A/N: I wrote this a while back and realized I never posted it here, so hey, why not. Some chapters need to be fixed up, so I'll upload them as I do so.
The POV in the first chapter is Junpei's; in the next ones, the POV characters will be Seven, Ace and the 9th Man.
Cover art by Tigresscherrytea on Tumblr.
For several instants as he stared at the scene, a scrawny guy with impossible hair and a very precarious grip on his sanity holding a knife to a girls' neck, Junpei couldn't truly think of anything.
Not because he wasn't worried – hell, the guy looked positively insane and ready to use that knife and he still had no idea where they even were and what the fuck was going on, so how could he not be worried? – but because a sudden thought as now echoing in his mind, over and over again, for no apparent reason.
This won't end well. Can't end well. I've seen this before. Something happens afterward. Something. Something horrible. Something…
But what, Junpei wondered frantically, what would happen? Something horrible? Why was he so sure that something horrible would happen?
"Just verify your number like this little b-brat did."
The man's words snapped Junpei from his thoughts. The man was staring at Ace, his breathing quick and sweat pouring down his face. For someone who seemed to currently have the upper hand, he sure seemed scared to death. Junpei glanced at Ace, who was staring at the man with the number  bracelet in confusion. That, apparently, didn't sit well with that guy. Not at all.
"What are you doing?! D-Do it! D-Don't you care what h-happens to her?!" he snapped, but his voice failed to stay firm even now. Still, it was enough to make Ace recoil and lift his hands.
"O-Okay, okay. Just calm down…" he said quietly, and took a step forward towards the device, then another…
Later on, Junpei wouldn't be able to tell why he had exactly called out; he just had, out of instinct; he couldn't shake off the feeling something terrible may happen if he didn't stop that man now. He could feel everyone's eyes on him, but the only person he kept staring at was that off, crazed guy – who, on the other hand, was staring back at him with widened eyes. All of a sudden, he looked terribly lost; as though he simply had no idea how he should react. Junpei could see him swallowing before speaking again.
"W-what is it?" he asked, his voice shaking. His grip on Clover seemed to tighten, and she winced.
"Look, you… may not want to do this," Junpei spoke, barely even registering the words he was uttering.
The man seemed taken aback. "W-w-why… w-what do you t-think you know?" he snapped, but uncertainty seemed to be back in his voice.
"I… I don't know, I just… look, you're planning on going in alone, right?"
The man's already pale skin seemed to suddenly grow even paler, and Junpei knew his guess – how did he even guess? – was right. His grip on the knife he was holding to Clover's throat slackened.
"I-I… y-you… how…?
How? Junpei had no idea. But he knew he was right, and he knew with absolute certainty he couldn't allow him to go through with it. "Listen for a moment, okay?" he spoke up again, acutely aware of the fact everyone's eyes – well, save Snake's – were still on him. "It's against the rules, right? The ones I just read. The part where 'all those who enter must leave, and all who enter must contribute'. So, uh… I'm sure it's not a good idea? I mean, they're there for a reason, and, uh… well, we may not want to break them?" he finished weakly, not sounding so sure of himself… but it was clear that now the scrawny man wasn't that sure of himself anymore, either: he was staring at him, chewing his lower lip bloody, and the hand with the knife shook.
"I-I… n-no, that's not… I…" he stammered, but whatever he was about to save next was never uttered – because Clover took advantage of his shock and slackened grip to shove him away and break free. The man was taken by surprise and, scrawny as he was, toppled backwards with a surprised yelp. And one instant later, with a sound that made Junpei think of a bear's roar, Seven was on him.
The man let out a terrified scream when he hit the floor and Seven's bulk kept him from getting up, then he was no longer heard for several moments over the exclamations and gasps that left the others. Junpei could hear Santa cursing, Snake saying something to his sister, and feel June gripping his sleeve. He didn't turn to look at any of them, though: his eyes were fixed on the scene.
"Did he kill him?" Ace asked worriedly, and for a moment Junpei didn't know what to think: it seemed impossible that such a mountain of a guy could land on a bag of bones like that and not break something vital in the process. But then the man shrieked again and struggled to break away, and that was enough of an answer – no, Seven's tackle hadn't killed him. The man screamed, frantically trying to break free, but with Seven's knee on his back and his huge hand gripping his wrists he couldn't move a inch.
"Santa!" Seven called out, teeth grit against some pain whose cause Junpei couldn't guess and using his free hand to put into his pocket the knife he had likely pried off the madman's grasp. "Your scarf!"
Santa, who looked at the scene with wide and bewildered eyes, blinked. "What? Why-?"
"To tie up this nutcase, what do you think?" Seven barked over the man's panicked screams. "Just give me the scarf!"
Santa scowled and muttered something on how damn expensive that scarf was, but he didn't protest any further and finally took it off, throwing it at Seven. He caught it with his free hand, and turned his attention back on the squirming man beneath him. "Keep still – still, I said!" he growled, pressing his knee harder on the man's back and wrapping the scarf around his trapped arms.
Any attempt at struggling was fruitless: the man may as well have been trying to fight a mountain. Soon enough the his arms were securely tied behind his back – forearm against forearm, with his fingers curling around the opposite elbow, rendering him completely helpless and unable to free himself unless his name was fucking Houdini. Only then Seven lifted his knee from the smaller man's back and grabbed the collar of his shirt to pull him on his feet.
"Get up, you sick bastard," he growled, forcing him up and pushing him against the numbered door. The man yelped when his back hit the metal, his arms trapped between his back and the door and Seven's huge hand around his neck. One of his glasses' lenses had cracked, but Junpei barely noticed: all he could focus onto was the look of absolute, mindless terror in in his eyes. Then again, Seven looked all the world like he could have crushed the smaller man like an insect and barely holding back from doing just that; he probably would have been terrified as well if he had a very angry Seven's hand around his throat. "What the hell did you think you were doing?"
The man's eyes twitched from person to person, as though he was pleading the very same people he had threatened minutes before to help him. But, needless to say, no one moved to do so: they all just stared at him, waiting for the same reply as Seven. "Well?" Seven growled, giving him a shake.
The man whimpered, his gaze turning back to Seven. He worked his jaw for a few moments, as though he was trying to gather the courage to speak, but he failed to and a moment later a sudden sob wrecked his chest.
"What the…?" Seven muttered, something very close to disgust twisting his features. He let go of his neck with a snort, and a moment later the man had crumpled on the floor as though his legs simply could no longer support him, shaking violently with uncontrolled sobs. He was speaking, or trying to, and Junpei could barely make out a few words.
"I-I-I'm s-sorry p-please d-don't hurt me please please please…!" he choked out over and over, eyes tightly shut.
"What the hell, man?" Santa snapped, a disgusted expression on his face that matched Seven's. "Just answer to the damn question!"
"I think it's safe to say he's having a breakdown. We can hardly hope for a lucid reply while he's in this state of distress," Snake spoke calmly, Clover still close to him. She was almost hiding behind him, staring at the sobbing mess who had held a knife to her throat with a mixture of fear, surprise and contempt.
Junpei frowned a little at them. They seemed to be especially close to each other, unlike the rest of them. "What's the deal with you two, anyway?" he asked.
It was Snake to reply with a calm smile. "We're siblings. Clover is my younger sister," he said, causing Junpei to blink. Siblings, really? They looked nothing alike!
"Your sister? Really?"
Snake nodded. "Yes. Is there something especially odd about it?" he asked. Before Junpei could say anything more, it was Lotus to speak.
"You're awfully calm, then, considering that he held your sister at knife-point. Had it been one of my-" she trailed off all of a sudden, and eventually just fell silent and stared down at the sniveling mess on the ground. He was a pitiful sight, really, but it was hard to feel much pity for a guy who had held a knife to a girl's throat only minutes earlier.
Snake shook his head. "I am quite enraged for what he did to my sister, obviously, and he is lucky that Seven was on him before I moved. But," he added, putting one arm Clover's shoulders, "she is alright, thankfully. I suppose this man had a mental breakdown and simply did not care what he had to do to get out. Not something I appreciate, but now he's no threat."
Seven gave a sudden laugh that caused Junpei to blink in surprise. "What is that about?" he asked, confused. Seven shrugged.
"It means that this little psycho wasn't that much of a threat earlier, either. Hasn't got the slightest idea how to hold a knife to someone's throat. Sure, I couldn't move and take the risk he'd stab her, but if he was planning on slitting her throat he wouldn't have managed to even draw blood. He was holding the knife the wrong way. Anyway," he added, looking down at him and cracking his knuckles, "are you done with the waterworks? 'Cause we asked a question, Nine. And I don't really like having to wait. Get up."
The man winced, choking back a sob, but didn't move.
"I said up!" Seven roared, causing Nine – yes, Junpei thought, Nine would have to do for now – to shudder and choke back another sob.
"For heaven's sake, Seven, scaring him further will be of no help," Ace spoke up for the first time in several minutes. He walked up to that sniveling mess and reaching to help him up a lot more gently than Seven had bothered to. For some reason, the man didn't shrink away from him and let him help him on his feet. Junpei could see Ace saying something to him, and while he couldn't catch any of the words – none of them could – it had to be something reassuring, for the man seemed suddenly calmer. Well, relatively calmer: he still seemed one step away from a breakdown, but now he stood on his own legs and wasn't sobbing anymore.
"We're not going to hurt you," Ace spoke again, this time louder, so that everyone could hear them. He put a hand on Nine's shoulder and glanced back at all of them. "Isn't that right?"
"Yeah, yeah. Not that I'm not tempted," Santa muttered, his gaze dark. June, who had scarcely made a sound up to that point, gave him an odd look.
"But he's helpless. He can't do anything to anyone now," she pointed out. Santa shrugged and didn't press the point. Junpei was about to add something, but Snake spoke up first.
"As long as he stays tied up and thus is no threat, I see no reason for us to. Clover?" he asked, tilting his head towards his sister. She seemed to hesitate, but then she had to take in consideration the fact he was tied, unarmed and outnumbered, and nodded.
"Yeah. What he said," she mumbled, still warily glancing at Nine.
"As long as he stays away from me as well," Junpei heard Lotus muttering.
Seven, on the other hand, snorted. "Of course not. We ain't a bunch of bastards like him. But," Seven muttered darkly, a huge hand reaching to grasp Nine's shoulder hard enough to make him whimper, "I ain't taking my eyes off you one second, little creep. Now tell us what the hell was that about!"
Nine swallowed, still breathing quickly. "I-I… I w-wanted t-to… I…" he fell silent, still breathing quickly, as though he couldn't manage to put a real answer together.
"If I'm allowed to make a guess," Snake spoke, causing everyone's eyes to turn away from Nine and on him, "I suppose you panicked and wanted out. Is that why you held a knife on my sister? You've been kidnapped as well, isn't that right?"
Nine seemed taken aback by his calm for a moment, then he began nodding frantically. "Y-yes! I-I… I d-don't know who k-k-kidnapped me. I-it was s-someone with a g-gas mask, and-"
"Yeah, yeah. The usual guy. We all got into that a while ago," Santa cut him off with a snort.
"So you're in the same situation as all of us," Ace muttered.
"Only that he thought taking a hostage would get you out quickly," Seven pointed out, his voice still way too close to a growl, and the man squirmed in his grasp.
"I-I'm sorry! I d-d-didn't… I was s-scared, I…!"
"Yeah, we did notice you don't keep a cool mind easily," Clover said dryly, still looking wary. "By the way, how did you know that stuff?"
Nine tensed. Well, not that he had really relaxed until that moment. "S-stuff?"
"How the device works. How did you know it's to scan the bracelets? It wasn't written among the rules."
That was true, Junpei realized: the man had seemed to know how the device and the bracelets worked well – too well. How did he know that, and what else did he know that they didn't?
"How did you know it?"
"Why did you know it?"
"Who the hell are you?"
Nine winced as though each question thrown at him had just hit him physically, and tried to back away – only to let out a yelp when Seven's grip on his shoulder tightened to keep him where he was. "So, what is it you know?" Seven all but growled, and Nine's skin went chalk-white.
"I-I-I… I…!" he sputtered, apparently unable to even begin to form a more articulate answer. His legs shook to the point Junpei was pretty sure he would have crumbled on the floor again hadn't it been for Seven's grip keeping him up. And when no answer came, said grip tightened even more, causing him to cry out in pain.
"Seven, you're hurting him! Stop it!" June spoke somewhere on Junpei's left, sounding rather worried; Santa shot her a somewhat disgusted look, but Ace seemed to agree with her.
"I agree. There is no point in scaring him further, let alone harming him. Let him sit down a moment. I'm sure there is an explanation."
Seven snorted. "Yeah, bet there is. Can't wait to hear it," he said, letting go of Nine's shoulder. The man stumbled backwards, then his back met the wall and he slid to sit on the ground, still shaking. However, June and Ace's display of compassion seemed to have reassured him at least a little, for a moment later he managed to speak.
"T-t-there was… a-another letter in m-m-my cabin. W-when I woke up. I-it explained e-everything…!"
Well, Junepi thought, that really sounded like a seriously half-assed lie. The guy sure was not a good liar. Then again he was not a good speaker, either, so he may be even telling the truth and just be amazingly bad at sounding convincing.
Lotus, on the other hand, was clearly less willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. "Why would you get another letter with instructions? And where is this letter now?"
Nine squirmed, his eyes darting across the room without stopping on any of them. "A-ah, I… l-l-lost it when… I…"
"Bullshit!" Santa snapped, causing Nine – and just about everyone, really – to recoil. "And now the decks below this are flooded and we couldn't find any damn piece of paper even if we tried. How convenient, uh? Like hell I'm going to just believe-"
"Actually," Snake spoke up to interrupt his tirade, his voice collected as usual, "it is quite possible he's telling the truth. I found a such letter myself."
His statement caused all eyes to turn to him – including Nine's, who looked nothing short of stunned.
"You what?" Santa asked, eyes narrowing.
Snake chuckled at his surprise and pulled out something from his pocket – a card covered with small bumps. That had to be braille, Junpei though. "Here it is. If you wish, I can read it to you," Snake offered.
"Of course we wish!" Santa snapped at him, merely getting a shrug out of Snake. As everyone crowded around him – even Nine, with Seven pushing him forward – the young man began running his fingers across the card and spoke aloud.
"Bracelet number . Since you are not blessed with sight I shall bless you – and only you – with information. I shall tell you of the function of the RED, of the DEAD, and of the bracelet. The RED is the Recognition Device. It will verify your number. Beside every numbered door, you will find a RED. The DEAD is the Deactivation Device. It does exactly what it says. Once you have passed through the numbered door, you must use the DEAD to stop the detonator in your bracelet. But perhaps you are wondering… What does this detonator detonate? I am afraid this may be something of a surprise. I have placed a small bomb inside of you, and the people whom you are about to meet. You swallowed it while you were unconscious. I have no doubt that by the time you read this note, the bomb will have passed your stomach and found its way to your small intestine. In other words, you will be unable to regurgitate it. I suggest you do not try
As I mentioned before, the bracelet on your left hand contains a detonator. Think of it as a remote fuse, or timer, for the bomb in your body. There is only 1 condition which will cause it to detonate. That condition is that you enter a numbered door. Once you have done so, the timer will activate, no matter who you may be. You will have 81 seconds. If, after that time, the detonator has not been deactivated, it will send a signal to the bomb in your body, instructing it to explode. In order to deactivate the detonator, every person who verified their number at the RED must also verify their numbers at the DEAD. Once all numbers have been verified by the DEAD, you need only pull the lever at its side, and the countdown will cease. Anyone who does not verify their number at the RED will find themselves unable to verify their number at the DEAD. That is to say, if you should pass through a numbered door without first verifying your number at the RED, in 81 seconds you will be dead. You must also keep in mind that the numbered doors will close automatically after 9 seconds have passed. So long as the door is open, the DEAD will not function. You would do well to remember this.
Lastly, let us discuss how to remove the bracelets. There are only 2 ways to do so. One: You escape from this ship. Two: Your heart rate reaches zero. In other words, once the bracelet is taken outside the confines of the ship, or detects that its wearer's heartbeat has fallen to zero, it will shut down automatically. There is no other way to remove your bracelet. If you attempt to force it off, or disable the detonator, the bomb within you will immediately explode. This is all the information which I can impart to you. How you choose to use it is for you to decide. If used wisely, you can eliminate those who might be a danger to you. For a time, you would be able to control your fate. I wish you the best of luck."
There were a couple of minutes of complete silence as Snake finally finished reading and put the piece of paper back in his pocket. "As you can see," he said, "Zero did leave some of us instructions."
That seemed to sustain Nine's claim, but not everyone seemed convinced; especially not Lotus. "Didn't the letter expressly say that such information was reserved to you alone? Then why would he have one, too?" she asked, suspiciously glancing at Nine. The man seemed to shrink under her gaze.
"I-I don't know!" he blurted out, his face once again covered in sweat. He looked once again terrified, and desperate. "B-but I found one! T-that's why I k-knew the rules! I swear!"
"Perhaps," Ace spoke up, a thoughtful frown on his face, "Zero lied in the letter. Perhaps it's a way to set us up against each other – giving some of us information others do not have under the pretense each of them is the only one to receive it. Don't you think it's possible?"
Snake nodded. "It is a possibility," he conceded.
"Wait a minute! So are we going to just take what this sick fuck says at face value? Just like that?" Santa spoke up, glaring daggers at Nine, and the man seemed to shrink.
"B-but I… I…" he began, but he was cut off by June.
"But what if he isn't lying?" she asked, biting on her thumb while she glanced at Nine somewhat uncertainly. "I mean, we cannot know he isn't, but since Snake has a letter like that, too… then maybe he's telling the truth."
Santa scowled. "So we should just bring him along?" he asked scathingly.
"I can't see why not," Junpei spoke up, ignoring Santa's glare. "I mean, he's tied up, right? And unarmed. I can't see him trying anything if someone looks after him," he added. The guy looked anything but threatening tied out and without a knife, but he was still unstable and Junpei would feel so much safer if someone actually guarded him.
Seven nodded. "I can do that. As I said, I ain't letting this creep out of my sight any moment. Where you go, I go," he added, glaring at Nine. "So don't try anything funny. I'm not in the mood for jokes. Got that?"
Junpei could see the man swallowing before speaking. "Y-yes," he managed.
"Good. Since your number can be added up to any team, then you've got to excuse to-"
"Wait a moment! Are you seriously saying we're going to do what Zero tells us to?" Lotus spoke up, something akin to anger in her voice.
Clover looked back at her. "But we have to," she pointed out. "There is no other way out. How else are we supposed to leave the ship?"
Ace nodded. "I agree with Clover. I don't like the idea any better than you do, but it truly seems to be our only way out."
"Yeah. The clock sure ain't going backwards for us," Santa muttered. "So we gotta go. If you wanna keep sitting on your fat ass, then suit yourself – but I- ow! OW!" Santa's words turned into yelps when Lotus let out something close to a roar and grasped his hair, shaking his head back and forth. "OW! Stop that!"
"You!" Lotus snarled, her grip on his hair not even loosening. "You have no idea how lucky you are that your scarf isn't around your neck anymore, because-"
"H-hey! Don't fight!" June called out, but they didn't even hear her.
"Enough! Enough!" Ace spoke up, sounding more than a little worried, and it was with some effort from his and Junpei's part that Santa and Lotus were finally separated. Lotus seemed still angry but somewhat satisfied, while Santa was grimacing and rubbing his head.
"Damn! You crazy old bi-"
"Enough," Ace repeated, his voice that of a long-suffering parent, and Santa finally shut his mouth, though he kept glaring death at Lotus. Ace sighed and turned back to the others. "Now. As we were saying, we have to go through these doors. I see no other option. We'll certainly meet again later if we are to open a door with a digital root of , so whatever teams we form are temporary – but we need to make two now. Is there anyone who-"
"Yeah," Clover immediately piped in, moving a step closer to Snake. "I want to go in with my brother."
Ace smiled. "Fair enough. Anything else-"
"Yes. I'm not going through any door with that man," Lotus immediately spoke up, warily looking at Nine; it looked like not even Seven's presence and the fact the guy was bound and likely more scared than all of them made her feel safe. Much to Junpei's surprise, Santa seemed to share the sentiment.
"Same here. I'll take the old hag over the nutcase any day of the week," he said with a shrug. Lotus glared at him, but said nothing.
"Very well," Snake said. "May I then suggest that myself, Clover, Ace, Seven and… do tell us, how should we call you? Will 'Nine' do, or you'd rather be called some other way?" he asked, cocking his head in Nine's general direction. The man seemed taken aback, and had to wet his lips with a shaking tongue before speaking.
"N-nine will do," he said.
"Very well. So, how about the five of us – number , , ,  and  – go through door ? We'd have the correct digital root, and the rest of you – Junpei, June, Santa and Lotus – will have a digital root of : exactly what you need to go through the other door."
There was a little more of talking, but no one was against it at all: it appeared the best solution for everyone. In the end it was decided that the group going through door  would go ahead first. Clover bracelet had already been scanned, so only four of them had to scan theirs. And so they did, Seven coming up last: he pressed his hand on the scanner panel and, as soon as he was registered, he grabbed Nine and slammed him, back first, against the device. Nine let out a whimper, more out of fear than anything, and Junpei couldn't blame him: being helpless in the hands of a giant of a man like Seven couldn't be fun.
Even though Nine could not lay his hand on the panel, pressing his tied hands and thus the bracelet close to it did they trick just as well – and, with a long, drawn-out metallic groan, the door opened to reveal a short hallway. They hesitated for a few moments, but Snake simply walked in. "Nine seconds before the door closes," he reminded them without even bothering to turn. "You're no planning on killing me, are you?"
"Oh. Right," Ace muttered, and after giving the other team a nod he walked in as well. Clover followed and Seven went in last, dragging Nine along.
"Stay safe," was all he said before the door closed behind them. Junpei immediately stepped forward to press an ear against the door. Santa followed suit, and after a few moments Junpei could clearly hear a sound coming from the other side – some sort of beeping.
Behind him, June bit her lower lip. "The detonator must have started…"
For a moment Junpei felt a stab of worry – what if they didn't find it on time? – but then he heard Ace's voice.
"It's here! Right next to the door!"
Junpei released a long breath when he heard, over the steady beeping, the sound of bracelets being verified: one, two, three, four times – and then there was a clang and a yelp, which was likely a sign Seven had once again resorted to his very own way to make Nine verify as well. Another few moments passed, and then…
…the nothing. The beeping noise stopped.
"It's okay! It stopped! We're all fine here!" Seven's voice reached them from the other side. Junpei gave a sigh of relief as both him and Santa stepped back from the door. He turned to June and smiled, if a little shakily.
"Heard that? They're okay."
She smiled. "Oh, good!"
Lotus looked relieved as well, but a lot more practical. "Then we should get going," she said, gesturing to the door with a red  on it.
Junpei nodded. "Yeah," he said, and turned to the door behind them. "We're going, too! See you later!"
"See you!" Clover's voice reached them, and that was it: they glanced at each other, nodded and moved towards Door  – with June never leaving Junpei's side.
He couldn't pretend he wasn't okay with that.