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Fool Me Once, Fool Me Thrice

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The hotel is grander than he imagined.  

Luigi finds himself at the base of the steps, gawking at the towering structure while his friends slowly file inside. The plumber has to crane his neck back to even glimpse the very top. Its sheer height was dizzying. 

An excited yap snaps Luigi out of his daze. Pepper is waiting patiently for him by the imposing doors that make up the front entrance. With a start, he realizes everyone else is already inside. Luigi quickly hefts up his suitcase and ascends the stairs, quietly embarrassed by his gawking. 

The hotel’s interior proves to be just as grand as it is on the outside. Luigi again finds himself pausing to take everything in. The lobby is massive and lavishly decorated in schemes of white, purple, and gold. Sharp angles and geometric shapes make up the patterns and trimmings of the floor and walls—a staple of the Art Deco style. A plush crimson rug cuts across the shimmering floor, making a clear path from the hotel’s front entrance to the front desk. The check-in counter is flanked by a pearlescent double staircase that curves up to the mezzanine. Luigi’s eyes trail upward to find an array of white and purple bunting spread carefully between two support beams, and from it hang four incredibly large framed photographs of himself, Mario, Peach, and Toad. A chandelier at least twice his height hangs delicately above it all, its soft light competing with the warm rays of the setting sun streaming in through the tall expanse of windows. 

Confetti abruptly bursts into the air near the bunting and rains down in a colorful arc. For the briefest of moments, Luigi is awed by their incredibly warm welcome. He glances around, spying stacks of presents and bouquets of flowers arranged neatly around tables piled high with pastries and hors d'oeuvres. Beautifully sculpted swans made of ice stand proudly between the platters, their wings spread wide in an open invitation to dine. Mario, to Luigi’s quiet amusement, has already eagerly accepted. 

The plumber gives himself a hard shake, realizing he had yet again been gawking—and standing in front of the entrance, no less! There might not be any other guests at the moment, but he still shouldn’t impede traffic.  

Luigi swiftly retrieves his suitcase from where he had so carelessly dropped it in his awe and begins walking down the carpet to check-in at the front desk. He barely takes three steps before he’s nearly bowled over by his ghostly canine. The plumber wobbles on his feet, swinging his luggage to counterbalance the change in momentum, just barely keeping himself from tripping and falling flat on his face. When he recovers, he stares after the Polterpup as the latter darts excitedly from table to table, pawing curiously at the presents and hungrily eyeing the spread of food.  

Pepper finally pauses at the table Mario has chosen to peruse. The red-clad plumber turns at the sound of the pup’s panting with cake in hand, offering the canine a cheerful greeting. He spots Luigi just as he’s about to turn back to the buffet and waves blithely in acknowledgement. Luigi calls out in a delayed warning as Pepper takes advantage of Mario’s diverted attention and swipes the man’s cake in a single bite. The green-clad plumber sighs, shaking his head fondly as his brother half-heartedly scolds the Polterpup for their thievery. He turns to continue his trek to the front desk— 

—and promptly collides with someone. 

Luigi’s suitcase flies from his hand as he and the other unfortunate party crash to the floor with flailing limbs and undignified yelps of surprise. The plumber, quite used to clumsy mishaps, is the first to recover. He straightens his askew hat and pushes himself up, immediately spying a hotel staff member—the bellhop, to be specific—clutching at their face and blindly patting the floor in search of their own headwear. The odd behavior goes unnoticed, Luigi being far too mortified by the incident to even register it. 

“Oh Stars, I’m so sorry!” Luigi cries, rushing to kneel at the man’s side. “Are you alright?” 

“I-it’s okay! I’m fine, I’m fine!” the bellhop replies, still frantically patting at the ground. “I should have gotten out of your way.” 

Luigi frowns at the response, perturbed by how the man could simultaneously sound both meek and jovial. 

“No, I should have watched where I was going,” he refutes gently. Luigi retrieves the bellman’s cap from the floor and presses it into the man’s searching hand. “Here you go.” 

“Ah! Thank you, sir!” The staff member shakily dons the wayward piece of his uniform, back turned to the plumber as they gathered themselves. Luigi glances up to see Peach making her way toward them, face drawn with concern. He gently waves her off, silently assuring the princess that they were alright.   

“Here, let me help you up,” Luigi offers, extending a hand to the recovering employee. The man turns and reaches up to accept his offer. 

“Oh! Why, thank you!” 

Luigi only just keeps himself from recoiling. The bellhop’s face...it isn't a face at all. It’s a mask, and a rather eerie one at that. Bulging, unseeing eyes stare back at him—well, sort of. The pupils are just a tad  off, and so small they’re practically pinpricks. A manic grin takes up most of the mask’s lower half, every white, too-perfect tooth in full view—so much so it almost looks like a threat display. To top it all off, the mask is pale blue in color, reminding Luigi of an asphyxiated corpse—a rather fitting description for the dead-eyed expression pulled straight from the uncanny valley. 

“No problem,” Luigi answers, struggling to keep composure. He takes the man’s gloved hand (it's cold as ice) and gently hauls them up (they're unnaturally light for their size) to their feet (they don’t have feet.  Or legs, for that matter).  

Luigi steps back as the bellhop begins brushing off their rumpled uniform. He has to make a conscious effort not to let his eyes trail down the man’s coat to the marginal gap between it and the floor. The red outerwear is far too long for the style, making the man look like a child in ill-fitting clothes, or more morbidly, someone that got chopped in half at the waist. Their attempt to hide their lack of legs drew more attention than it diverted, in Luigi’s opinion. It was so obvious it almost hurt

Luigi was talking to a ghost. 

“Heh, well, that  didn’t quite go according to plan,” the ghost laughs nervously. “I came over here to help you, but you ended up helping me.” 

A lot goes through the plumber's mind at that moment. How terrible the ghost’s disguise is. How, despite this, Luigi can’t help but be a little  impressed that the ghost didn’t instinctively float upward after their collision, and thus, blow their “cover”. How Luigi can’t seem to escape the paranormal for one Star’s forsaken  weekend. How, yet again, he finds himself getting tangled in some specter’s scheme. 

But none of these thoughts deign to vocalize themselves, and really, it’s for the best. Luigi has to play this smart. Without the Poltergust, they’re all doomed if the ghosts realize the jig is up and decide to forego...whatever this is. If he wants to get everyone out of here safely, he’ll need to feign ignorance—at least until he has a plan. 

“Help...me?” Luigi says distantly, still somewhat lost in his thoughts. 

“Yes! With your luggage.” The ghost gestures to Luigi’s suitcase, lying forgotten on the pristine floor. “Allow me to ease your burden and place it with the others.” 

Luigi quirks a brow at his single piece of luggage. Burden? There was hardly anything in it. 

“Oh. Thank you, but that’s not really necessary. I can—” 

“Please, I insist!” The bellhop interjects, already drifting (quite literally) toward the aforementioned bag. “You’re on vacation, sir! You should be relaxing. Let me take care of the heavy lifting.” 

Luigi starts to object, but then thinks better of it. Best not to create a fuss and draw unnecessary attention.  

“Okay, if you insist. Thank you, mister...?” 

“Oh! Um, I’m Steward! And it’s no problem, sir.” 

Their name...is Steward. As in Hotel  Steward? 

You have got  to be kidding. 

Luigi quietly watches the bellman as they (rather awkwardly) carry his suitcase over to the precarious tower of luggage the Toads are desperately trying to stabilize. The plumber sighs, studying the lobby with a carefully concealed wariness. The flowers, the gifts, the ice sculptures—what Luigi once saw as displays of opulence now feel like extravagant stage props, and really, that’s precisely what they are. He strains not to scowl up at the neatly arranged photographs of him and his family; they’re an obnoxiously excessive addition to the decorum in hindsight. These spirits were laying the flattery on thick, weren’t they? 

Luigi pauses when his eyes land on one of the other nearby staff members. They, too, are clearly wearing a mask, though it’s not nearly  as off-putting as the bellhop’s. The static expression is rather lax—eyes partially lidded and mouth resting in a neutral line, neither a frown nor a grin. A thin, curled mustache is painted neatly above the upper lip, and the equally clean eyebrows are raised in a somewhat haughty manner. As for their attire, Luigi has to admit it’s fairly convincing—professional, even. The spirit is wearing a white button-up shirt beneath a snazzy red vest and matching red bow-tie. A white apron is tied around their waist, and instead of awkwardly hiding their spectral tail under an over-sized coat, the spirit is wearing actual  pants—black slacks, to be specific. Well-polished, black and white wingtip shoes rest just beneath the pant legs; the gap between them and the slacks is minute enough that it isn’t blatantly obvious that they don’t appear to be connected to anything.  

If Luigi had only glimpsed the staff member in his peripheral, he wouldn’t have spared them a second glance.  

The costumed spirit, perhaps sensing the plumber’s scrutiny, turns to regard him. Luigi cringes internally when the movement causes their mask’s pupils to wobble erratically like the googly eyes of some cheap craft project. A distant part of him wonders if these spirits had any idea how mortal eyes worked, or if they were just incredibly lazy with their craftsmanship. Luigi gently waves to the spirit in a greeting, offering what he hopes is a convincing smile. The staff member acknowledges him with a nod. Their neatly combed wig slides askew at the gesture, but they deftly readjust it without so much as a shift in their stance. Luigi quickly shuffles past them in an attempt to hide his grimace. 

Good Grambi, he needed something to drink. 

Fortunately for Luigi, there appears to be a pitcher of tea at the table Mario is still happily sampling treats from. It’s not what he had in mind, but if it occupies his hands and quenches his thirst, he’ll take it. The plumber approaches the table as nonchalantly as he can, grabbing the rather large jug and pouring himself a steaming cup of tea. His hands shake minutely as he does so, and Luigi tries to convince himself it’s from the strain of hefting the heavy pitcher. 

“Hey bro!” 

Luigi nearly spills his drink at Mario’s sudden greeting. He turns, shooting his brother a strained smile. 

“H-hey bro,” he says back. 

Mario grins—oblivious to Luigi’s inner turmoil—as he snatches up a croissant. He takes a hearty bite and looks back to his brother, humming happily as he savors the taste. 

“Isn’ thith plathe great?” Mario asks around a mouthful of pastry. 

Luigi winces, both at the question and at his brother’s poor table manners. 

“Yeah...great...” 

Mario nods, taking another bite of the flaky pastry. When he speaks again, Luigi is distantly grateful he remembers to swallow his food this time. 

“Good food, good atmosphere, good friends...this vacation is just what I needed. What we all  needed, right bro?” 

Oh Stars, this is so unfair.  

“Right,” he answers honestly. A nice vacation is  what they needed, but clearly the universe thought that was too tall an order. 

How is he going to break the news to Mario? And how does he keep his brother from reacting badly? 

Luigi looks down at his cup, absently swirling the hot liquid inside. He subtly checks his peripheral for any nearby staff. Thankfully, they’re all a fair distance away, so as long as the brothers keep their voices down, there shouldn’t be a risk of being overheard. It’s possible one of the ghosts knows how to read lips, but if they keep their expressions in check, they shouldn’t draw the attention needed to do so. If that doesn’t work...well, Luigi can only hope the masks are as hard to see out of as they are to look at. 

The green-clad plumber watches his brother select a soft pretzel from one of the platters, seeing an opportunity as Mario begins to chow down on the salty treat. His brother can’t yell and make a scene if his mouth is full, right? It’s not ideal, but the precariousness of their situation has Luigi feeling too overwhelmed to try and think of anything better. He gently sips from his tea, and when his brother takes another bite from the pretzel, he speaks as casually as he can around the rim of the cup. 

“The hotel is a trap.” 

Mario promptly chokes. 

Luigi nearly drops his cup at his brother’s rather violent reaction. He blindly thrusts his drink onto the table and ducks around Mario’s distressed flailing to deliver several hard slaps to his brother’s back. Just when Luigi thinks he’s going to have to try a first aid maneuver, the food swiftly dislodges itself from Mario’s airway, leaving the red-clad plumber to hack and cough wetly as he recovers from the harrowing ordeal. Luigi looks up to find all eyes are on them. 

Well, that  was stupid. So much for not drawing attention. 

A couple staff members move uncertainly toward them, as does Peach, but Luigi quickly waves them off. 

“He’s fine!” he calls, voice slightly strained with panic. “Just got a little too...overzealous, is all!” 

The disguised spirits exchange what might be—sans masks—hesitant looks, but none-the-less return to their stations. For one, terrifying moment, it appears that the princess is going to come over anyway, but another wave of assurance manages to placate her. Luigi knows he’ll need to tell Peach about the spirits’ ruse eventually, but he doesn’t think telling both her and his brother at the same time would be very wise. Keeping one person calm is hard enough. 

“Sorry, Mario,” Luigi whispers. “That, uh...was poorly thought out on my part.” 

“Ya think?” Mario wheezes, straightening from his hunched over position. “Making a bad joke like that while I’m eating—not cool, Luigi.” 

Luigi frowns, but quickly recovers by plastering on a fake smile. He feigns a hearty laugh and throws an arm around Mario’s shoulders, much to the latter’s confusion. 

“I’m not joking, bro,” he says through gritted teeth, false grin still in place. “The hotel staff are all spirits wearing disguises. Really, really bad disguises.” 

Mario stares back at his brother, utterly bewildered. 

“If you’re not joking, then why are you smiling like that?” 

“Because if they’re watching us, I don’t want them thinking we’re on to them.” Luigi grinds out. He reaches into his pocket with his free hand and retrieves his cell phone. He lifts it up, screen facing the brothers, and turns on the forward-facing camera. “Say: Play Stupid!” 

Luigi snaps the picture, capturing his strained smile and his brother’s baffled frown.  

“How do you know they’re disguises?” Mario asks. 

Luigi makes a victory sign at the camera, and he is relieved when his brother mimics him, donning a false grin of his own. 

“Have you seen  the staff?” He retorts, making a goofy face at the camera to hide his disbelief. 

Mario’s pseudo smile becomes sheepish. 

“I haven’t really gotten a good look at them, honestly. I, uh...kinda went straight to the buffet...” 

“So I saw,”  Luigi thinks wryly. 

Mario starts to turn his head to locate the nearest staff member, but Luigi quickly redirects him by giving his shoulder a squeeze in warning. 

“Hold on, bro. Let’s be a little more tactful about this.” 

Luigi gently pulls away, taking a few steps back and gesturing for his brother to move away from the table. A look of understanding crosses Mario’s face as the green-clad plumber raises their phone up and switches to the rear camera. Mario strikes a pose, angling himself so at least one of the meandering hotel employees will be in the shot. Luigi nods in approval. He takes several photos before calling Mario back over. 

“Here,” Luigi says, handing his phone to Mario. “Take a look.” 

Mario selects a photo and carefully zooms in on one of the staff members in the background. When the red-clad plumber’s face begins to pinch with unease, Luigi quickly moves so he is shielding their expression from view. 

“Careful, Mario. We’re supposed to be happy vacationers, remember? Smiles up!" 

Mario’s grimace flips into a fairly convincing grin. He even throws in a thumbs up for good measure, pretending to be satisfied with the photos' turnout. 

“Wow. These masks are terrible,” he says through clenched teeth. “Did they really  think this would fool us?” 

“I’m a little insulted, honestly,” Luigi agrees. 

Mario looks down at the phone and begins absently flipping through the pictures. 

“Now what?” 

Luigi sidles up to his brother and joins him in their feigned browsing. 

“I’ve been asking myself the same thing,” he confesses. “We need to find a way to get everyone outside without the spirits noticing. I was thinking about creating a diversion, but I haven’t quite figured out how.” 

The red-clad plumber nods, humming thoughtfully. 

“Alright, we’ll work on that later. In the meantime, we need to let the others know what’s happening.” 

Luigi catches himself before he can grimace. 

“I agree...for the most part. We can tell Peach, but I really  don’t think it’s wise to tell the Toads. If they find out we’re in a hotel full of ghosts, they’re going to panic, and we can’t risk them blowing our cover.” 

“Good point,” Mario concedes. “Now, how do we tell Peach?” 

Luigi puts a hand to his chin, looking contemplative. He glances between Mario, his phone, and the entranced princess—she is currently admiring a painting on the wall. 

“That depends. Do you think she would be up for a group photo?”