You awoke, head pounding, to a dull creaking sound that was anything but natural in what was supposed to be your bedroom.
You shot upward and winced when your head collided with something hard. The roof, you realised, as you squinted at it through bleary eyes. But that in itself was an impossibility. Your bed was nowhere near the roof…
Icy fear clawed at your insides. Wherever you were, it most certainly was not your bedroom.
You reached out slowly, cautiously, and felt around you, trying to blink away the haze over your vision. You were definitely on a bed of some kind; you could see what resembled a thin, blanket-covered mattress beneath you. Your hand slid along cold metal until it reached a gap at the end of the bed, where you could feel short bars of metal interspersed between empty air. And then it dawned on you that this was a bunk bed, but that answer just begged the question: where the hell were you and what were you doing on a bunk bed? More importantly, how did you get there?
Your head was pounding, but you struggled to remember something, anything that could help you…
White smoke. A gas mask beneath a dark hood. The feeling of falling, not just to the floor of your apartment but also out of consciousness….
Out of nowhere, those jumbled memories surfaced, and eventually you managed to smooth them out into something that made sense.
You could remember it now: sitting in your apartment, alone, eating chocolate and playing a new game that had just come out. Hearing a low hissing sound, frowning, turning to locate the source of the noise. Coming face-to-face with someone in a gas mask. Realising that the whole room was filled with a white haze, not having any mind to realise anything beyond that…
Of course. You had been kidnapped by some freak in a gas mask with access to knock-out gas. How helpful that information was. Your newly-recovered memory only made things more complicated, only posed more questions like ‘Who was that?’, ‘Why would they kidnap me?’, and, your personal favourite, ‘Why couldn’t they have come at a more reasonable hour?’.
But now wasn’t the time for that. The questions could wait, you reasoned, and set about climbing down from the bunk bed. You needed to focus on figuring out where you were and how to get out of there.
The moment your feet hit the floor, you turned to take your first good look at your surroundings.
The room’s furnishings were plain, and looked somewhat old. The bunk bed you had been on was three-tiered, and there was an identical one on the opposite side of the room.
The next thing you noticed was the door. It was big and made of metal, and it had the number  scrawled haphazardly on its surface in bright red paint in a way that was clearly meant to resemble blood. Whoever had kidnapped you was clearly overly dramatic.
There was a small card reader beside the door that showed a red light. That meant the door was locked, you presumed, so there was no point in trying to open it until you could find something to use with the card reader. Great.
Lastly, there was the small, round window at the back of the room. It looked somehow familiar, yet foreign at the same time; like something you had seen on TV once or twice but hadn’t paid all that much attention to.
With a start, you realised that it wasn’t just a regular window, it was a porthole. Did that mean you were on a ship, then?
The same dull creaking noise that had roused you into consciousness sounded again, and you cursed the bad luck that seemed to follow you everywhere. You had been drugged, kidnapped, and tossed on some strange ship that was making ominous noises without so much as an invitation. Whoever your kidnapper was, they had no regard whatsoever for common courtesy.
You didn’t think it could get any worse. You were wrong.
There was a loud crack followed by a rushing noise that sounded suspiciously like a waterfall, and you turned, back toward the porthole, and there it was: the window had cracked and water was gushing out of it and into the room at an alarming rate. You cursed.
“Oh, of course,” you muttered to yourself before tearing the room apart in search of something that resembled a key card so you could get the hell out of there.
By the time you had solved the room’s puzzle, the water was up past your knees. The information about digital roots was obviously relevant, so it didn’t take you long to determine the digital root of , the number on the door, and insert the key cards. You had barely heard the tell-tale sound of the door unlocking before you took hold of the handle and pulled it open, staggering out into the corridor and quickly pulling it shut behind you.
There. You were finally out of that room, and only a small amount of water had followed you.
Breathing hard, you wiped your sweaty palms on the front of your shirt, and happened to glance down as you did so…and nearly jumped out of your skin.
There was something on your left wrist. It looked like a bulky red watch, but the most noteworthy thing about it was the single number that glowed bright red on its display: . What was this kidnapper’s fixation with the number , anyway? What did it mean?
You couldn’t believe you hadn’t noticed this before. It was irrational, and in theory should have paled in comparison to the threat of being trapped on a sinking ship, but there was something foreign attached to your body and you needed it off.
You turned your wrist over, looking for a clasp or a latch or something, but there was nothing. Just a solid band of metal that refused to budge.
“Why won’t this thing come off…?!”
You felt around the edges of the metal, trying to slip your fingers beneath it, to force the damn thing off, but it was impossible, there was no way you could—
“I don’t suggest that you attempt to remove your bracelet,” a low voice spoke from behind you, a light touch to your shoulder accompanying the words. “That is, if it is even possible to do so.”
For a few moments you had been stunned motionless, frozen where you stood. When the voice had finished speaking, however, it was as though a switch had been flipped. You whirled around.
There stood a young man dressed in formal attire, a navy blue suit jacket with gold accents paired with a white shirt, a burgundy tie, grey pants, and brown shoes. Ashen locks framed delicate, pale features. His eyes were closed and the corners of his lips were turned up in a small, almost amused smile.
Yes, he was definitely attractive, you noted with interest, in a way that was actually beautiful. The most noteworthy thing about him, however, was the identical bracelet on his left wrist.
Well, almost identical. Instead of a , the number that glowed bright red at you through the dim lighting of the hallway was a . If he had a bracelet, could that have meant…?
“You…you have one, too…” you muttered under your breath, although he seemed to hear it anyway. To your surprise, it wasn’t the man before you who replied to your comment.
“Of course he has one. You’re not the only one with a bracelet, you know. Did you think you were special?”
The voice was definitely not his—or, at least, you certainly hoped it wasn’t. This voice was high-pitched and girly, and before you could think to identify its source your vision was suddenly obscured as something was thrust into your line of vision.
It was yet another bracelet. It displayed the number , and the wrist it was attached to was slim and fragile-looking.
As quickly as it had appeared, the hand withdrew and you were face-to-face with a smirking, cutely-dressed girl with pink hair and freckles.
She moved to the man’s side and took hold of his arm, almost as though she was using him as a barrier between herself and the world, and you realised that this girl must have been standing behind him until now. These two were obviously close. Who was she, and what was their relation? For that matter, who was he, anyway?
You weren’t sure why the nature of their relationship bothered you the most, and you didn’t like the uneasy feeling that had settled in the pit of your stomach.
“Come on, we need to keep going,” the man said, face tilted toward the girl. His eyes were still closed, though. Huh.
The girl nodded, clutching his arm a little tighter, and he turned back to you with a serious expression. “If you are coming with us, you had better hurry. We cannot afford to waste time here any longer.”
With that, he turned and began to walk down the corridor with long, graceful steps, the girl still hanging off his arm as though they were permanently attached. You didn’t know why you even cared.
Shaking your head slightly at the direction your thoughts had taken, again, you followed after them without another word.
From that point onward, everything was a mass of frenzied activity. On your way through the rapidly flooding hallways of D Deck, then through decks C and B, you encountered five others who shared your fate: a middle-aged man with greying hair; a silver-haired man dressed like a punk; a brown-haired girl in a simple but pretty purple dress and brown boots; a man so towering in size that he put Mt. Everest to shame; and, finally, a woman whose outfit seemed better suited to a strip club than this death trap of a ship. Of course, the group included yourself and the two you had met in the hallway on D Deck.
Back at the B Deck staircase, yet another person appeared: a young man with brown hair who was dressed so warmly that you wondered how he could stand the stifling, humid atmosphere of the ship.
There was a lot of searching, and a lot of talking.
And then came your kidnapper’s announcement – Zero, as he had introduced himself – and the discovery of the notes he had left in each of your pockets. You could hardly believe it.
Well, the part about being trapped on a sinking ship was nothing new, but… The [Nonary Game]… what exactly was it? Why had you been forced to participate in it? And who was Zero? As it was, you only barely understood how the Nonary Game worked. The situation hadn’t changed since escaping that room on D Deck: you still had more questions than answers. It didn’t help that, for everyone’s frantic searching, the only way out seemed to be the two [numbered doors].
Soon after, everyone began to exchange codenames, and you made an effort to remember each one. Especially that of the man you had first encountered on D Deck – Snake. Upon discovering that he was blind, you were shocked, of course, but somehow it also felt unsurprising at the same time. It made sense.
Something about him appealed to you in a way you didn’t entirely understand. Sure, he was attractive, but still…
Someone made a coughing sound, and you realised that everyone’s eyes were on you. It was your turn to introduce yourself.
“You can call me Cloud,” you said, glancing at each of their faces. “As in, ‘cloud nine’. Because I’m always such a bundle of joy.” It was obvious that you were, in reality, a bundle of sarcasm, and you casually held out your arm to show the number on your bracelet. You noticed that Snake was smirking at you, and you couldn’t help but smile a little in response. That was a good look on him.
When Clover casually mentioned that she was Snake’s sister, you felt stupid. They weren’t lovers.
Relief flooded through you, and it felt as though a massive weight had been lifted from your chest. You just shook your head and tried to ignore the feeling.
After the introductions were over with, though you and Santa protested, everyone began to search the ship again. It was stupid, and you couldn’t understand what was going through their heads. Did they think that Zero kidnapped them all, set up an elaborate system (that Snake had kindly elaborated on earlier) for the sake of his Nonary Game, and planned everything so thoroughly only to…what, leave some random door open somewhere? You didn’t think so. It was obvious that the only way out was to play the Nonary Game and pass through the numbered doors.
A lot of time was wasted before the rest of them figured that out.
Eventually, it was decided that you, along with Snake, Seven, and Clover would go through [Door 5], while Junpei, June, Santa, and Lotus would be left with [Door 4].
And so, you did just that; through [Door 5] and into the first class cabin, then into the casino, and then to the large hospital room.
Whenever Clover was busy with something else (you tried to ignore the part of you that wished it happened more often) you would end up talking with Snake.
It usually started out trivial – like random facts about the various objects in the rooms, or something about the safe in the closet or the beauty of the stained glass window – but then it would expand further into something meaningful. Well, maybe the conversations themselves weren’t particularly meaningful, but they gave you insight into what kind of a person Snake was, something you were inexplicably fascinated by. An offhand comment about how beautiful the piano was, despite the fact that the keys were in the wrong order, would lead to him telling you about the piano lessons he had taken as a child. And from there, further, into brief discussion of his childhood and how prominently Clover had featured in it. He even felt comfortable enough to tell you about his accident during one of these talks.
You didn’t know why he could talk about all that so freely with you, a complete stranger. Maybe he could sense your interest in him, could tell that you could be trusted. You wouldn’t be surprised. Despite his blindness, or perhaps because of it, he was very perceptive. There was no hiding anything from Snake.
Whatever the reason, those conversations kept you stable, kept you going in a situation that should have had you completely breaking down. Snake was a stabilising influence.
So that’s why, when he went missing during your search for the missing [RED] parts, your heart very nearly stopped beating and you didn’t know what to do.
It was much worse for Clover, of course, but everything after that was a blur. All you could think about was Snake. His elegant features… The way he smiled and the corners of his closed eyes crinkled slightly… His graceful posture that made you feel unworthy of even standing next to him… The soft waves of his hair that made you wish you could run your hands through it…
How a complete stranger had managed to become so important to you in such a short span of time, you would never know. But it became so much worse when you saw the body in the shower room.
You didn’t care about anything anymore. Not about leaving the ship, not about the others, not about Clover, not about where you went and what you did because none of it mattered if you didn’t have Snake. Even your sarcasm had long since abandoned you. There was simply nothing left to feel, or even think with.
Your world was empty, and you didn’t even know when it had become so full in the first place.
The room containing the  doors was completely silent, save for the collective breathing of Junpei, Clover, Seven, and of course yourself. The atmosphere was oppressive, like the pressure on the lungs when you dive too deep, and it bore down on you and made it hard to breathe.
There were so few of you left compared to when you had started.
You glanced back at the two doors. The display on one of the door’s corresponding [RED] showed [ENGAGED], naturally. Only moments before, Santa had passed through it along with June, a golden revolver pressed to her temple and unmistakable fear in her every feature. Ace and Lotus had been forced to accompany them in order to open the door. The other door was usable, certainly, but there was no way that any combination among your small group would work.
The rest of you had been left here to die.
It was a mere observation, without any feelings attached to it. You had long since stopped feeling emotion. Had given up the hope of ever escaping this place after one look at Snake’s body. So, really, you didn’t particularly care that you were going to die. It felt like an inevitability. You were already dead inside anyway.
You didn’t care when Junpei approached the intricately-designed coffin. You didn’t care when he started muttering to himself and inputting a password, because really, what difference did it make? That wouldn’t help them get out of there, and Snake would still be gone, so what was the point in trying?
Of course, everything changed when you caught sight of what was inside the coffin.
Right before your eyes, Snake sat up, looking dazed and paler than usual but otherwise completely fine. You just stood there, frozen, not unlike the first time you had seen him.
Clover had run up to the coffin and hugged Snake tight, tears in her eyes, and though he seemed confused he indulged her. He wrapped his arms tightly around her in an embrace that, despite yourself, you couldn’t help but feel jealous of.
The initial shock of seeing Snake again had mostly worn off, and you found yourself fighting back tears of your own. You didn’t know how it had happened, how it was possible, but Snake was alive.
Feeling began to flood through your veins once more, and you took a shuddering breath.
Even while Snake was telling his story, and the others were informing him of everything that had happened in his absence, you weren’t focussed on any of it. You should have been worrying about the how’s and why’s of it all, but you were still just kind of…numb.
You didn’t even notice Snake sending curious glances your way as the group of five explored what was behind the remaining  door.
It wasn’t until you had reached the library and the two of you were alone that he voiced his thoughts.
“Cloud, you’ve been awfully quiet. Is something the matter?”
You still weren’t entirely used to hearing his voice again, and you were too busy choking back a sob to answer. Of course, that also meant you were too distracted to notice when Snake silently made his way over to you and rested a hand on your shoulder. Yet another parallel to your first encounter.
“You do not need to hold back in front of me,” he said softly, and when you turned his face was directly in front of yours. “You were upset when I disappeared, weren’t you? Just as upset as Clover was, I’m sure.” He paused. “But you do not need to be sad any longer. I’m here now, and I am not going anywhere. So please do not cry.”
How did he know you were crying? And that it was about him?
You trembled slightly at his words, and hoped he couldn’t feel it. But of course he did.
Tentatively, he wrapped his arms around you. When you made no sign of protest, he drew you in closer and reached a hand up to your hair, smoothing it away from your face.
You took a shuddering breath and relaxed into the touch. It was so nice to have Snake this close, to be held in his arms, to have him stroking your hair softly and whispering sweet words in your ear…
You actually were floating on cloud nine right then. It was so nice that you almost didn’t register his next words.
“Cloud,” he whispered, breath fanning out directly over your ear, “are you in love with me?”
For a moment, you forgot to breathe. How did he know that? Even you hadn’t realised that you loved Snake until this very moment, until he put it into words.
Now everything was ruined. There was no way he returned your feelings. No more talks, no more fleeting touches to your hand or shoulder whenever he passed by, no more Snake. He had just come back from the grave, and now you were losing him again. He probably thought you were an idiot for falling in love so easily.
With a self-deprecating laugh, you backed out of his arms and tried your best to put the shattered fragments of yourself back together. It failed.
“I don’t know how you do it, Snake,” you murmured, but you knew he heard it. “For someone who’s always in the dark, how is it that you can always see so much?”
“I do not need the gift of sight to see the woman I love.”
The woman he… Oh. Oh.
Before you knew it you were back in his arms and your face was tilted up to his, and the moment was as close to pure happiness as you had ever felt.
“That, of course, is you,” he breathed against your lips before capturing them in his.
It was pure bliss.
You took the opportunity to do what you had always wanted to, to run your fingers through that beautiful silver hair—and, yes, it was every bit as soft and inviting as you had imagined it to be.
At that moment, you were living up to your namesake. You truly were on cloud nine.