The Thieves get overprotective of Joker in Sae’s casino, which is too bad, because it’s very big with many moving parts and it’s best for them to divide and conquer the place, which is how he explains it to them during a Thieves meeting that Akechi is not invited to. Also, when Joker splits them up into groups, Joker is sometimes paired up with only Crow.
The rest of the Thieves give each other unimpressed looks. “That’s… the opposite of reassuring,” Makoto says with a pained sigh.
“If anything happens, I’ll be fine. Plus, Futaba knows where I am at all times, and she can always reach me through the comms. I’ll say something if anything happens.”
Everyone gives each other such a significant look that Akira wonders if maybe the Thieves are having secret meetings that he isn’t invited to, either. But they don’t push him on it.
He asks Ryuji about it when everyone else has gone, Haru’s taken Morgana for the night, and it’s just the two of them in Akira’s attic. “We’re just… worried for you,” says Ryuji, scratching the back of his head. “The entire reason Akechi’s even here is to kill you, right? Guy’s a liar and probably a murderer and we don’t even know how dangerous he is. His Persona’s already crazy strong and Makoto thinks he’s got more tricks up his sleeve, too.”
Akira thought that through already. The probability is that Akechi can’t kill him until they’ve gotten to the end of the palace, and stolen Sae’s “heart” on the exact day that Akechi requested. On the other hand, it’s still just a probability. Maybe Akechi can kill him whenever he wants. “It’ll be fine,” says Akira.
“I mean, I know that,” says Ryuji, and sighs. “I guess… it’d be one thing if we just thought he might kill you the second we’re not lookin’, but I--I dunno. We were all worried ‘cause we thought that you kept pairing yourself up with Crow on purpose ‘cause you liked…”
Ryuji trails away. “Uh, actually, never mind. Sounds dumb now that I say it aloud, honestly. Forget about it. See you tomorrow.”
“See you,” says Akira.
Akira Kurusu is a good boy, who lived in a good town, with a good family, with only good neighborhoods. There were never any bad neighborhoods to duck into and pick any fights with the wrong kind of people. There were never any bad bars to lose yourself in and make out with the wrong person. There were no criminals or thieves or so-called bad influences for a boy to get involved in.
Akira Kurusu is still a good boy. He lives in Tokyo now. He never finds himself so furious he can’t think, and he never heads to Mementos to punch shadows full of bullet holes, or (hopefully) get the shit kicked out of him. Akira Kurusu never scales the highest, tallest buildings in the Metaverse’s palaces, just to feel the ice-cold fear in his stomach hit him like a shot of vodka. Akira Kurusu never cuts it too close to the Palace deadline, just to feel the danger prickle on the back of his neck, or see the nervousness in his teammates’ eyes. He never makes an alliance with someone who doesn’t love him, just to wring some mutual benefit for the both of them like pulling blood from a stone.
Akira Kurusu never lurks on the school roof, or picks up shifts at Crossroads, or skulks in alleyways long after his bedtime, hoping for some douchebag to take a dislike to his face and give him a good reason to get some blood under his nails and feel alive for an hour. Whoever walks the Tokyo streets is some nameless, faceless specter, of no future and no past, to disappear when the sun rises.
Akira Kurusu is a good boy who gets good grades and runs Sojiro’s coffee shop when Sojiro is out. His face is blank and impassive, and there’s definitely no grudges locked behind his teeth. He goes to school on time and answers all the questions right and speaks to no one. He doesn’t think about girls. He also doesn’t think about boys.
Akira Kurusu is a good boy, who, one day at a TV station, met another good boy named Goro Akechi, who smiled politely and said all the right things, who never had a bad thought in his head or a fury in his throat. When Goro Akechi comes to set up camp in Leblanc, it is of course no problem, because Goro Akechi is a good boy who would never wait for hours just to see the whites of his prey’s eyes, and Akira Kurusu is a good boy who’s never done anything wrong, and never hungers for the sharp jolt of being pursued pressed like a blade against his neck.
Because they are both two very good boys, it is never a threat when Goro Akechi smiles at him in the subway station, and Akira’s smile back to the quick heartbeat of adrenaline is never real.
Anyway, the next day a Ganesha throws Joker through a slot machine.
“Joker!” Crow is probably saying, although Joker can’t hear a whole lot while upside down and covered in casino chips and bits of machine parts. Joker appreciates the concern, though, considering that Joker’s just split up the group again, and it’s only Joker and Crow against this brick shithouse of an elephant god. When Joker springs back up, his coattails and bits of bloody chips go flying; his whole body is singing. Crow says, “Hamao--”
That’s Joker’s least favorite move. No fun when Crow’s Hamaons or Mudoons land right, and the shadow drops clean like a cut puppet, no blood, no mess, no struggle. “Hecantoncheires!” Joker interrupts, and feels another chunk of his life force get gouged out as payment for a Swift Strike.
“Ganesha resists physical!” Crow snaps.
Joker pulls out his gun and unloads the whole clip and only stops when Crow kicks him out of the way of Ganesha’s angry swipe. “It’s weak to Psychokinesis, Joker! Finish this quickly!”
Trust Crow to have memorized all the shadows’ weaknesses. He sounds just like Queen does when Joker’s not taking it seriously enough for her. Joker pulls Kunishinada from his soul and casts a weak Psi, sweeping the shadow right off its massive feet to hit the ground with a floor-shaking crash. Joker pulls out his dagger. If Ganesha was going to beg or bargain, Joker’s not interested. He wants a good old-fashioned fight.
When Joker’s dagger slices through Ganesha’s fat stomach, Ganesha’s death throes slam a fist right into Joker’s back, crushing him and tearing Joker’s dagger straight through Ganesha’s body. Ganesha explodes into shadow dust and a shower of yen.
When Joker stands back up, he can feel himself beaming like a maniac, and Crow seems to almost smile back just out of pure shock. And with the Ganesha gone, it’s just Joker and the last and only enemy that mattered in the middle of the casino floor, surrounded by the Sae’s machines chattering out numbers of the highest, highest stakes. Joker’s enemy is sizing Joker up in the wake of battle, examining the blood streaking down his face; Joker’s enemy is sweeping his body from head to toe with his dark red eyes, lingering at the cinch of Joker’s vest waist, the high collars. Joker’s enemy’s eyes are wide.
“Perfect,” says Joker, and then collapses.
Crow’s over him in a second, but before he can say anything, Oracle’s voice comes over the line: “Joker? Your reading’s are a little wonky, are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” says Joker. He sounds remarkably fine, actually, considering that his vision’s going a little grey.
Joker presses a finger to his own lips. Crow shuts up, his eyes glittering and rapt. “I’m fine,” says Joker again to Oracle. “It was just a skirmish with a shadow. Nothing big.”
“Uhhhhhh… Okay? You know where the safe room is if you need it? Noir’s not too far away if you need a hand, too.”
“Aye aye, Captain,” says Oracle, which makes Crow’s lips purse for some reason. The line clicks off.
“Don’t tell me you’re fine,” says Crow immediately. His voice is shaking.
“I am fine.”
“I can see the blood--!”
“It's a flesh wound.”
“This is no time for jokes,” says Crow sharply.
“Worried?” asks Joker. His to-be murderer, fretting about death coming a little too soon for his tastes? Ah, his to-be murderer is tracing his gloved fingers by Joker’s exposed and open neck.
Crow ignores him. “Robin Hood doesn’t know any healing spells. Can you heal yourself?”
“I’m out of magic.”
Crow looks like he’s trying very hard to be a good, straight-laced detective who doesn’t say “fuck” and also doesn’t panic. Crow is taking deep breaths, like he’s the one who go punched in the chest twice by a two-thousand pound elephant. “That was incredibly foolhardy of you.”
“It was just a bit of fun.”
“Pardon me for saying so, but what part about getting the shit kicked out of you was fun?”
Joker has the stupidest, goofiest smile on his face, he knows, because he’s half-drunk on all his wounds and, in his defense, there is a very pretty murderer with a sharp, sharp sword and gun that never misses staring down at him, their masks close enough to touch, Crow’s hands close enough to strangle him to death right there on the casino floor. Joker wants to see what would happen if Crow tried. “It’s not fun if it can’t at least kill you,” he says, more sincerely than he meant to.
Crow’s throat works and swallows hard. His hands are tight around Joker’s chest. “I--think I have some medicine in my pocket,” he says suddenly, and tears his eyes away. It turns out that he actually does, surprisingly, in the form of one of Takemi’s pill packets and a crushed protein bar. Crow watches Joker carefully to make sure that Joker actually takes them both. He keeps watching everything Joker does, really, from the way Joker pulls the packet apart, to the tiny bites he takes, to his careful swallows. When Joker spits a wad of blood out to clear his throat, Crow stares at it like he’s never seen the color red before.
“Let’s go back to the others,” Crow says, when Joker’s finished regaining whatever strength he can. “We can hardly have the illustrious leader of the Phantom Thieves dying here.”
For Joker’s to-be murderer, Crow seems to care an awful lot about whether or not Joker lives or dies, Joker thinks.