Junpei woke with a start, instantly flinching and closing his eyes again from the piercing bright light. It took him a while before his eyes had adjusted to the light, but once they had he’d realized where he was.
He was outside.
It was unmistakably outside, on the top of a strange, large building with two other bodies beside him. His heart froze for a moment before he saw the rise and fall of their chests- they were alive.
The word broke through the haziness of the residual Soporil in Junpei’s mind, and he jumped to his feet, desperately searching around.
“Kanny? Kanny! KANNY!! WHERE ARE YOU?!”
His voice was still raw, but there was no answer apart from the waking groans of Seven and Lotus. His eyes scanned the horizon desperately for a sign- any sign- but all he got was from Seven, a look of grim realization on his face.
“Dammit… Zero, you bastard…”
Lotus looked at him with concern, as confused as Junpei was that they appeared to be in a desert, and not in the middle of the ocean. After a long sigh, the large man filled them in.
“This is.. this has gotta be building Q. We’re in the Nevada desert right now.”
“N-Nevada? Isn’t that in America?!”
Lotus was visibly upset, and Junpei didn’t feel much better. Somehow they seemed to have travelled to an entirely separate hemisphere- but wait, how did Seven know that? Junpei didn’t have time to ask, before Lotus interrupted his train of thoughts.
“Junpei, did you find June? And where’s Santa?”
“June is… Kanny is….” Junpei swallowed, throat tightening. “I don’t know. I think… she died. I found her for a moment, but I thought I heard Zero in the hall- I walked outside the room for just one second, but by the time I got back…”
“Kanny… Junpei, what was her full name?”
Seven clearly didn’t seem to think codenames mattered anymore, especially not if she was dead.
“Her name was… Akane Kurashiki.”
Seven’s face went pale.
“Junpei… Akane Kurashiki died nine years ago.”
He wanted to believe that Seven was talking about some other Akane, that there had to be some reasonable explanation- but he couldn’t lie to himself. Some part of himself knew that Seven was telling the undeniable truth, however Lotus wasn’t as ready to accept things.
“And how the hell do you know that? Why do you know that? Who are you, Seven?”
“I… I’m a detective. A cop. I was investigating those kidnappings nine years ago, and Akane was one of the victims.”
Lotus bit her lip, but didn’t say anything yet. It was clear she wanted to, but she was letting Seven talk.
“I can’t remember the exact details still, but it sounds like there was a mistake. Akane was put in the wrong group, and put on the Gigantic with her brother, Aoi. They were about to make it out, but Hongou- he caught up to us. He forced her into the incinerator, and she couldn’t solve the puzzle… She burned to death.”
Junpei couldn’t help it- he laughed. He’d heard that sometimes when people went into shock things like that could happen- this was anything but funny, but all he could do was laugh. Akane had died, nine years ago? Then who the hell had he been talking to all this time? Seven wasn’t done talking, either.
“As for her brother, Aoi… that’s Santa. I couldn’t remember before, with my amnesia, but I’m positive now. Santa is Aoi Kurashiki, and probably Zero. He probably wanted to get revenge on Ace for his sister’s death…”
Seven had pulled his hat down low, face grim. It was clear they were missing a lot of information, but there was nobody who could explain things to them.
“Hey, uh, guys? Do you see that?”
It was Lotus, pointing at a piece of paper that had been taped to the ground. She picked it up and handed it to Junpei, who was far too drained to argue with her by this point.
‘[Zero] has lost. As such, you will be granted information.
1: [Zero] is [Santa]
2: [Ace], [Snake], [Clover], [June], and [Bracelet Nine] died during this game
3: There is a car parked outside this facility, stocked with a GPS. Use it to find your way to civilisation’
The letter was short- too short. It told them frustratingly little, but they didn’t have much for options. Eventually they made it to the car, Lotus in the passenger’s seat, Seven in back, and Junpei driving. He’d wanted Seven to drive, but the larger man had refused on the grounds that he had no international license, and a good cop could hardly get caught breaking the law.
Junpei had no real reason for rebuttal, so he’d reluctantly got into the driver’s seat and started driving. Conversation had started again between Lotus and Seven, Junpei only half listening in.
“Seven… did you meet an Ennea or a Nona, back then?”
“Huh? How’d you know that?”
“They’re… my daughters.”
“Wait, hold on- is your last name Kashiwabara?”
“Damn, that’s one huge coincidence…”
Junpei broke into the conversation at this point, shaking his head.
“It wasn’t a coincidence. Zero- Aoi picked us all on purpose, I’m sure of it.”
“Then why’d you get picked up, Junpei?”
“I knew Akane when we were kids- probably hated me for being her childhood friend, or something. I don’t know. But he probably wanted to get revenge on everyone that had anything to do with it…”
Junpei was sure he’d never done anything wrong to Akane, that was impossible. He’d loved Akane, there was no way in hell he’d do anything to hurt her. He was stuck on that thought train while Lotus and Seven got back to chatting.
“Seven… can you please tell us what happened then? I have to know- I need to know what happened to my daughters.”
“…They played the Nonary game, just like we did today. Half the group was sent here, to the Nevada test site, and the other half, along with myself, were shipped out to the Gigantic. A lot of stuff happened, but I ended up interrupting Hongou’s plan- I got them out of the incinerator while they were trapped inside. In total, the ones that couldn’t make it through the nine door back then were Nona, Aoi, Akane, and Light…”
“We were climbing up the stairs, on our way out, but Akane dropped something. She went back to get it, and that’s when Hongou grabbed her. He threw her in the incinerator and forced her to solve a puzzle, but she didn’t know how to.”
“Wait, dropped something? What could have been that important?”
“I dunno, some doll. Aoi said she’d clung to it for dear life the entire time…”
Junpei slammed on the breaks, ignoring the shouts of surprise and pain from the other passengers.
“Junpei, the fuck’s wrong with you man?”
He didn’t respond, he simply exited the car, eyes dull.
Junpei had given her that doll.
Now it made sense, why Aoi had put him in the game. He’d wanted Junpei to die, because
Akane’s death was his fault. If he’d never given her that doll…
He was surprised that it was Lotus who came out of the car first, to talk to him. He was even more surprised when she didn’t say a word, simply pulled him into a tight hug much like a mother would give a child. For the first time in what felt like a very long time, Junpei began to cry.
The sobs shook his entire body but he couldn’t stop them, he just sobbed and sobbed for what felt like an eternity. At one point he heard Seven exit the car and mutter something, but it was too far for Junpei to hear- and in all honesty, he didn’t really care. Now wasn’t a time where he really felt like he had the energy to care.
It was maybe a few minutes later when the sobbing finally slowed, and he pulled away from Lotus, eyes downcast. It was clear they both wanted an explanation but were too nervous to say anything- but after that, it wasn’t like Junpei could just hide it.
“I… I gave her that doll. Nine years ago.”
Seven’s voice was quiet, mouth drawn in a grim line.
“Look, man… I’m sorry. This whole thing… dammit! It I’d just had my memories, then maybe nobody would’ve had to die… some cop I am…”
“Regret isn’t going to help us now. What’s done is done. What we need to do now is get somewhere safe, somewhere with civilization, and then figure out what to do next.”
Lotus’s voice was determined but kind; she wasn’t going to take no for an answer, but she wasn’t going to force them to move right away. Junpei took the back seat this time, Seven in the passenger’s seat and Lotus driving, giving Junpei time to stare off into the desert for a while.
How had things gone so horribly wrong?
He was certain that the person he’d spoken to during the nonary game was Akane- not only had she recognized him also, but she’d known the nicknames they’d had for each other. And even if those things had all been supplied by Aoi, there was still the matter of her mannerisms. Despite nine years having gone by, she still held herself like Akane. Every movement, the way she spoke… everything was Kanny. So then… how had she died?
Or maybe more accurately, how had she lived?
The question nagged at Junpei, a horrible weight on his chest told him that the answer wasn’t one he wanted to know. The test facility they’d come from had to be some sort of catalyst, or maybe a paradox of sorts? He was fully certain Akane had been there, had been real, but she’d completely disappeared without a trace in a matter of seconds. Was it.. was it possible that the reason Akane had faded was really because he’d taken the wrong path, like Zero- no, Aoi- had said? The concern pressed down on him, making his chest feel heavy and constricted.
He was trapped in thoughts like that for a while, wondering in circles how things could have gone differently, when the car slowed to a stop again. A quick glance out the window told him that they were clearly not near civilisation- but a secondary look showed the reason for stopping.
“Room for one more?”
The woman didn’t seem like the type to be hitchhiking in the middle of a desert, but then again the current passengers in the car were hardly what would be expected out here either. Seven and Lotus just shrugged and let her enter, taking a seat in the back beside Junpei.
“Can I ask what you three are doing out here? A pretty strange place for a family vacation, I’d think.”
“It’s not a vacation. It’s… a lot more complicated than that.”
Lotus’s voice was low, as if she didn’t want to talk about it. Junpei wondered if she thought he might break if she described what happened back there, but didn’t ask. The woman (who’d introduced herself as Alice), however, did.
“More complicated? How so?”
Lotus just sighed, and Seven didn’t seem too willing to answer either. Junpei ended up explaining, his voice quiet and flat.
“We were kidnapped. There was nine- or technically ten- of us in total, and we were locked in an experimental facility. Six people are dead, and the mastermind escaped before us.”
Alice’s face was set in an almost unreadable expression, seemingly only a little bothered by the news.
“Dammit… I was too late, then.”
“Too late? Alice, who are you?”
Seven had his arms crossed and was looking over his shoulder at her, eyes suspicious. Alice didn’t seem bothered at all but his glare, shrugging it off before answering.
“I’m a member of SOIS- we’re a top secret government agency based on the investigation of terrorism and threats to national security.”
“Oh yeah? Then why’re ya just telling us this?”
“Because I’m afraid you’re all going to have to come in for questioning. There’s a decent chance your kidnapper is connected to the terrorists we’re after, and-“
“I said he’s not.”
Junpei’s voice was still quiet, but he’d turned to actually look at Alice for the first time since the ride had started. His eyes were tired and had deep, dark circles under them, and Alice looked mildly uncomfortable watching him speak.
“Zero only kidnapped us because he wanted revenge. He wanted revenge on everyone who was a part of his sister’s death, nine years ago. He’s not a terrorist- maybe a sociopath, but not a terrorist.”
Nobody seemed willing to argue with him, so the rest of the car ride was spent in silence. They were still brought in for questioning, just like Alice had told them, but it was over quick. Junpei was questioned last, and it seemed like Seven or Lotus had told them to go easy on him, because they hardly asked anything. It didn’t really matter to Junpei though- nothing really mattered much.
They were all given plane tickets back to Japan by Alice, and the plane ride was spent mostly in silence. Junpei had taken the window seat, with Seven squished awkwardly between him and Lotus. The two adults had started up some quiet conversation a while into the flight, but Junpei fell asleep pretty quickly.
It would have been much nicer if he hadn’t.
His sleep was plagued by nightmares, memories of all the death playing on an endless loop. He couldn’t get it out of his mind- The sound of the ninth man exploding, followed by that horrific first look at a body who’d had its innards blown out. The feeling of dread as the stench of Guy X’s innards forced its way into his nostrils, bile rising in his throat as he stared at the deformed corpse with flesh splattered about and ribs stark white, poking out of his chest. The sight of Clover’s body, looking as though it was only gently resting, but the dark crimson stain expanding below her and the lack of any pulse betraying that thought. The horror of watching Snake, with his body riddled with holes and oozing blood, grab hold of Ace and trapping them both inside the incinerator, along with Ace’s screams of agony as he was burned alive. The panic of seeing Akane, alone on the floor and far, far hotter than any fever should ever be able to get, fading from his arms.
The horrid, choking scent of death was suffocating him, strangling him. Death was following him everywhere he went, and he couldn’t breath, can’t breath, can’t breath-
“Junpei! Wake up, man!”
His eyes opened with a start, and Junpei started gasping for air. Seven had his hands on his shoulders, having presumably just shaken Junpei awake. He didn’t ask if Junpei was ok- that much was obvious from one single look- he simply handed Junpei a small cup of water, a worried expression on his face. Lotus looked much the same, he realized shortly after, as despite her having limited visibility around Seven she was still leaning forwards in her seat to check on Junpei periodically.
It felt weird, knowing they were both watching him, so he simply turned to stare out the window. He didn’t know how much time was left on the flight, but he wasn’t going back to sleep.
He was lucky, then, that it was only a couple more hours until they landed. Junpei got off the plane pretty quickly, intending to just say quick goodbyes and leave, but he felt Lotus’s hand gripping onto his wrist as he made to leave.
“You’re not going home alone, Junpei.”
“Look, kid… we just went through some traumatic shit. And you’re in no state to go back to a single apartment- you can crash on my couch if you want, but Lotus’s got a spare bedroom she can offer.”
Seven looked awkward, but determined. And from Lotus’s grip on his arm, he could tell he wasn’t going to be getting out of this one. Eventually he just shrugged and sighed, limply agreeing to go with Lotus to her house. Seven lived in the opposite direction, so they parted at the airport, but he’d already given Lotus his contact information- there were a lot of things he apparently wanted to look into, as a cop.
The commute to Lotus’s place took another half hour between a taxi ride and a train, and it was entirely silent. Both of them were too tired to do anything but stare out the windows, ignoring everyone else in their immediate surroundings. However, they eventually reached their destination, and there was a worried smile on Lotus’s face as she knocked on the door.
“Yeah, who’s th- Mom?”
“I’m home, Ennea.”
The girl, Ennea, had tears in her eyes as she leapt forwards to give Lotus a hug, holding onto her mother tight before pulling back, running upstairs and shouting.
“Nona! Nona, mom’s home! She’s home!”
A second girl came running back downstairs with Ennea, who then latched onto Lotus in a hug much the same way that Ennea had previously. Junpei just stood in place, not willing to ruin the family reunion.
At least one family had been able to have a happy reunion…
His shoulders sagged as the thought forced its way into his mind, intrusive and blaring and preventing him from getting any semblance of happiness from what should have been a happy scene.
“Uh, mom? Who’s this?”
“Oh, that’s Junpei… I’ll explain the details in a bit, but for now he’s going to be resting in the guest room. Can you show him up, Ennea?”
“Yeah, sure thing mom.”
It just took him a moment to slip his shoes off before coming inside, and only how really getting a good look at the house. It was very modern and a decent proportion of the decorations looked expensive- Lotus had mentioned she had some sort of programming job, so that must have paid quite well… that or she was good at making cheap stuff look fancy. Didn’t really matter to Junpei either way though, so he just followed Ennea upstairs into a small, simple room with a western-styled bed, dresser, and night table.
“Junpei… if you don’t mind… what happened?”
He stared at her, one hand on the doorknob and the other hanging limply at his side. The bracelet wasn’t there anymore, but he could still feel it pressing down on him, weighing him down…
“The nonary game.”
He saw her eyes go wide with horror, but he closed the door before she could say anything. He knew what sleep would bring, but he still just didn’t want to be awake. And maybe… maybe if he fell asleep, he’d wake up and none of this would have ever happened…..
Junpei’s sleep was riddled by nightmares again, worse than before. He was falling- no, he was drowning, and he could feel them pulling him down. Everyone who’d died- they were screaming his name, clawing at his feet and legs as they dragged him further and further underwater, tearing at skin with no regard for how much it hurt.
But, he let them pull.
He’d looked up once, but all he’d seen was Aoi, staring down at him from the top of the water.
Wait, no, that wasn’t Aoi- was that Ace? He felt a piercing pain in his back, the water was stained red with blood- his blood- and he could hear echoes of a laugh that shouldn’t belong to a human.
And then he was staring at Lotus’s corpse, in the depths of the ship by door six, watching the blood pool from her corpse. Her bracelet was gone, who’d taken it? He was about to turn around, when the pain in his back seared up again, and he crumpled limply to the ground…
He was staring at bracelets, bloodied and gory and tossed haphazardly onto the ground. There were so many of them, how’d Clover get all of them? He was reaching up to her, reaching out to her, they could escape together… but then the axe made contact, and his arm was gone, and she just walked away, away, away….
He was in a car, in the Nevada desert. Clover, Lotus, Snake, Seven, even Ace- everyone was there. He was happy, but why? June was- no, here June was alive. He could feel it. June was alive, and Santa was too. He was happy, so happy, and he was going to find her-
But then that reality melted too, and he was standing inside the incinerator, as fire engulfed his body. It hurt, everything hurt, he was dying, dying dying dying dyingdyingdyingdyingdyi-
“Junpei! Junpei are you alright?”
It was one of the twins- Junpei wasn’t sure which- standing in the door frame, a worried look on her face. He tried to shake it off, tell her it was nothing, but he could feel the knot in his throat and the cold sweat on his brow. There was no way in hell she’d believe him just waving that off.
“Just a nightmare. I just… need a second. I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure? I can talk about it… if you want.”
Her expression was gentle, holding a deep understanding.
“Mom told us about what happened… I… I was there nine years ago, when Akane…”
She had to take a deep breath to steady herself before continuing. Even though it had been nine years for her, it was obvious that it was still hard to talk about.
“I might not be able to relate exactly, but… me and Ennea, we both understand what that game is like. So, if you ever want to talk… we’re here.”
Junpei sighed. He wanted to yell at her, to scream that no, things were different, she hadn’t seen the things he’d seen, but he couldn’t. She was just trying to help, even if Junpei didn’t think it was what he really needed. So in the end, he just stared down at the bed, hands balled into fists and gripping the bedsheets.
“Why… why are we stuck in a world where this happened?”
Nona seemed confused by Junpei’s question, but he didn’t give her time to answer.
“In the dreams, it felt like there was a world where.. this didn’t happen. Things didn’t end like this. Everyone was alive, and I was happy… I know it’s stupid, but…”
His voice was shaking as he spoke, but the words wouldn’t stop falling out of his mouth. His voice was on auto-pilot by this point, and Nona could only watch.
“I-if there is a world like that out there, then… why the fuck are we stuck on this one? What cruel god decided we deserved to be stuck with shitty lives where everyone is dead, while in some other world they’re all alive, and happy…”
A few stray tears were falling now, but he still didn’t stop talking.
“There were so many where we all died… we were killed, all of us… at least in those worlds, they don’t have to-“
“Stop. Junpei, just stop.”
Nona had grabbed onto his face, and was staring right into his eyes.
“Listen to me, ok? I know it hurts. It really, really hurts. But think about those worlds- what about friends? Family? They’d never know what happened to you, just that you disappeared without a trace one day. I… I know that it’s horrible, the reality we’re in, but…”
Junpei only now realized what he’d been saying- he’d practically told Nona he’d prefer a world where her mother had died if it meant he’d have things easier. He hated the fact that this was the reality he was living in, but he couldn’t actively wish to change to one of those other, far worse fates, if it meant he’d just be hurting more people… he didn’t want to drag others down because of his hurt.
“I’m… I’m sorry.”
She only shook her head, taking a moment to compose herself before speaking again.
“Just… you’re not alone, ok? I know it’s different, last time I at least had Ennea to talk to... but you’ve got us, if you want. And mom, and even that cop- you call him Seven, right? Mom said he’d be coming around later today.”
Nona finally stood back upright, walking a bit away before turning back to look at Junpei.
“There’s a lot I know I can’t understand- but please, at least let us try. We’ll be there for you when you’re ready to talk.”
Junpei gave a small nod, not willing to try talking again quite yet in case the tears started up again. She closed the door quietly, leaving Junpei all alone with his thoughts- but now, he had a lot of them. And the most important of them was… what had he meant by other worlds?
He’d heard of the many worlds interpretation, but he didn’t have any basis to judge if it was true or not. And yet, when he slept, his dreams were too real to just be dreams… they felt like memories. He wasn’t sure how, exactly, but he was sure that all the parts of that nightmare were real. There were other histories, many where he died, but those weren’t the most important ones- there was one, just one… where everyone was alive. He was certain that was the ending Santa had really been hoping for, the one where Akane Kurashiki was alive… but instead, they were all stuck in this world. In the world where she’d died nine years ago, and over half the people in the test building were dead.
Aoi… Junpei needed to apologize to him.
Every time Junpei thought about the nonary game, it always came back to Akane and Aoi. Junpei had let them down (how he wasn’t sure, but he knew he had); and he needed to apologize. Even if Aoi didn’t accept it, even though he was certain Aoi wished Junpei had died instead of his sister… Junpei needed to find him.
The thought lit a spark in Junpei’s chest, and for the first time since he’d woken up outside of the test site, he felt something other than a numb, painful depression. It still wasn’t much- it still hurt, hurt so bad that it ached in every part of his soul, but there was something else there too now. A small fragment of a reason to be, something that would give him purpose after his life had shattered.
He came downstairs shortly after hearing Seven enter the house, somewhat surprised to find the older man wearing a jacket, dress shirt, and tie. It was… odd, to say the least. Lotus too was dressed far more normally than she had been before- she looked like a normal mom, and not an exhibitioni- er, dancer.
They were seated on a couch, Nona and Ennea each claimed a chair, leaving Junpei to sit on the loveseat. Things were silent for a moment, nobody really sure where to start, until Seven eventually cleared his throat and began.
“Erm, well.. I got a couple’a things to tell you. First off, I got contacted by Alice this morning. She wants to get in contact with you two,” He pointed at Nona and Ennea, “for information about that SOIS group. Said they’re lookin’ for espers, but for now they just wanna give you some information.”
The two girls looked at each other, clearly nervous. Seven was either missed the looks or didn’t care, because he kept talking.
“Said she was flying out to Japan tomorrow to meet with a buncha people, and she’d be holding a meeting afterwards for all the espers here they could get in contact with. Ya don’t have to go, but it’d be appreciated.”
He took a moment to arrange his thoughts, before turning to Junpei and Lotus now, mouth set in a grim line.
“The other thing is… about Aoi. Y’see, I haven’t filed any official reports yet, because…” He sighed. It didn’t seem like this was easy for him to do. “Well, I wanted to ask with you. The note we got doesn’t have Aoi’s name- do you want me to keep it that way?”
Junpei looked at Seven in shock, surprised that he’d offer something like that. He doubted that was terribly legal of Seven to do, and yet…
“I got a condition on that, Junpei. I can hide his name, but you gotta find him. I can help you get a job with a detective agency, and I’ll give you all the help I can from the legal system, but you gotta make sure to find him. After you do… you can decide whether you wanna turn him in or not.”
Junpei practically jumped from his seat, fists clenched tight and almost yelling.
“Do it! I need to find him, Seven. I’ll take any job you can get me- I just need to do this.”
The sudden burst of emotion clearly surprised Seven, who’d been expecting the same Junpei as before. However, seeing the determination on Junpei’s face seemed to reassure the detective a bit, and he nodded.
“I gotta warn you Junpei, these jobs can be dirty. And they’ll always be dangerous. I’ll do what I can to help you whenever possible, but even then it’s going to be hard for you. Chances are pretty high that outside of a few cases, I really won’t be able to help you much. Are you prepared for that?”
“I don’t care about the risks- I’ll do it. I have to do it.”
Lotus had been silent the entire time so far, but Junpei could see a worried disapproval on her face. She still didn’t speak, but it was clear she was worried- both for Junpei, and for Nona and Ennea. The twins in question were whispering to each other quietly, determining what they wanted to do.
Ennea spoke up for the both of them, looking directly at Seven.
“We’ll go, too. But.. we want mom to come with us. She deserves to know just as much as we do. We… we don’t want to keep her in the dark anymore.”
Lotus looked like she might cry, but said nothing still. It was obvious enough just from her face that she was too happy to hear that from Ennea.
“Alright, that’s fine. Alice already said it was fine if Junpei or Lotus came along, so she won’t be too surprised.” Seven gave a quick nod of the head, as if wrapping up his own trains of thought. “Well then, that’s all I had for you guys. I’ll get going now; I’ll send you a message with all the stuff ya need to know for the meeting with Alice later.”
Nona, Ennea, and Lotus all nodded, but Junpei kept still, staring at Seven. He was determined now- he had a chance, a way to find Aoi- he couldn’t make things right, but he could at least make a start.
Seven could see the determination on Junpei’s face, and gave the younger man a wry smile.
“I’ll get your job information to you as soon as I get it, okay? And if ya get any questions, you just ask me.”
Junpei agreed, and watched quietly as Seven left the house. In one conversation the entire atmosphere of the house had changed- everyone had a new spark of determination inside them, something they wanted to do, no matter the cost. Maybe his was flimsy, just a self-satisfactory goal that’d only keep him going for a few months more, but it was enough for now.
He’d find Aoi Kurashiki.