lady_mab: (that endless summer)
[personal profile] lady_mab
Title: -0-
Fandom: Persona 4
Written for: [community profile] casestory
Rating: Light PG-13 for swearing and head-trips

Prompt: Here

Link to Podfic Masterpost: Here!
Link to Art: (will be updated when I get it)

Part 2: (will be updated when story is completed)

(warning: WALL O' TEXT! Might break it down further at some point but for now, deal).

- The Magician -

The next thing Yosuke remembered was someone shaking him awake.

“Hey... Hey! Can you hear me? Open your eyes.” The hand on his shoulder sent a chill through his jacket and straight to his skin. Its grip was light but firm.

He opened his eyes slowly, first one, then the other, before shutting them both and groaning. “It's bright...” There had been a flash of silver and peach that must have been the other person in the room.

The stranger gave a sigh of relief and released him. “I was afraid you had a concussion or something. There's a lump the size of my fist on the side of your head.”

Yosuke poked at his head tentatively, fingers probing through the strands of hair to find the goose egg. Although the size of the lump was grossly overstated, it was still the source of the throbbing that rattled around inside his skull. Biting back another groan, he pushed himself into a sitting position and took his time opening his eyes. The glare from the overhead lights was harsh and reminded him of the inside of a hospital room. He shaded his eyes with one hand when he finally managed to keep them open long enough.

The stranger sat cross-legged on the floor in front of him, watching his every movement with attentive grey eyes. In fact, the strange young man never even seemed to stop watching him. “I'm the Fool,” he announced.

“Er--” Yosuke had years of training in customer service, and understood the importance of eye contact, but he honestly felt unnerved by the attention he was receiving.

Sensing Yosuke's hesitation, the stranger reached out and tapped at his wrist. “Your bracelet.”

“I don't wear any brace--” He stopped and held his hand up in front of his face. An imprinted metal tag clung to the underside of his wrist, the Roman numeral 'I' staring right back at him. “I'm... I...”

There was a snort and, when he looked up, the stranger (or the Fool, he supposed), had one hand over his mouth trying to hold in a laugh. He had his own bracelet, though it hung loose on his thin arms. His read The Fool.

Without waiting for instructions, Yosuke flipped his tag over. “The Magician,” he read, then frowned at it. “But I don't know any magic tricks.”

“And I'm not a fool, at least I never thought of myself as such.” The silver-haired stranger was smiling, though his gaze still hadn't wavered. It was beginning to become a little intimidating. “What do you know of tarot cards?”

Yosuke just shook his head, still trying to decide if he should look elsewhere or continue to return the stare.

The Fool pulled out a cellphone, a rather generic blue flip-phone that was a few years out of fashion and clicked at the buttons for a few seconds. The eye contact was finally broken. “Fool, Magician, Emperor, High Priestess, Chariot--”

“Woah, hold on, what are you reading? I don't get the reference.”

“Phone contacts.” When he received a confused shake of the head as an answer, he held out the phone. “It was in my pocket when I woke up. I would imagine that if I did this...” The Fool thumbed the buttons until Magician was highlighted, then pressed the call icon.

Half a second later, Yosuke jumped in surprise as something vibrated against his leg. He scrambled with the pocket and tugged out an orange cell, identical to the Fool's. Sure enough, the front display flashed the word Fool at him as the phone continued to vibrate.

The call ended before he could answer it.

The Fool flipped his phone shut and slid it back into his pocket. “I'm thinking that there are others stuck somewhere as well. But we'd have to get out of this room first.”

Yosuke was focused on his phone, browsing through the list of contacts. Eight names were listed, though none of them gave away any clues to who they could have been. He doubted he would know any of them. It would still be nice to have some sort of idea who he was dealing with.

There was a moment of silence before the Fool rose to his feet. “Do you think you can stand?”

“Yeah, just give me a sec...” Yosuke began to clamber to his feet, but the Fool reached out a hand. He studied it for a few seconds, noting the faint white lines of old scars tracing over the knuckles and the back of the hand. Then he took it, and the Fool gave a strong tug to pull him up.

He looked around the room for the first time, spinning in a full circle and noticing one crucial fact: “There's only one door.”

“Yes.”

“Is it locked?”

“It is. It would certainly explain why I am still standing here, wouldn't it?”

Yosuke couldn't quite tell if there was a hint of humor in the Fool's voice or not. He was refusing to watch the other man's face, instead going straight for the door and tugging on the handle. “So we're trapped in here?”

“On the contrary, I think we are simply locked in here.”

Puzzled, he glanced up at the Fool. A slight annoyance nagged at him that this stranger was taller than him. “You say that like there is a difference.”

The Fool smiled. This time, the amusement was clear in both his expression and his tone. “There is. I wasn't simply sitting around idly while you were unconscious.”

“So you weren't just watching me the whole time?”

The Fool quirked his head to the side, curiosity bright on his face. “What do you mean?”

For some unknown reason, Yosuke blushed at the frank stare and turned away. “Nothing.”

It was the Fool's turn to become abashed, scratching the back of his neck and fidgeting in his spot. “The staring thing. Sorry. I've got this weird... head thing--” He trailed off and tapped a finger against his temple.

“If you don't want to talk about it, you don't have to,” Yosuke hurried to explain.

The Fool shook his head. “No, it's okay. We're going to have to work together to get out of here, and I'd rather clear the air so you're not weirded out if I seem to be staring at you a lot.”

“I don't think any amount of explaining will make it not weird.”

He smiled at this and Yosuke relaxed just a little. “I have a condition called prospagnosia.”

There was a beat of silence before Yosuke said, “I hope you're going to explain it to me because I just got a degree in business. I don't understand this science mumbo-jumbo.

“I can't recognize faces. I was in an accident when I was younger, just starting my second year of high school. All the doctors were amazed that nothing worse than some minor damage to my fusiform gyrus happened considering just how bad the accident was.” The Fool's smile was honest, but distant and just a bit sad. “After I recovered, I enrolled in online schools and finished up high school and then university that way. Parents weren't around enough but they made sure I was well taken care of.”

Another lull spread between them as Yosuke struggled to think of something to say. “The scars on your hand...?”

“Not from the accident if that is what you're wondering. I took up fencing. Freaked myself out a few times when the instructor took off their mask and I couldn't recognize the face, but I got used to it after awhile.” The Fool rubbed the back of his hand and fiddled with his watch. “Long story short, I'm trying not to forget your face. I'll be okay for a few minutes but I think my max is ten. If you keep talking it should be okay if I don't continuously stare at you.”

Now he felt bad for bringing it up. “Er, just keep talking. Yeah, I can do that.” In order to try and distract himself, Yosuke made a mental inventory of the rest of the things in the room. To one wall, several potted plants and a low coffee table with a box and books on it. Ninety degrees to the right, a tall floor lamp, a bookshelf – empty but for a few nondescript books and several figurines. Opposite that wall, a desk was pushed into the corner. Two of its drawers had keyholes that Yosuke figured would be locked. Another box rested on top of it.

Then finally there was the door, bordered by a sconce on both sides and a framed print of morbid photograph of a ship sinking. It didn't put Yosuke's stomach at any ease.

“Escape the locked room. I've played games like these,” the Fool spoke up. He must have been watching Yosuke, waiting until he finished his study of the room. “The cell phone is a bit of an interesting twist, though, and I have a feeling that there are some items here that we don't need. Those figurines, for instance, don't match with the rest of the room.”

“I'll take your word for it. This entire room just seems a little bit insane. I don't know how it can have any sort of theme or pattern...” Yosuke decided to walk the perimeter of the room, poking and touching everything that came within distance of his fingers.

“Perhaps you should call someone on the phone. Maybe they have a need of the figurines, and they might have something that we need in return.”

“Why should I call them? You seem to be in far better control of the situation.” Yosuke didn't want to call a random stranger. Not only did it remind him of his time as a phone salesman barely making commission, he had a hard time communicating with people over the phone. He could do it no problem face-to-face – years of retail experience under his belt. But cold calling a complete stranger? Hard to do.

The Fool chuckled. “How would you react if a strange phone told you that a Fool was calling?”

Yosuke thought this over, but did see the point in the argument. “Well, probably a bit better to see a Magician calling than a Fool?” The smile he earned in return for the joke pleased him, and he took out his phone to scroll through the contacts.

Just before hitting the call button for the Chariot (the result of his eenie-meenie-miney-mo), the cold fear knotted up his stomach again. “Are you sure--?”

“I'll be right here if you have any questions. Just say hello and ask them if they're stuck in a room and if they have any need for some dark cherry wood figurines of ancient samurai or something.” The Fool made an encouraging motion with his hands before beginning to investigate the first book on the coffee table.

Yosuke gulped, then dialed.

- The Chariot -

“C-Chie...?”

The sound was soft and muffled from sleep, but it was enough to make her stop in her tracks. “Yukiko?” She was at her best friend's side in a flash, kneeling down next to the other woman and letting her hands flutter nervously about. “Yukiko, are you okay?”

With a faint groan, Yukiko rolled onto her side and blinked up at the ceiling. “I think so...” Her dark eyes glanced around the room and her brow darkened. “Where are we?”

Chie shook her head, slapping her hands against her thighs in frustration. “I don't know. I woke up here. We're locked in this room... even though we've been locked in here with a lot of furniture.” She reached out to help Yukiko to her feet then stepped back to give her space.

“How long have I been out?”

Chie shrugged. “I can't say. I only woke up like fifteen, twenty minutes ago. What's the last thing you remember?”

Yukiko rubbed idly at her wrist, then frowned and held out her hand. “I'm wearing an ID bracelet...”

“I've got one too!” Chie held out her own hand, displaying the tag with Chariot stamped on one side and VII on the other. “It doesn't make any sense at all.”

“Hmm... High Priestess and then two Is on the back for myself. I guess these are Roman numerals.”

“Do you think they’re supposed to be code names?” This made Chie excited. Kidnapping, code names, locked rooms? While not as awesome as kung-fu movies, she would admit a soft-spot for the police and spy genre. She was in the police academy after all. Only solving problems was never really her strong point.

Yukiko tucked her legs under her, then rose unsteadily to her feet. Chie jumped up to help steady her. “I was at home. And then there was someone at the door so I went to answer it…” She trailed off, pressing the back of her hand to her forehead. “I don’t really remember what happened after that.”

Chie slammed her fist into the palm of her hand. “Some dick kidnapped us and threw us into this room! Man, he better just wait until I get my hands around his neck…”

Smiling faintly, Yukiko crossed the room and tried the door handle. “You never found a key?”

“Not yet. There are a few locked cupboards and an incomplete chess set, but I don’t know what good that does us.” Chie kicked at the leg of the couch, then jumped back as several playing cards fell onto the floor. “Oh, whoops. I mean. Well, I guess that wasn’t supposed to do that...” She crouched down next to the cards, picking up three aces, a jack, and several numbered hearts and diamonds.

She jumped again as the phone she didn’t know was in her pocket started ringing.

“Are you okay?” Yukiko asked from where she was investigating the chess set.

“I have a cellphone in my jacket pocket…” Chie said, drawing out the phone and staring at it in surprise. Magician flashed on the display several more times before it faded out and was replaced with 1 Missed Call.

The silence stretched out between them. Yukiko was the first to speak, her voice faint and shaky. “Who was it?”

“It just said Magician. I guess these really are code names.” She flipped open the phone and was about to recall the number when it started to ring again. In surprise, her thumb automatically jabbed the answer button. A timer appeared on the display in place of the caller ID.

Noise filtered through the speaker of the phone, though it echoed faintly from the earpiece. The person on the other end of the line was just finishing saying “Hello, anyone there?” when Chie put the phone to her ear.

“Um, hello?” Chie looked to Yukiko for support, but the other woman only shrugged.

Er…” the man said.

There was another voice on the other end of the line, muffled by distance. “Someone answered? Say hello then.

Er,” he said again. “Hey. This is the Magician.

“I’m the…” Chie paused, glancing at her bracelet again. “The Chariot. And I’m here with the High Priestess.”

Yukiko smothered a giggle at the name.

Are you two locked in a room, too?

The way he phrased it made her annoyed – probably more annoyed than she should have been by the innocent question. “You make it sound so suggestive.”

W-what? Wait a minute, don’t make this sound like my fault.” The tension in his voice rose to match hers. “It’s just I’m locked in a room with the Fool and so we were wondering who else was in here. We got that figured out so I’ll just be hanging up—

“Hold on--!” Chie shouted into the receiver, a bit surprised to hear her cry echoed by the second voice on the other end of the line.

What?” The Magician’s voice was muted. He must have been talking to the Fool, lowering the phone from his mouth. Going over the little details like a detective made her feel calmer.

Ask them if they need the figurines.

Oh, right.” The Magician’s voice breathed a wave of static over the line before he asked, “Do you guys have anything in your room that might need some creepy looking samurai figurines?

Chie could hear the Fool laughing and saying something as she lowered the phone and covered the mouthpiece. “Yuki—er…” She hesitated, and glanced down at the phone. They probably weren’t allowed to call each other by their real names. She didn’t want the two men on the other end to uncover Yukiko’s name through a slip of the lip. But calling her best friend High Priestess just felt too weird. “Do we have anything that might need some samurai?”

As if not noticing Chie’s conflict, Yukiko shook her head. “The chess set are just standard pieces. Ask them if they need playing cards.”

She had forgotten that she was holding cards. “No samurai figurines for us. Do you have any need of playing cards?”

What do you think?” The Magician’s voice was a shout again, but Chie was able to hear more of the sounds from their room. Someone was shuffling through something.

That’s a negative on the playing cards.” That must have been the Fool. He sounded nice, which was a silly thing to think. Chie scolded herself, knowing that judging someone on the sound of their voice was by no means accurate. There was another several seconds of slightly static-y silence before the Fool spoke again, excitement sharpening his voice. “I found a note!

“A note?” Chie and the Magician asked at the same time. That got Yukiko’s attention, and she hurried across the room to press her ear up against the other side of Chie’s phone.

What’s it say?” His voice became more distant. The phone was probably on speaker, and he was no longer holding it up.

It’s a race against time,” the Fool read. “The cell phones’ batteries will last nine hours. You have until then to find your way out of this maze of locked rooms before it turns into a feast for the shadows. Prove to me you’re worthy of saving. Mother sends her love.

Chie could feel her knees growing weaker with each word of the letter. Yukiko’s breath was warm and muted against her cheek, doing little to comfort her. She didn’t want to be the first one to break the silence. There was nothing she could even think to say in response to that letter.

The Magician was the one to speak up first, though his words were muttered like a passing thought to himself. “Comic Sans is the font of serial killers.

“Huh?”

Er, sorry. The letter is written in Comic Sans. I was just thinking that… it’s sort of like… the font of serial killers…” His sentence, which had started out strong, petered out at the end as he lost confidence in what he was explaining.

Yukiko stood up, concern written all over her face as she regarded the red cell phone in her hand. Chie hadn’t noticed her draw it out of her pocket but it only made sense that she would have one as well. “Would talking on the phone decrease the battery life, then?”

I don’t know about that.” The Fool’s voice came through loud and clear. It was amazing how comforting his tone was, even in this sort of situation. “The letter makes it sound like, regardless of how much or how little we use the phone, it will die in nine hours.

“Nine hours from when, though?” Chie asked.

There was a moment of silence. “Ninety percent,” the Magician suddenly said.

“You need to stop saying stupid, pointless things—” Chie started, the wave of annoyance rising up in her chest at his voice. It probably wasn’t the Magician’s fault, but she was already starting to dislike him.

No, he’s right. Both of our phones are at ninety percent. It’s the start of an hour. So that means—

“We only have eight hours left…” Chie and Yukiko exchanged glances, unable to suppress the shiver that ran down their spines at the idea. Eight hours before the end of the game.

Whatever the end entailed.

- The Emperor -

Ten minutes.

It had been ten whole minutes of listening to that strange kid’s humming. Kanji was quite amazed that he was even to last that long. The humming was off-tune, a mixture of belted LA LA LAs and muttered half-remembered phrases. Not to mention it sound like one of those dime-a-dozen, obnoxiously catchy pop songs by some wanna-be pop star.

Ten long minutes. In all honesty, he couldn’t be blamed for snapping.

“Will you quit it with that noise you’re makin’?” Kanji fixed the blonde boy with his most impressive glare. It made people quiver with fear when they saw it.

This idiot, however, didn’t seem to notice. “But everyone loves the pop-tart!” he protested, his blue eyes wide with innocence. “Hey did you find anything over there?” He seemed to be hiding something behind him.

“If I did, I’ve probably already broken it or I would have thrown it at your head.” Kanji ground the butt of a cigarette between his teeth. He was surprised to have found the pack in his pocket when he had woken up. His wallet was missing, his cell was replaced with a dark grey piece of shit, and his lighter was nowhere to be found. But at least he had his cigarettes.

The boy, the Star, according to his ID bracelet, ignored the comment and skipped across the room. He clutched something between his hands. “Tadaa! Look at what I found!” He opened his hands with a flourish, revealing an odd assortment of matchsticks. “I haff twelve matchsteek!” The Star giggled at his own joke, finding it far funnier than it had any right to be.

That was the final straw in Kanji’s mind.

Without saying anything, he reached out, plucked one of the matchsticks from the boy’s hands, and used the bottom of his boot to light it. The Star let out a squawk of protest as he lit his cigarette with the match. “Keep looking.”

“But what if we needed twelve to solve the great mystery on the television…?” The Star turned to look at the entertainment system on the wall behind Kanji, where several shapes were arranged over thin slits in the wood.

Kanji looked as well. In no way could he imagine needing to use matchsticks for that sort of great mystery. Still, despite his ill intentions by snatching up the match, he couldn’t shake the slightly guilty feeling at the boy’s depressed expression. He ground his teeth on the butt of the cigarette again and decided to exhale a lungful of smoke in order to obscure the image. “Then we’ll just have to make due with eleven.” He tried to make it sound callous, though a hint of reassurance somehow managed to work its way into his tone.

The Star coughed and waved his hand to dispel the smoke. “I’ll keep looking then…” The image of defeat, he shuffled off back towards the out of place kitchenette and resumed his search through the cupboards and drawers for something useful.

Kanji fiddled with the television remote, studying the strange chain of symbols that appeared on each of the channels. They seemed to match the ones on the entertainment system, though what the slits were for he couldn’t figure. He stepped closer, taking the cigarette out of his mouth and holding it out of the way so he could see the symbols clearly. “Playing cards…” he muttered, finally realizing what the symbols were. They were the suits in a deck of cards.

A bright and tinny sound shot across the room.

“Answer yer damn phone,” Kanji called, sticking the cigarette back between his teeth and starting to poke at the carved out symbols.

“It’s not mine,” the Star said. He had his out and was staring at the blank screen.

Kanji frowned as the ringtone played again, quite dismayed to find that it was coming from his pocket. He snatched it out, glared at the display that read High Priestess, then flipped it open and jabbed the call button. “Yeah, and what do you want?” he growled into the mouth piece.

There was silence on the other end of the line. Kanji growled again. Today was really not shaping up to be his day. It was enough to have to deal with being locked up with a stupid person after being kidnapped. Now he was getting prank calls from people he didn’t even know.

Kanji-kun?

He nearly dropped the phone in surprise. He knew that voice. He grew up hearing it for nearly fifteen years. But the Star was watching him, eyes alert as he leaned forward to try and hear the conversation. He didn’t want to use her name so carelessly when he didn’t even know this strange boy’s real name. “Senpai?”

The voice on the other end breathed a sigh of relief. “It is you! Yes, it’s Yukiko. Chie’s here, too.

“Are you locked in a room with her?”

Mmhm. We just got a call from two calling themselves the Fool and the Magician. Oh, I suppose I shouldn’t be using our real names.” Yukiko laughed, and Kanji could feel his shoulders relax. He looked at the cigarette in his hand, then stubbed it out on the plate he had been using as an ash tray. Even though she couldn’t see him, he still felt guilty smoking when talking to her. “I’m the High Priestess, and Chie is the Chariot. I guess that makes you the Emperor, huh?” She sniggered, though she managed to cover it up before it got too out of control.

“Yeah, and I’m stuck in this room with the Star, though really if you ask me he’s more like an idiot from the Moon.”

“Hey! That’s not a nice thing to say, Mister Emperor!” Now that he had been mentioned, the Star must have decided that it was time to join in on the conversation. “Who are you talking to?”

“It’s… the High Priestess…” The words felt strange in his mouth. He ignored the giggles coming from the other end of the phone.

“Ohh, she sounds nice.” There was an implication on that word that bothered Kanji, though it was strange to hear the boy say it. “Let me talk to her!” He reached for the phone, and that brought Kanji back into the present.

He stopped the attack by pushing the Star away, the palm of his hand placed firmly on the boy’s forehead and holding him out at arm’s length. “Man, I can’t believe some jackass is just going around kidnapping people. That’s what, at least six of us?”

More, probably. I think the Magician was going to call one of the other names on the phone. We’ll tell him not to try the Star, then. Chie, which ones are left?

Ummm…” From further away, Kanji could just barely hear Yukiko’s best friend. He didn’t know Chie as well, but it was hard to NOT know her when he grew up with Yukiko. “Wheel of Fortune, Justice, and the Lovers.

Didn’t he say he was going to try the Lovers?

Ugh, he’s such a pervert. I don’t even know him and I can already tell he’s a pervert. I bet he wears glasses and likes to play H-games and lives at home.

“Woah, Senpai, that’s a bit harsh, don’t you think? Aren’t you going to stop her, Yuk—er, Priestess?” Kanji stuttered at the last moment, again all too aware of the Star struggling to listen in on his phone conversation.

Yukiko was too busy giggling to say anything. Through the fit of laughter, he could hear her mutter, “Priestess. H-game pervert. Ahahaha!

He could hear Chie sigh on the other end of the line and say something about how it wasn’t that funny. “Well, then that leaves the Wheel of Fortune and Justice, right?”

“Oh!” the Star suddenly shouted, raising his hand and jumping up and down in his spot. “I want to call one!” He reached for his phone before Kanji could say anything and began to hit buttons at random. Just before Kanji could ask if he even knew how to use a phone, the boy put it to his ear and donned an excited expression.

“Er, it looks like the Star is calling someone…”

Yukiko was too busy giggling to say anything coherent.

“Hello, Wheel of Fortune,” the Star said, once again using the strange tone that was far too mature for a boyish face like his. But the eager grin faltered and then slipped away after a few seconds on the phone. “Oh. Uh-huh. Justice is with you? Okay…” He tried for a pleading look, turning his sights to Kanji for help, but they were ignored.

“Sounds like Wheel of Fortune is with Justice. That just leaves the Lovers left on our list of contacts?” Kanji turned his back on the Star.

Yukiko finally managed to calm her giggles. “Alright. We’ll let the others know. Ah, before I forget, do you guys need any samurai figures or playing cards?

“Now that you mention it, yeah, there are some slots here that playing cards could fit into!” The excitement at the idea immediately died down as he studied it further. “But how are we going to get the cards…?”

She was silent on the other end of the line. “I have no idea. Do you have anything in your room that seems out of place?

Kanji shot a meaningful look at the Star, who was now prancing around the kitchenette and talking rapidly into the phone. “Not in the way that you’re thinking.”

He could practically hear the amused smile on her voice. “Just give me a call if you find anything that you don’t need. It seems that rooms are being given things they don’t need and we’ll need to work together to get out of these rooms. And fast.

“What do you mean fast?”

The pitch of her voice dropped to a conspiratorial level, although he couldn’t guess why. Chie probably had already heard it, and the Star was too busy chatting up a storm to the Wheel of Fortune. “The Fool found a letter in their room. We’ve got less than nine hours to get out of here.

“… Or else what?”

She made a soft noise in the back of her throat. “We don’t know. The letter said something like it turning into a feast for the shadows. Either way, it’s not going to be good or we wouldn’t have been given a time limit.

“Damn it!” Kanji slammed his fist down on the table, unsettling the plate and his cigarette stub in the process. “Where does this crazy fuck get off kidnappin’ us and then threatening us?”

We’ll get out of here, Kanji-kun.” Yukiko’s voice was calming and he found himself believing in her words despite everything. “We just need to work together and everything will turn out alright.

“I hope so, Senpai…”

The smile was back in her voice. “Just keep looking around your room. Call if anything happens, alright?

“Will do. Hope to see you soon.”

Same.

They hung up, and Kanji slid the phone back into his pocket. After a moment’s hesitation, he knelt down and picked up the mess he had made by knocking over the plate. He didn’t realize that the Star was off the phone until the silence had stretched on for several minutes.

“The Wheel of Fortune hung up on me...” The Star looked a little dejected, standing by the fridge with his shoulders hunched and head bowed.

“I don’t blame him,” Kanji muttered as he jammed the chewed-up butt of the cigarette back into his mouth. “What did you learn from him?”

The Star opened his mouth to announce his findings, then quickly shut it again as a wave of confusion washed over his face. “Um. That he’s with Justice. And he sounds like a very serious and boring guy.”

Kanji took a deep breath, held it for ten, and then released it slowly through his nose. “Okay. How about you investigate the entertainment system and I’ll check the kitchen.”

“But I already looked through the kitchen!”

He pinched the bridge of his nose. “A fresh pair of eyes going over the scene might help, y’know? Just do it, alright? Or I’ll hit you so hard that you’ll pass out!”

The Star squeaked and scampered off to do as he was told. Less than a minute passed before he was humming “the pop-tart” song again.

- Justice -

Nanako sat perched on the edge of the table, swinging her legs as she watched the woman on the phone. Her dad often told her to stop swinging her legs, as it was childish and she was fourteen now. But her dad wasn’t here now and swinging her legs was helping relieve the stress of the situation.

Her shoulders slumped as her thoughts strayed once again to her dad. He was probably panicking right now trying to find her. She had already tried calling his cell with the pink one she found in the pocket of her uniform skirt, but it wouldn’t connect. She had tried everything that he had drilled into her over the years in case of an event of kidnapping, but none of them had worked. She couldn’t help but feel she failed in her duty as the daughter of an outstanding detective.

“I’m having a hard time visualizing what you are trying to describe to me,” the Wheel of Fortune was saying. The calm and collected demeanor that Nanako had grown used to seeing over the past half hour was beginning to wear thin over the course of a very short phone call. “Yes. Yes you mentioned that. Did you get the names of the others…? I understand that you are the Star and you are with the Emperor. He’s talking to the High Priestess? … No, I don’t want to know what is in the fridge at this moment.” The woman sighed and tugged the brim of her hat in frustration. “Is there anyone more coherent there that I may speak to?” She looked up when she heard Nanako giggle, and a small smile tugged at the corner of her lips as well. “I will try calling one of the others. Thank you very much for your help, Star.” Without waiting long enough for a reply from the other line, she hung up.

“You don’t take talking to people very well, do you?” Nanako asked, her legs coming to a stop now that Fortune was off the phone.

“I can speak to most people just fine,” she argued, though broke off with a sigh and pulled off her hat. “I have a hard time speaking to people that don’t communicate in full sentences or with unnecessary exclamation points.”

This drew another giggle from Nanako as she watched Fortune comb back her short hair with her fingers. “I’ve been wondering this for awhile, but why do you dress like a boy?”

Fortune’s eyes went wide and her entire body tensed up. She tried to cover the lapse as she shoved her hat back onto her head and pulled the brim down to block her expression. “Most people don’t realize I am dressing like a boy.”

“Well, it is sort of obvious. Some of the boys in my club wear that brand.”

“No, that’s not what I mean. The phrase dress like a boy already implies that I am merely costuming as one, and most people fail to realize that I—”

“Am a woman?” Nanako tilted her head to the side. “But why? It’s fairly obvious. Your bone structure is too petite unless you were trying to pass yourself off as a boy my age. Even then, the pitch of your voice is deep but the cadence is a little off.”

Fortune smiled and shook her head. “You are quite astute, you know? You would make a fine detective.”

Nanako blushed, kicking her legs out again. “My dad is a police detective.”

“Then you’ve learned from the best.” She chuckled and sat down next to Nanako on the table. “To answer your question, most people don’t want to see me as a woman. In my line of work, men are viewed as the more reliable and efficient. I would also appreciate it if you could address me as a man in front of any others we might meet. It might be a little difficult to understand why, but I have found that it does help.”

“Sure I can. But what do you for a living?”

“I’m a private detective. I would give you my business card, but not only would I imagine that as being against the rules, I seem to have been relieved of my card case as well. Anything that would identify us has been removed from our persons.” Fortune sighed and started to fiddle with the brim of her hat. “I am honestly at a loss for how we are supposed to get out of here.”

Nanako hopped to her feet and dusted off her skirt. “Well, we should call someone. One of the others on the contact list. We’ve turned this room over and we haven’t been able to find anything to get us out. So maybe someone else can help!”

Fortune gripped the edge of the table, taking several seconds to collect her thoughts before she stood up as well. “You are right, of course. I am letting my emotions get the better of me, and they’re clouding my ability to think clearly.”

Suppressing a smile, Nanako spun in a slow circle to take in the room. “We have an incomplete set of figurines.”

“There are several spots on the box they are arranged on that would indicate several are missing,” Fortune summarized. She was about to wipe her hands off, then paused to study the tips of her fingers. “White chalk…”

“What?”

But she was already down on one knee, leaning under the table to look for something. “I can’t believe we missed this!”

“What did we miss?!”

Fortune pulled the table away from the wall. “Help me flip it over. But be careful. There’s a diagram drawn on the underside.”

Excitement welling up in her at a new clue, Nanako hurried over and grabbed one of the legs and the side end. Together, they overturned the table and left it belly-up on the floor. The energy drained as soon as she was able to see the full thing. It was a large square, divided neatly into nine smaller compartments. Each one had different colored rectangles arranged in a meaningless pattern.

“I don’t get it,” Nanako admitted as her shoulders slumped.

Fortune was on both knees this time, the tips of her fingers carefully investigating the edge of the table. “There is a disparity between the proportions of this table. It would indicate that there is something else that we have missed. I suggest calling the one labeled as the Fool in your phone.”

“Why the Fool?” She pulled out her phone all the same.

The woman sat back on her heels, hooking her arms over her legs to keep her balance. “We were given code names based off of the western tarot cards. Wheel of Fortune for myself, Justice for you, the Star, Emperor, and High Priestess being a few of the others. My theory is that they weren’t just assigned up us at random, or there would have been more of an order to the way they were given out.”

“So our nicknames don’t go in order?”

“Exactly. I think they were given to us based on a personality factor. Which brings up a whole new heap of questions, because it implies that whoever abducted us knows quite a lot about us.”

Nanako was struggling to put together the facts in her head. She never really considered herself much of a ‘justice’ figure. “But why the Fool?” If it was anything to do with a personality trait, would it really be a good idea to call someone with that name?

Fortune smiled, as if able to read her thoughts. “The Fool is the first card in the entire deck. Often, the story told through the order of the cards is labeled as The Fool’s Journey, and the character of the Fool evolves into someone more wise and wholesome at the end when he reaches the World, the very last card. My idea is that the one with that name would be someone that we can turn to as the leader.”

Tilting her head to the side, Nanako thought about it for several moments. “I will take your word for it then.” She selected the name in her phone and hit ‘Call’.

It rang four times, and just before she was considering hanging up or if there would be a voicemail, the line clicked and she heard someone breathing on the other end.

“Hello?” There was something about his voice that sounded familiar.

“Oh. Um. Hello. This is Justice.” Why was she so nervous? Of course, she never talked to strangers on the phone, nor did she ever call them to ask for their help.

“Yes, I know.”

“Right, caller ID. I’m here with the Wheel of Fortune. It was, ah, his idea to call you. This… is the Fool, right?”

She could hear the amusement in his voice, which was a relief. If he had sounded condescending or angry, she didn’t know how she would have been able to talk to him. “I am. Did Fortune perhaps find something? The Magician and I have been trying to figure out what everyone has in their room and what everyone needs.”

“We found a drawing on the underside of the table. It’s a three by three cube with colored blocks in each section.”

“Like a bookshelf with colored books?”

“I… I suppose.”

There was noise on the other end of the line, then when he spoke again, the Fool’s voice was hollow and a bit more distant. “Can you read off the colored pattern for us?”

“Um…” Nanako shuffled around, studying the drawing from different angles to try and figure out which one would be the top. “I’ll try it one way, and if that doesn’t work, then I’ll rotate it and try again.”

“Please.”

“Top left: Blue, red, white, blue. Top middle: Red, white, white. Top right—” As she read off the squares, she could hear the Fool repeating them and someone else confirming it. Once she read off the last square, there was a moment of silence as she heard the two men moving around the room.

“Nothing,” the Fool finally said. “Could you try the next pattern?”

Nanako stepped to the other side of the table, waiting until the other end of the line went silent. “Starting from the top left—”

In the end, the second attempt yielded nothing as well. Nanako stepped around the table again just as the Wheel of Fortune was moving to the opposite end of the table with her investigation. She waited a beat before starting off the third read-through of the pattern. As soon as the last book left her lips, her attention was drawn away as Fortune jumped to her feet.

She was holding a piece of paper in her hands, her eyes glued to the text before tearing them away to look at Nanako. “I found a letter—!”

- The Lovers -

The first thing Rise had done upon waking was to try the door.

Much to her surprise, it was unlocked.

When she opened it, she was faced with a hallway stretching out to her left and to her right before either direction disappeared around a corner. It was dark, and she was alone. There was nothing inviting about the freedom offered by the hall.

At the same time, there was nothing inviting about the minimal warmth of the room she was in. It was bare save for a small box that had three drawers. Each one had a key inside it, though what the keys were for she had no idea. Everything in her room was completely unlocked.

Rise paced around her room, clutching the strange, pearly white cell phone in her hands for comfort. The reception on the phone would dwindle the closer to the hall she got, and would improve the further into the room she retreated. To test the theory, she stepped into the hall and attempted to make a call on the phone.

It wouldn’t connect.

She might not have been a technical expert, but it was obvious that there was something out there blocking the signal for the phone unless she was in her room. So the only solution was to make a call while in her room. At least the light was strong and steady.

Rise quickly brought up the contacts on her phone, twirling a finger through her hair as she did so. It needed to be curled again. She might have been an internet idol with a face no one knew, but that didn't mean she had to look like she was. Appearances were everything in her job, even if none of her fans knew who she really was.

She studied the bracelet as the rings echoed in her ear. Lovers? She felt sort of insulted by it.

The phone clicked and she could hear breathing on the other end. “Hello?”

“Hi! The Fool, right? This is the Lovers. I was just wondering if you had any clue as to what was going on.” And cue the idol personality. Even though it was becoming more of an effort to turn on, it was still her job. And it helped her talk to strangers.

“No, not really.” He hesitated, then went on. “I’m locked in a room. I can’t get the door open.”

“You’re locked in?” Rise looked at her door, open to reveal the hall beyond. “My door is wide open.”

The Fool made a noise that resembled “ahh!”, though it was mumbled away from the mouthpiece. “Then maybe you could come and help me?”

“How? I lose connection as soon as I walk out into the hall. And I don’t think I’ll be any good at picking a lock…” Unless one of the keys in her room was to his door. She didn’t say that out loud, just in case it would get his hopes up.

“Hmm that is a problem. And I wouldn’t be able to walk you through the halls because I don’t know where you are.” The Fool muttered to himself for a moment. “If you want to hold on, I think I might be able to find something that will help you.”

I’ve got nowhere else to go, Rise thought, the frown pulling at the corner of her lips in annoyance. But out loud, she put the cheery voice in place and said, “Sure! Anything will help.” She heard several faint clicks and when he started to mutter again, his voice was more distant.

Several minutes passed before he came back onto the line. “Alright, I believe I’ve found a map saved in the picture folder.”

This caught her by surprise. “We have a picture folder?”

“Have you even looked through your phone?”

Bristling with frustration, she had to fight to keep her tone even. “No, it didn’t really occur to me. It’s an older model than the one I usually use so I wasn’t too sure what could be helpful on it.”

“Sorry, sorry,” he said, laughing a bit. It sounded more like he was teasing her than really apologizing, but she let it slide. “Why don’t you check to see if you have it? And if not I can send it to you.”

Rise let out a slow breath, pulling the phone away from her ear in order to explore the options on the phone a bit further. When she couldn’t locate a folder, she didn’t feel so bad. “I can’t seem to find it…” She played up the innocent and injured tone. The image of a girl asking her upperclassman for help, with fluttering eyelashes and twirling her hair around her fingers.

“Don’t worry! I’m going to hang up so I can send it and then you can start looking, but it’s just a basic map. There are a few colored dots and Roman numerals on it. I’m going to guess you’re that white one with the number six. I’m the blue dot.”

Suddenly, Rise was feeling nervous. She had just volunteered to step out into the halls all by herself, with no signal to connect to the others. “Okay. I suppose I’ll see you soon?”

“Looking forward to it.” He hung up and Rise took several deep breaths to calm herself.

“It’s not going to be a problem. I’ll have a map. It’s not like there are going to be any creepy monsters waiting in the hall for me.” She started to giggle, though it was strained and nervous. “This isn’t a video game.”

Still, she gave a startled squeak as the phone in her hand vibrated once. One new message. Pressing a hand to her chest to try and steady her heart, Rise opened up the attachment and studied the map.

There was the blue dot, a 0 hovering over it. In the same room was an orange dot with an I. Strange, the Fool hadn’t mentioned being in a room with someone. Then again, she never mentioned being alone – though it was obvious on the map. The off-white dot far removed from the cluster of others, a VI hovering above it. VI: The Lovers.

“I can do this.” She took the three keys from the drawers, slipping them under her bra strap due to a lack of pockets. Despite the initial chill, they quickly warmed to her temperature.

Rise stepped to the doorway, holding the phone out in front of her. The signal bars dropped the closer she got. Just before she crossed over, she wondered if the map would remain when she entered the hall. There was no reason for it to, right?

Wouldn’t hurt to memorize the first few turns, just in case. A right, a right, then a left. From there she would be on her own if the phone completely crapped out on her.

She took a step into the hall. Her fingers tightening around the phone as if willing the map to stay on the screen. It flickered once, but remained steady.

Releasing the breath she hadn’t realized she had been holding, Rise took off with a bit more confidence down the hall. It was a bit of a walk to the room with the Fool, but she had company to look forward to once she reached them.

Her phone was a small halo of light in the otherwise dark hall.

- The Magician -

He couldn’t tell who was more surprised when the Fool’s phone started ringing. The grey-haired young man had seem so adverse to using his phone that Yosuke began to wonder if it even worked.

“Justice is calling me.” The Fool was staring at his phone with wide eyes, and even a little bit of panic.

“You might want to answer it, Batman.”

The Fool furrowed his brow, but didn’t press the topic. He held the phone up to his ear instead. “Hello?”

Yosuke left him to his phone call, deciding to start organizing the books into piles. He had nothing else to do. Despite all their searching, they had not been able to find any clues. The only thing they had to go on was colored books.

He flipped through each of them idly as he put them into colored piles. A lot of them were psychology books, filled with essays on the shadow and persona. And plenty of references to someone named Jung. Several were religious texts on demons, and some new age books on tarot. Basically, a lot of useless, hard to understand stuff.

He was almost done when the Fool suddenly knelt down and began to hit his arm, an excited expression on his face. “Like a bookshelf with colored books?”

Yosuke tried to fight off the hand hitting him, but then the Fool caught onto his wrist. “She found something that can help us.” He put the phone on speaker, setting it on top of the bookshelf. “Can you read off the colored pattern for us?”

“Um…” The voice was of a young girl, probably not even out of high school. “I’ll try it one way, and if that doesn’t work, then I’ll rotate it and try again.”

“Please.”

“Top left: Blue, red, white, blue. Top middle: Red, white, white. Top right—” As she read off the pattern, the Fool started to slide the colored book into the shelves. Yosuke handed him the next book as it was listed. At the end of the pattern, after all the books were slotted into place, the two sat back on their heels expectantly.

Nothing happened.

On an unspoken agreement, Yosuke and the Fool rose to their feet and began to reinvestigate everything in the room. It was all the same as it was before.

“Nothing,” the Fool finally said, pitching his voice so the phone could pick it up. “Could you try the next pattern?” He started to pull all the books from the shelves.

Justice cleared her throat. “Starting from the top left—”

They placed the books back into the shelves as she read off the second pattern. After completing it, they once again checked everything. Again, nothing. The excitement that had started to form with a potential discovery was starting to wear off. They started on the third try.

“Last one: blue, red, red, blue.”

The Fool slid the final book into place, and this time there was an unmistakable click, then a faint squeal as new, unused gears lurched into motion.

“Behind the picture!” Yosuke blurted, covering up whatever it was that the girl on the other end of the line said at the same time.

“Go and check,” the Fool ordered, scooping up his phone and holding it back up to his ear. “What was that you said?”

Yosuke stumbled to his feet and crossed the room. He reached out and pulled the frame from its spot on the wall, revealing an opening that looked out into the hall. He gave a shout of victory, twisting around to show the Fool, only to find that the young man had gone pale. “What is it?”

“Fortune found a letter.”

“Is it written in Comic Sans?” Probably the wrong question to ask, but it drew a faint smile from the Fool all the same.

“Can you read it to me again, please?” he said into the phone, then waited a beat before repeating off what he heard. “It is always safer to travel in pairs… That which scares you in the dark… likes to pick off the stragglers… Mother hopes you heed her advice.”

Yosuke shivered, turning his attention to the small hole in the wall that looked out to what they had considered to be freedom. Now it was just something closer to just another trap.

During his investigation of the hall, only half-listening to the Fool on the phone, he noticed a dark shape on the wall directly across from him. Yosuke pressed his face up against the hole, squinting and trying to make out just what it was.

“What are you doing?”

He jumped in surprise, jerking away from the wall as the Fool spoke. He looked up to find the young man standing next to him, sliding his phone into the pocket of his jacket. “I'm thinking that whoever shoved us in these rooms is playing a very cruel joke.”

The Fool arched an eyebrow, a smirk curling the corners of his lips.

Yosuke was silent for a moment, watching the steady gray eyes. It took a few seconds before he realised that he had grown used to the strangers unblinking stare over the last half-hour. “Okay, more of a joke than we thought of before.” He pointed out the window. “I think that's the key to our room taped to the wall opposite of us.”

Curious, the Fool stepped in and pressed his face against the hole to the wall as well. “I do believe you're right. At any rate, it is a key and it is placed in a very taunting location.”

Grumbling to himself, Yosuke began to pace in a tight circle. “You know what? Get me that lamp.”

“The lamp...?”

“I'm going to take it apart and get that key if it kills me!” Yosuke started across the room, but the Fool's laughter stopped him. “You think this is funny?”

“Kinda. Just think, if you knock away the key or can't reach it, you're going to be even more upset than you are now.” The Fool's smile was soft and, oddly enough, comforting. “We made some progress, right? That must mean we're doing something right.”

Yosuke opened his mouth to reply when the sound of footsteps cut him off.

The two of them froze in their spots, staring wide-eyed at each other in a moment of confusion and panic.

“Who--” Yosuke started, his voice muted, but the Fool held up a finger to hush him.

Before either of them could react, a girl's face appeared in the hole in the wall. “Hello?”

“Yahh!” Despite himself, Yosuke jumped (probably a foot into the air) and pressed his hand to his chest. “Holy shit don't scare us like that!”

She blinked several times before laughing. “Which one of you is the Fool?”

The Fool stepped forward, lifting one hand in silence.

“It's me, the Lovers!” She grinned and pointed to herself.

Yosuke stared at her for a long minute before turning to the Fool and punching him in the arm. “Why didn't you tell me you were talking to someone so cute?”

The Fool, for his part, was struggling to keep fear and confusion from his normally placid expression. “It's not like I knew she would be cute.”

The Lovers giggled again. “Aw, you think I'm cute? If it helps any, I think you are, too! So, now that I've found you, how do I get inside?”

“Try the key on the other side of the hall?” Yosuke offered, which earned him a delighted smile from the girl that set his heart all aflutter. When he had tried to call her before, the line had never connected. The Fool could have at least said that he had already talked to her before then, though.

She stepped away from the hole, moving to pluck the key from the wall. “I do have three others that I can try if this one doesn't fit,” she explained, pulling off the tape from the key and shaking it off her finger. “So here it goes!”

Yosuke held his breath, listening to the key being inserted into the lock and, after what felt like forever, the bolt sliding back. He let out a whoop of joy as the door swung open and the Lovers stood before him, clearly pleased with herself. “We're free!” he shouted and jumped into the hall to join her.

As soon as soon as he crossed the doorway, though, he was hit with a wall of cold. “Man, aren't you freezing?” He hopped from foot to foot before hurrying back into the room.

The Lovers followed after him. “I didn't notice how cold it was until now. I think your room is just comfortably warm.”

The Fool, who had been silently staring at his phone, finally spoke up once again. “Did you see anything in the halls on your way here?”

She tilted her head to the side, dark auburn curls tumbling off her shoulder. “Not that I can think of. Why, should I have been looking for something?”

“Well, one of the others... the Wheel of Fortune. He had found a letter that said everyone should travel in pairs. It made it sound like there were things roaming the halls.”

Her face paled, though she did her best to cover it up with a pretty smile. “I have the two of you now to protect me~”

“Yes! And protect you we shall!” Yosuke piped up, unable to help the silly grin that was certainly painted across his face. This earned him another private little smile from the Lovers that sent his stomach into a delighted little flip.

The Fool flipped his phone shut and stuck his hands into his pockets. “Shall we test your keys on these remaining locks? I have a feeling they might not fit. We might just want to grab the figurines and then go head off to the room with Justice and Fortune.”

“Aye-aye!” Much to Yosuke's embarrassed surprise, the Lovers reached into her shirt and pulled three keys out. With more cheer than he thought was possible, she turned her attention to the boxes and began to fit each key into the locks. “Nothing,” she reported, stepping away after she finished the last one.

“Magician, help me grab these figurines. Lovers, if you please, lead us to Fortune's room? The numbers for either of the people in there would be...” The Fool trailed off, closing his eyes and moving his lips as he ran through his memories. “Ten and eleven. X and XI for the Roman numerals.”

Yosuke watched as the Lovers pulled out her cellphone and pulled up a map. “Wow, I didn't know we had one of those! Guess it wouldn't have been much use to us being locked in our room though...”

“The Fool sent it to me,” she explained, casting a thankful smile in his direction. “I would have been totally lost without it. But now I'll be your fearless leader!” With a giggle, the Lovers set off toward the door. “Oh, but one thing. Your phone will lose reception in the halls. We won't be able to talk to the others until we're in another one of the rooms.”

Trying to keep his stomach from hitting the floor in dread, Yosuke scooped up his share of the figurines and hurried after the other two. The last thing he wanted was to get lost.

- The Star -

“You said you checked in the fridge already.”

Teddie hesitated, his finger hovering over the battery of the remote as he tried to pluck it out. “I did.”

“You said there was nothing in it.”

“Well, there isn't.” Teddie finally removed the battery, turning it around in his hand several times before starting to work on the second one.

The Emperor leveled him with a gaze that could flatten bricks. “Why didn't you mention the eggs?”

“I didn't think we were going to be making omelets!” He was pouting as he shuffled the batteries around in his palm. Just the thought of food was enough to make his stomach growl.

Or maybe it was the Emperor growling from across the room. “They're plastic.”

“Huh?”

“The eggs! They're fake!” The Emperor held out one of them, the top half of it folded back to reveal a chess piece. He reached into the fridge and pulled out another egg, cracking it open to take out the chess piece from within it. He tossed the piece across the room, and Teddie scrambled to catch it, dropping the remote and batteries in the process.

“What do you want me to do with this?”

The Emperor practically chucked the second piece at his head in response. “Line them up on the table or something useful! And don't lose those batteries, who knows if we need them.”

Sniffing in displeasure, Teddie shuffled across the room and set the two chess pieces down onto the table. “What are we going to do with a bunch of mismatched chess pieces?” he muttered, taking a third one from the man at the fridge and setting it on the table in a neat line.

“The High Priestess said to call her if we find anything out of place, so we'll give her a call after this.” The Emperor leaned over, searching the fridge for anything else that might be useful. There was along pause, during which Teddie mimed a meeting of the three chess pieces (a knight, a pawn, and a queen). “You never mentioned there was a box of grass in here.”

“Because that is really useless!” Teddie defended, automatically moving the pieces back into a straight line in case he was going to be scolded for that as well.

“We can't overlook anything!” the Emperor argued back. “We've been locked in a room by some crazy psycho bastard. I don't know about you, but I just won't accept that we'll never be able to find our way out of here. We've got just over eight hours to get out of this thing so quit your wining and tell me when you find something!”

Teddie hunkered down, lifting his shoulders up defensively around his ears. “I found some batteries?”

“I know that!” The Emperor took a deep breath as he straightened his posture. Then he rubbed the bridge of his nose before saying, “Sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you like that. We've got to work together, alright?” He pulled out the container of grass and turned it around in his hands. “For all we know, there could be something on the bottom under all the dirt.” He stepped towards the sink, preparing to dump all the dirt and plant into it.

Teddie scrambled forward, grabbing onto the Emperor's elbow before anything could happen. “Wait!”

It was obvious that the Emperor was doing his best to keep his temper in check. “What?”

“You have to eat it!”

The pause came again, long and tense, before a choked “What?” was finally drawn from the Emperor's lips.

“To reach the secret special message at the bottom of the container, you must eat everything that stands in your path! I saw it in a movie once.” The boy clenched his hand before him, feeling the sudden heat of excitement and a true quest rise up within him “The old man with the weird hand had to drink all the icky water. And no matter how much he cried, the hero would not let him give up!” He slapped a hand to the Emperor's shoulders, his eyes now alight with this fire. “You must eat the grass.”

Teddie could practically hear the cogs grinding to a halt in the Emperor's mind. “You have got to be shitting me.” He shook off Teddie's hand and turned back to the sink.

“Noooo!” Teddie wailed and latched onto his arm. Even though he pulled with all his strength, the Emperor didn't even appear to notice his efforts. “You have to eat it! You never know what you could be missing by dumping it all out!”

“What if I sift through it carefully before shoving it down your throat?!” the Emperor roared, turning on the smaller boy with a frightening glare.

“Eeee! No! I'm too young to die!” He dropped to the floor, covering his head with his hands and cowering there for several seconds. When his death by soil didn't come, he peered up from between his arms and watched the Emperor.

He was holding the plastic box tightly in his fist, taking several breaths through his nose. He very well could have stared down a charging bull and won with that kind of expression, but Teddie thought that maybe it was safer to keep that opinion to himself at the moment. “Why should anyone have to eat the grass?”

Teddie perked up, hoping this meant that his suggestion was going to be taken. “What would you lose by actually eating it?”

“I dunno, maybe my life? It could be poisonous! I don't even know if grass can be digested by humans!”

“But animals eat it all the time!” Teddie immediately regretted saying those words as soon as they left his mouth.

The Emperor's beady eyes widened, his face completely devoid of any emotion. Then he bent down and grasped Teddie by the collar of his shirt and hoisted him off the ground, leaving his feat to dangle several inches in the air. “Are you saying,” he breathed, voice low and menacing but completely calm, “that I'm an animal?”

Only a squeak of fear escaped Teddie.

“Huh?!” The Emperor's face got even closer. “What was that?”

“N-No, sir! I'm not!” Teddie squeaked again as he was dropped, landing on his feet but collapsing to his knees when his legs couldn't afford to hold him up. Tears welled up in his eyes, partly from pain, but also from a mixture of relief and fear threatening to overwhelm him.

The Emperor, for his part, had turned his back on Teddie and was leaning over the counter to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Call the High Priestess, alright?”

Teddie sniffled several times, then tilted his head to the side. “Huh?”

“I said call the High Priestess! Tell her we found some chess pieces and that there is probably a clue at the bottom of this box.”

“What are you going to be doing?” Teddie rose unsteadily to his feet, using the table as leverage. He fished his yellow phone out of his pocket.

The Emperor turned on him, and Teddie flinched back out of habit. Even though the man was glaring at him, there was something a bit embarrassed beneath the surface. “I'm going to be eating the grass!”

- Lovers -

“Is it just me,” Rise asked, “or is it starting to get warmer?”

“The fog does seem to be lightening up a bit,” the Fool agreed. He glanced over his shoulder. “We can see a lot better here than when we first left the room.”

“I guess we don't have to be on the look out for scary monsters then, huh?” The Magician grinned, maintaining his spot at the head of the group.

“I wouldn't be too sure about that.”

Both Rise and the Magician stopped, staring at the Fool with wide, fearful eyes. She could have sworn a shiver went down her spine. She looked back down the hall, where a few faint wisps of fog stretched toward them.

Then the Magician spoke, breaking the tension between the group. “You jerk.”

The Fool laughed, and Rise turned to see that he was grinning. Any trace of seriousness that his voice held was completely erased.

“Ooh! You totally had me going there for a moment!” Rise stomped her foot and pouted. “I thought something was going to come up and grab us!”

“I'm not saying that there isn't, but I would bet that we can relax a bit now.” He fended off a playful shove from the Magician. “Come on, I want to get to the other room before the fog catches back up with us.”

The trio struck off back down the hall, the Magician in the lead and following the directions that Rise gave him. Even though she had just met the two, she felt completely safe between them. The Fool had an especially calming air that defeated the lingering traces of fear.

“You're going to take a right up here, then the second left.” Rise pointed to the upcoming hall, studying the map for a second more. “We're almost there.”

“Excellent!” The Magician picked up his pace, rounding the corner and disappearing from their sight. This was shortly followed by a “Yargh!” and the clattering of wood on the floor.

Rise felt her heart jump into her throat, her feet faltering for a second as a chilling fear rooted her to the spot. “Magician?”

The Fool grabbed her by the wrist and tugged her along after. She had to watch her step around the figurines that spilled into the hall. They found the Magician standing with his back to them. “Are you alright?” the Fool asked, stepping up and grasping his shoulder.

“You told me we couldn't get phone calls!” he accused, whipping around to glare at Rise.

She blinked several times before glancing down at her phone. Sure enough, the signal was was there.

As the Magician flipped open his phone and held it to his ear, the Fool glanced back in the direction they had come. “It looks like the fog might have been what was disrupting the signal...” he mused.

“So as we left the fog behind, then the signal came back?” Rise tilted her head to the side. She hadn't heard of any kind of fog that could do that, but then again she had never been locked in a strange warehouse or whatever this was.

“Eh?! Ted, wait— Is that you?” The Magician's voice cut above her thoughts, and the sound of an actual name instead of one of the nicknames drew her attention into the phone call. It was obvious that the Fool was curious as well, but he was distracting himself with picking up the spilled figurines. The Magician glanced at them over his shoulder then dropped his voice lower, though it was still easy to hear. “ Yeah yeah yeah, it's me. Dude, just calm down before you wet yourself or something. And stop saying my name! I'm the Magician now.” He frowned, annoyance twitching at the corner of his mouth. “No, I'm not an actual magician!”

Rise stifled a laugh, but the Magician heard it anyway. He made a face at her, which she had the maturity to return with a wink.

“Yeah, we got figurines.” He tapped his foot impatiently, rolling his eyes up to the ceiling and heaving a sigh. It looked like a well-rehearsed action for whoever was on the other end of the line. “Can't I talk to the Emperor or something? You're giving me a headache.” There was a pause, before he suddenly jumped to attention. “Eh?! You made him eat grass?! What kind of stupid—why did he do that?”

“I'm starting to get the feeling that a lot of these people know each other. At least marginally.”

Rise looked up at the Fool, his arms laden with the wooden samurai figurines. She shrugged, returning her attention to the Magician.

The Fool read the question in her eyes. “Sounds like the High Priestess knows the Chariot and the Emperor. And now the Magician knows... the Star, I believe. If he's in the room with the Emperor.”

“Makes me feel a little lonely...” She blushed and focused her gaze on her feet. She could feel the Fool's stare on the back of her neck.

“I don't know anyone here, either. So don't feel too alone.”

“You look really close to the Magician. Like you guys have been friends for awhile.”

He went silent. Even though he was watching the Magician, she could tell that his thoughts were elsewhere. “I wouldn't know...”

Just before she could ask for clarification, the Magician stepped back over to them. He held his phone between his shoulder and his ear. “We got them, so just describe what the figurine looks like... No, we have a lot of them! I don't want to try every single one.” He started to go through the figurines in the Fool's arms. “No better description? Well, it looks like not all of them have a head that moves so that should make it easier.”

After a few seconds of searching, he took a step back in triumph and held aloft the samurai piece in question. “Repeat the pattern back to—no, slow down I'm not ready yet.”

Rise took the figurine from his hands, waiting patiently for the command.

“Alright. Twist the head first to the left. Back to the middle, then to the right. Middle, right--”

She did as she was told, rotating the bulbous samurai head first one way then the other. Once the Magician read off the last step, she gave a final twist and the head came off in her hands. “Tadaa!” she chimed, holding it out for the two of them to see. Sticking out of the neck was a key.

“Got it. Thanks. Tell the Emperor to... lie down or something. We'll get you out soon. Yeah, I know. I will. Okay. Bye.” He hung up the phone, sliding it into his back pocket and accepting his share of the figurines back from the Fool. “So it turns out that the Star is my roommate. A foreign exchange student that's going to the high school near where I live. My parents thought it would be a good idea to enlist the services of my apartment without telling me.” The Magician rolled his eyes, but despite that, there was a faint trace of fondness and concern in his expression. “I'm starting to feel like I failed at babysitting duty or something.”

“We'll get out of here,” Rise said, giving him a pat on the back and a winning smile.

His response was a dopey grin. Normally, she had to admit that she hated these kind of fanboys, who would just turn into sap the moment she put on her facade. But there was something honest and a bit endearing about the Magician's embarrassment around her. It was easier to relax around him and the Fool, that was one thing for sure.

“What direction do we go next?” the Fool prompted gently.

“Oh!” She glanced down at the phone, bringing the map back up on the screen. “Second left. It will be down that hall.” This time, Rise struck off in the lead, keeping the key in one hand and her phone in the other.

The two men filed in behind her in silence, although she could sense the excitement and the tension coming from them. It wasn't that hard to understand why: They were about to meet two more people, and who knew what they would be like. The Fool had certainly surprised her, acting rather different in person than when he was on the phone.

Rise sneaked a glance over her shoulder, watching the Fool and the Magician walk shoulder to shoulder with their arms laden with wooden samurai figurines. The Fool caught her gaze, and the corners of his eyes crinkled when he smiled.

She blushed, looking away for a second before forcing herself to return his stare. “We're here,” she announced. And without waiting for further instruction, she spun around and slipped the key into the lock and twisted it.

- Wheel of Fortune -

Naoto watched as the battery on her phone shrank just a fraction to announce 80% before she snapped it shut and closed her eyes. Her breath escaped her in a heavy sigh, and she tapped the phone against the bridge of her nose.

There was a sound at the other end of the room and she opened her eyes to see Justice pacing back and forth with one of the figurines in her hands. “Are you alright?”

Justice jumped, immediately going still and looking up in surprise. “Um...” she said, then returned her attention to the figurine. “I don't know. I was just hoping that something would come to me if I pondered over it long enough.”

“I don't know if the pacing helps any...”

“I'm sorry, was it bothering you?”

Naoto shook her head, letting a small smile tug at the corners of her lips. “No. I just think that a calm mind and a calm body might be more conducive to a burst of inspiration.”

Justice blushed. “I guess it's just another habit I picked up from my dad. This one time, he—” She cut herself off at the sound of muffled voices on the other side of the door.

Crossing the room in just a few quick strides, Naoto positioned herself just in front of Justice. Her hand twitched at her side, itching for a gun that she knew wasn't there. Her ears picked up the tell-tale sound of a key being inserted into a lock, and then the knob turned.

“Success!” a girl shouted, jumping into the room and dancing around in a small circle.

“One down, two to go!” A young man followed behind her, shouldering open the door. His hair was a carefully styled mess, though he had to knock the loose strands of it out of his eyes with a wild shake of his head. “Sorry, didn't mean to scare you to!”

“You didn't scare us, it just would have been nice if you called before hand so we could have expected you.” Justice lowered her hand, and Naoto noticed that she had been prepared to throw the figurine she was gripping.

“Oops. I guess we should have thought of that, huh?” the girl asked, turning to her companion.

Naoto stepped forward, relaxing her guard. “Which one of you is the Fool?”

“I am.” A tall, plain-faced young man stepped in next. His gaze was steady, but unsure. She watched as his eyes flickered around the room, studying each of the faces for several seconds before returning to Naoto's. “You're not the one I spoke to on the phone, so you must be Wheel of Fortune.”

She smirked, tugging at the brim of her hat by way of greeting. “You are correct. My companion here is Justice.”

The girl in question lifted a hand in an embarrassed wave.

“We're the Lovers and the Magician~” chimed the energetic newcomer, slipping her phone beneath the collar of her shirt. “We bring figurines!”

Naoto tilted her head to the side. While, certainly, they did need them, she never recalled it being brought up on the short phone call. “How did you know?”

“I had become so excited over the bookshelf I hadn't even thought to ask if you might have needed these. No one else mentioned figurines, and so I just figured that we'd bring them along just in case.” The Fool smiled apologetically and shrugged. “And the Star and the Emperor found a diagram on how to remove the head of one of them, in which we found a key.”

The Lovers drew out three keys from beneath her shirt. (Naoto wondered if that's where she kept everything on a regular basis.) “These were in my room. Oh, they each have something on them...” She held them out so the Fool and Naoto could see.

“Hey, Justice, do you want to help me out with these?” the Magician called, making the girl jump and blush in response.

“U-umm...” She looked to Naoto for assistance.

“Go ahead. There is bound to be something in that box. The two of you can figure that out while we figure out the keys.”

Justice nodded, hurrying forward to take the figurines from the Fool. “Here, I'll show you,” she said to the Magician as she lead him toward the back of the room.

Naoto joined the Fool in studying the keys that the Lovers held out between them. “Let us see... This one has a crescent moon and the unicode symbol for the sun. I don't believe that the Moon and the Sun were on our contact lists.”

He tapped his finger to his lips, his gray eyes maintaining their steady gaze. “No,” he said slowly, and Naoto could see the spark of an idea forming in his expression. “No, there is no Moon nor Sun, but we do have the Priestess and the Chariot in a room together.”

She furrowed her brow as the Lovers spoke up. “What? That doesn't make any sense. What would they have to do with these two symbols?”

“Common symbols found on both tarot cards,” Naoto said, the realization coming together in her mind as well. “The Chariot card often has the image of the sun, while the Priestess has the crescent moon on her crown.”

The Fool gave a curt nod, a smile playing at the corners of his lips. “Precisely.”

“So then this key,” she reached out and took the one that had the star and scepter, “would be for the Star and the Emperor.”

The Lovers followed the exchange between them, confusion obvious in her expression though she held her tongue. “Then what about this last one?” She held up the final key, on which the word mat was etched and nothing else.

If Naoto didn't know any better, she would have thought that a look of panic crossed over the Fool's face. But it quickly passed and was replaced by his normal lack of expression.

“Maybe it leads to the door out of here?” the Magician suggested as he came up behind their little group.

“So... Mat as in doormat?” The Lovers laughed. “I guess it works!”

“What did you guys find?” The Fool was trying to change the subject, though no one else seemed to notice – or at least not pay it any mind.

The Magician held up another piece of paper, his mouth set in a grim line. “A few candles and another letter.” He cleared his throat and shook out the paper. “The beginning doesn't start with one. You must realize by now that you're not alone in these halls. Please use these gifts to light your way on the path to truth. Mother hopes you stay safe.”

Justice stood behind him with her head lowered, clutching twelve candles in her arms. “We're never going to get out of here... Seven hours isn't nearly enough time.”

“Hey, don't say that.” The Fool moved around the group, kneeling down before her and gripping her shoulders. “We'll make it. We just have to keep going, and not allow ourselves any moment to stop and think.” He waited until she glanced up at him through lowered lashes. “Right?”

She hesitated, then nodded.

“Good girl.” He gave her head a fond pat as he rose back to his feet. “So, what steps do we want to take from here?”

Naoto studied him for a moment in silence. “Well, if it isn't too bold for me to suggest, would you want to take the leadership position?”

The Fool took a step back in surprise, glancing around at the others in a minor state of panic. “The leader?”

“I think you would make a great leader!” the Lovers chimed, lifting her hand into the air.

“Certainly there is someone more qualified... Yourself, perhaps—”

But Naoto laughed and shook her head. “Don't try to shirk your duties as the Fool,” she said, knowing full-well that he would understand her reference. Between all of them, he was the one that knew the cards the best.

Asides from herself, of course. But then again, she had put hours of research into tarot cards before she came here. And assuming the role of the leader would be giving too much away. Naoto shook her head again, dispelling the thoughts along with a sigh. No, she had promised herself that she wouldn't think of that while on the job.

That's all this was. Just another job.

“Right then, so we're going to follow the Fool, which sounds like a bad idea, but if Fortune says so...” The Magician laughed at his own joke. The letter was crumpled up in his fist.

“Well, we should split up. Fortune, Lovers, if the two of you can take this key to the Priestess and the Chariot. Justice, Magician, take this key and go to the Star and the Emperor.” The Fool took out his phone, studying the display for a moment before flicking it open and beginning to search through the menu. “I will send the map to each of you. Keep in mind, Justice and Fortune, that if the fog becomes too thick then your phone will lose signal.”

“What are you going to do?” Justice asked, still looking completely uncomfortable and nervous.

A wry smile pulled at his lips. “I don't do well in crowds or with meeting new people. It will be a good idea to keep someone behind in the room so just in case anyone needs to be contacted, they can call me.”

The Magician made a soft sound in understanding, though the meaning was lost on everyone else.

“There, you should all have the map now. For the Priestess and Chariot, the room with the II and VII, and the Star and Emperor will be IV and XVII.” He handed one key to Naoto and the other to the Magician. “I suggest you call them and tell them that you are on your way and that they can reach me if they need to. There shouldn't be much fog in the halls, but just in case keep in mind that I might not be accessible by you through the phones.”

Naoto resisted the urge to smile in satisfaction. Despite his protests, the Fool stepped into the role quite well. “Well then, Miss Lovers. Shall we be on our way?”

The Lovers uttered a soft squeal as her eyes widened. “Oh wow I feel like I'm going to be escorted by a charming prince~!”

“Hey, were the Fool and I not charming enough for you?”

“Hmm... I'd argue that the Fool could have been, but you on the other hand...”

The Magician let out a squawk of protest as he followed after her into the hall.

Naoto was about to follow them when she hesitated and looked back over her shoulder.

Justice was standing timidly next to the Fool, who waited for her to speak with the utmost patience. “You sort of... remind me of someone,” she finally said, locking her hands before her and shuffling nervously from foot to foot.

“I hope that is a compliment,” he teased.

“It is! I mean, it's just... You sort of remind me of my dad. And it makes me miss him a lot.”

The Fool rested his hand on top of her head. “It's going to be alright. I promise.”

She wiped at her eyes, nodded once, and Naoto turned away before she could be caught spying.

Interesting. This was something that she could have possibly overlooked while doing her research...

- Zero -

From: 0
Recipients: All

Subject: Progress Report

Good evening my little shadows. Here's an update so we're all on the same page: 2 hrs down, 7 to go. 5 of you are free while the rest are trapped in your cages.

--

From: 0
Recipients: All

Subject: PS

Heed Mother's warnings, but don't trust them. Her promises come with a price, and I'm trying to keep you from paying.


- Justice -

The text message had come as a surprise to both of them. Sure, the Fool had sent them a map in a text message, but there was something completely surprising (and very unsettling) about receiving a text message from some stranger without a name.

Nanako watched as the Magician's fingers curled into a first around his cell. “The bastard's toying with us...” he grumbled. His gaze was fixated on the screen.

She reached up, having already pocketed her phone, and closed her fingers around his. “It's going to be okay,” she said, although she wasn't too sure if she could believe her own words. “We shouldn't judge this person without knowing the full circumstances.”

“Full circumstances?! He kidnapped us, threw us into this warehouse thing, and locked us all in rooms. I mean, you're in high school for crying out loud.”

“My dad's a detective. I'm sure he's out there looking for me now. He'll get us out of here.” She clung to that hope almost as tightly as she was clinging to the Magician's hand.

His expression softened, and he slipped his hands from between hers to squeeze them gently. “And we'll all work together to get out of here, right?”

Nanako grinned, the nerves receding slightly as she did so. “Right!”

“Good! Okay. We're almost at the other room. Let's get moving before I give in to the urge to punch something.” The Magician took her hand and led her down the hall, following the map on his phone.

She trailed after, clutching the key in her free hand. Even though she was frightened out of her mind, everyone was very nice and understanding. She could tell they were all complete strangers, but there was something about the way they worked together that was comforting. They were watching out for her, and for each other.

“Here we are,” the Magician announced, coming to a stop in front of the door in question. “I just want to warn you now, but be prepared for the Star. He's, uh... a bit excitable.”

“Do you know him?”

“Er, yeah. He's my roommate of sorts. I don't know where he's from exactly, because it's really hard to get a straight answer out of him.” The Magician scratched the back of his head and shrugged. “He's a nice kid, but just hard to talk to.” He held out his hand for the key, which Nanako handed over.

The Magician studied the emblem on the head of the key before sticking it into the lock. Then he took a deep breath as if to prepare himself and pushed the door open.

A petite boy with stylish blond hair and bright blue eyes was standing eagerly in front of the door, visibly shaking although it didn't seem to be from fear. In fact, his face lit up completely as soon as he spotted the two of them, a brilliant smile taking over. “You came for me! Yosu—”

The rest of his joyous shout was cut off as the Magician lunged forward and wrapped his hand around the boy's mouth. “I told you! I'm the Magician. We were given nicknames for a reason, and so you better us them, alright, Star?”

The Star's response was muffled, though it was accompanied by a vigorous nod of the head.

The Magician released him and stepped back. “Where's the Emperor?”

“Over here...” The voice was low and gruff. Nanako was surprised to find that it belonged to a young man, probably around the same age as the Magician. Unlike the Star's natural blond, his hair was bleached, though the roots were starting to show a bit of discoloration.

And, very much unlike the Star, he was completely intimidating. Even while lying down with an obvious expression of discomfort on his face. It just made him look even more surly.

The Star took Nanako's hand as the Magician crossed the room. “You must be the Justice that the Magician mentioned on the phone.” His hands were warm and soft. “Imagine, finding such a cute girl while trapped in here. Never you fear, dear one. The Star is with you now.” He batted his eyes and lifted her hand to kiss her knuckles.

“U-uh...” Stuttering, Nanako covered her mouth with her other hand in surprise. “Thank you...?”

“Stop flirting with everything in a skirt, you little pervert!” the Magician shouted.

“I'm just being a gentleman!” the Star retorted, pouting and hunching his shoulders.

Nanako laughed. “It's okay. I don't mind.” This earned her a delighted smile from the Star and an eye roll from the Magician. She joined him next to the Emperor. “Are you feeling alright?”

“I would be better if this stupid idiot didn't keep singing.” He glared up at the Star.

“Yeah, he does that. You've heard the pop-tart song, then?”

The Emperor groaned in pain just thinking about it. “I've heard the pop-tart song.”

“What's the pop-tart song?” Nanako looked between the three of them.

“Don't ask,” the Magician said with a pained expression of his own. “Listen, it's probably best if the Emperor rests a bit longer, so I'm going to call the Fool.”

Panic began to well up in the pit of her stomach. “B-but... didn't the letter say not to travel alone?”

The Magician rose from his crouch, flipping open his phone. “It'll be okay. The fog hasn't set in yet.” He wandered away from the group as he made the call.

Nanako watched him for a few seconds. “So, what did you guys find in here?”

“Umm...” The Star ticked each off on his finger as he listed them. “A few chess pieces for the Priestess and Chariot, the clue about the samurai head—” (“Don't remind me,” the Emperor muttered) “—some matchsticks, and there's something by the TV that we can't get into just yet.”

“We need the playing cards for that.” The Emperor was staring at the ceiling, one arm tucked behind his head as a pillow. “And we got to get those from the Priestess and Chariot.”

“The Lovers and Fortune are heading over that way now. We'll decide what to do next when we hear back from the Fool.”

The Emperor tilted his head back to get a better look at her. She wanted to shy away from it, but her dad had always taught her not to back down, even if it was a glare from a rough biker. And maybe it was because he was feeling sick, but his gaze wasn't as harsh as she had been expecting. “I guess that's a good a plan as any,” he finally said, and Nanako let out a breath she hadn't realized she had been holding.

“Alright so the Fool is on his way. We'll just have to wait here until he arrives.” The Magician returned to their group, plopping down with a sigh.

She hugged her knees to her chest, studying the houndstooth pattern of her skirt. She picked at a loose thread, reminding herself to fix it once she's home, as the Star started humming.

“You're from Inaba, aren't you? Yasogami High.”

The question shocked her out of her thoughts, and she stared down at the Emperor with wide, frightened eyes. “How—?”

“I thought that uniform looked familiar! Damn, I must have completely blocked those three years from my memory.”

Nanako hugs her knees even closer, as if it would be able to bock the skirt. “So the two of you went there as well?”

“I wouldn't exactly say I attended,” the Emperor replied, his embarrassed expression rather out of place on his rough features.

“It was years ago.” The Magician sighed. “I hated it. But I guess that happens when you don't have any real friends, a job you hate, and a moron for a teacher, right?” He tried to laugh it off, but the sound just made Nanako feel uncomfortable in how fake it was. “Moved right back to the city as soon as I could though, and then I got saddled with this guy.” He gave the Star a friendly slap on the shoulder. “I guess my parents felt it was just punishment for bailing on them or something.”

There as a knock on the door, and they all turned around to see the Fool standing in the doorway. His phone was held out in front of him. “I left the candles in the other room,” he said by way of greeting. “You guys doing okay here?”

“Just reliving our horrible high school experiences,” the Magician said, a smile immediately coming to his face as he stood up.

“I'm sure I've got you all beat for horrible high school experiences.” The Fool returned the smile, though the edges of it were strained as he fixed his eyes on everyone in the room.

The Magician faltered slightly, though it shifted into a pout. “Yeah, alright, but I'm talking about those of us with relatively normal experiences.”

“What makes yours not normal?” the Star questioned, jumping to his feet and moving over to join in on the conversation.

Nanako watched the Fool's smile tighten even further and unease settling into his posture. “Just a bad accident, is all.” His gaze flickered to the Emperor. “Do you think you can stand?”

“I'm feeling a bit better now.” The young man hauled himself to his feet, and Nanako waited until he was steady before rising as well. “We heading over to the other room?”

“I think that would be best. I haven't heard from the others, but I would imagine that they'll try to call when they join up. Still no fog, so we'll be okay if we hurry.”

Nanako noticed that, even though his grey eyes moved to everyone in turn, the Fool kept them on the Magician more often than not. The Magician in turn didn't seem bothered by it if he noticed at all. She wanted to ask about it, but knew that it would be rude to call attention to someone's odd habits, especially someone she didn't even know.

The Emperor swiped the chess pieces from the table and shoved them into the pocket of his jeans. “Alright, let's get this show on the road before that grass comes back to haunt me.”

No one decided to question what he meant by this.

- High Priestess -

Even though she knew it was Kanji, it was still a shock to see him in person. He was taller than she remembered, which was silly now that she thought about it because he had always been tall and she could recall him standing in the back of a room, awkward and menacing at the same time.

“It's good to see you again,” Yukiko said with a soft smile. It took him a bit of effort to return the gesture.

Chie was focused on Justice. “Oh wow! Yasogami High uniform!” She waved a hand at Yukiko, her eyes alight. “Those were the days, huh?”

The Magician was hovering near the back of the group, shoulder to shoulder with the Fool despite the chance to spread out into the room. “Weren't the two of you in my class...?” he asked.

Chie and Yukiko glanced at him, then looked at each other. “Second year,” Chie said slowly.

“Yeah, and I tried to ask you out during first year,” he said to Yukiko, laughing at the memory.

She furrowed her brow, trying to recall just what he was talking about. “I don't really remember...”

“Ouch, that sort of hurts.” He winced, but his grin showed that he meant no harm by it.

“Now that we're all together,” the Wheel of Fortune spoke up, his voice cutting above the chatter in the room. Everyone immediately went quiet. “Fool, is there any particular route you wish to take?”

Yukiko took this chance to study the Fool when everyone turned to look at him. He balked under the attention, but swallowed it and cleared his throat.

“First thing is first, we need to figure out what these chess pieces do. Then we need to split up again. One half will take the playing cards to the room that the Emperor and the Star were in.” Despite his unease, she was amazed at how well he was taking control of the situation.

“Um...”

Everyone's attention swiveled down to Justice, who blushed and hung her head. “I was just wondering if we could talk about those letters and the messages from Zero.”

“No, no we can't,” Chie snapped, pounding her fist into her hand. “Because that jerk gives me very strong feelings, and they are mostly the despite for him to feel a very strong kick to the face.”

“I'm with you on that one,” Kanji grumbled. “I don't like it. Not one bit. It means that he's monitoring our movements. Probably up in some control room laughing with that bitch calling herself Mother.”

Fortune cut in, his soft voice once again carrying above the noise. “I'm not too sure about that.”

“Why would you say that?” the Lovers protested. “You've read the letters and the texts. You've been right here in these rooms with us. What makes you think that they could be any different?”

“The key line is in the post script that Zero sent. Essentially, he said keep in mind what Mother said but don't trust it.”

“Oh, and like we could trust him.” Chie rolled her eyes. “If we ever find him, we'll punch first, ask questions later.”

There was a murmur of agreements from the crowd, though Yukiko only frowned and maintained her silence. There was a still a lot that they didn't know about the situation. Jumping to a conclusion one way or the other was not going to help them make the right choice.

“The chess pieces, if you please.” Fortune's eyes were dark and annoyed. It was strange to think that he would be so troubled over everyone not trusting mysterious, faceless strangers. It was one thing to trust each other, because they were all in a similar position. But Mother and Zero weren't amongst them, and it was obvious that they knew the entire situation.

With a harrumph, Kanji fished them out of his pocket and slapped the three pieces into Fortune's palm.

The smaller young man frowned at this behavior but otherwise kept his mouth shut. He placed the pieces on their respective squares, then pressed down on all three of them at the same time. When he straightened his posture, Fortune revealed a pair of tiny keys.

The Fool once again stepped in to take charge. “Priestess and Chariot, please go with the Emperor and the Magician back to the other room with the playing cards. Lovers, if you can escort Fortune, Justice, and the Star back to the room where you found us with those keys and try them on the drawers of the desk.”

“Aye-aye!” Lovers chimed, offering a salute as she tucked her arm around Fortune's. “Come along then~”

“What about you?” Yukiko turned back toward him as everyone started to move to the door.

He offered her a weak smile. “I'm not feeling too good. It's the first time in a long while that I've been around so many people for a long time, and it's giving me a bit of a headache.”

She tilted her head to the side, but didn't press the topic. “Will you be alright?”

“I'll be fine, thank you. I'll remain behind in case you can't contact anyone in the other party. Don't hesitate to call me if you guys need help.” This time, his smile was a bit more genuine, though it did little to set her at ease.

“We'll be back!” Chie slung her arm around Yukiko's shoulder and pulled her out of the door. “Man, I thought he had a nice voice, but he's kinda handsome in a strange sort of way,” she muttered in a low tone.

Yukiko offered a noncommittal sound, allowing herself to be led into the hall. The Magician and Kanji were waiting for them. She could hear the sound of the Lovers and the Star chatting down another branch of the hall.

“The fog is settling in, so keep an eye on the signal on your phone,” the Magician warned. He had his phone out, a map illuminating the screen.

“Ugh, just what we need. Another factor to watch out for.” Chie heaved a sigh and shoved her hands into the pockets of her jacket.

They were halfway to the room when their phones went off simultaneously.

Since the Magician had his out, he was the first to read the message. He didn't say anything, but his face turned grim and he wavered in his spot. “I'm going back,” he announced.

“W-what? Are you sure that's a good idea?” Chie glanced up from her phone.

“Do you want one of us to go back with you?”

The Magician smiled at her offer but shook his head. “No, I'll be okay. The three of you keep going. I just don't think that anyone should be alone right now. Even if he is in one of the rooms, I'm still a little worried. Besides, with the fog picking up, it'll be better to have to people in the room to call.”

Yukiko nodded in understanding. “Be careful, alright?”

“Same to you,” he called over his shoulder. “Give us a call when you find something.”

“Kind of sketchy...” Chie bit her lower lip, glancing after where the Magician disappeared to and the road in front of them. “Let's get out of the hall before we decide anything. He's right, it is starting to get cold.”

Kanji had his phone out and he was glaring at the text message on it. “This guy seriously knows how to piss me off.” With a few quick presses of the buttons, he brought up the map on his own phone and struck off in the opposite direction as the Magician.

Yukiko pressed her hand against the lump her cellphone made in her pocket.

- Zero -

From: 0
Recipients: All

Subject: Update

Wonderful job my little shadows. All of you have been freed and you still have 6.5 hrs left! Mother doesn't like to lose, though, so don't celebrate just yet.


- Magician -

Yosuke jogged all the way back to the room, glancing down at the map on his phone every so often to make sure he was going the right way. The door was still open, and so he stepped right in without knocking. He found the Fool sitting on the couch with his head in his hands.

“I thought I told you to go with the others, Magician.” The Fool didn't lift his head, and Yosuke wondered just how he knew who it was.

“I don't know if you saw, but we got another message from Zero.” He dropped down onto the couch as well, sighing as he stretched out his legs. “Besides, the fog is picking up. I figured it would be a good idea to have two of us in the room to contact.”

“I saw.” The blue phone was on the cushion between them. The Fool hesitated a moment before he laughed and said, “That's a rather good idea. Maybe I should put you in charge instead.”

Yosuke decided to ignore any traces of sarcasm in the statement. “No thanks. I'm still voting you for team captain. But hey, you doing okay there, Partner?” He winced as soon as the word left his mouth. It was a word that his dad always used around the business. When did he even pick it up from his old man?

He saw the corners of the Fool's mouth twist, starting to form a smile though it fell too quickly. “No. I'm trying really hard to put names and faces and voices together. Any little thing I can do to make up a person to try and make the face stick. Your footsteps, for instance. The zippers on your jacket jingle when you walk.”

“So that's how you knew it was me?” He whistled. “That's pretty impressive.”

“When you can't trust your eyes, you have to rely on your other senses.” The Fool finally sat up, staring at the far wall for several seconds before turning to look at Yosuke. “Thanks for looking out for me.”

Yosuke winked and gave his most charming smile. “That's what second in command does, right?”

“Hmm, I was thinking about making Fortune my lieutenant and just keeping you as my personal sanity keeper. You'll have to whisper everyone's names to me when we meet up again, because I won't be able to remember them.”

His grin fell. “Oh come on, that's not fair. Why don't you just tell the others? I'm sure they'd understand.”

The Fool shook his head, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “We're an unstable group right now. It wouldn't do them any good to have the leader they look up suffer from head trips.”

“Are you mocking the trust I have in you?”

The strange young man looks up, tilting his head to the side to watch Yosuke with his unblinking gaze. “I apologize. I didn't realize. I've forgotten what it's like to have a familiar face next to me.”

“Don't be sorry. Just have a little more confidence, alright? I know you have a hard time remembering faces and names, and I know I have no hope of even trying to understand how that must feel, but you're doing a great job so far. So just keep that in mind.” Yosuke looked away, rubbing at his earlobe in embarrassment. “Man, this is awkward.”

The Fool laughed, relief evident in his voice. “Then we can stop with the sappy emotional scene.”

“Deal.”

“Would you like to play a game of chess while we wait?”

Yosuke watched the Fool pull the forgotten chess set across the coffee table toward them. “I don't know how to play.”

“It's easy. Here, I'll teach you...”

The two of them spent the next half hour playing chess, taking a break at one point to answer the phone calls from the two groups. The Emperor's group uncovered a row of buttons with different shapes that changed colors depending on how many times they were pushed. Fortune's group found two notebooks, one which illustrated what he claimed to be the Fool's Journey found on the tarot cards, as well as a key and a note taped to the back of the sinking ship picture that had been hanging on the wall.

“I thought we had checked behind that picture after we took it down...” Yosuke muttered, frowning down at the Fool's phone as they listened to Fortune explaining their finds.

“Well, either you didn't, or someone came in later to place it here,” he said. His voice was grim as he read off the letter. “Do you trust Pandora's box? Fragile bonds can be broken in an instant. Here's a little gift from me to you. Let he who is without fear be the first to break the silence. Mother wishes you all the best of luck. The key fits into that box that was on the desk.”

“Have you opened it yet?”

“No.” There was a hint of wry amusement in Fortune's voice. “I was outvoted, three to one. We'll bring it back with us.”

“Good. The others are on their way back right now. We'll see you shortly.” The Fool leaned forward and ended the phone call, leaving the phone open on the table before them.

“Did we really forget to check behind the picture?”

The Fool shrugged, running his hand along his chin in thought. “I don't remember. Once we took it down, all we could think about was the key across the hall and then the Lovers showed up.”

“Man, I can't believe we could have overlooked something like that! I don't know if I like that any better than the idea that someone could have planted it after we left, though.” Yosuke mussed up his hair, gripping at the roots and giving it a firm tug to try and pull his thoughts back together. “There's still so much left to do...”

“And just under six hours to do it,” the Fool agreed. “There are a lot more factors in here than there are in normal escape games. I'm hoping that I'm not out of my depth here...”

“Dude, if you start getting all unsure on me now, I swear I'll punch you so hard even your fusion gigas or whatever will be reeling.”

Unexpected laughter tumbled from the Fool's lips, and no matter how hard he tried to stop it, it just got worse. Soon he was doubled over with laughter, running his hand back through his hair and rubbing at his eyes.

Embarrassed, Yosuke pouted and fidgeted nervously with his bangs. “Okay, it wasn't that funny.”

“No, it's not that. It's just... I've spent almost ten years with people treating me like I had some horrible, unspeakable disease. And then here you come, three hours into my life, and making jokes about it.” He held up a hand to stifle any protests. “That's a good thing. It's been awhile since anyone treated me normally after hearing about my condition.”

Quite certain that he was blushing like a school girl, Yosuke buried his face in his hands and groaned. “Stop talking. I think I'm going to be nauseous with all these positive feelings you're oozing.”

He felt the tips of the Fool's fingers alight on his shoulder, but before either of them could react, the Chariot's voice carried through the open door. The Fool's hand sprung away immediately.

“Holy cow it is freezing out there!” She crossed over the doorway into the room, trailing faint wisps of fog along with her. “And look at you two lazy bums enjoying a nice game of chess in the warm room.”

The Priestess was next. “Soon it's going to be too hard to see anything. Our cellphones were barely enough to light the way back.” Her dark eyes darted back to the hall, nervous. “We took a picture of the buttons and wrote down the order of the colors of the lights. But beyond that there was nothing much else we could do.”

The Emperor came barging into the room, his eyes wide with what Yosuke could only guess to be fear. “I swear, there is something out there in the fog. It's not just natural the way it gets so thick.” He shook himself off, adjusting his leather jacket and raking his hair back. “And I could have sworn that something grabbed my leg.”

“We're waiting on Fortune to return with the others. There were some candles in the other room. Maybe we should go and get those...” Yosuke sat up straighter. “What do you think, oh fearless leader?”

The Fool, however, wasn't listening. His grey eyes were wide with undisguised panic. They jumped back and forth between the three newcomers.

“Hey... Partner?” Ugh, that word again. “You okay there?”

The Priestess rounded the table and knelt down before him. “Fool? Can you hear me?” She reached up to touch his shoulder, but his hand jerked up from his lap and smacked hers away.

“Hey—” the Chariot warned and took a step closer.

“He's not—”

“Who?”

“The Emperor! He's not the Emperor. The fog—”

“The hell I'm not the Emperor!” He held up his arm, the silver wristband flashing in the light. “Says so right here, doesn't it?”

The Fool shook his head, jumping to his feet and pushing his way between the others. “No, no you're not. You've replaced him.” His fingers curled around the collar of the Emperor's jacket, pushing him back towards the door with surprising force.

“Stop that!” The Priestess struggled back to her feet as well as Yosuke and the Chariot moved to pull the Fool away.

“He's lying!” The Fool struggled against Yosuke's grip, almost breaking free until the Chariot shoved him back and placed herself between him and the Emperor. “There are shadows in the fog – evil shadows. They pretend to be people we know but they're just empty reflections!”

“The only thing that's going to be reflecting is my fist from your jaw if you don't knock that off!” The Emperor cracked his knuckles as a warning.

Yosuke spun the Fool around, digging his fingers into the Fool's shoulders to keep him still. “Stop it,” he hissed, giving him a firm shake. “Didn't you just tell me you hated people treating you differently? That everyone has to handle you with care because of your head.”

“This isn't—”

“Yes, it is!”

The Fool opened and closed his mouth several times, half-formed sounds spilling out but not enough to be counted as words. The panic was still there in his eyes, but it was slowly being replaced by guilt.

“What's going on in here?”

Everyone but the Fool spun around to see Fortune standing in the doorway, framed by Justice, Teddie, and the Lovers. He was holding the box in his hands while the Teddie was clutching the journals to his head as if he had been trying to balance them.

“He just started to freak out for no reason, saying I wasn't the Emperor and that something in the fog replaced me or some shit.” Again, the Emperor adjusted his jacket. “Tried to shove me out the door.”

Only Fortune didn't seem surprised. In fact, he seemed quite calm about the whole situation. “I see,” was all he said as he stepped into the room and put the box down on the table.

“What, you're not going to spazz about any of them? Huh?” The Emperor gestured at the group that shuffled in nervously from the hall. “Or do you just got something against me?”

The Fool kept his back to the room, his wide eyes boring holes into the floor by his feet. He still seemed to be incapable of speaking.

Yosuke's grip slackened, then fell from his shoulders. “He's got this head thing going on that he can't remember people's faces. He can connect names to voices, but then throw a visual into the equation and everything gets all messed up.”

“Prospagnosia. I see. Fascinating.” Fortune separated himself from the group and came to join Yosuke. “I can't exactly say it explains anything more than this situation, but I can now see how troubles arise. Though I still do find it curious that if you have hard time remembering faces, why would you constantly try to avoid ours?”

“I'm not—” the Fool started, this his voice failed him. He gulped and tried again. “I'm not avoiding them. I get overwhelmed easily when I am around too many people. You must understand, I've been on my own for nearly ten years. This is the first time in a long time I've been asked to remember so many people at once.”

“Then... it will be fine if you don't have to see our faces, right?” This time, everyone's attention shifted to Justice. She fidgeted beneath the stares, but continued on. “If we cover his eyes, for instance. Then he can just hear our voices and not have to worry about associating faces.”

A small smile pulled at Fortune's mouth. “Spoken like a true image of Justice.”

The girl blushed and tugged nervously at her hair in response.

“Priestess, if I may?”

“What? Oh...” The Priestess touched the scarf that she wore around her neck. She untied the knot and handed it over.

Yosuke surprised himself by stepping forward and taking the scarf instead. “I'll do it.” When he returned to the Fool, he was met with a pleading stare.

“Please don't do this to me,” he muttered, low enough so only Yosuke could hear.

“I've got to. It won't be for that long, I promise.” The Fool lowered his head, and so Yosuke took that as the invitation to tie the scarf in place. He adjusted it, made sure it wouldn't slip, and knotted it off. “Is that okay?”

“It's fine.” The Fool lifted a hand to tug the strands of his hair from under the scarf, then gave it an awkward pat.

Fortune clapped his hands. “Now that we've taken care of that, we've got to figure out what our next step is. I for one think we should open the box.”

“Don't you think that's being a little too hasty?” the Fool countered. “We don't know what can be in it. And I'm sure most of us know the story behind the name Pandora's box.”

“All the bad things escape when it's opened...” Justice muttered.

“I don't like the sound of that one bit,” Teddie said, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Well, does anyone have any better ideas?”

“What's in the journals that you brought back with you?” The Priestess sat down on the couch and pushed the chess set out of the way.

Fortune took the top one from Teddie and handed it over. “This is an illustrated version of the Fool's Journey. However, instead of becoming more hopeful and positive towards the end like the original, the Fool cracks under the pressure of the past that he cannot accept. It ends with him falling into madness.”

Yosuke can feel the Fool waver in his spot. “And the second?”

“Blank.”

“Though it does smell kind of funny. Like juice!” Teddie offered, holding this one aloft.

“We've got less than six hours to solve these puzzles. I suggest you split up again, and half of you go to the Emperor's room. See if you can't start figuring out that pattern with the buttons. The others, head back to Fortune's room. I do believe that's where the candles were left. We'll need to find a way to light them, but they will hopefully provide better light than the cellphones.” Despite the unease that Yosuke could feel coming from the Fool, he spoke with confidence and didn't let his voice waver. He knew that the others were relying on him, even despite his panic attack.

Justice took a few hesitant steps forward, separating herself from the rest of the crowd to stand closer to the pair of them. “And what about you?”

“I'll be here with the Magician. I need him to be my eyes because I can no longer trust mine.” The Fool touched the scarf covering half of his face before forcing his hand back down to his side. “Thank you for worrying about me.”

She reached out and took his hand between both of hers. “I still believe you,” she whispered, then blushed as she ran back to Teddie's side.

“About the candle thing...” The Emperor reached into his pockets and, after a moment of searching, pulled out a handful of matches. “We found these in our room.”

“Give them to whoever is going to fetch the candles?” Yosuke suggested. “Or how about we split them up between everyone. Leave some here, and then each group can have a few.”

The Emperor did so, passing a few over to Yosuke and Justice before pocketing the rest.

“Emperor, Priestess, Chariot, I will join you on the way back to the other room. Lovers, please take the Star and Justice back to the room you found us in.” Fortune doled out the instructions like a seasoned leader, adjusting his cap as he did so. “The Fool is right: Haste is of the utmost importance. But do be careful in the halls and don't get separated. The fog is getting thicker, and that means all cellphone use will be restricted to when you are safe in a room.”

“Let's go then!” The Lovers whipped out her phone from beneath her shirt and struck off toward the door with confidence. Justice and Teddie, who was still holding the blank journal, followed after.

“Check in when you get to your rooms,” the Fool called just as the other four were preparing to leave. “We'll figure out our next step from there.”

Yosuke listened as the sounds of everyone's footsteps were quickly swallowed by the fog. Just one look out the door and he shivered, glad that he was remaining in the room. The relief was short lived, however, when he heard Teddie's voice floating back down the hall.

“MY LITTLE SHAAADOOOWS DON'T YOU KNOW YOU'RE MY VERY BEST FRIIIEEEEENDS~~”

“That dumb bear,” he muttered, standing nervously by the door. He bit his lower lip, then glanced back at the Fool over his shoulder. “Listen, I'm a little worried about those three. I'm afraid that the Star is going to go and do something very stupid that could possibly hurt the Lovers and Justice.”

“You can go after them if you want.”

“I'll be right back. Don't... go anywhere.” It was a stupid thing to say, and the smirk on the Fool's lips let him know that.

“Where would I go?” The bitterness in his voice wasn't even disguised.

Yosuke winced but wouldn't let his decision waver. “I'll be right back.” He took off down the hall before he could see the expression on the Fool's face.

- The Fool -
(?)

Another self, born out of madness.

That's what he had to pretend to be.

He hated playing the fool, having to be lumped in with that nothing – that nobody, Zero. He secretly called himself the “New World Fool”. She liked him better anyway. He was her choice for the new world, her world. He would be her fool, and she would be the queen.

Even though he promised he would play by the rules, there was no way he was going to stay cooped up in that little room while all those brats ran around in the halls. He could hear the shadows clamoring, demanding attention when food was so close by.

He will just slip in, quiet as a ghost. While the leader of the brat pack was still blind, that was the best time to strike. Mother would enjoy the little trick, even if it was against the rules.

The Fool covered his victim's eyes, tried not to laugh. “Guess who?” he whispered. They sounded just the same. And if he believed the tales that Mother spun, then it would be more than enough that they sounded the same.

“Who--?”

“Ah, no, it wouldn't do you any good if you saw me. You wouldn't remember anyway. Besides, it's no good to see the true self before it's time.”

“... She sent you, didn't she?”

He laughed, a high, strained sound that made the boy wince. “You're the one that sent for me. I'm just in your mind. You called, the fog obeyed.”

He scrambled for the cloth.

“Nope, no good! Won't do you any good. You'll just have to drive yourself crazy by hearing your own voice whispered by a twisted mouth. And you'll just picture your own face when you try to imagine who I am, because that's all you see if you peek: You'll just see a reflection of yourself.”

He swung, wild, hit only air.

Laughing again, he faded back into the fog.

- The Magician -

“I swear, no matter how many times I tell him to behave he just—” Yosuke cut himself off when his eyes adjusted to the brightness in the room.

The Fool was doubled over, clutching at his head and muttering to himself. He didn't seem to notice that Yosuke had entered the room.

“Hey...” When he got no response, he walked over and crouched down before him. “Hey.”

The Fool reeled back in surprise, tripping over his own feet and falling hard onto the floor. “Stop it!”

“Stop what? It's just me!” He reached out and grasped the hand that was trying to push away the invisible attacker. “What's wrong?”

“Magi—” He choked on the second half of the word, taking a deep breath before pulling at the cloth covering his eyes. “I can't have this on any more. I can't. I might not be able to trust my eyes but at least I will be able to see—”

Yosuke caught onto both hands, pulling them away. “What happened?”

The Fool's next breath was strained and heavy. It hitched at the end in a barely contained sob. “I'm going mad. That book was right, I'm going to go mad and my shadow is going to haunt me from the fog.” He clutched his head and rocked in place, his words dropping to a murmur.

Still having no clue as to what happened when he stepped out of the room, Yosuke struggled with trying to pull the Fool back together. “You're not going to go mad, and nothing is going to get you.” With one mighty tug, he managed to get the Fool to his feet. “Do you want to take off the scarf?”

“I'll put it back on when the others return. But if it's just you, then I can manage. I don't want to forget your face, too.” This time, when he moved his hands to the scarf, Yosuke didn't try to stop him. So he slipped it off over his head – making his silver hair stick out at odd angles. His eyes danced around the room, taking in every little detail.

Yosuke's did as well. As far as he could tell, nothing was out of place, but the Fool was obviously not as satisfied. “Are you going to tell me what happened?”

“I can't. You wouldn't believe me. I don't really believe me, but I guess that is sort of the problem in the first place.” He sighed and let his head fall into his hand. “I can't even trust my hearing any more.”

He led the Fool over to the couch, and they both sat down. The journal with the Fool's Journey was open to a random page, though Yosuke didn't take the opportunity to study it. “Hey, can I tell you something?”

The Fool looked up from the illustration. “What?”

Debating for a moment if what he was doing was the best idea, Yosuke reached up and tugged at his hair nervously. “My name.”

“Why?” It wasn't a question to disagree with him. It was spoken with confusion and a hint of excitement.

“You said it yourself. You don't want to forget my face, right?”

The Fool scratched the back of his neck. Well, at least he looked embarrassed about what he had said.

“After this is all over,” Yosuke continued, forging on ahead before he could lose his determination, “we should... meet up or something. I mean, with the others too. If they're down for it.” The words were coming out in a rush of nervousness now. “Okay, yeah, so this is a really weird place to make friends or even think that we could be friends or something but I don't really think I'll ever be the same after an experience like this. And I just think that... having someone around who has been through something similar would be nice. You know...?”

There was a long silence, but just before he could apologize the Fool finally spoke up. “What is it?”

“Huh?”

“Your name.”

“Oh. Uh. Yosuke. Yosuke Hanamura.”

The Fool's eyes went wide, not quite in the same way that the panic overtook him when he confused the Emperor. This was more like the horrified expression of someone who realized that he had just done something very very bad. “So this—” he started before letting the rest of the idea die in his throat.

Yosuke waited, trying to decide what to make of this reaction. “Is there... something wrong with my name?”

He shook himself out of it, though there was no erasing the image of that expression. “No, nothing's wrong.” He hesitated before starting to speak. “My name is—”

His phone decided to ring at that moment. The Fool scrambled for the phone and held it up to his ear. He suddenly jumped to his feet and gave a shout. “The Lovers says she thinks she found the door out of here!”

The words took several seconds to finally sink into his brain. Then Yosuke jumped to his feet as well. “How are we supposed to find them?”

The Fool was listening intently to the phone, then nodded once. “Got it. See you then.” He let out a heavy breath. “She's going to text me directions. They took a wrong turn and found a locked door. We'll wait for Fortune, the Emperor, the Chariot, and the Priestess before we join up with them. The fog hasn't reached that far yet, either, so that's why they can use the phones.”

Yosuke punched the air and bounced on the balls of his feet. “Finally! We are so out of here!”

- The Chariot -

If Fortune hadn't kept reminding her to stick with the group, Chie would have sprinted all the way to the locked door. As it was, she kept straying as close to the edge of the soft light given off by the cell phones. They were walking so slow!

Of course, they were trying to keep a pace that the Fool could keep up with. Yukiko had offered her hand to him, and the Magician followed close behind.

Kanji was obviously just as eager as she was. They both had the same goal in mind: Get out of there, then find whoever it was that stuck them there and kick the living daylight out of him.

They left the fog behind them a few turns ago, and the signal strength was beginning to return to the cellphones. But all that didn't matter.

They were getting out of there.

The Lovers was standing with her hands locked behind her back, while Justice and the Star sat to either side of the doorway. “Good, you all made it!” She smiled brightly, bouncing on the balls of her feet with barely contained excitement. “Who is ready to go home?!”

“Me!” Chie shouted, a cheer that was chorused by the others.

Despite this, the Star looked a little downcast. “The adventure is coming to an end...” he muttered.

The Magician rolled his eyes. “This is more than enough adventure to last a lifetime. Just stick to video games and movies, okay?”

The Lovers pulled out the final key with a grand flourish. “And here we go.” She stuck the key into the lock, twisted it, and they all froze when they heard the bolt draw back.

Frustrated, Chie shoved her way to the front of the group and pulled the door open. They were all momentarily blinded by the bright light that flooded into the dark halls. But once her eyes focused, all of the excitement she had simply plummeted down to her feet like a rock.

It was another dead end.

The man in the chair looked up when they entered and grinned.

- The Fool -

Countdown: Three...

Two...

One...

Zero.

The door swung open.

He tried not to let the mania show. Showtime.
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