanks, he moved

 


 

his lips up Crow’s shaft, kissing and suckling and licking as he went. With his other hand, he fondled Crow’s sack, still slick from his saliva when he’d taken them into his mouth and sucked on them. Crow himself was damn near out of his mind, moaning and shuddering and crying out his name as he dug his fingers in Joker’s hair. Joker glanced up at him now, and smiled when he saw Crow gazing at him with wet eyes. Panting, Crow smiled back, stroking his hair.

“You’re incredible,” he whispered.

“I’m just getting started,” Joker whispered back, and licked him from base to tip in one long motion.

Crow threw his head back, impacting with the pillows they’d stacked up so he could sit upright in comfort, and let out a wordless cry as he gripped the futon with both hands. God, he was so gorgeous, it made Joker wish he had a hand free to jerk himself off. But no: he pumped Crow’s length with his left hand and kept fondling with his right while he kissed Crow’s tip.

“Don’t look away,” he murmured, letting his lips and voice vibrate against him. “Look at me while I make you feel good, Crow. I don’t want you to miss a second.”

Crow gazed back down at him, panting, and nodded once with a high, sweet little uh-huh. Seeing him so obedient was damn hot; Joker thought he could understand the appeal of the master-servant play after all. He smiled, and while maintaining eye contact, took Crow’s end into his mouth and teased his tip with his tongue. Crow groaned louder than ever, thighs twitching, but he didn’t tear his eyes off him. The intensity of his stare was so erotic that Joker felt his cock responding even without any direct attention, and he let himself moan over Crow’s cock as he sucked him off.

“Joker,” he gasped above him, entranced. “Joker, Joker, Joker, Joker Joker Joker—”

 


 

“JOKER! Give yourself up!” the Shadow Chief’s voice barked over the PA system as zookeepers prowled in force. “Surrender now and we will be lenient! Don’t, and you’ll get what’s coming to you! Either way, you’re not getting out of here!!”

Fuck, he hissed internally, peeking around a thick tree as two groups tromped by. Careless, and stupid, of him to stumble into that pit trap while he was crossing the primate exhibit. He thought he’d been so clever, evading sparse rounds of guards by taking a shortcut through the wild. Instead, he’d just barely managed to grab the edge and pull himself out in time, and an alarm had gone off anyway as Crow had warned, alerting what seemed like the whole damn zoo of his escape.

Which meant Crow himself would be by soon. He’d never let Joker escape. Joker didn’t want to imagine how furious he must be right now. But if the ground was too rife with Shadows for him to move, then—he shot his attention up. There were plenty of vines and branches, and the next exhibit over was the aviary. If he couldn’t move on the ground, he’d just have to climb.

He shimmied up the tree and pulled himself up into the branches, waited a moment for the searchlights to pass by, then used vines to crawl hand-over-hand from tree to pole to tree again towards the edge of the encampment. It was nerve-wracking; too much motion attracted the attention of the zookeepers, and too little agitated the primates for some reason, who would start to chuck things at him if he lingered too long in one spot. He fell more than once as a result, though at least he managed to catch himself on lower branches rather than falling all the way to the ground, where he would’ve been caught for sure. This in turn attracted the attention of the zookeepers, though, and so he ended up harried one way or another all the way to the aviary.

Being able to take an overhead, aerial shortcut helped a lot, though, especially when he was able to find a giant nest to hide in for long enough to

 


 

rest his head on Crow’s chest and listened to his racing heartbeat and panting breaths gradually slow. He was so docile after coming, it was adorable. Mmm… Maybe he could wait one more night before attempting escape…? Maybe that was Crow’s plan, though. Ahh. Fuck. Whatever. He couldn’t think of anything but him right now, anyway. Joker leaned his head up and smiled at him, and he smiled back.

“So I’ve been curious about something, Crow,” he said, tracing the contours of his stomach. “Why were you so particular about your first kiss and all that?”

“I think… one’s first kiss, and other similar firsts… should only be with someone one loves, who loves one back,” he replied in between breaths.

“Hmm… So that’s why you made such a point about asking if I loved you too before you let me kiss you?”

Crow stroked his hair and neck. “Yes.”

“But you weren’t all that particular about the sex.”

Crow blushed. God, he couldn’t get enough of that. He was so goddamned cute. “You made it clear you wanted me back,” he said defensively. “That was good enough in the moment.”

Joker grinned. “In the moment, huh?”

“Yes. In the moment,” he insisted.

“The moment when you couldn’t hold back your lust for my incredibly handsome self and had to get some of that D?”

Crow swatted him, laughing despite himself. “Yes. That moment.”

“You held back magnificently. I kept wondering when you were going to snap,” he replied, grin widening. “In the end, I had to snap first.”

His red eyes hooded. Then he stroked Joker’s face, smiling fondly. “I’m glad you did. In ten years, we’ll look back on this and laugh about how needlessly stubborn we both were.”

Joker blinked. Ten years? That was a surprise to hear. “You still think about the future that long-term? I thought you gave up on it.”

“I gave up on the real world. I was sick of trying to please an unpleasable fan base, anyway,” Crow murmured, glancing away. He slipped a hand up Joker’s neck and dug his fingers through his dark curls. “But as long as I have you, I can still think about the future.”

Ah, hell. “Where are we in ten years, then?” Joker asked, because apparently he wanted to get guilt-tripped even harder. “Don’t tell me we’re still in this damn Palace.”

Crow laughed at that. “God, I hope not! That would mean in ten long years, I could never really trust you.”

“You don’t trust me?”

“I don’t trust you to run away from me the first chance you get.” He brushed his hair back from his face. “You want your freedom too much.”

Joker let himself frown. But… there was a spark of hope there. If that was so, then maybe he could persuade him after all. He leaned his face into Crow’s hand. “I want my freedom because you keep me in a cage. If you let me out, I wouldn’t run away from you,” he explained. He rested a hand over Crow’s. “How about it…? You don’t like the Shadow Chief either. Why don’t we ditch this Palace and find a better place to live together?”

 


 

Joker leaped down from the other end of the aviary, smirking. He’d used Arsene to rile up some birds and use them as a distraction for the zookeepers, who thought they were chasing him through the trees still.

There was just one last section to go: the petting zoo. According to the map, this was where the least dangerous of criminals—punks and would-be delinquents who ‘wasted the police’s time with stupid antics’—were housed. Give them a few swats and they were free to go. Not worthy of the Shadow Chief’s direct time or attention, so it had barely any guard rounds or, more importantly, any traps. Now that he’d made it this far, as long as he didn’t fuck it up, he was home free.

He lurked and dashed in between the low-walled compounds, kneeling behind benches and in shadows, poking his head up to get his bearings. When he first spotted the gate marked EXIT, his heart hurled itself into his throat as if attempting its own daring escape. But… no. There were multiple turnstiles there, much like a real zoo, where cognitions no doubt had to pay to enter. Maybe they did so with tax money. The details didn’t matter. Everyone would expect him to run at the main exit/entrance, especially since Crow had told him there was only one. He had to search around for an alternate way—maybe a crumbled part of the wall that he could pull himself over and walk along, out of sight, to get to the exit safely.

He crept towards the outer circumference of the petting zoo exhibit. The wall was tall and spiked and lined with barbed wire. Classy. Still, if there was even a single spot where the wire was broken, he could climb over and skulk his way out. Joker searched for an opening with all his might.

But…

 


 

“You mean right now?” Crow laughed a little in disbelief. “No. We couldn’t. It’s still too dangerous out there for you. For both of us.” He slipped his hand around to thread his fingers between Joker’s. “Just be patient. We’ll leave eventually. After Shido’s gotten fat and comfortable and forgotten about both of us, we’ll strike out together.”

Joker’s eyebrows knit together as he pulled his hand away. “It’s dangerous in here, too,” he argued. “What’s to stop the Shadow Police Chief from locking us both in here while we’re together? We’d end up starving to death.”

But Crow, now frowning, just shook his head. “It’s fine. I have him cowed. He wouldn’t dare.”

“Isn’t that all the more reason he’d dare? To put someone dangerous behind bars so you can’t hurt him?” he insisted. “Crow, I get you’re scared. But you know how I feel about you now. You know I’m not going to run away the second you let me out.” He smiled, trying to turn up the charm, and traced his fingertips up Crow’s body, from his thighs to his lips. “Why would I run from—all of this?”

It wasn’t a lie, either. He really didn’t want to leave him if he didn’t absolutely have to. If Crow would just relent, if he’d let him out, if he’d agree to leave with him, they could figure out a future together.

Crow smiled back at him and kissed his fingers. “You really want me with you?”

Hope, hot and bright as the sun, blazed within him. “Yes!” he replied eagerly. “It’ll be okay, Goro, I swear. Everything will be fine. Let’s leave this Palace together.”

For a moment that yawned into eternity, Crow pursed his lips, looking pensive. Joker seized the opportunity to slide closer, let skin brush on skin, brush his fingers up Crow’s back.

“You said you don’t care about anything else as long as we’re together,” he pressed, whispering next to his ear. “You said you’d do anything to keep us together. You know I want my freedom. If you give it back to me, I won’t need or even want to run away from you. It’d make me so happy, Goro. And you know what I’m like when I’m happy… or do you need another reminder or two…?”

Crow laughed, almost squealed, when Joker ground his hips against him and slid his hands down his hips. “A-ah, ahhh—it’s, unfair, to use your charms, for persuasion, you know,” he gasped.

He nipped at his neck. “What else are they for?”

Warm sighs and whimpers bubbled from his throat, until abruptly, Crow pushed him over, swung a leg over him, and pinned him down with butterfly kisses. Joker let him and responded in kind until both of them were left hot and gasping.

“All right,” Crow murmured, gazing down at him. “All right, you’ve convinced me.”

Joker lit up with a broad grin. “Really?”

He smiled back with affection and brushed his hair back from his face. “Yes. I was getting tired of this Palace, anyway.”

Joker laughed with delight and threw his arms around Crow’s neck to pull him down for another, far deeper kiss. Their tongues flicked and coiled together, first fast, then slow, sumptuously slow, and long, until finally they had no choice but to break for air.

As they panted, Joker breathed, “When do we leave?”

“Hmm, let me think...” Crow rested his forehead on Joker’s, eyes shut. “I’m not sure. It might take some time. I’ll be as quick as I can about it, though, so can you be patient for me?”

He’d laughed, misunderstanding his meaning. “I thought you only packed a few essentials, Crow. What, did you bring your entire bathroom?”

He’d swatted him, playful, gentle. “Of course not; don’t be ridiculous. I mean I have to find a new Palace for us.”

And Joker’s would-be freewheeling excitement found the end of its chain and yanked to a choking halt. “What? New Palace?”

“For us to live in, obviously. You and your friends got rid of so many...” He shook his head. “It’s just as well, though. If I find a brand-new one, Shido won’t know about it. We’ll be that much safer.”

“I thought—I meant—what?”

“What?”

They stared at each other. It dawned on Joker that the two of them had had two very different things in mind.

 


 

Boots scraping on the gravel path, Joker skidded to a halt. In the shadow of a statue of an adorably portly black-and-white bear, presumably the zoo mascot, an even bigger predator lurked out of sight—until just now. They said corvids were bad omens, and this one was the worst of all: arms folded, back leaning on the statue, wreathed in darkness, he’d moved only when Joker was too close to reasonably evade him.

But now he stepped out into the dim light, eyes cold behind the helm of his mask, the stripes of his costume as much a danger signal as a blue ring octopus’s rings, blocking the way between Joker and freedom. At the same time, Crow and Joker raised their arms and sighted their pistols on the other. Cold sweat beaded down Joker’s face as his heart hammered on his ribs. His rib cage. Fuck. This was the one scenario he wanted to avoid.

“Go back to your enclosure,” Crow commanded. Icicles could’ve formed on his voice.

Joker swallowed hard. “No.”

Crow pulled back the safety on his gun with a distinct ka-klik. It was totally unnecessary save as an intimidation tactic, and Joker hated that it was working. “If you surrender and go back now, all will be forgiven. It doesn’t have to be like this, Joker.”

“Yes it does. You made that clear.”

 


 

“I meant for us to go back to the real world,” Joker explained, dread blackening the edges of hope that had been so bright within him. “Back to Tokyo. To Leblanc.”

Crow’s expression had blackened, too. He didn’t respond.

“You can hide out with me,” he added, and he hated the desperation now edging his voice. “I’ll explain everything to the others.”

“The others?” he said softly. Dangerously.

“Right! You were part of the team once. You can be again, for real this time. We messed up changing Shido’s heart the last time, but this time, we can all do it together. Get it done for sure.”

Crow’s expression didn’t change. “Ah… Let me get this straight. You want me to return to the real world that decided it wants a fascist for a leader, live like a church mouse in your dingy attic room, and play Phantom Thief with your posse like nothing ever happened?”

“With me,” Joker insisted. “All of it with me.”

His eyelashes had fluttered near-shut. “With you.”

The way he said that made anger surge like a storm front inside him. “Yes. That’s what you said: you don’t care about anything anymore as long as you can be with me.”

He said nothing.

“And maybe you don’t care anymore, but I do. About a lot of things—not just you, Crow. So why not follow my lead?” he snapped.

Crow’s eyes narrowed.

Joker took a deep breath to calm himself, then wrapped his hands around Crow’s. “Look. It won’t be so bad. I promise. And we’ll still be together. That’s what’s important, right?”

He glanced away, sighing, and clutched Joker’s hands back. “That is what’s important,” he agreed, tone reluctant. “That’s why I can’t agree with you.”

“What? Why not?”

“You underestimate how violent, paranoid, and murderous Shido is. He sees no one as a threat to him because he squashes threats as soon as they appear. If we return for the real world, and he realizes that, he will have us both killed. And if your friends get in the way, he’ll have them killed, too.” He looked back at him, red eyes cold. “Do you really want their blood on your hands?”

Joker stared back, silently shocked.

“It’s best for you, me, and everyone if we stay in the Metaverse,” he continued, tone soothing, reasonable. “We can leave this Palace right away. But we need to stay away from the real world for now. In another year or two, depending on the circumstances, we can discuss it again.”

“How about Sae’s Palace, then? It shouldn’t have dissolved, since we didn’t actually take her Treasure,” he replied quietly, trying to keep his temper in check. “Then my friends can come to me. That works, right?”

“No!” Crow reined himself in, then repeated with more calm, “No. They won’t understand. They’ll try to talk you into leaving. Let’s just keep everything between the two of us, all right? It’ll be the simplest, safest way for everyone. Just trust me—okay?”

Hope finally boiled into fury. Trust you? When you won’t trust me? he’d wanted to snap. He’d just admitted that their stay here had nothing to do with safety or danger, but how comfortable Crow was with letting Joker have a life outside himself. He could use the same damn it’s-not-safe-out-there excuse indefinitely to keep him placated. To keep him from trying to find his friends. To make it easier on himself, because he couldn’t fucking handle not being in total control.

“Okay?” Crow pressed, notes of worry and warning harmonizing in his voice.

Joker pressed a kiss on his palm. “Okay,” he replied to mask his rage. He gave him a tight smile, and swept his fingers up Crow’s thigh. Love or freedom. A choice that wasn’t a choice. Whatever. It was just as well that Crow didn’t trust him; he’d been planning to escape all along. And if they were making love anyway, well. He’d completely wear him out. Make absolute certain he was so thoroughly wrung out he wouldn’t wake until well into morning barring any alarms. “In the meantime, I hope you’re ready for round two…”

 


 

Crow grit his teeth. “I’m giving you one last chance to do the smart thing. Don’t make me have to hurt you.”

“Go fuck yourself.”

The muzzle of Crow’s gun flashed. Joker, having anticipated it, rolled to the side in time to avoid a direct hit, but fuck, that was still a painful score along his hip and thigh. It wasn’t lost on him that Crow had deliberately aimed somewhere non-vital, but he needed to be enraged at him, so he chose to ignore it as he came up behind the cover of one of the petting zoo camps and returned fire. Crow already had his own cover behind that damn statue, so he basically wasted his bullets—but it was at least useful as a statement.

“Go fuck myself?! You already took care of that earlier tonight!!” Crow yelled his way, red-hot fury smashing through the ice. “Was that your plot the whole time?! Exhaust me until I couldn’t move?!”

 


 

Crow cried out as he came for the second time, hot and sweet and no less vigorous than the first. Joker drank him down, then licked off the remains as he twitched, sweating. He hated swallowing, and that was why he did it: he needed to keep himself alert while Crow melted with pleasure until he was too useless to do a damn thing tonight. Frustration and disgust and anger would do nicely.

“Ren,” Crow gasped, reaching for him. “Let me—I want to make you feel good too…”

Yet those few words had almost undone all his resolve. He did want him. He did love him. But he couldn’t stay, and Crow wouldn’t go.

Joker pressed a hand to his chest and gently pushed him down. “Making you feel good makes me feel good,” he purred, eyes narrowed. It wasn’t even a lie. “Relax, and let me take care of you even more, my master…”

 


 

“That was the idea, yeah,” Joker called back, keeping his tone cold and even.

A lance-sized energy arrow, physical in force, smashed through the flimsy enclosure only inches to Joker’s right. “YOU PIECE OF SHIT!” Crow screamed, Robin Hood vanishing at his back. “You filthy—lying—backstabbing—”

Joker dashed out from under cover and called up Arsene to curse the enclosure with waves of darkness. As it roiled outwards towards Crow, he crooked an arm over his face and dove in, shouting back, “Wow, I wonder what that feels like?!”

“YOU SAID YOU LOVED ME!!”

This time, Joker didn’t shoot back a quip. Arsene’s cover would only last a moment, and with Crow’s furious howls marking his position, it would be foolish for him to give his captor something to bead in on in return. He crept forward towards where he’d last seen the turnstiles—no point in trying to find a sneaky way out at this point, and he had to gain as much distance as silently as he could, while he could.

“Where are you?! Joker!! Where did you go?!” Crow bellowed the whole while, somewhere to his left.

Joker kept his mouth clamped shut. He hated that edge of desperate fear to his voice. The shadows were beginning to clear, and he could see his destination now, so close he could taste it like the metal tang of blood. He surged forward—

“THERE you are!!”

WHAM. A half-serrated straight blade whirled over and slammed into the ground in front of him, cutting him off and knocking him back when he ran into it like an idiot.

The sword vanished to the sound of Crow’s sprinting footsteps. Joker regained his footing and half-turned in time to see Crow raising it as he charged, and summoned his dagger just in time to defend himself from a vicious downward slash. The force of the impact rang through his arms, and he grunted as he struggled to stay upright, his blade buckling under Crow’s.

“You said you loved me!” he repeated, pouring his strength into trying to force him down. “Was that all a lie?!”

“You’re fucking stupid, Crow,” Joker hissed. “I’d tell you anything if it meant I could get out of this hellhole.”

He recoiled as if shot. Joker snatched that opportunity to make it because he was shot. Crow staggered back, dropping his sword to clutch his gut, and Joker dashed past him for the turnstiles. One good jump, one good sprint, and he’d be home free for real. But—

“I won’t let you go,” Crow croaked at his back. “I’ll NEVER let you go. I’LL KILL YOU BEFORE I LET YOU GO! PERSONAAAAAA!!”

Joker dove to one side, already anticipating the attack, but he underestimated Loki’s reach. The mad, striped Persona swung forward with a long, reddish-amber blade and slashed through a turnstile, then through him, before slamming the sword into the gravel between Joker and the exit. The impact of the attack knocked him down and sent him rolling a few feet from his goal. He caught himself, but fuck, that had hurt.

As he struggled to get back to his feet, clutching his injury, Crow staggered zombie-like towards him. Fear got Joker up on one knee, but he could only retreat so far with Loki boxing him in on the other side.

“I tried! So hard! For you!!” Crow rasped, throwing his bloodied arms wide as he approached. “Why wasn’t it good enough?!” He broke into a run. “WHY IS IT NEVER GOOD ENOUGH?!”

Before Joker could even attempt a comeback, Crow slammed into him, knocking him to the ground. Loki finally vanished, but that was no consolation when his captor had him pinned. Crow lifted his sword, gripping it by the blade as if it mattered not that he bled as long as he could kill Joker to keep him here.

Joker flinched, bracing himself for a fatal blow to the face. When the crack came, he flinched again… but it was an inch away from his ear. Crow’s serrated blade skittered away, but he slammed his bloody fist down on the gravel, again and again, his other fist digging into the lapel of Joker’s coat, as he screamed in rage and grief.

At last, his fist came down one last time, and he hunched over Joker, shaking. Joker opened one eye, then the other, to gaze up at Crow as his tears fell one by one. Pitiful as he must know he looked, Crow didn’t look away.

“You said you loved me,” he sobbed, small and plaintive. “Was that really all a lie?”

Joker’s heart squeezed hard and painful. Gone was the raw fury from the last two times; now all that was left was heartbreak of a man desperate to be loved and needed. Of the man he loved, whom he had hurt anyway, because that was what he had to do. Slowly, he reached up a hand and pressed it gently to the side of Crow’s mask. Crow stilled, eyes flickering, and for an instant, he held his breath, perhaps out of one last candle-flame of hope.

He’d told himself he wouldn’t do this, that he wouldn’t be a Shido, but. Well. Here they were. Freedom was so close he could taste it, and if it had the copper-salt tang of blood and tears, so be it.

“Who would ever love anyone,” he thus whispered, “as rotten as you?”

Then, when the devastation had registered, he slammed his knee into Crow’s gut, right where he’d shot him moments ago.

Crow choked in agony, and Joker shoved him off, then scrambled around and up onto his feet. Calling Unicorn to heal his wounds as he went, he leaped over the cleaved turnstile and sprinted at top speed for the exit.

“Wait!” his lover cried behind him. “Don’t go! Don’t leave me! DON’T GO!! REEEENNN—”

Reality warped around him, cutting off Crow’s screams. The next instant, Ren found himself dashing down the front steps of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department HQ, and caught himself on a parking meter before he could barrel into the street.

Panting, almost dizzy with the sights of the city, his blood churned as his soul sang.

He was free.

Chapter Text

He was free, but he was also without allies. Also, for all his talk about danger, Goro was certain to chase him into the real world once he was back on his feet. Also also, the goddamned cops were literally at his back. Ren shoved himself back into motion and hurried away from the police station as fast as he could go without looking suspicious. He ducked into the first alley he spotted, parkoured onto the fire escape, and raced to the roof, where he resumed his escape.

Neither sirens nor Goro came wailing behind him. After maybe twenty minutes of jumping, running, and tumbling across the Tokyo skyline, Ren could actually believe it: he really was free.

He slumped against a rooftop door, let himself sink into a sit, and covered his face with both hands to muffle his frantic, involuntary giggles. Once he’d calmed down, Ren sighed and leaned his head back. The December (was it still December? Was it January by now? He’d completely lost track of real-world time) air nipped aggressively through his hoodie; it wasn’t quite snow weather, but it was still fucking freezing out, and he wasn’t dressed for night excursions. Just his jeans, sneakers, hoodie, the shirt underneath, and—he patted himself down. No phone. No wallet, either. So he was also broke, and thus had no money for transit fare, and couldn’t call a friend to come pick him up. Damn. He half-sighed, half-groaned, and rubbed his arms.

Come to think, he wasn’t sure where exactly in Tokyo he was, either. He’d made it a point to avoid the cops in this city, so he had no idea which district the TMPD HQ was in. That probably wouldn’t be a huge deal—he could always ask for directions, or more likely, find a train station and thus map once he was back on ground level—but depending on where he was, he might be in for one hell of a walk back to Leblanc. Double damn. He wished he’d eaten dinner, but Crow had been so hot to trot before, and after, he’d been too hot to trot out of his cage. His stomach was berating him for it now.

Speaking of berating, he thought back to Crow—to Goro. Now that the adrenaline had worn off, he could reflect on just how cruel he’d been to him in the name of regaining his freedom. Sure, it’d worked. It was hard to argue with the results. But…

You said you loved me. Was that really all a lie?

Who would ever love anyone as rotten as you?

…But he could still hear Goro screaming, begging for him not to leave him.

Whatever. Whatever. It wasn’t like he hadn’t tried to peacefully talk him into letting him go. Love and fear might be similar, but anger kicked both of their asses. Goro had tried to kill him twice, tried to kill his friends, actually had killed god only knew how many people, had lied to him, betrayed him, kidnapped him, imprisoned him, drugged him, coerced him, so on and so on. So what if Ren crushed his heart? He had it coming. He deserved it. After everything Goro had done to him, Ren didn’t owe him shit. He sure as hell didn’t owe it to him to let him down gently when Goro had just threatened Ren with death if he didn’t get back in his fucking cage.

So he told himself to quash the guilt. It only kind of worked.

Still, if a heavy conscience was his price to pay, he’d pay it. It’d all be worth it once he was finally back at Leblanc and had a heaping plate of curry with coffee on the side. Just the thought of all that hot food made his mouth water and his shivers intensify. Though if Goro figured that he’d return to Leblanc and headed him off there…

Damn. That was also true. That was the obvious place for Ren to go after escaping, and Goro would know that. Ren didn’t want to think of how molten-furious he would be once the heartbreak wore off, either—or how vengeful. And Goro was a vengeful piece of shit. That was part of what Ren found attractive about him. He chewed his thumbnail. Goro had threatened to kill him, but had been unable to go through with it. However, he was unlikely to be so hesitant with, say, Morgana or the others. Had Ren unthinkingly put his friends and Sojiro in danger? Shit. Shit shit shit.

But he couldn’t take back his words and actions now. Without his phone and thus the Meta-Navi app, he couldn’t return to the police chief’s Palace even if he wanted to. And if Goro were to decide to take out his rejection anger on his friends, then Ren had to go to Leblanc to warn them, obvious destination or not.

Right. No time like the present. He pushed himself upright, climbed down to street level, and searched for the nearest train station.

 


 

Laid out behind the broken turnstiles and in crippling pain, Crow wept until he ran out of tears. Even after Joker had kicked him away like an unwanted puppy, he’d still crawled after him with all his draining strength—but once he was gone, he was gone. Crow’s fire died along with his heart.

Yet again, all his titanic efforts had come to nothing. He would have given anything to make Joker his for real, but all he’d accomplished was sullying his own body with more lies. He couldn’t even bring himself to actually kill him like he’d threatened. Now Joker was gone, run away as Crow had always feared, and he was all alone yet again.

Had he really believed him when he said he’d loved him? Was he really that much of a hopeless fool? No wonder Joker had looked down on him! Any kindergartner could have seen this moronic twist coming! But he’d wanted so badly for it to be real. He’d wanted so badly for it to be true. And, like everything else he’d wanted so badly he’d give up pieces of himself to have it, he let himself ignore the warning signs so he could delude himself with the idea that he might have a place somewhere in this ruthless world.

Of course Joker had never loved him. Of course he’d only been faking to create a chance to escape. Crow had known it all along. It was exactly as he said: who would ever love someone as rotten as him?

Presently, heavy footsteps approached, grinding in the gravel. Crow knew without looking it was the Shadow Chief, but he stirred anyhow, tilting his head to look up. The police chief’s Shadow sneered down at him, golden eyes peeking out over the top of his shades.

“Got away, did he,” the Shadow said.

Crow tilted his head back down. He had no will or energy to indulge the obvious.

“I spent a lot o’ time and trouble on that Joker fella,” he continued. “Made him the star of my zoo. Made him the star because you said he’d be worth it.”

Crow said nothing. It was already bad enough.

“Now I’ve got an enclosure fancier’n’ any other scumbag in this place deserves, and no criminal to put in it.” He paused a beat. Then, with dangerous deliberateness, he wondered, “Say. Come to think. Ain’t you a criminal, Mr. Black Mask?”

Crow’s fingers curled.

“You been usin’ Palaces just like mine for ages for whatever you damn well please,” he continued. “How many bodies you got piled up under your name? An’ now I find you here at my doorstep, the most dangerous beast of ‘em all, too banged up an’ broken to barely even move. Mm, mm, mm. What’s an honorable huntsman like m’self to do.”

Growling, Crow glared up at him and made an effort to push himself up—but the Shadow Chief planted a boot on his back and forced him back down. With a snap of his fingers, scores of zookeepers surrounded the two on all sides. The Palace’s exit was literally only yards away, and yet there was no escape. Crow wondered if this was how Joker had felt when he’d appeared before him.

“Soften him up, boys,” the Shadow Chief commanded, kicking him for good measure. “Just so he doesn’t get any ideas on the way to his new home.”

So. This was what it all came to in the end.

Fine.

Crow shut his eyes and braced himself just before the hail of batons fell.

The next… however long… passed in a haze of pain. Before, he could have moved despite the pain, but he’d been too soaked in despair to try; now, trying sent agony wracking through every inch of his body. He didn’t resist when the Shadow Chief dragged him all the way through the Palace back to what was once Joker’s enclosure. When he evicted him of his co-administrator privileges, he remained limp. The cage bars slammed shut, and he remained splayed on the concrete, unmoving. He couldn’t even check to see if the bars Joker had shattered were still broken, or if the Chief had sent someone ahead to fix them in anticipation of the enclosure’s new tenant. He remained where he’d been left, battered in body and soul, and let his mind drift somewhere outside the haze.

Joker had been so convincing. That was the worst part of it all. He’d really thought he loved him, desired him. Their first time had happened entirely because Joker had begged him to touch him. Then last night, sure, Crow had been the one to pull him to bed, but after they’d stripped each other, Joker had shown all the initiative, pulling him down on his cubby futon on top of him. His touches, his kisses, had been so tender, so gentle… He’d told him making him feel good made himself feed good, too. Naïve fool he was, so wrapped up in the exquisite pleasure Joker had showered him in, in the praise and attention and the smiles and the caresses and oh, the way he’d made him orgasm over and over and over until he passed out, Crow had eaten up every word. He’d said as much, hadn’t he? This was his fantasy for the longest time, both romantic and erotic. All Joker had to do was put on a good show (and he excels at putting on shows, doesn’t he? a part of him whispered knowingly) and… and…

He sobbed anew, but the tears would no longer come. Did he think that was the worst part? No, the worst part was even now, knowing the awful truth, he missed him. He wanted to hold him, wanted to be held by him. Wanted to kiss him, wanted to make love to him. Even if it was a lie, he wanted Joker to pull him close and stroke his hair and shush him and tell him everything would be all right. He’d wanted it with terrified desperation from the moment the escape sirens had jarred him from the soundest, most peaceful sleep he’d ever known, and he’d found the bed and the apartment and the enclosure all empty. Found the bars at the back of the cage shattered, just like his dreams.

And just like his first kiss. His first love-making. His first romance. All of his pretty fantasies were now irrevocably ruined, sullied and filthy like the rest of him. He’d wanted just one pure thing! Just one thing that was clean and good! Just one thing that was above the miserable scandal that was his entire cursed existence. It didn’t matter if he’d forced Joker to let him touch him, if he’d bribed him into stripping and masturbating so he could watch, because those meant nothing. They were just a few scant touches, a few brief glimpses. It didn’t matter if they were dirty. But his firsts? He wanted them to be real. To be wonderful, shining moments of true love that he could keep in his heart and treasure always. How like a thief to steal that from him, too.

Crow surrendered to despair and waited for death.

But, stubbornly, spitefully, death would not come.

The pain of his battered body and broken heart didn’t abate; however, as light dawned and the cognitive crowds thronged, they became easier to tolerate. Joker had shot him in a non-immediately fatal spot, and while gut shots in the real world typically led to protracted, agonizing deaths, the cognitive world was a place where, as long as the wound wasn’t immediately fatal, it was eminently survivable. Crow knew that from experience, and no doubt Joker did too. He wasn’t a murderer, after all. Piece of shit, looking down on him like that. How dare he.

Sucking in a ragged breath, Crow clutched a fist to his bullet wound, though it felt like it had scabbed over, and managed to roll himself onto his back. The rest of his injuries were all blunt force trauma; he probably didn’t even have internal bleeding. The Shadow Police Chief had taken the time and effort to drag him in here. He didn’t want him dead. Too bad. Crow struggled upright into a sit. When he managed it, he hunched over himself, sweating and panting. The faceless crowds pointed at him and seemed to laugh.

Go ahead and laugh, he thought bitterly. That’s all I’m good for anymore.

He could have summoned a Persona to heal himself, but instead, he draped himself on his bent knees. Perhaps he wouldn’t die of his wounds, but he’d die sooner or later of hunger and thirst. The Shadow Chief had never been fully convinced that the ‘special’ food was worth it, and even if he were, Crow was the only one who could leave the Palace to retrieve it. There was only a tiny amount of groceries left in the enclosure, and Joker sure as hell wasn’t coming back with more. Crow would run out of real-world food and drink in a day, maybe two; then he’d starve to death.

Well. Even death row inmates got to have a last meal. He was at least better than that. He staggered up to his feet and swayed into the tiny apartment.

The moment he swept the drape aside and entered, nostalgia—for something less than a day old!!—crashed over him like a tsunami. There was the table where he’d played chess with Joker. There was the stove where he’d cooked him breakfast, and Joker had hugged him from behind. There—there was the bed where—where—

He slumped to his knees in front of the futon. It still smelled of sweat and sex. Thinking back, Joker hadn’t let him pleasure him at all. He’d kept everything focused on ‘Master’ Crow. Perhaps his touch had disgusted him after all. It was probably no coincidence that Joker waited until he was already on the brink of release to ‘beg’ Crow to finish him off. I need you, I need you right now, he’d pleaded. Crow had resisted his own baser desires up until then, but that—those words—the thing he’d always wanted to hear the most—had been his undoing. Then ten seconds later, Joker had come. It’d probably been part of his plan all along. How convenient it must have been for him that Crow had been too filled with his own need to second-guess it all.

Who would ever love anyone as rotten as you?

Crow folded his arms on the edge of the futon and buried his head in them.

At some point, he must have dozed off, because he awoke with a start. He looked up blearily. Everything was as he’d left it. He peered at the messy, unmade futon; then he abandoned it to stumble into the kitchen and set a pot of rice to cook and a kettle of water to boil.

He slumped at the table after. His usual seat: the one closer to the door-drape. If he stared both hard enough and vacuously enough, he could almost envision Joker sitting across from him. One moment, with that charming, handsome smile of his; the other, with that stricken, thousand-mile stare he’d had when he’d looked over the photos of his friends. Crow wondered if things would be different now if he’d never laid them out. Then he barked out a despairful laugh. Of course it wouldn’t be different. The whole reason they’d ever made lo—fucked was because of the transaction. Joker would have demanded his end of the bargain if Crow hadn’t come through on his own.

He gazed out the window. Light seeped in with grotesque cheer. I wonder where he is right now… Is he already at Leblanc? Have his teammates gathered to celebrate his return? Is he telling them what I did to him? Are they cursing me right now…?

The kettle whistled, breaking him from his thoughts. He turned off the burner, then prepared and poured a cup of green tea. It was too bitter. He drank it anyway. The flavor had never mattered. When the rice was done, he ate it with a spoon straight out of the rice cooker. Then he dumped all the dishes in the sink and didn’t bother to turn on the faucet.

Afterwards, he finally summoned a Persona to heal the worst of his wounds. He scanned the shelves. He skimmed the last couple pages of Sputnik Sweetheart. He choked on its inexplicably happy ending. He used the toilet. He took a bath. He sat at the outside table. 1Q84 was set on it. He flipped through it listlessly, none of the words scanning. Had Joker read any of his favorite book? Did it matter if he had? His ultimate assessment of Sputnik Sweetheart had been that he didn’t like it. Having re-read the last page, he now understood why. Crow let the cover shut and pulled his knees to his chest. He’d argued with Joker about Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World right here…

His chest squeezed painfully tight. Why…? Why, after Joker had lied to, used, and abandoned him, did Crow still love him? Everything would be so much easier if he could just despise him the way he deserved and be done with it. But it had never been that easy. He’d never been able to just hate him. If he had, he would have shot him back in Shido’s Palace. Spite alone hadn’t prompted him to turn his gun on his cognitive self. Perhaps, after everything he’d done to Joker and his friends, this was his rightful punishment. He reached out and stroked the cover of 1Q84. Unlike Aomame, he’d never been an assassin for justice, much as he’d fancied himself one to keep the cognitive dissonance of wanting to be a hero but actually being a criminal from shredding his psyche.

Maybe this would be a fine way to spend his last days alive. There were worse final acts than re-reading his favorite book. When Crow pulled it into his lap and cracked it open to Aomame and her absurd knowledge of an obscure European symphony, though, the words swam out of focus; he kept thinking instead of his literary discussion with Joker. He leaned against the concrete plateau at his back and gazed up into the sky beyond the gilded bars.

Maybe he does end up succumbing to the workings of outside forces, Joker had said of the Wonderland narrator, but when faced with that reality, he makes the choice to do what makes him happy and meet his end on his own terms. That’s significant.

Crow’s right hand twitched. Meet his end on his own terms… That much was true. The narrator’s miserable fate was fixed and unavoidable, but he fought to have a satisfying last day on Earth. Crow didn’t think there was anything that would bring him happiness anymore, but… if these were his last twenty-four hours, what would he want to do with them?

I want to see you one last time, was his immediate plaintive thought, visions of Ren rising in his mind. Then he laughed bitterly. Yeah, right. That’d be a great way to dig the knife in deeper, going out of his way to see someone who (he ground his teeth) never loved him.

I want to make you hurt as badly as I hurt, was his next, vicious, angry thought. But in the same way he couldn’t bring himself to kill him when he had him helpless beneath him, his heart rebelled. The obvious alternative was to punish Ren by torturing his friends, but… while Crow didn’t give a damn about them, the only thing he’d accomplish would be to make Ren hate him even more. It just felt so… empty.

Then what? Was there a point at all, if he couldn’t be with Ren nor would he take revenge on him? He’d lost his chance at starting over with a new life, at being acknowledged, at vengeance… It would be better to pull his gun on himself and end it quickly. Better than starving pitifully like a dog in a detestable man’s Palace.

Hahahaha… Of course. Of course! Why hadn’t he seen it before? He should have done this a long time ago. The world neither needed nor wanted him. Why not see himself out? Crow held out his hand, and his pistol appeared in his palm. It was the exact same weight as always. He’d slain countless men with this weapon. Well, it was time to slay one more. He held the muzzle to his temple and shut his eyes.

Four pounds on a five-pound trigger. Those came easily enough. But… He hesitated. Just a little more force, and he’d be done with this pointless world, this cursed life. But—his heart raced, his throat closed up, and his finger locked up. He couldn’t bring himself to squeeze that one last little bit. What was this? Was… was there something he’d left undone? Something he wanted to do first after all…?

Oh.

Of course.

How could he go and commit suicide in such a blasé manner—

—when that man still walked the streets of society, smug and secure in his victory?

Crow rolled onto the balls of his feet and stood up, blood roaring in his brain. Haha. Hahahaha. Clutching his book in one arm and his gun in the other, he threw his head back and cackled. Why should he die while Shido still lived? Wouldn’t that be a splendid revenge, all on its own? Finally he had what he wanted in his grasp, and then the boy he’d thought a worthless puppet stands up and guns him down, then shoots himself dead, in the most ignoble, anticlimactic way! Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Wouldn’t that be horrible? What did disgusting power-grubbing men like Shido and the police chief fear more than the inevitability of death, after all? And then to spit on so-called justice by jumping off the mortal coil after him—it was so cruel, it was the only fitting fate possible!

He could already picture it. One of the things he’d learned during his last expedition to the real world was that Shido was scheduled to parade around Tokyo and wave to his adoring public. Akechi would walk forward before him, meet his damnable eyes, and give him just long enough to realize what was about to happen before he shot him in the fucking face. Burbling a breathless laugh, he dismissed his firearm, dragged his nails down his face, and grinned like a skeleton. Yes. Yes, yes. Yes, this was perfect. If he was going to die, damned if he would die before his good-for-nothing father.

Which meant, irony of ironies, now he had to escape. Crow cackled again, loud and frankly unhinged. He didn’t care how crazy he sounded, though. He had one last purpose, and he would see it through.

He strode to the cage door, where a zookeeper stood guard, and called for his other self.

 


 

Never before had the low lights and retro interior of Leblanc been so welcoming. Ren stumbled inside and nearly wept when the scent of curry and coffee hit his nostrils. Instead, barely hearing Sojiro’s greeting, he swayed over to the second stool from the door, pulled himself onto it, and laid his head down on the counter. The Tokyo Metro PD turned out to be in Chiyoda, approximately a two-hour walk to Yongen-Jaya; it’d taken him over three hours, and his feet were killing him. But he’d made it. Thank god, he’d finally made it, and from the look of things, Goro either hadn’t been by or hadn’t caused too much of a fuss. Either way, everything would be all right now.

“What can I get for you?” Sojiro said then. Ren could hear his raised eyebrows. He laughed silently. Of course. He’d gone missing for, god, days? Weeks? And then he just waltzed in the door and sat down one early morning like nothing had happened. Just like the Boss to play it cool while giving him the side-eye.

“Water,” he croaked, because his throat was parched and his tongue dry. “Then curry and coffee. Don’t care what kind.”

“Comin’ right up.”

Kind of a stand-offish reply. Still, Ren found himself a little relieved that Sojiro wasn’t making a big fuss. He already felt terrible enough about (Goro) worrying his friends half to death.

Speaking of—he looked up and around the restaurant. No sign of Morgana, Futaba, or… anyone, aside from a couple of normal patrons seated in the booths, enjoying breakfast coffee. No one he’d ever really talked to. Another reason to keep it subtle; knowing the Boss, he wouldn’t want his clientele to overhear something they shouldn’t. And Goro had said that Futaba had taken to holing herself up in her room again, and Morgana was on the prowl more often than not. They were probably just not here at the moment.

Clink. Ren nodded to Sojiro in gratitude and gulped down the ice water he’d just brought him in one go. Gasping, he just avoided slamming the glass on the counter. “Sorry. Refill?”

“Sure,” he replied. Yup, those were some tall eyebrows. They’d crawl into his hairline if they climbed any higher. “You okay there?”

Ren couldn’t help it. He laughed and shook his head. “You would’ve believe the time I’ve had.”

“That so.”

And that was it. From experience, this was Sojiro-ese for, ‘Don’t want to hear it.’ That stung, but it was just as well. Ren wasn’t ready to tell his story. Hell, he didn’t know how to even broach it.

But… He glanced at the Leblanc phone at his right. “Mind if I use that?”

“Knock yourself out.”

He hooked the receiver under one shoulder and hovered a finger over the dial pad. Trying to recall someone’s, anyone’s number, though, sent his thoughts in a jumble. Did he ever have anyone’s number memorized? Fuck. Hold on, he was pretty sure he remembered Ryuji’s. He held a hand to his forehead, then when he had it, he dialed.

We’re sorry,” a cool, automated female voice said, “but the number you have dialed is currently not in service...

He hung up and tried again. Maybe he’d gotten the last two digits mixed up? Relief flooded through him when the line connected, and he blurted out, “Ryuji!”

“Sorry,” said an unfamiliar older woman’s voice, “but there’s no one here by that name.”

“This—this isn’t the Sakamoto residence?”

“No, sweetie, you’ve got the wrong number.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

He hung up, then pinched the bridge of his nose. If he didn’t have Ryuji’s number memorized right, then he probably didn’t have anyone’s memorized at all. Okay. Next move. Futaba probably still had Leblanc bugged—wait, duh. He must have been way more messed up than he realized if he hadn’t thought of this first.

“Hey, how’s Futaba doing?” Ren asked, looking over at Sojiro. “D’you have her number handy? I lost my phone.”

Sojiro, who was returning then with a plate of plain vegetable curry with rice and a cup of whatever had already been in the pot, gave him an odd look. He often gave that look to people he didn’t like; he’d looked at him like that a lot in the early days. As he set Ren’s meal down with a distinct air of caution, he said, “Come again?”

His shoulders sank. “Boss, don’t mess with me,” he replied wearily. “I know I must’ve worried you when I went missing, and I’m really sorry, but I can’t right now.”

But he only squinted harder. “Kid, I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

Chapter Text

Motes of dust drifted through the wan December light. Ren stared up at the ceiling from his bed. Sojiro hadn’t let him in; he’d had to sneak in through the window. Not easy when it faced a narrow alleyway, and was also on the second floor. His heart had almost stopped a couple times when he’d thought he’d heard him coming to investigate, but apparently he was just serving customers downstairs.

For whatever reason, Sojiro didn’t remember him. Didn’t remember Futaba, either. He’d remembered the police coming to sack his place a week or two ago, and having an attic tenant who’d ‘run off somewhere’ in his own words sometime before that, but didn’t remember it being. Well. Him. Ren feared that the cops might’ve done something to him while they were here—drugged him, addled his memory, something like that. Meaning that it was dangerous for Sojiro for him to stay here.

But something about that assumption felt off. How could he have forgotten Futaba, too? Goro had said she’d holed herself up in her room. Even if Shido’s goons had made Sojiro forget about the whole team for some bizarre reason, he had to have noticed a hacker gremlin living in his house. Had Goro’s intel been a lie?

For the time being, he’d had to sneak in and check his room. Sputnik Sweetheart had messed with him, made him wonder if somehow, when he’d left the police chief’s Palace, he’d stepped out into the wrong version of the world. Yet his room was exactly the same as how he’d left it: the old cathode TV over there, the DVD player and game system next to it, the desk in the corner with his tool-making supplies, the shelves full of paraphernalia he’d collected over the year, even the glow-in-the-dark stickers on his ceiling, and so on. This was his room, without a doubt. And if he’d had any doubt, the drawers had his clothes, even his uniform.

He’d meant to gather a few things, then sneak out again. But… fuck. He was so tired. After staying up almost all night and exerting a hell of a lot of energy, he’d hiked from Kasumigaseki all the way to Yongen-Jaya, a two-hour walk that had taken him three hours after all the rests he needed and wrong turns he’d made. Sojiro had, in typical Sojiro fashion, been nice enough to let him eat even though he had no money, but then kicked him out afterwards and told him not to show his face again. Ren managed not to hold it against him. Someone had done this to him; it wasn’t his fault. That was why he’d opted to sneak in through the second-story window. In and out. But once he’d swept the room and gathered some of his things (mostly clothes, mostly socks and underwear), he’d laid down with the intent of resting just a moment… and now he was waking up after who knew how long. Well into the afternoon, judging by the quality and direction of the light.

On the plus side, if he was waking up on his own, it meant Sojiro hadn’t noticed him. On the minus side… wait, was there really a minus side if he hadn’t gotten caught? He didn’t have a next move planned, anyway. He’d found an assortment of loose change in the pockets of some of his pants, so he wasn’t dead broke, but he only had enough money for a couple of train rides at best. He had to make it count, and he hadn’t had the time to think of which move would serve him best.

If Sojiro didn’t remember him or the others anymore, they wouldn’t come back here. Probably the smartest next move would be to throw some rocks at Futaba’s window, so to speak—see if she was in her room after all, since that was only a few streets away. If she were, that would be the best outcome, because she could contact the others and figure out a place for all of them to meet up and figure things out. He suspected it wouldn’t be that easy, though. If she wasn’t there, or if she just didn’t respond… Then if Shido’s men had done something to Sojiro, had they done anything to Sae? It might put her and Makoto in danger if he went to her place, and he couldn’t trust Goro’s report…

Ultimately, he decided to try Ryuji’s place after making sure if Futaba was home or not. After crashing out, it felt like early afternoon, and while Goro’s report wasn’t trustworthy, if Ryuji was going straight home, he might be able to catch him at his place. If not, maybe his mom would be home to let him in… though if she wasn’t, he was basically fucked.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Ren got up, stretched, fetched the duffel bag he’d prepared earlier (it felt weird to not include Morgana’s living weight, and a pang of loneliness struck his heart), put his shoes and jacket on, and snuck out the way he’d entered.

 


 

Striding into the administrative building that overlooked Joker’s old enclosure felt like wading through a dream to Crow. Rather than fight every Shadow that blocked his way, he shattered the chains on the hearts of the front-liners and let those fight the rest for him as he walked right by, untouched. He did this until he reached his former chambers, a spacious room that had an excellent view of the gilded cage. He locked the door behind him and gathered his things. He didn’t need them for himself, not really, not for long anymore, but having them around would help him look like a tourist. All the better to get close enough to Shido to kill him.

At least packing only took a short while—mostly a matter of taking his things from the bathroom and putting them back in his suitcase. His sports bag still brimmed with the cash from his liquidized bank accounts; all his grocery shopping had barely nibbled at it. He divided the cash between his bag and luggage, then hid it from casual view with layers of clothes and towels. Whoever took them home after he was gone was going to be a very lucky human being. Then he checked the sports bag’s first side pocket where he’d put the immediately spendable money, then the pocket next to it where he would keep his phone.

There, his hands stilled. There was a phone and another item already in there. That was no surprise; he’d put it there in the first place. But… He tucked his in, then tugged out what was already there: Ren’s phone and wallet.

Crow stared with lidded eyes down at them. He’d completely forgotten he still had these. The phone was nothing special, it had its list of apps just like his own did, but the wallet… Mouth dry, he pulled it open. Inside was some cash (in which he had no interest), a transit pass (he had one already), a few receipts and coupons and similar paraphernalia (he barely glanced at them), and… With shaking fingers, he found what he sought, removed it, and clutched it with trembling hands as he stared at it.

Ren’s school ID. His photo ID.

Crow slid his thumb gently along the side of his portrait, heart aching. Where was he now…? What was he doing? Did he think about him at all anymore? Was he laughing at his foolishness and gullibility, or was he too busy being with the people he actually cared about to bother with even the meanest contempt?

Tears stung and blurred his eyes. He tried to blink them away, but that only made them fall. Rubbing his face only encouraged more. Crow clutched the ID and its paltry, mediocre picture to his chest, a hopelessly inadequate replacement for the arms that had held him close only last night.

Rage abruptly surged within him—at Ren for his inevitable betrayal, at himself for being so pathetic. He flung the ID to the floor and stomped on it. “I don’t need you,” he announced hoarsely, grinding it underfoot. “I never needed you! I don’t give a damn if you ran away! I knew you’d try it sooner or later! So I don’t need you!” Ramming his foot down again and again, he finally kicked it across the room as he roared, “I! Don’t! Need! ANYONE!!”

It struck the far wall and bounced off. Crow pulled his gun and aimed at the little portrait, Ren with his school uniform and his glasses he didn’t need and his sober, serious expression that masked all the complexities that made him so fascinating. “You think you can look down on me?! Use me and throw me away?! Well, who cares!! I’ll show you! I’ll do what you and all of your pathetic ‘friends’ couldn’t: I’ll cleanse this worthless world of Shido’s taint once and for all!! And then I’ll… I’ll…”

His steam ran out. He lowered his firearm. Then he dropped it and hurried over to the ID, falling to his knees to scoop it up. “Oh no. Oh no no no no,” he whispered as he clutched it. The abuse he’d just heaped on the square of plastic had sent a crack through it like a bolt of lightning, cleanly across Ren’s face. It hadn’t quite broken in two, but it was dangerously close.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry,” he pleaded, holding it close. His eyes squeezed shut as he grit his teeth. “I’m sorry, so please, please, come back to me…”

Of course, it was no use. He knew that. He curled up against the wall anyway. He really was deeply pathetic. In his heart of hearts, he knew all of this was his own fault, anyway. Not just Ren, but everything. If only he’d made better choices. If only he weren’t so broken as a human being that he could make better choices.

As his throat closed with imminent sobs, he bit down on them so hard his teeth felt like they might crack. A moment later, he broke out panting from the titanic effort of corking his emotions back in their bottle. Then, with a hand on the wall for balance, he eased onto his feet. Pure sentimentality made him kiss Ren’s portrait good-bye before he tucked the ID back in its home wallet with delicate reverence, then returned the wallet and phone to their pocket and zipped it shut.

How ridiculous. He was going to die soon anyway, and Ren felt nothing for him besides. How stupid and banal and asinine to get so choked up over something so worthless.

Crow swept the room one last time for any of his possessions, hooked the sports bag across his chest and over his shoulder, then pulled the suitcase on its rollers behind him as he left the suite.

The police chief’s Shadow awaited him outside, flanked on either side with a half-dozen zookeepers. One step out of the administrative building, and he pointed his shotgun at him.

“The hell are you doing outside?!” he demanded, glaring at him with fury and palpable fear over his shades. “I know I fixed that breach! Get back in your cage, NOW!”

Crow peered back at him with weary, lidded eyes. “You knew from the start you couldn’t keep me here if I didn’t want to be kept,” he replied flatly. The breach Joker had made had indeed been fixed; that meant nothing to someone who could seize and then shatter control of another’s heart. “I don’t want to have to sprint from here to the exit either, so put your gun down and let me pass.”

“I’ve had enough of gettin’ ordered around by the likes of you, criminal scum,” the Shadow Police Chief sneered. “You think you’re better than me, when you spent all your time mooning over that thief?” He spat on the ground. “Disgusting.”

Crow swallowed hard, grip tightening on his suitcase handle. “Yes. I know I’m disgusting. So?”

This seemed to rattle the Shadow. He hesitated, then steadied his aim. “Get back in the cage if you know what’s good for you.”

“Persona,” Crow intoned tonelessly.

Loki twirled into existence above him and asserted his, their power into two of the zookeepers, one on either side of the Shadow Chief. The masked Shadows cried out as he smashed the walls of their hearts, then immediately pounced on their neighbors in desperate violence. As the Shadow Chief’s would-be support guard devolved into a free-for-all brawl, Crow laughed, high and cold.

“What’s good for me?” he echoed, approaching step by slow step. “I’ve never once in my life known what’s good for me. Nor have I cared.” The Shadow Chief retreated step for step, shotgun shaking. “I’ll say this just once more. I don’t want to have to run all the way to the exit. So while I would normally be more than happy to slaughter you and anyone else in my way, I’ll give you a chance to save yourself. You just need to do this one thing.” He rolled to a stop, and leaned in towards the Shadow to back in his intimidation. “Move aside.”

To his credit, the Shadow Chief stood his ground for perhaps five seconds. Then, as his subordinates screamed around him, he dove out of Crow’s path. “Get out! And don’t you ever come back!!” he roared, sweat pouring down his face.

“That was my intent,” Crow replied, and began the long walk back to the real world.

 


 

Futaba wasn’t in her room. Ren knew because he climbed up and crawled along the wall outside the Sakura residence, just so he could get a good look inside. Maybe that just meant she was elsewhere in the house, but he doubted it. He didn’t have a pen or paper to leave a message either, and he was loathe to actually break in; he already looked shady enough doing this. Her unmade bed was inside, though, and so was her computer and other stuff. Garbage had collected, too. It was damned unnerving, seeing these signs of life, but not seeing the life that should have produced them.

He climbed down and got out of the neighborhood before someone called the cops on him. As he jogged down the street, he passed the Takemi Medical Clinic and skidded to a halt. Of course! Tae knew Futaba; if something had happened to Sojiro, maybe she was letting Futaba stay with her. He pushed the door open and smiled in relief when he saw the doctor at her usual spot behind the counter. The waiting room was empty, too; no need to mince words.

“Doc, I need your help,” he said, pulling the door shut behind him. “Is Futaba here with you?”

“Sorry, no,” she replied, lifting her chin.

“Have you seen or heard from her at all in the last few days?”

“Maybe. Who is she? You have a picture?”

Ren’s insides went cold. It was possible that Tae didn’t remember her; her house call had been a long time ago. But… he had a bad feeling about this. “I… don’t. Sorry,” he said, tongue heavy. He paused, then asked the question whose answer he dreaded most: “Do you know who I am?”

“Nope,” Tae, who’d used him as a guinea pig for her medications all year, replied. “Should I? You live around here?”

Ah.

Well.

He eased away from the counter. “I used to,” he murmured. “Sorry. Thanks anyway.” He dipped into a deep bow, then fled the clinic as if from a ghost—even though it was looking more and more like the ghost was him.

Ren raced through the streets as his thoughts raced through his mind. It wasn’t just Sojiro. It was Tae, too. Futaba was missing. Ryuji’s number was disconnected. He felt certain now that he hadn’t misremembered his number, that he’d gotten it right the first time after all; going to his place would likely be a waste of time. Even if Goro had lied about what they were doing, he’d definitely taken their photos, and the oldest of them couldn’t be more than a week or so old. Who would be harder to disappear? Ann? Ann. She was a popular model, and people would be bound to notice if she’d vanished. Haru, too; as the Okumura Foods heiress, she was rich and well-known—not exactly famous, but the kind of person society would miss, unlike a couple of delinquents or a shut-in.

He slowed and stopped, legs shaking, next to the train station. Right. He just had to keep trying. He’d find one of his friends, and they’d connect him to the rest, and they’d all figure this out together. He just had to keep trying.

He took a deep breath, then descended.

 


 

“Haru Okumura?” repeated the receptionist at the Okumura Foods building, expression puzzled. “Did Okumura-san have a daughter?” Their expression brightened. “Oh! Do you mean an Okumura who isn’t the late CEO? I’m terribly sorry—it’s not an uncommon name, so this mix-up happens sometimes. Haru Okumura-san, yes? Do you know which division she works in?”

“No. It’s okay,” Ren replied quietly. “Thanks anyway.”

 


 

“Ann Takamaki?” The model frowned at Ren in suspicion as the cameramen around her set up their equipment. “Is she a newbie? I don’t think I’ve heard of her.”

Ren looked past her, the young woman who’d once sabotaged Ann’s career, whom Ann couldn’t hate because she admired villainesses too much, at the cameramen. “Do any of you know Ann Takamaki?”

“Ann-chan? I hope I can get to know her, that’s a cute name!” one of them replied cheerily.

 


 

“You’re here to see Sae Niijima-san?” said the receptionist at the prosecutor’s building, frowning.

“Yes,” Ren replied, wondering what fresh horror awaited him.

“Oh… You’re one of her clients, I assume?” When Ren didn’t respond, they fixed him with a sympathetic look. “You must not have heard… Niijima-san passed away the day before yesterday.”

Oh god. “Huh?” he croaked.

They shook their head. “It’s terrible what happened. One of the criminals she recently found guilty broke into her office and stabbed her to death, then ran off. The phones have been off the hook since; the calls only started to taper off earlier today. You’re not the only one who had to come in person to ask after her.” They sighed. “However, the police are still looking for the suspect.”

“Has anyone verified her death? Her sister?” Ren blurted out. “Do you have her sister Makoto’s phone number?”

“I’m not sure… It’s always extremely busy here even without the office closing early today, and I couldn’t give out private information like that besides,” they replied apologetically. “That being said, Niijima-san’s cases are in the middle of being redistributed. If she hadn’t really passed away, I don’t think the higher-ups would have that done. She was such a serious worker that she’d work cases on the operating table—if she were still alive. I’m going to miss her.” They looked forlorn for a moment; then they squared their shoulders. “But excuse me for going on like that. As I said, her cases are still being redistributed, so we probably won’t know who’ll be taking care of you for another few days. However, if you need to speak with a prosecutor right away, I can check to see who’s available to give you general advice.”

“That’s… no. No thank you.” He swallowed hard, gripping the desk to keep from collapsing.

“Are you all right? I can bring you some water if you need to sit down,” the receptionist added in concern. “I can imagine how shocked you must be right now.”

“That—actually, yes. Please. Thank you.”

Ren slumped into a waiting room chair as the receptionist slipped into the back. Sae was dead. How could that be…? Someone just randomly broke into her office, murdered her, and ran away? He clutched his forehead, trying to align his scrambled thoughts; then he looked at the table next to him and spotted today’s newspaper.

December 31st. The last day of the year. He picked it up, searching for an article about… There. A report about Sae’s death… It was described as the receptionist had said. Found dead after being stabbed in her office, blah blah, the police hadn’t captured a suspect but were hot on his trail, yadda yadda, believed but not confirmed to be a parolee that Sae had found guilty…

His blood went cold at the next paragraph. Shido had dropped a sound bite about how tragic Sae’s death was, that the attack was a travesty and this country needed to double down on security for the safety of the people. Then he laid pressure on the police—and especially the police chief—to capture the suspect before anyone else was hurt in his rampage.

Sae had had a Palace. The police chief had a Palace. Goro, who was missing as far as the real world was concerned, who knew all Shido’s sins and whom Shido had intended to have killed, was hiding in a Palace, and Shido would know who would have Palaces for him to hide in…

“No no no no, please, no,” he whispered, rising to his feet.

The receptionist returned then, waxy cup in hand. “Your water, young sir.”

Ren considered fleeing on the spot; he decided dehydration wouldn’t help him any. “Thanks,” he said before he grabbed the cup and knocked it back. The receptionist gave him a pitying look, then turned on the waiting room TV via remote control. Ren paid them little mind and hurried for the door.

“—shocked the people of Japan by going on a rampage outside the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department headquarters today,” said the newscaster as he passed. He stopped dead and stared at the widescreen TV. In the right-hand upper corner, next to the newscaster, it showed footage labeled BREAKING NEWS. Half a dozen police officers piled on top of a struggling man screaming wildly at the top of his lungs; another man lay bleeding in the street as a crowd watched and an ambulance pulled up. “This same man, who is believed to have murdered a prosecutor only days ago, appeared in front of the police headquarters for unknown reasons. After the Chief of Police arrived on scene with back-up, the man went wild and charged him with a knife, critically stabbing him in front of dozens of witnesses. He was captured immediately afterwards and taken into custody, where he has been sedated for the public’s safety. Meanwhile, the Chief of Police was rushed to the hospital, but sadly, he passed away before arrival. Newly elected Prime Minister Shido commented on this tragic event—”

The world spun around Ren as the bottom fell out from beneath him. The police chief was dead. Akechi—Goro—hadn’t followed Ren out when he escaped. He was still in there. If the chief was dead, that meant his Palace had collapsed with Goro still inside. Which meant Goro, too, was…

No, no, it couldn’t be. It couldn’t. (those horrible things he’d said couldn’t have been his last words to him) Goro had been so desperate not to let him escape; he must have left after Ren had already fled the premises. (he couldn’t have gone somewhere where he could never make it up to him again) He had to be alive, he had to be. (please please please please) And if he were still alive and in the real world and looking for him, and he hadn’t gone to Leblanc, he would’ve come—

He whirled on the receptionist. “Has Goro Akechi been by today?”

“Detective Akechi? Goodness, I haven’t thought about him in ages,” the receptionist mused, scratching their cheek. “No, I haven’t seen him in weeks, now that you mention it. I’ve been so caught up in the election and everything else, I hadn’t even noticed. Why do you—hey!”

But Ren was already out the door in a dead sprint. If he ran fast enough, maybe he’d be able to outrun his feelings.

Chapter Text

The world looked different from the other side of despair.

Ever since he gained the power of Persona, Goro Akechi had been maintaining a precarious balance on top of that fathomless ocean. Here, at last, he had the key to being wanted, needed, loved—and he used that key as he had to in order to shape himself into someone who would be wanted, who could be needed, who would be lovable.

It hadn’t worked. Years of effort, of compromise, of blood and darkness, and it had all been for nothing. Even his one last flickering candle of hope had blown itself out. And now, after all this time struggling to keep his head above water, he had sunk all the way to the bottom of the abyss of despair.

Yet was that such a bad thing? It was far calmer here in the depths than he’d imagined. By the time he’d left the police chief’s Palace and re-entered the real world, his heart had taken on a sedate numbness. The pain, the heartbreak, the humiliation had all washed away like so much debris in the waves; gone, too, were his hopes, dreams, and fears. All that remained was the purity of purpose.

One pure thing. He’d desired just one pure thing to bloom like a lotus above the vile, slimy muck of his worthless life.

Well, he would have it. One way or another.

As he left the TMPD HQ behind, Goro kept his gaze forward. Prime Minister Shido planned on making a city-wide appearance—a parade-like slow drive through the streets, to make sure all the little people knew who now ruled them—on New Year’s Eve, before everyone in Japan was to settle in for the quiet family holiday. At the time he’d read about it, he’d been content to snort his contempt and move on. Now… now, it was a wonderful opportunity, wasn’t it? Now he and his father could have an eternally quiet family holiday of their own.

He spent the day scoping out the streets, reading local notices for each ward and neighborhood, calculating the route Shido was likeliest to take based on which streets were getting cordoned off. No one paid him any mind; with his hoodie pulled up over a baseball cap, torn jeans, boots, sports bag slung across his chest and luggage wheeled behind him, he looked like a tourist visiting for the holidays. That was the point, of course. No one had paid him any mind during his other excursions either. Meanwhile, in between, when he rode the trains to new areas, he contemplated exactly how he would pull off the killing.

Above all else, he wanted Shido to see him first. To recognize him and, in that split-second, realize that Death had come for him in his hour of triumph. So he couldn’t snipe him from afar. He’d have to be right there in the street with the crowds, waiting for the car and Shido waving within to pass. The cops were sure to stand guard; he’d have to pull a gun off of one of them, because he certainly wouldn’t be able to sneak one onto the premises beforehand. Then… Goro tilted his head up, staring at the rattling ceiling of his subway car. Should he make Shido aware of him before or after he’d snatched up a gun…? If it were before, Shido might be able to sound the alarm before Goro could gun him down; if it were after, well, grabbing a cop’s gun would sound plenty of alarms all on its own. Ahh, what to do, what to do? He was about to rid Japan of its greatest evil, and himself of his greatest personal demon, so it had to go just right. He had to plan everything down to the smallest detail, to the leanest possibility, to…

Does it have to go just right, as long as it goes? The thought came abruptly to him. He frowned and lowered his chin in consideration. He’d spent much of his recent life following careful, meticulous plans. Those plans, on which he’d poured so much of his effort and energy, had come to nothing. Perhaps if he’d simply committed patricide from the start, none of this would have gone wrong. Perhaps if he hadn’t been so obsessed with the particulars of his revenge, with taking control of his father and drawing out his suffering…

His right hand twitched. With taking control. Goro squeezed his eyes shut to match how his throat suddenly closed. Do you have control issues or something? Ren had asked him. Goro had admitted to it, but at the time, he’d hated having that called out. Of course he had fucking control issues! He’d spent his entire childhood at the mercy of adults who didn’t care if he lived or died! Who wouldn’t want to wrest control of their own destiny after that?!

Rage and sorrow and deep frustration surged within him, and Goro pounded a fist on his thigh as if to crush them down. No. In the end, complicated plans had served him not at all. Best to keep it simple. He would kill Shido, then himself. Scoping out potential sites to make that happen was one thing, but anything that didn’t serve towards that end was unnecessary. That included thoughts about Ren.

What’s he doing right now? Is he thinking about me? Even if it’s out of hate, will he remember me from time to time ? If I’m dying tonight, I really do want to see him one more time, apologize for how I treated him

Goro shook his head violently like a dog shaking off the rain. That especially included thoughts about Ren. They would change nothing. They’d only hold him back. Trembling, he took a few deep breaths, compartmentalized his feelings, and pondered his plans anew.

 


 

Night had fallen, and the neon lights of Tokyo had sizzled on. Ren pulled his jacket tighter around him as he stood up from his seat in front of the fortune-teller’s table and plod away through the streets of Shinjuku.

“Come again!” Chihaya called at his back, puzzled but no less friendly. She hadn’t known him either, and the fortune she’d told him had both been dire and told him nothing new. He’d given her the last of the money he’d scraped up from the sidewalks and bid her good-bye, in a number of ways.

The shouts of the crowds passed him by in both directions. He heard it all and listened to none of it. Where could he go…? He’d gone around to almost every friend, every confidant he could find, and none of them so far knew him. He couldn’t find any trace of his inner circle, and suspected he wouldn’t be able to no matter how long he searched. Even after getting his fortune told, his feet were killing him, and it’d been half a day since he’d last eaten.

He paused, then looked to his right. Bar Crossroads rose up out of the darkness before him. He tugged tight on the strap of his duffel bag, which hung across his chest. He hadn’t been by here yet, the bar having not opened just yet earlier… Even if Lala kicked him out for being underage, god, he couldn’t think of anywhere else. He was at once so numb and so overwhelmed. He just needed a few moments to sit down and process.

The door jingled as he pushed inside, then hurried over to a seat in the back where he’d be less likely to be noticed. Lucky for him, Lala was in the middle of taking someone else’s order, so she shot him a quick, “Welcome,” without giving him more than a distracted glance. Ichiko was here, too, drinking scotch on the rocks and seated at her usual spot. She didn’t give him a second look, either. Ren didn’t bother trying to say hello.

Once seated, he sorted through the change he had left after buying his fortune. 98 yen; not even enough for a canned drink out of a vending machine. He shouldn’t have bought a tarot reading, but he’d hoped so hard it might—do something, reveal a clue on what to do, jog Chihaya’s memory somehow, give Ren at least one person he could rely on. It hadn’t worked. Now he wished he’d saved his money for dinner instead. He carefully zipped his meager funds up in a side pocket, then laid his head face-down on the table.

His friends were gone. His allies didn’t remember him. Goro was—was dead. So was Sae. At the beginning of the year, when his parents had exiled him to Tokyo for his parole, Ren thought he couldn’t be any more miserable and defeated. Now he realized just how much worse life could get.

“Sorry for the wait. Can I take your order, sir?”

Ren shot upright, internally flailing. Lala was already standing there with a pencil and pad of paper in hand, watching him expectantly. He stared back at her. Barely a minute or two had passed since he’d sat down. Why did she have to be so goddamn efficient??

Her expression clouded as she stared back at him. “You look a little young,” she added. “Sorry, but could I please see your ID?”

Ren stared back a moment longer; then, slowly, he dropped his gaze to the table. This was it. It was already over. “I—I don’t have one.”

Tone turning dubious, she asked, “How old are you, young man?”

What was the point in lying? She’d see right through it anyway. “Seventeen.”

She sighed, lowering a hand to her hip. “Now look here. I know what it’s like to be curious, but this isn’t a place for high schoolers, do you understand?”

He grit his teeth, frustration and sorrow and absolute loneliness surging up inside him and welling out in the form of tears. He wiped them away, whispering, “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Lala was silent for a long moment. He felt the weight of her regard shift from him to his duffel bag. Then, with a shrewd, knowing tone, she guessed, “Running away? Or kicked out?”

He started to shake his head, then nodded instead.

“Oh, honey.” Now sympathetic, she perched herself in the booth a respectful distance away. “Do you want to talk about it?”

How much of themselves has everyone poured into you? How much of yourself have you shared in return? Goro’s venomous hiss returned to him. Ren had had a hard enough time telling his closest friends about his wrongful arrest. Lala—he knew her, knew she was good people, but how could he tell her everything that had gone abysmally wrong? At best, she’d think he was crazy, and he couldn’t stand the idea of her kicking him out too. Lowering his gaze to the table, he shook his head.

Goro had been right about him. He did keep others at arm’s length, even the people he loved and cherished more than anything.

And now they were all gone.

“All right. That’s fine too,” Lala was saying as she nodded. She stood back up. “We’re closing early for New Year’s, but stay as long as you like ‘til then. We’ve got some non-alcoholic drinks I can whip up for you.”

“Thank you,” he murmured, deciding not to mention he had no money, either.

That was something, at least. Ren had no idea what he’d do after Crossroads closed, but he couldn’t think of anything. He folded his arms on the edge of the table and bowed his head over them.

Forgotten. Missing. Dead. Forgotten. Missing. Dead. The faces and voices of his friends and confidants flashed through his mind, along with one of those three statuses. Forgotten. Missing.

Dead.

He’d only barely gotten Sae on his side before all this went down. Even so, she’d been a good ally. She sure as hell didn’t deserve to get killed. He didn’t know how Shido had pulled it off, but he was certain the convict who’d killed her had been manipulated into it at Shido’s order.

The same with the police chief. Fuck that guy, but—how must it have felt for Goro for the Palace to suddenly crumble around him? Had he understood what was happening? Had he tried to run for the exit? Ren had left him badly injured, physically and emotionally. If he hadn’t immediately left after him, then he’d probably been somewhere in the Palace, recovering. Maybe… maybe he’d let it happen. Maybe he’d welcomed death after his lover had functionally betrayed him.

Ren’s breath hitched, and he focused so hard on holding back any sound that he couldn’t quite stop up his tears. They tricked down his cheeks, past his glasses, and dripped onto the table. Goro’s screaming pleads (Don’t go! Don’t leave me! Don’t go! REN!) returned to him with clarity so sharp he could commit harakiri with it.

Goro, I’m so sorry. If I’d known it would turn out like this, I wouldn’t have said something so awful to you. I would’ve made you come with me. I would’ve figured out something, made things work out. And now I’ll never be able to make it up to you… I’ll never see you again.

He took off his glasses, buried his face in his hands, and let himself grieve.

Lala interrupted his private misery session a few minutes later with a tall soda and a heaping bowl of salted edamame. “Sorry it’s not much, but it’s on the house,” she said when he stared at it, then her. He grabbed a napkin and wiped his face in a hurry, and her gaze gentled. “It’ll be all right, honey. I’ve been where you are. You’re not as alone as you feel.”

He nearly burst out sobbing on the spot. As it was, he choked up again and nodded. She patted him on the shoulder, told him to let her know if he needed anything else, and left him be. He ate and drank and felt a little better when he was done. Goro was still dead, Sae was still dead, Ren was still at a loss on what was going on or what to do about it, but at least he had something in his stomach and one person on his side. He looked up over at Lala, who was back behind the counter, and they shared a nod.

He got up to use the bathroom after that. After washing his hands and face and returning, he paused near Ichiko, who was cheerfully drunk and regaling Lala with her latest scoop. It had nothing to do with the Phantom Thieves, which he guessed made sense, but it stung a bit all the same.

When she paused long enough to knock back half her scotch, Ren cleared his throat and faced her. “Excuse me…”

“Hmmm?” She peered up at him, then grinned in that achingly familiar way of hers. “Ooh, aren’t you cute! Are you hitting on me? I’m way too old for you, though, kiddo!” She guffawed and gave him a friendly slap on the arm.

He smiled awkwardly. “No, it’s not that… I overheard what you were saying about, uh, being a reporter. I was curious—do you have any news about the Phantom Thieves of Hearts?”

“What? Phantom Thieves? Aha, you mean that urban legend?” Ichiko laughed gaily, sloshing her glass at him. “Oh yeah, there were some crazy stories going around about them for a while. Everyone knows they’re not real, though!”

Ren froze. Blood roared in his ears. Everyone knows they’re not real… “Everyone?” he croaked as the puzzle pieces clicked together.

“Well, yeah! Obviously!” She scowled, mood flipping a 180. “They’re total rag material. Nearly wrecked my career trying to prove they exist. Real stupid, right? Start believing in the Phantom Thieves and you may as well start believing in little green men from Mars next!”

Everyone knows they’re not real. Everyone knows the Phantom Thieves of Hearts aren’t real…

“Hey, you okay, kiddo?” Ichiko added. “You’ve gone real pale.”

He swallowed hard. “I think,” he said, “I need to lay my head down.”

 


 

Heart thumping more than was healthy for a sleeping boy, Ren opened his eyes to stare at his Velvet Room cell. As he’d hoped, returning to his seat at Crossroads and settling in for a nap had sent him questing through his dreams until he reached this place. He swung upright and turned to see the usual suspects: Caroline and Justine standing guard on each side of his cell door, and Igor sitting at the warden’s desk halfway across the room from him. All three eyed him with their usual expressions; it seemed his arrival was no surprise.

Caroline grumbled, “I’m impressed, prisoner. I didn’t think scum like you could just will yourself here.”

“Your powerful desire to reunite with your friends has brought you to this place,” Justine explained smoothly.

“So you know why I’ve come,” he said, looking from them up to Igor.

The long-nosed man only grinned, like always. “Indeed.”

Ren strode forward, ankle shackle rattling, and gripped the bars of his cell. “Igor, I need help. I think—I don’t know how this happened, but I think the cognition of the people of Tokyo’s somehow made my friends disappear and me get forgotten.”

“You are correct,” Igor rumbled. “The people now see the Phantom Thieves of Hearts as a modern myth, extraordinary but not truly real. Therefore, you and your companions too no longer ‘exist.’”

His knuckles whitened. He knew it. “How did this happen? Nothing like this has ever happened before.” When Igor didn’t respond, Ren shook his head. “No, that doesn’t matter. I need to know where I can find them and how to get them back. Can you tell me?”

“You cannot,” he replied. “And I will not.”

Ren recoiled. “Wh—?”

“I’m afraid your rehabilitation has been a failure,” he stated, cool and uncaring. “It failed the moment you chose to embrace your jailer in the cognitive world. Now you, too, can exist solely in a cage… just as your companions now exist solely in the jails of their own psyches.”

“I—but—I ran away! I escaped! I chose freedom! Goro Akechi is dead, and so is the police chief! I couldn’t go back to that cage if I wanted to!”

“But you did want to, did you not?”

He rocked back.

“What has been set in motion can no longer be stopped,” Igor continued. “This is the path that your actions and choices have created.”

He sank to his knees, hands sliding down the bars of his cell. “Is this my fault…? Are they gone because I wanted to be with Goro…?”

“You begin to comprehend.”

“But that’s—that’s not fair!! It was only a little while!! I did what I had to to get out of there!”

“Self-deceptions. But you cannot deceive your own heart.”

“Why…?” Blinking back tears, he looked up in desperation. “Is there anything I can do to fix this?”

“The age of the Phantom Thieves is over. The fate of humankind has been decided. However…” He tapped a long finger on his folded hands in contemplation. “You have been bereft only of your tools, not of your power. Perhaps you may be able to start a new game.” Igor chuckled, the deep, gravely sound echoing off the circular prison, which began to wash white with awakening. “Until then, I shall be watching from afar, young man…”

“That’s enough answers for you,” Caroline snapped.

“This is good-bye,” Justine concluded primly.

“Wait! I need to know more! Igor, please!” Ren risked thrusting a hand through the bars to reach for him even as everything faded into light. “PLEASE—”

 


 

His eyes snapped open. That same arm was stretched out towards nothing. A couple of bar patrons shot him odd looks, but otherwise paid him no mind. Ren shook the cobwebs from his head, then rose to his feet. If Igor wouldn’t talk to him in his dreams, he’d just have to find a Velvet Room door and make him talk.

However, when Ren ditched his things to hurry out of Crossroads, forced his way through the thicker-than-usual crowds, and arrived at the Shinjuku corner where a Velvet Room door was supposed to be… nothing was there. Ren stared at the empty space it should have taken up. Had it been there before, when he passed by? He could no longer remember. Just in case, he reached a hand out and waved it back and forth, but it was no good. There were other places where Velvet Room doors appeared, but his gut told him they wouldn’t be there either, just as no one in all of Tokyo recognized him.

Ren was alone.

 


 

Shinjuku, Akechi decided, would be the place. Shido’s guards and the policemen on duty would be just as on guard there as anywhere else, and there was a certain poetic justice about Shido meeting his end in one of the flashier districts of Tokyo, where all the things Shido pretended to hate and actually hated intermingled. The people there would likely be rowdier, too, so the police would be distracted by ultimately harmless civilians. Therein would he find his opportunity.

He ate at a Big Bang Burger, then hit the Shinjuku streets to find the right spot. He found it quickly: already the crowds were lining up on the sidewalks, clustering for a chance to glimpse their new, would-be benevolent leader. Akechi didn’t concern himself with them. As expected, police officers were stationed at regular intervals along the cordoned street, calling for orderly conduct and the like. There was one right on the corner where Shido’s vehicle would have to slow down to make the turn. He nodded to himself at the sight. Yes, he’d be able to slip that officer’s gun right out of its holster, swoop under the cordon, and walk into the middle of an empty street to face Shido and halt his progress. He smiled to himself, imagining the look of shock and terror on his father’s face.

It was a hollow smile, though. Now that the moment was imminent, anticipation affected him less and less, leaving behind a dull sort of nothing.

Well, that was fine, too. He always was a dull sort of nothing, and soon he’d be a dead sort of nothing.

Once he’d finished all his scouting, Akechi checked his wristwatch. According to the local posters, Shido was scheduled to make this corner in another five minutes. Perfect timing. Carefully, he set his luggage against the building at his back and left his sports bag on top. He wouldn’t need them anymore soon. Anyone who wanted to steal them was in for a happy New Year’s indeed.

For his part, he pushed his way into the crowd, settled in next to the police officer, and waited.

 


 

There was nothing for Ren to do, nowhere for him to go, but back to Bar Crossroads. He’d left his stuff there, even. Instead, he stayed out in the streets of Shinjuku, which were packed thick tonight around the cordoned-off road. During the day, as he’d made his way around the metropolis, he’d overheard/eavesdropped on conversations about Shido making a victory parade around various Tokyo districts. That had been of zero interest to him at the time, so he hadn’t thought much about it, but now, when it looked like it was about to happen in front of him, he had no choice but to care.

So he hung back at the outskirts of the crowd, cold hands plunged in the warm pockets of his hoodie. He wasn’t sure what he was going to accomplish, making himself watch the victory march of the man who’d ruined his life twice over, but, well, from the way everyone was talking, it was about to happen anyway, and there was no way he’d get back to Crossroads without being forced to watch some of it, so he may as well wait it out. Maybe he’d pick the pocket of whoever cheered loudest for that scumbag. At this point, there was really no reason to try to behave himself, was there? He’d already been arrested and even ‘executed’ for theft once. And if he was going to rob anyone for survival, it may as well be an asshole’s asshole supporters.

You’re making excuses. If you steal someone’s wallet, that makes you a criminal for real, he told himself. Then he told himself back, Why the fuck not? If it doesn’t matter if I hold out or give in, if no one cares if I’m innocent or guilty, then why. The fuck. Not?

The cheers were getting louder; he could hear a car engine approach. Ren eased himself into the crowd to mask his movements from behind.

 


 

Ah. Here approached the captain. Akechi, who’d been watching up the street, narrowed his eyes as Shido’s vehicle turned a corner and cruised leisurely down the street, framed by sidewalks choked with his adoring public. Shido himself waved to them from the open backseat as security framed him on all sides, smiling his smug I’m-over-all-of-you smile. Ha. Hahaha.

Well, ‘Father,’ I’m over you too, he thought, smiling grimly. I’m over everything now. And soon we’ll both be under everything.

His right hand itched. The officer next to him was also watching Shido, and therefore not the young man at his left. Akechi let his hand hang loose, ever so casually, and with the utmost discretion, undid the strap that kept the officer’s pistol safely in its holster. Barely more difficult than the police officer he’d gunned down in the interrogation room, for all that had later turned out to be a cognition .

From there it would be one grab. One grab, a duck and roll into the road, a smooth aim forward, then under his chin. Two bullets, and they’d both go straight to hell, where they belonged.

Just a little longer. Just a few seconds more, and he’d be close enough for them to look into each other’s eyes . The limo carrying his fate was almost here.

 


 

If he was going to be a for-real thief and not a phantom one, both literally and figuratively, then he may as well hit someone who could afford to be robbed. Ren scanned the crowds, looking for someone well-dressed in expensive clothes. People were starting to wave their hands and their obnoxious pro-Shido flags, so it was getting tough. All the cops around didn’t help either, but Ren was reasonably sure they weren’t paying attention, not really. At the very least, the one right across the street from him was watching the incoming car—

He jerked his head half an inch to the right, double-taking at the guy standing next to the pig. At first, he hadn’t recognized him; that hoodie, that cap, those shredded jeans, those knee-high boots, none of them were his usual style. With the hood up and the cap down, he couldn’t see his face, either. But he could see those wisps of auburn hair framing his face, peeking through the hood. Exactly the right cut. Exactly the right length.

It couldn’t be Goro .

But maybe it is .

Ren shoved his way to the front of the crowd.

 


 

Abrupt motion and shouts opposite the street snared Akechi’s attention, and reflexively, he shot a glance towards their source.

Every thought wiped clear from his brain like it was an etch-a-sketch. He sucked in a breath and stood up straight as his heart seized in his chest.

 


 

Separated by the corrupt procession, Ren and Goro locked eyes.

Chapter Text

“Ren,” Goro whispered, eyes widening.

 


 

Ren, unable to hear him over the drone of the throng but seeing his name on Goro’s lips, surged with hope and need in equal measure. He was about to sprint across the street, the cordon and impending car both be damned, when a police guard grabbed him by the shoulder and commanded him to settle down, stop troubling everyone else, and stay behind the line.

Not now, fuck off, don’t you see I’m busy?! he screamed in his head as he shot the pig a glare.

 


 

When Ren’s gaze left his, it was like a spell broke. Goro shook his head a little—and then Shido’s limo rolled into view. His pulse surged as he shot it a glance, panicking; Ren’s appearance had completely thrown him off, and he was no longer ready in the slightest. If Shido saw him now, he’d have him seized on the spot.

And even if he were ready, even if he had the nerve to grab that gun and shoot Shido right now… Goro had seen corpses with their heads blown off before. Bloody was a wholly inadequate descriptor. He didn’t want Ren to see him like that. He didn’t want gruesome chunks of meat to overwrite Ren’s memories of him.

With a silent curse, Goro backed away and fled into the crowd. It happily swallowed him whole.

 


 

“You don’t understand—” Ren was in the middle of saying as he shot the other side of the street another look. He stilled. Goro was gone. He almost wondered if he’d imagined him, except—there, he could see someone wading out of the crowd—but why would he run away from him?

Then Shido and his stupid shitbiscuit MIB-wannabe limo overtook his view. Frustration throbbed like an infected sore. He sank into a quick bow and muttered an insincere apology to get the cop off his back, then retreated from the cordon to get behind the crowd.

 


 

When Goro reached his things, there was a police guard already there, and he asked him if these were his luggage. For one heart-stopping moment, he thought he’d been discovered, but then the guard scolded him for being negligent and leaving his possessions where anyone who had a mind to could grab and walk off with them. He bowed and murmured an apology, then shouldered his sports bag and carried off his wheeled suitcase.

That was a hell of an unexpected development. Once again, Ren had thrown all his plans and even his entire life in disarray just by existing. As he hurried as best he could, Goro looked back towards the other side of the street after Shido’s limo had passed. Unsurprisingly, Ren was no longer anywhere in sight. He’d probably fled after he’d confirmed that Goro was there.

What was he doing here, anyway? he wondered, heart aching. Why did he have to show up now, of all times…?

It wasn’t lost on Goro that he’d gotten his wish: he’d seen Ren one last time. Like usual, his wish had been granted in the worst, least satisfying way possible. He must have owned a monkey’s paw in a past life. Then again, he’d accrued enough bad karma in this life for ten cursed wish-grantings.

He stopped at a street corner and clutched his forehead. What now…? He’d missed his chance to assassinate his father and lost sight of his beloved. At least he hadn’t been caught, and surely there’d be other opportunities in the future, but that chance encounter had left him drained. Exhausted. What was even the point of slaying Shido? There was no lack of evil men waiting to rise up and take his place. Committing murder-suicide would be nothing more than self-satisfaction. Society would flood in to fill the gaps they left behind, and no one would care that Goro Akechi had ever lived.

No, it was even worse than that, he realized. Listen to those cheering crowds. Feel their excitement. Had Goro gone through with his plan, Shido would be a nationally mourned martyr, and he, the wicked villain who had cruelly ripped him from the people. Maybe he’d outlive his good-for-nothing father by a few seconds, but he’d be one of the most hated figures in modern Japanese history.

His shoulders sagged. It just wasn’t fair.

“I need a drink,” he murmured to himself, despite knowing fully well he was underage. He forced himself down the street and entered the first bar he saw.

 


 

Try as he might, Ren didn’t catch sight of Goro again. Maybe it was because there were too many people to sieve through. Maybe he’d been a hallucination all along after all. Either way, after countless minutes of frantic searching, defeat welled up inside him again.

There were only so many disappointments the soul could bear in one night. Ren wiped his eyes, then trudged back to Crossroads. Hopefully Lala wouldn’t be too annoyed at him for leaving his stuff unattended.

 


 

Goro seated himself at the last open chair at the bar. At his right, a dark-haired woman snored, occasionally giggling and mumbling something incomprehensible. When he glanced at her, he recognized her as Ichiko Ohya, the reporter. Strange that she was in here, passed-out drunk, when there was a huge story for her to cover just outside. Beyond that observation, though, he was too numb to care.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with her,” the bartender, a portly woman in an impeccable kimono, remarked then as she clucked her tongue. She gave him an apologetic smile. “I’ll shoo her out soon enough, dear. Can I take your order in the meantime?” She paused a beat, then added, “Though, I’ll need to see some ID first, please.”

ID… He thought of Ren’s student ID, and took the time to retrieve it from the wallet sequestered in his sports bag side pocket. He took a moment to clutch it between both hands, gazing sorrowfully at the half-broken portrait. Of course; Ren would undoubtedly assume he’d search for him at Leblanc first after all Goro had said about never letting him go. He must have come to Shinjuku instead to hide out. He had a few contacts here; as Goro recalled, Ohya and the bartender were a couple of them. If Ren were smart, he’d have told her to pretend she never saw him. But maybe…

The door jangled, letting in the chatter of a group of thirsty patrons. Goro paid them no mind as he held the card out for the bartender to see.

“I won’t be here long,” he said softly. “I was just curious—by any chance, have you seen this young man here tonight…?”

She squinted at it. Her painted eyebrows rose, and she looked up, first at him, then at a point somewhere at his back. “I certainly have,” she replied. “Not to sound like a ghost story, but he’s right behind you.”

Goro’s spine stiffened. His eyes grew wide. It couldn’t be.

“Goro,” he heard at his back. Heard that achingly familiar voice.

Fear and yearning crashed with equal intensity within him. His lips parted as he hesitated; then he whirled around in his seat.

“Ren,” he breathed.

He had only a second to take in Ren’s extra-ruffled hair, his flushed face, the rapid rise and fall of his chest, before Ren charged him. Goro steeled himself, but instead of an attack, something he never expected happened: Ren flung his arms around him and pulled him close.

“Goro,” he repeated, this time as if on the verge of tears.

His mind went blank from confusion and something else. At first, his gaze remained rooted forward; then it ticked towards Ren degree by degree. Finally, his eyelids drooped, and slowly, carefully, he let his eyes shut and returned the embrace.

Just one pure thing. Let this one pure moment last forever.

 


 

As much as he was loathe to, Ren pulled away from his love. He’d almost yanked him off his bar stool, hugging him so tight and abruptly, but who cared? Goro was alive. Goro knew him. Even if he was probably here to drag him back into another Palace, he nearly wept with relief.

Somewhat surprisingly, Goro let him move away. His broad hands lingered on Ren’s hips, but he remained half-on, half-off his stool, watching him with pain and longing. Ren slipped a hand up the side of his face, fingertips brushing back Goro’s bangs.

“You don’t look nearly as angry as I thought you’d be,” he murmured.

Goro averted his eyes and cupped his hand over Ren’s. “…Why are you here?”

He hesitated. How to explain the day he’d had…? Before he could even try to muster up an explanation, Lala cleared her throat. He and Goro looked up at her, then around at the crowds of people rapidly filling up the bar—some of whom were giving them Looks—then both turned red.

“How about you boys take this reunion into the break room in back?” Lala suggested, smiling knowingly. “I already picked up your bag and glasses and tucked it away in there for safe-keeping, hon. I was worried when you ran out of here without a word, you know.”

“Thanks,” Ren replied, embarrassed. He grabbed Goro’s hand. “Let’s go.”

“I—okay,” Goro replied, perhaps too pole-axed to argue.

Although he already knew where the break room was due to having part-timed here before, Ren let Lala point them in the right direction, thanked her again, and guided Goro back there.

It was a nice break room: classy, quiet, and cozy, decorated in the same fashion as the rest of the bar. He spotted his duffel bag next to the couch, which he sat on, and his glasses folded neatly on the coffee table. He put them on as Goro left his things next to Ren’s bag and sat down with him on the far end, folding his hands in his lap.

Awkward silence hummed like fluorescent lights in the gap between them. After a moment of glancing at each other and then away, Ren cleared his throat.

“I like your clothes,” he offered. “It’s an unusual style for you, but it works.”

“Thank you,” Goro replied, stiff and unsure.

“When did you pick up that outfit?”

“I’ve had it in the back of my closet for a while. I had to dye several pieces to make them useful for being discreet, though. They used to be much brighter colors.”

He tried a smile. “The kind of colors that scream, ‘Here I am, look at me’?”

Goro sighed, heavy and worn out. “I suppose so.”

Ren winced. He’d tried to make that sound playful, teasing, but… Ugh. He was doing this all ass-backwards. Even a little kid knew there was something one had to say first before all that.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured, gaze on his lap. “For what I said while I was escaping. I didn’t mean it. I just… I had to get out. No matter what.”

In his peripheral vision, he saw Goro stare at him in naked surprise. After a moment, he averted his gaze, looking miserable and bitter.

“Why are you actually apologizing?” he muttered. “If you were that desperate to get away from me, you wouldn’t have turned around and chased me into the bar.”

That stung Ren as much as it angered him. “Shouldn’t that prove I didn’t mean it?”

Goro gave him a flat glare. “It proves something went awry and now you want something from me.”

He flinched. Goro was way more on the mark than he could possibly realize, and that sent a new flash of guilt burning through him. At the same time, though: “Jesus, Goro, I thought you were dead.”

That took him off guard. “What?”

Ren met his stare and searched his expression. “You don’t know? About Sae-san and the police chief?”

Goro’s eyes flickered with mistrust and uncertainty.

“They’re dead,” he concluded. “Murdered. Sae-san a few days ago, the chief just today. It was on the news. I think Shido was behind it. I…” His throat closed up for a moment; he bowed his head and managed, with difficulty, to swallow it open. “…I thought you’d died in the chief’s Palace.”

Goro stared a moment longer. Then, without a word, he jumped to his feet, marched to his luggage, and retrieved his phone. Ren watched as he fussed with it with an intense expression; when intensity melted into shock, incredulity, and then numb disbelief… well. There wasn’t anything else to say. He folded his hands in his lap and bowed his head.

For a few moments, Goro paced around the room as tight and restlessly as a tiger in a too-small cage. Ren would know. Then he returned to his luggage, fetched something else, and sat back on the couch heavily. A few things bumped Ren’s leg when Goro tossed them at him, and he looked down to see his phone, his wallet, and—incredibly—a thick wad of cash.

“Those are yours,” Goro said heavily as Ren picked them up with cautious, unbelieving fingers. “It’s not much, but consider the money compensation for everything I did to you.”

Ren stared at him, then down at the money. Quickly, quietly, he counted the ¥5,000 bills for a total of ¥500,000. His jaw dropped. Incredulous, he asked, “Goddamn, how much money do you have that you can casually drop this on me?!”

He smiled mirthlessly. “Assassinations pay very well. I couldn’t spend it freely before, as it would draw suspicion, but it fattened my savings account nicely. And now it doesn’t matter.” His smile faded, and he scraped his thumbs against each other. “I’m… also sorry,” he choked out. “I knew you hated being a prisoner. That you were biding your time until you could get out. I knew, I just…” His expression turned haunted. “No. Never mind. It’d just be an excuse. Just—take that and go.”

A leaden weight squeezed in on Ren’s chest. Once again, Goro wasn’t wrong, but he was only about halfway to the truth.

“Goro,” he croaked. “You really think this lump of cash settles everything?”

He stared over at him, expression bleak. Then he got up, fetched his sports bag, and dumped it on Ren’s lap. “Have more, then. Have it all, if you want; the rest is in the suitcase. I don’t need it anymore, anyway.”

“That’s not—wait, what do you mean you ‘don’t need it anymore’? Hey!” He shoved the bag off and, as Goro strode towards the exit, jumped up to grab him by the wrist. Goro twisted his hand around as deftly as a martial artist, but Ren twisted with him and kept his grip. “Don’t say ominous shit like that and then try to walk out on me!”

“It doesn’t have anything to do with you.”

“Bullshit. Then what were you doing here in Shinjuku? It’s not like you’d want to see Shido a…” Ren trailed off, epiphany striking like a cobra. Goro hadn’t tried to pursue him; was trying to give him all his money; had appeared where Shido was next to a cop; the cops had been armed…

Goro laughed faintly, bitterly. “Did you figure it out? Yes. I was planning on killing him.”

“Why would you do that?” he asked, voice shaking slightly. “I mean, obviously I know why, but you were so invested in blackmailing him and making him suffer. Why suddenly switch to gunning him down in the street?” When Goro refused to respond, or even look at him, he gave his wrist a sharp tug. “Goro! Answer me!”

“Shut up!!” he snapped, yanking his hand out of his grip and whirling around. “You think you get to make demands of me now?! I won’t chase you, or kidnap you, or hurt any of your stupid, precious friends anymore. There, is that what you wanted?!”

Dread yawned deep in Ren’s chest at the implications. “Goro,” he murmured, fighting to keep his voice even. “After you kill Shido, are you planning on following him?”

He paused. Then, fists clenching, he averted his glower. “So what if I am?”

For a moment, everything froze: his body, his throat, his mind, his heart. His imagination remained active, though, and it helpfully supplied a vivid picture of where they both might be now had Ren not caught Goro’s eye in the crowd. His body unfroze enough to allow him to shake, and with immense effort, he managed to whisper, “Don’t. Please.”

Goro scowled at him, but seeing the look on Ren’s face, his anger melted into something more morose. He sighed, then trudged back to the couch and slumped down. “So what now, then?” he asked wearily. “What, in your infinite wisdom, o leader, should I do instead?”

Ren, by way of answer, padded over to the couch, sat down next to him, and rested his head on his shoulder.

Unsurprisingly, he flinched and tensed. “Wh-what are you…?”

“Stay with me. I want to be with you.”

Goro gawked at him. After a long moment, he relaxed—but only somewhat. “You truly are beyond my comprehension. Solving the tangled lines of your behavior patterns would require a detective with far greater skills than I possess.”

“It’s not that hard,” he murmured, slipping an arm around Goro’s. “You know how badly I wanted my freedom. I’d do and say anything I had to to get it.”

Bitterly, he muttered, “Yes, I caught on to that much.”

“…I’m sorry.” He squeezed his arm. “You’re wrong about one thing. About earlier, I mean. I wasn’t just biding my time. I kept going back and forth on if I should go through with escape or not. But when you said you’d let me go, but only to another fucking Palace, and only to keep me isolated, I was so mad I just—” He cut himself off. Shook his head. “…But that’s getting into excuse territory myself. What I said to you was awful and inexcusable. But… Goro, I swear it was a lie. I really do love you. I understand if you can’t believe me after I was such an asshole, but that’s the truth.”

At first, he didn’t respond. Then he shifted around to cautiously slip his hand into Ren’s. “No… I’m the one who should be sorry. And I am sorry,” he added, melancholy deepening like a deep ocean blue. “Anyone who’d been kidnapped would be upset about it, no matter how else they felt about their kidnapper. You were very clear about that, and how much you wanted me to free you. But I was more concerned with keeping you to myself than making you happy. I… Ren, if I believe you when you say you love me, will you believe that I really wanted you to be happy with me?”

He nodded slowly. “I do believe that. Key words ‘with you.’”

Goro let out an empty chuckle. “Yes. True. To me, keeping you close trumped everything else. Even when you said you loved me after all, I was too afraid of losing you to stop hurting you. It’s only natural you ran away; I treated you like a prize to be coveted and jealously guarded.” He hesitated, then swallowed hard. “If—if I had let you go, like you kept asking me to… would you really have stayed with me?”

Ren was about to thread his fingers between Goro’s, but the question stopped him short. “…I don’t know,” he admitted. “I think… it would’ve depended on if you’d come with me.”

He didn’t respond. Ren fell silent, too. To his ears, that sounded a lot like ‘no.’ He wondered how it sounded to Goro.

Then Goro heaved another sigh. He glanced over at him. “You should contact your friends. Let them know you’re safe,” he said softly. “I understand why you’d avoid them for their own good, but you really don’t need to worry about me anymore. I promise I won’t do anything.”

He flinched. “No, that’s not… I mean, I did worry about that, but…” His lips thinned as his eyes burned, and he forced out, “I can’t… I already— They’re—gone.”

“Gone?” Goro echoed, puzzled. A second later, he tensed. “You don’t mean—did Shido have them silenced after all?!”

“No, no—at least, I don’t think so,” he replied, shaking his head. God, he hoped not. If Shido could purposely manipulate the cognition of the people enough to erase his enemies, that was. Frankly terrifying?? Ren took a deep breath, slipping away from Goro enough to pull a leg onto the couch and face him, and explained his day.

 


 

Goro listened. The news of Sae and the police chief’s deaths had been a shock, but not a surprise. He’d vanished before Shido had been able to have him killed, and without a trace at that. Logically, after exhausting all real-world possibilities, Shido would assume Goro had hidden out in someone’s Palace. Having Sae and the police chief killed meant two fewer hiding places, and might flush him out into the open if it didn’t kill him outright. Goro wondered what Shido would have done if he had died in the zoo. There was no way he could verify his death. Would he just keep killing his allies until he alone was the only Palace-holder in Tokyo?

But that was nothing compared to what Ren described. His friends vanished, himself forgotten, and the cause behind it a mass change in the public cognition…? For as much experience as Goro had with the Metaverse, this was beyond him. It disturbed him that people could get vanished and forgotten in the real world because of a mass perception change. How long would it be before it happened to Ren? To him?

He scowled when Ren explained that Igor had confirmed all this for him. “Still a slimeball, I see,” he muttered.

Ren paused. “You know Igor?”

“It sounds like we know him in the same capacity. I hate the Velvet Room, though, so I don’t go there.” He’d rather be stuck with weak Personas than deal with that over-bright orphanage. Loki gave him plenty of power as-is, anyway.

Ren bowed his head. “...Yeah. Yeah, if you and I have the same power, it makes sense you were called to the Velvet Room.” He paused. Goro tensed in anticipation, but he just shook his head and went back to his story. Did he sense that questions weren’t welcome, or did he just not care…? Maybe he didn’t like the Velvet Room much, either. After Igor’s reception, he could understand if so.

But… So he’d gone all over the city trying to find traces of his friends and companions. That must have been exhausting, physically and mentally. No wonder he looked so strung out; his skin was abnormally pale, and there were lines under his eyes, made more prominent when Ren removed his glasses to fidget with them. At last he finished, concluding with how he’d spotted Goro and chased after him, unsure of if were really him but too desperate to dismiss the possibility.

Desperate. Goro stared into space as he considered Ren’s story. So he’d been right; something had gone wrong for Ren. The scale was far beyond anything he could have imagined, but it remained true all the same. He no longer had any friends, any contacts, any home, anyone to turn to… anyone but Goro. In other words, if he’d had literally any other options, he wouldn’t have flung himself into Goro’s arms. It took supernatural erasure of his entire social circle for Ren to choose him.

He smirked faintly, then sighed so long he felt like he was deflating. The flip side of that was that Ren now needed him, powerfully, painfully, unquestionably, irrevocably. Not just financially, but emotionally, too. He could have just taken Goro’s money and left to find cheap lodgings for the night. He hadn’t. That meant Ren was terrified of being alone. That he’d accept even Goro’s company if it meant he wouldn’t be alone. Of course he’d insist he hadn’t meant the harsh things he’d said, that he really did love him. If Goro rejected him—if he went ahead with his murder-suicide plan—then Ren would lose the last human connection he had to this world.

He focused back on the present and met Ren’s eyes. Ren had set his glasses on the coffee table and was now searching his face, fidgeting with nerves. Perhaps he realized that too. Just how far would he go to keep Goro close…?

No. He glanced away and brushed his hair back. As tempting as it was to find out how much Ren needed him, no. Ren was a natural at making friends and connections. He’d already established enough of a rapport with the bartender here in an hour at best that she let him, a complete stranger as far as she knew, use her break room. If Goro rejected him, Ren would just make new friends. No—whether Goro rejected him or not, he’d make new friends. That much was a certainty, and if he didn’t want Ren running away again, he’d have to swallow that particular bitter pill.

However…

As things stood, this was Goro’s chance to ensure he was the most important person in Ren’s life, now and forever. If he couldn’t be only, then he could settle for best.

Tentatively, he rested his fingertips on Ren’s hands. When Ren turned them palm-up to accept him, Goro gently took them into his own.

“Let’s stay together, then,” he suggested, hesitant, but with a flicker of hope. “I still remember you. I won’t leave you. You and I don’t have anywhere else to go or anyone else to turn to. So let’s protect each other.”

Ren’s breath stilled. He squeezed Goro’s hands, pulled himself onto his lap, and kissed him.

 


 

Goro’s muffled sound of surprise swiftly melted into something sweeter. He surrendered to him as Ren sent his tongue questing between Goro’s lips, and oh, oh, everything melted away with it, all the fear and despair and guilt and anxiety, until there was nothing but Goro’s hands on his hips and Ren’s arms on his shoulders and the two of them pressing lips and coiling tongues as they divided the distance between them by infinitely decreasing fractions.

Then, all too soon, they pulled apart, breaths hot and heavy and intermingling.

“Okay,” Ren whispered.

“What?”

He stroked Goro’s beautiful face. “Okay. Let’s stay together. Let’s protect each other. I want to be with you.”

Goro smiled at him, and it made Ren’s heart skip a beat but also ache from the ocean of sadness beneath it. He didn’t ask why he looked like that. There were too many possible causes.

“Ren, you’ve been through so much. And so much of it is my fault,” he murmured instead. “May I… make it up to you?”

He nodded once, and Goro’s smile warmed just before he reached for Ren’s jacket’s zipper.

Chapter Text

This time, it was Ren’s turn to surrender. There was a certain exquisite pleasure in giving in, in letting Goro unzip his jacket and hoodie and pull off his shirt until Ren’s chest was bare, in letting him push him down onto the couch as his fingers strayed over his skin. He’d fought so hard and sought so long and endured so much, and this was so nice. It was the perfect distraction: here and now, he could forget about everything but Goro.

He was gentle too, and more uncertain than Ren generally preferred, but it wasn’t bad either; he liked this slowness, and he found comfort in Goro’s soft touches, in his intent gaze, in the butterfly kisses he left on Ren’s neck and shoulders and chest. Ren rewarded his ministrations with little moans and gasps, encouraging him, bolstering his confidence until those caresses gained surety. His back arched when Goro unbuttoned his jeans and zipped down his fly. Ren’s cock was better than halfway hard, and watching Goro smile as he pulled down his pants enough to let it spring free was hot as hell.

“Goro, I love you,” he whispered. “Look at me more. Look at no one but me.”

A shiver visibly coursed up Goro’s spine. “Always,” he whispered back, pushing Ren’s pants down past his knees, then reaching for his cock. “I don’t want to look at anyone but you.” He gripped him, firm and sure, and began to stroke him in just the way Ren had shown him the other day. “I love you, too. I love only you and I’ll only ever love you, so don’t leave me… Stay with me, please…”

Ren’s hips twitched. “Always,” he gasped, throwing his head back.

Relief suffused Goro’s lips as he smiled, then lowered himself on top of him. He kissed him, slow and weirdly shy, as if he weren’t currently giving him a hand job, and Ren let him set the pace as he wrapped his arms around him. From there, Goro kissed his jaw, his neck, his shoulder, his chest, his ribs, his abs, his stomach, his hipline… There he hesitated, though his strokes maintained a slow steadiness, and he glanced up at Ren.

“I’m a little nervous,” he admitted, bashful. “I don’t know if I can do this well.”

“It’s okay. You’ll do fine,” he reassured him, half-sitting up to kick one leg out of his pants and sling it over the back of the couch. His other leg, he let dangle off the side. Spreading himself so wide, so vulnerable, in front of his lover and would-be killer… It sent a fantastic thrill through him. He licked his lips and continued, “Take it at your own pace. I’m not going anywhere.”

Goro shot him an amused half-smile. “Dressed like that? I should hope not.”

Ren laughed. It was a heady, bubbly feeling, like the second glass of champagne he wasn’t supposed to have at his cousin’s wedding, and only intensified when Goro laughed with him. When they settled, they gazed at each other with lidded, smoky eyes, before Goro ducked his head and pushed back the side of his bangs as he turned his attention to Ren’s dick with flushed cheeks. His breath enveloped Ren, making him curl his fingers; then Goro leaned in and, with demure hesitance, reached out his cute little pink tongue and flicked its tip on Ren’s. Ren hissed as that tiny little lick sent a jolt of lightning through him. Ah, god—if it was going to be like this, he didn’t know he could survive the night.

But that was fine. This was perfect. He’d yearned for this intimacy with such incredible need. The only one in the world he had left to turn to was between his legs. Fireworks burst in his brain. He was happy. He couldn’t be happier.

Goro licked him again, this time tongue swirling outwards from the center. The erotic movement juxtaposed the shyness in his expression, setting Ren heaving for breath; it only intensified when Goro took his tip into his mouth and suckled gently. Ren twisted and arched, gripping the back of the couch as he moaned.

Goro pulled away to give him a tiny smile. “You like that…?”

Ren nodded. “Yeah,” he panted. “A lot.”

“You like it when I touch you?”

He shivered. “So much.”

His already sweet smile grew wider, and Ren’s heart danced. God, he was just so—so weirdly innocent, so virginal even though he’d already lost his virginity, and it charmed the hell out of him even as he wanted to flip him over and teach him the fun of getting aggressive. Before he could entertain that seriously, though, Goro slipped his left hand up Ren’s thigh and held his cock in place, while his right slipped down to cup and knead his balls. Goro himself kissed Ren’s shaft, several light little things going down and long, wet, smacking ones on the way back up. It wasn’t unlike the blow jobs Ren had given him last night (was it only last night? It felt like an eternity ago), but already he’d put his own spin on it, and fuck, that was almost as much of a turn-on to him as the BJ itself.

From there, he leaned in and lapped long strokes up Ren’s shaft as he massaged his sack. Ren watched him as he moaned softly with each lick. God, he was just so unfathomably cute, the way he blushed as he worked him. When Ren trembled with pleasure, Goro paused to glance up at him; Ren smiled at him, and he gave him such a shy, adorable smile back… Ahh, his dear, delicate assassin. Ren reached out to run his fingers through Goro’s hair. He could fall in love with him all over again.

Goro shut his eyes and leaned into Ren’s touch, hands stilling. As much as he didn’t want him to stop, Ren caressed him and sighed with contented pleasure at the enraptured look that stole over Goro’s face. He pressed a hand over Ren’s and tilted his head around to kiss and nibble at his palm. Ren made a soft noise of want in his throat, and—his heart leaped in his throat—Goro shot him a smirk. A smirk, now of all things! Fuck him, he was sexy.

As if bidden by that thought, Goro pulled himself up onto the couch, face hovering over Ren’s dick. Ren watched him in anticipation as he revved him up with a few hand-strokes, then lowered himself down… He moaned, loud for Goro’s benefit, as Goro took him into his mouth centimeter by centimeter. Goro moaned back, and the reverberation around his dick sent a lusty shudder up Ren’s spine before Goro began to suck him off in earnest.

What a gorgeous sight. Lack of experience lent Goro awkwardness, but, ungh, agh, he more than made up for it with enthusiasm. Ren rocked his hips in slow undulation as he groaned in approval, unable and unwilling to take his eyes off him. Lala might or might not go spare that they were fucking right in her break room, but Ren didn’t care about that or anything, and that was just how he wanted it. All that mattered, all he wanted to think about anymore, was right here.

It might have been minutes; it might have been eternity. But far too soon, Ren found himself at the brink of climax.

“Ahh… aannh, agh, Goro,” he called, back arching. “Ahh, you’re so good, I’m gonna—I’m about to come—”

Goro lifted his head, lips smacking off his cock. “Are you?” he breathed, still pumping him.

“Fuck, yes, just—just a little more—”

He chuckled. His hand slowed, cruelly teasing Ren away from blessed release. Ren shot him an incredulous, wounded look, only to see him smirking viciously up at him.

“Beg me to let you come,” he purred.

Fffffuck, aaahhh, fuck fuck fuck, did he really think he could teach Goro anything about being aggressive? What an absolute monster. Not that he disliked it.

“C’mon, why now?” he pleaded.

“Consider it my little revenge for you breaking my heart,” he replied, still smirking. “Now beg. If you do, I’ll forgive you.”

He shut his eyes and leaned his head back. Well, damn. There was a lot he could say to that, but for now, he simply moaned, “Please… Please, make me come, Goro.”

He flicked his tongue off Ren’s tip, and when Ren shot his head up, Goro’s eyes were already locked on his. “You can beg harder than that.”

Aagghghgh god what an unbearable tease “Please—M-Master… Master Akechi…”

He leaned in. “Please what, my dearest servant?” he breathed.

“Please—aggh, fuck, I need you, please!!

“Fuck,” Goro moaned back, and beat him off with vigor.

It only took a few more strokes, and Ren was undone. With an intense moan, he orgasmed, cock twitching in Goro’s hand; then he slumped on the couch, panting and sweating. Goro pet his thigh with his free hand and watched him with a little smile for a moment. When it passed, he got up, fetched a few tissues from a nearby table to clean Ren up with, and then when he was done, squeezed in next to him on the couch. They each wrapped their arms around the other, and Ren cuddled in close, basking in a deep, warm contentment.

“You’re beautiful,” Goro murmured, kissing the crown of his head.

Ren shut his eyes, smiling. “That’s my line.”

He chuckled affectionately and stroked his back. “You always have to be the smooth one, don’t you?”

“That’s ‘cuz I’m a smooth criminal.”

He laughed again, then settled into a soft hum.

“So am I forgiven?” Ren added, cracking an eyelid open.

Goro nodded. Then he hesitated, and forced a self-deprecating laugh. “With all I’ve done, I expect I’m not. But I’ll… I’ll keep working on that. From now on, I’ll do whatever you want me to do.”

“You don’t need to go that far. Just…” Ren tried to figure out what he wanted to say; failed; stroked Goro’s shoulder instead.

“I want to,” he insisted quietly.

“Hmm… In that case…” He smiled. “Does this mean I get to be Master now?”

But Goro’s expression remained dead serious as he replied, “If that’s what you want… Master Amamiya.”

Ren grimaced. “Eugh, yeah, no, not into that.” He swept his fingers up into Goro’s hair and twisted a lock around them. Ahh, it felt so nice, like silk. He wondered how much nicer it would be if he grew it out even longer. “Besides,” he added thoughtfully. He pulled that lock forward and pressed it to his lips. “I kind of enjoy the role of the loyal but cheeky servant whose master lets him get away with murder because he’s just too smitten with him.”

Goro sucked in a short breath as a smile curved up his lips. Yep, Ren figured he’d like that. “Oh, really?” He touched his forehead to Ren’s. “It is a role you play well. I rather enjoy the role of the powerful, sadistic master who nonetheless can’t resist his sweet little servant, myself.”

He smiled back and kissed him. Goro made a noise of surprise that rapidly melted into a noise of want, and their tongues flicked and curled together as their lips parted. Ren turned to pull Goro on top of him, and Goro complied eagerly, hooking a leg up to Ren’s waist, until they finally each pulled away, panting and gazing into each other’s eyes.

A moment later, Goro’s eyes widened. “Ah.”

“Hm?”

“Oh, I just remembered, there were so many things I wanted to do to you that I forgot to… Well, at least there’s material for round two.”

“Round two?”

Goro blushed. “You know… you had me come so many times last night, but you didn’t come at all… I want to return the favor. And there’s still so much I need to make up to you.”

Ren bit back a scream over how cute he was. Instead, he chuckled. “You don’t need to do any of that. I’m happy just lying here with you.”

“Ah.”

They fell into comfortable silence. Ren eased back, shutting his eyes, enjoying Goro’s weight draped on him. With himself naked and Goro still clothed, it was a little like nestling under a thick down blanket in the middle of winter: warm and reassuring. Probably he could have gone for another round or two or three, he reflected, but this was enough for him for now—to talk, to kiss, to hold, to be held. It was exactly enough comfort to distract him from reality.

“Ren?” Goro murmured then. “Did… did I do a good job? Did you like how I made you feel?”

“Yeah.”

“You really enjoyed it? You wanted it? It was good to you?”

“Yeah.”

Another silence. Then: “Do you really love me?”

Ren opened his eyes. Goro watched him, rapid blinks betraying his anxiety. Ah; so the quiet had only been comfortable for him. “What makes you think I don’t, after how hard I apologized?”

He bowed his head. When he didn’t answer, Ren gently grasped his chin and pulled it back up.

“Tell me,” he prompted gently.

The corners of his mouth twitched up. “…I just… have to wonder,” he said with difficulty. “If you only came back to me because you lost everyone else… If this is just a balm for your loneliness.”

Ren’s eyes widened. Goro had hit the bullseye. It wasn’t the only reason, but would he have sought him out so desperately—hell, would he have sought him out at all if he’d had literally anyone else to turn to? He couldn’t honestly say yes. He opened his mouth, hesitated.

“Goro,” he murmured at last. “Given how complicated your feelings for me are, I think I’ve got a right to have equally complicated feelings for you.”

His expression grew stricken. With difficulty, he choked out, “Then, are you, going, to leave me, again?”

“Absolutely not,” Ren could say with immediate force, because he had a feeling this was where things were going. “If you’re really that worried about it, just listen to me when I tell you I’m not happy about something.” He brushed the backs of his fingers down Goro’s neck. “In return, I’ll be more patient with you, too. I know… you’re as alone as I am now.”

Goro shifted half-off, half-on him, perhaps so he could better layer a hand over the one on his neck. “…And what about what we were saying earlier? Do you forgive me?”

“I think… I do.” I don’t really have a choice. “More importantly, I don’t need you to do whatever I want. Just trust me, and let me have some space from time to time.”

He hesitated a long time, far longer than Ren was strictly okay with. Fortunately for both of them, he at last nodded. “I understand. If you come back to me always, I’ll trust you.”

Ren half-smiled and squeezed Goro’s hand. “Sounds like we have a deal.”

Goro smiled back, relaxing, then leaned in partway and shut his eyes. Ren caught the hint and leaned in the rest of the way, lips brushing together…

And then the break room door opened. Ren, abruptly keenly aware of his nudity, froze up. Goro, his only censor bar, tensed up and clutched him by the back. Both of them shot a wide-eyed stare of horror at Lala, who stared back down at them with eyebrows past her crown and rising.

“U-umm…” he managed.

Lala’s broad mouth quirked up in apparent amusement, and she turned her head away with deliberate delicacy. “Just wanted to let you boys know I’m closing up for the night,” she said airily. “I’ve been thinking it over, and I expect there really isn’t anywhere you two lovebirds would be able to find to go on New Year’s Eve, of all nights. I’d hate to send you two out in the cold, so, if you promise to behave yourselves and not to get into the liquor, I’ll let you stay here until tomorrow, maybe the day after, we’ll see how it goes. Got it?”

“I—um—” oh god he was going to die of embarrassment “I-I’m sorry about the, uh, th-the—”

“Oh, darling, I know you aren’t,” Lala replied, now radiating amusement. “The supply closet is down the hallway. It’s got spare sheets on the left middle shelf and KY jelly and condoms on the top shelf all the way in the back, so make sure you use them, hmm? I don’t want to have to clean up your mess.”

Ren did his best steamed lobster impression. Goro, who looked plenty cooked himself, turned and hid his face in Ren’s shoulder. Lala broke out into peals of gay laughter.

“Also, you boys can help yourselves to what’s in the fridges and pantries, as long as it’s not alcohol,” she continued, grinning. “God knows young boys are always ravenous.”

“I-I’ll pay you back,” Goro blurted out, pushing himself partially upright. “I have the money—”

“Don’t worry about it, dear,” Lala cut him off, waving a dismissive hand. “Instead, when you’ve grown up and the shoe is on the other foot...” Her expression gentled. “Make sure you pay it forward.”

Goro said nothing. Ren didn’t know what to say either for an instant; then he gave her a single nod. “Okay.”

She chuckled. “Good night, then,” she said as she pulled the door shut. She paused just before it closed, then added, “Oh—and be sure not to break anything, hmm? I’ll be back tomorrow to check in on you two.”

Ren coughed discreetly. Goro’s blush deepened further. Lala laughed again, and the click of the door signaled her departure.

After a long, awkward moment, Goro sat up. Ren sat up too and leaned on him, but he scooted away, coughing into a fist. “I should, uh, fetch those sheets.”

“Okay,” Ren said with a half-smile, starting to find it funny now that Lala had left.

He stood, but didn’t leave immediately. “…She’s a very kind woman, isn’t she. I don’t think most people would let two unknown teenagers alone unsupervised in a bar after hours.”

Ren’s half-smile faded. “Yeah. Lala’s good people.”

Goro gazed into the middle distance, his expression something vaguely bittersweet. “New Year’s, huh… A new beginning,” he murmured. “I suppose I got what I wanted after all.”

“Hmm?”

He shook his head. “Nothing. Never mind. Are you hungry? I’m famished.”

Ren was hungry—the bowl of edamame had only taken the edge off, not sated him—so he let it drop. He did wonder about it as he got dressed and searched the fridges with Goro, though.

As Lala had warned, there wasn’t a lot. Not surprising, considering this was a bar, where food was secondary to getting blitzed, and it was after hours right before a holiday, meaning supplies were going to be low. Still, they managed to scrounge up enough to prep a couple plates of yakitori, which Ren heated up in the microwave and served at the bar with glasses of ice water. He and Goro sat together and ate and drank in silence.

It was a little eerie. After hours, the place was dead silent. It felt like the world had gone empty, save for the two of them. Having Goro there took the edge off, but after everything, it made him anxious. He polished off his chicken skewers and stared at his empty plate.

Yes. Now that the buzz of finding Goro and the glow of sex was starting to wear off, he was getting anxious again. Tonight was all well and good, maybe even tomorrow, but after that, he was homeless. Directionless. Goro was with him, and that was more comfort than he could ever describe, but it remained his fault that his friends were missing. Thinking about them—Morgana’s sass, Ryuji’s energy, Ann’s cheer, Yusuke’s eccentricity, Makoto’s seriousness, Futaba’s nerdiness, Haru’s duality—opened a vast, yawning rift of guilt and loneliness within him. If he’d been more decisive… if he’d escaped sooner… He gripped his hands together tight. If he’d done that, would he have Goro at his side like this? Probably not. It really was always a choice of love or friendship. He simply hadn’t realized how high the stakes actually were.

God, what could he possibly do now?

Goro finished a few minutes after he did. He drained his glass and set it down with a sigh, then leaned back in his seat. “It’s strange, eating like this with you in a place like this,” he remarked. “It’s so normal and abnormal at the same time, it disorients me.”

“I know what you mean,” Ren replied without looking up. “Nothing feels real, still.”

Goro glanced at him. Then he gazed down and, slowly, tentatively, rested a hand on top of Ren’s. “…What should we do now? The bartender only agreed to let us stay here one night, two at best. To press for more would make us a nuisance.”

“Yeah. This place isn’t like Leblanc,” Ren replied, turning his hand to hold Goro’s. It was weirdly comforting to know he was worried about at least some of the same things. “Lala couldn’t put up a couple minors like us when she’s running an adult entertainment bar.”

“Then we’ll have to leave.”

“Yeah.”

“We should leave Tokyo,” Goro suggested with a note of caution.

Ren glanced at him. “Why?”

Goro squeezed his hand. “It’s dangerous for us here with Shido in charge now. Plus, it’s expensive. I have lots of cash, but no way of earning more. Our wisest course of action is to take a train as soon as possible for a cheap part of the country and go into hiding there. The further away we are, the less Shido’s influence will reach us.”

Ren bowed his head. Funny. A moment ago, he was lost, but the instant Goro said that, he knew exactly what he needed to do. “I’m not leaving.”

He heaved a sigh. “Why?”

“I have to find Morgana and the others. What happened to them was my fault, so I owe it to them to try to save them, if I can. I can only do that from here. So I’m not leaving. If you want to leave, I won’t stop you.”

“…You’re truly mean-spirited.” Goro scooted his seat closer to Ren’s and threaded their fingers together. “You know I’m not going anywhere without you.”

He squeezed his hand. Thank god he didn’t call his bluff. If he’d pressed leaving Tokyo, Ren wasn’t sure he could maintain his resolve. Not when Goro leaving meant he’d be alone again. “Yeah. I know.”

“Do you have a plan? An idea of where we could go?”

“No.”

He sighed again. For several moments, silence reigned.

Then, quietly, Goro offered, “I have a couple of yakuza contacts. You’ve met Shido’s cognition of the ‘cleaner’; he’s much like that in real life, too. If I offer to work for them, they won’t sell us out to Shido.”

Ren’s shoulders stiffened. “You mean, if you keep killing.”

Goro smiled mirthlessly. “What else am I good for anymore?” His smile faded. “Don’t worry. Like I said, assassinations pay well, and the yakuza are smart enough to know how valuable my powers are. They’ll treat both of us well, even if I do all the dirty work myself. So… you’re free to search for your friends with your hands clean.”

He opened his mouth; shut it; stared back down at his empty plate. A whirlwind of conflicting emotion rampaged inside him. In a way, it was sweet that Goro was making this offer; he was functionally saying he’d openly become a criminal. In return, Ren would just have to rely on him more and more… and turn a blind eye to even more murders than before. No. He couldn’t do that. To kill or not to kill had been one of their major dividing points. The Phantom Thieves didn’t kill. That also meant they didn’t allow others to kill if they could help it. He couldn’t let Goro carry on his hits.

On the other hand, wasn’t that hypocritical and high-and-mighty of him? Earlier this evening, he’d been prepared to pick a few pockets for his survival when he thought he only had himself. Now that he had Goro and his fat stacks of money, he could afford to be delicate. As he was now, if Ren really put his foot down on that, Goro would probably listen and take on that heavier burden for himself; he’d already folded on staying in Tokyo. Wasn’t that unfair? Shouldn’t Ren compromise too?

But on the other other hand, they were literally talking about life and death. This went beyond picking pockets. That shouldn’t be a thing anyone should compromise on. And would allowing Goro to resume his hitman activities really be the best for him? Sure, murdering for the yakuza would almost certainly get him a ton of money. But wouldn’t that open him up to retaliation and incarceration? Just because he hadn’t been caught up ‘til now didn’t mean he couldn’t be in the future. If Goro were killed or imprisoned, what would Ren do?

Search for your friends. The answer came to him swiftly and easily. No matter what he did, no matter his situation, he would always try to figure out where his friends had gone and how to get them out. That was the baseline. Everything else was just a means and a method.

But how far could he let himself go?

He shoved his seat back and stood.

“Ren?” Goro said, watching him.

Without responding, he collected their dishes and glasses, washed and dried them, and pushed past the double doors that lead into the back. Let’s see, the storage closet was… this way—here we go. Nodding to himself, Ren fetched the extra sheets and (he wasn’t in the mood anymore but better safe than sorry) the items from the topmost shelf, then returned to the break room. As he draped a pair of sheets over the couch, Goro entered the room and watched him from the doorway. Ren sat and glanced at him. Goro put away the money (in retrospect, Ren mused, it was good he’d been naked, or Lala would’ve noticed it and asked questions for sure) and fetched a charger for their phones from his luggage. Once they were plugged in, he joined him on the couch.

“What do you want to do, then?” he asked softly. “I take it you don’t want me continuing my… moonlighting. Truthfully, I’m fine with dropping it, too. But we need to figure something out.”

Ren scooted closer to his boyfriend and leaned on him as he thought.

“Whatever you decide, I’ll follow you,” Goro added. “Just tell me what you want to do.”

“Goro,” Ren said, staring into space. “You know what I told you about what Igor said? About Ryuji and Ann and everyone being ‘trapped in their own psyches’ or something like that?”

“Yeah?”

“You figure that might mean they’re trapped somewhere deep in Mementos?”

“I’m not sure. It’s possible. Mementos is supposedly everyone’s Palace. That suggests that it also represents those who normally wouldn’t have one, such as us Persona-Users.”

“So what we need is more information about the cognitive world.”

“That won’t be easy to acquire. Shido has all existing information about it under lock and key. If we could get at one of the researchers in his employ, it might be a different story…” Goro held his chin in contemplation. “We could try searching Mementos for their Shadows and questioning them. One of Shido’s inner circle, the IT president, is in charge of keeping records; if we infiltrate his Palace, we might be able to find the names we need.”

“Mm.” ‘Might’ wasn’t encouraging. He shook his head. “No need. Morgana said once that Mementos opened up to the Phantom Thieves the more notoriety we gained. We just need to get more famous and enter the cognition of more people.”

He sighed. “And you think that’s easier? The Phantom Thieves have been forgotten, and I can’t go back to being a detective. We’ve both lost our means of gaining fame.”

He stared at the ceiling. Their means of gaining fame… That wasn’t quite true. But even as it dawned on Ren, it made bile rise in the back of his throat.

Quietly, he wondered, “Do you still want revenge on Shido?”

“Well… yes,” he admitted. “But it’s sort of… I don’t know. It doesn’t matter anymore. What I wanted originally, I realize now I never could have managed. If I tried to control him with the sordid secret of my birth, he’d just have me killed, like he’d planned on anyway. And you don’t want me killing anymore. It’s over, and we lost.”

“Is it?”

Goro paused. “What do you mean?”

Thinking of what Igor had told him, Ren said slowly, “If one game ends with you as the loser, you just need to start another. Right?”

“…I see. I get what you’re saying, but… what did you have in mind?”

Saving his friends was his top priority. Everything else was a means and a method. That included starting a new game. One where they took advantage of the one means of gaining infamy they had left… And—

Ren looked over at Goro. Goro met his eyes with a slight frown, anxiety in the tension of his neck and shoulders. He swept his fingers through his auburn hair, and Goro’s expression softened into a faint smile. Ren smiled back.

“We’re in this together now,” he murmured. “I won’t leave you behind anymore. But I won’t let you go off and do whatever on your own, either—including get your hands dirty.”

Goro’s expression clouded. “I understand already. You don’t need to keep repeating yourself.”

Ren shook his head. “That’s not what I mean.”

Though naturally Goro would mistake what he was saying. It was a monstrous proposal. But if you kept playing a game that was stacked against you, then naturally you’d have to start using underhanded methods too if you wanted to have any hope of coming out on top. Sae and her Palace had illustrated that colorfully. And… he was mad about it, plain and simple. She didn’t deserve to die, but Shido did whatever the fuck he wanted. It’d been like that even when he was a phantom thief; Shadows didn’t play fair. It’d been like that even when he was a normal kid; adults in general didn’t play fair.

“I mean… how do I put this.”

Well, fuck fair. Fuck nice, fuck principled, and fuck society’s constantly moving goalposts. Fuck everything—even what Morgana and the others would think of him when it was all done.

“What I’m saying is, I get it now. Why you made the choices you did.”

He would do whatever it took, both to save his friends from, and to stay with his lover in, this rotten, corrupt world.

“And if we’re in this together, then that means I can’t let you stain your hands while I pretend I’m better than that. If you’re going to walk down into Hell, I’m coming with you.”

He wouldn’t let anyone else he cared about die…

“So, Goro.”

…and if that meant getting someone else’s blood on his hands, so be it.

“Tomorrow, let’s go kill your dad.”

Shido needed killing, anyway.

Stunned, Goro gawked at him. “Are you serious?”

“Dead serious.”

Goro gawked harder. Ren smiled. Then Goro cracked a grin and cackled as he pulled him close. “Just when I think you couldn’t get any sexier! You really do thrill and surprise me at every turn.”

Ahh. If he was going to betray every piece of his past self, at least Goro was making it worth it. That twisted delight of his more than merited a murder or ten, and maybe another orgasm or two. Ren smirked and draped himself on the couch, pulling Goro down with him. “It’s one of my many charm points.”

“You’re such,” kiss, “an obnoxious,” kiss, “piece of shit,” kiss.

Ren criss-crossed his arms behind Goro’s neck and matched his affections. “It’s why you love me,” he rumbled, then flicked his tongue past Goro’s lips.

This time Goro melted on top of him, soft sounds of need punctuating the motions of his mouth. Ahh… This was such a wonderful, heady feeling. At the start of all this, he’d told him he’d make him need him. Maybe that was what Goro had meant when he’d remarked he’d gotten what he wanted. Ren was beyond caring.

At last they pulled apart. “It is,” Goro murmured, eyes bright.

Ren gave him a thoughtful, sober look as he ran his fingers through Goro’s hair. “Did you miss me?”

His expression turned stricken; then he nodded. “So much so I almost died.”

Ahh. Way to strike home. But that was fine, too. It was what he’d wanted. “I missed you a lot too. I...” Damn, how did the quote go? He rallied his memories, took a deep breath, and tried again. “‘When I couldn’t see you anymore, I realized that. It was as clear as if the planets all of a sudden lined up in a row for me. I really need you. You’re a part of me; I’m a part of you.’”

Goro’s eyes widened in recognition. It was a line from the end of Sputnik Sweetheart, when Sumire returned from the other side, from her abrupt and mysterious disappearance, to call K to come for her. “You—I-I thought you said you didn’t like that book.”

Ren smiled, fond and sad. “Of course I didn’t like it. After being torn apart for so long, Sumire shows up out of the blue and tells K she chooses him after all? How unrealistic can you get?”

Goro half-laughed, half-sobbed, as he smiled back. “Not that unrealistic, apparently.”

He chuckled. Then he gripped Goro’s hips, yanked his thigh up, and reveled in his soft gasp, in the drape of his long legs. Goro had said he’d make Ren need him, and now need wasn’t even the half of it. “Happy New Year,” he murmured, raking his nails up his jeans.

Goro settled on top and gazed down at him with kindling desire. As they each leaned in for another kiss, he murmured back, “To a new beginning.”