Misaki mumbles a weak excuse that even she’s not sure what about, pawing the air around her. It’s too early in the morning for her little sister to get on her back like this.
The voice is closer. Clearer. Louder. And definitely not her little sister’s. But still familiar.
Misaki forces her eyes open. Blinks until the world turns from blurry colors to solid shapes, and recognizes the face hovering above her. “Kanon…?”
Kanon sighs. A relieved smile almost comes to her lips, but doesn’t quite settle. “Oh, thank goodness. I was getting worried. Come on, Misaki, get up.” She looks up. “Kokoro! Misaki’s awake.”
Misaki blinks again. A few questions come to mind, like why is her bed so cold and stiff, what is Kanon doing in her room, and oh god did she let Kokoro inside her house unsupervised. Except she’s not on her bed, this isn’t her room, and they are definitely not in her house.
The place seems to be a school gymnasium. Crossed with an auditorium, judging by the podium at the far end of the room, like most schools in Japan. Doesn’t look like Hanasakigawa’s, though. Doesn’t look like any school gymnasium she’s been in.
Kokoro stands a distance away from them, with Kaoru and Hagumi, and the three dummies turn at Kanon’s call. They rush closer, Kokoro taking first place. “‘Bout time, sleepyhead! You’re the last one up!”
“Last… one…?” Misaki rubs her eyes. She tries to push herself up and nearly fails, Kanon having to aid her halfway through. Her head’s pounding. Spinning. Massaging her temple barely helps.
“There, there. Do be careful, Misaki. A kitten such as yourself must not strain yourself under these circumstances. Some of the others also had trouble coming to consciousness,” Kaoru says, kneeling beside her. Fingers start to massage the back of her neck, and she has to assume they were Kaoru’s
That does help. The buzz stops, the spinning slows, and then the commotion really hits her.
Her bandmates aren’t the only ones filling up the gymnasium. About two dozen people are there, maybe more, and most of them are faces she recognizes. Ushigome, Toyama, Mitake, the Hikawa twins among others; all standing around in the center of the gymnasium. Some of them are chatting, others mumbling awkwardly, but most simply fidgets in silence.
“Can you stand?” Kanon asks. Misaki isn’t sure, but she nods. Might as well try. That’s her life motto at this point.
Misaki rises to her feet, helped by Kanon and Kaoru on either side of her. The low chatter trails into silence as every head in the room turns toward her. It’s like showing up late to class, and it’s lowkey setting off some primal sense of anxiety in the pit of her stomach.
“Misaki! You’re finally up!” Kasumi pipes up first.
“Guess I am,” she croaks. She has to clear her throat afterwards.
“Barely, it seems,” Yukina notes. Kind of cold, but it’s as expected of her.
“We really are all here,” a soft voice mutters, coming from a huddle of those Morfonica girls from Tsukinomori. It’s their vocalist, if Misaki remembers correctly. Mashiro, is it? “All seven bands. Thirty five girls.”
Misaki’s slower on the uptake, but she realizes it as well. Hello, Happy World! Poppin’ Party. Roselia. Afterglow. Pastel*Palettes. Morfonica. RAISE A SUILEN. All members present and accounted for. Hell of a lineup if this is a live show. But something tells her this is the farthest from that.
Misaki peels herself off of Kanon and Kaoru, standing on her own two feet again. It’s small, but gratifying. “Where, uh. Where is here, exactly?” she tries.
“No idea.” Ran crosses her arms. Scowls darker and deeper than ever. “Door’s locked. All the windows are boarded up with metal sheets. Our phones aren’t getting any signal.”
A chill runs down Misaki’s spine. That’s… very bad. Extremely bad. Gives her flashbacks to some foreign horror movies she watched when she’s far too young. That’d explain why Kanon looks far more on edge than usual.
Misaki takes a deep breath and swallows the lump in her throat. “I’m gonna assume the answer’s the same if I ask how or why we’re here?”
Hina raises a finger, and with all the tact of a bull in a china shop, says, “Why? Yes. How? I’ll say we were kidnapped.”
Unsettled murmurs wash over the group, peppered with sharp inhales and weak whimpers, as the unspoken is laid bare. “D-don’t say that!” shrieks Rimi, eyes already watering.
“I mean, what other explanation is there?” By some miracle, Hina shrugs, far too calm about this for her own good. “Don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m, like, eighty percent sure I went to sleep in my room last night, and ninety percent sure the same goes for Sayo.”
“Sayo went to sleep in your room?”
A long-suffering sigh comes from Arisa. “Tae, not now.”
“The hell would do something like that?!” Tomoe bursts, eyes going red as her hair.
“Never mind ‘would’. There are thirty five of us here,” one of the RAS girls points out. LAYER’s her name, Misaki remembers. “We should start with who could.”
“Tae!” Arisa smacks her on the shoulder.
“Several unsavory possibilities do come to mind,” says another member of Morfonica - Rui. If Hina’s flippant attitude is inappropriate, then Rui’s cold composure is on the other end of the spectrum, and it’s no less disturbing. “Criminal enterprises, immoral elites, corrupt governments, unkno-”
“Okay, Rui, we get it,” Touko cuts in, sighing and massaging her forehead. “I’ll buy something like the Yakuza being able to kidnap five or six people. But all thirty five of us? Come on! That’s impossible!”
“Nothing’s impossible for Michelle!”
The room goes deathly silent. Every head turn towards the stage at the far end of the room that, earlier, was definitely empty.
There, standing with its hands on its hips on top of the podium, is a plush doll of Michelle.
“‘Sup, morons?” the voice goes again, shrill, ugly, and fake. It takes Misaki another second to put two and two together and realize it’s coming from the plush doll. “It’s me, Michelle! Now get your asses over here before I start spankin’ ‘em!”
There’s a ringing silence as everyone tries to process the things ‘Michelle’ is shrieking at them. Then Sayo spins and stares daggers at Kokoro. “Tsurumaki, what is this?”
“Not sure! Misaki’s the usual Michelle wrangler.” Kokoro tilts her head at Misaki. “Misaki, what’s Michelle doing up there?”
Misaki’s got nothing but a breathless, “I- I don’t-”
“Oi! Nobody pay attention to that sad sack of shit! I can speak for myself, thank you very much!” ‘Michelle’ stomps its foot, and what should’ve been a soft flump is instead an echoing bang. “And I said! Get over here so I can get this game started!”
The mention of a game is all that it takes to get Kokoro and Hagumi to sprint to the stage. Hina’s next, not as hyper as the two, but she makes her interest plainly visible. The others are slower, warier, but with nothing else to go on, they all have no choice but to comply.
“A game?!” Hagumi starts hopping in place at the foot of the stage. “What is it, what is it, what is it?!”
If a plush doll can have an evil glint in its dead doll eyes, then ‘Michelle’ is putting on a masterclass of it.
“I call it… Michelle’s Killing Game!”
Misaki once thought it’s impossible to suck the life out of a room that has Kokoro and Hagumi in it, but she also once thought it’s impossible for a plush Michelle doll to come to life and shout obscenities at her. It’s as if the room’s temperature dropped, and her teeth are nearly chattering from the cold. Hagumi stops hopping. Kanon’s hand quickly found hers. Kaoru blinks, the persona flickering. Even the eternal smile on Kokoro’s lips fades. ‘Michelle’ looks down on what it has done and giggles low.
“Lemme take this from the top, so none of you morons can get confused.”
‘Michelle’ wrenches the mic from its stand and flips it on. Misaki cringes from the screech of the feedback.
“Welcome to the Despair World Academy! State-of-the-art academy filled with everything you need you morons need to survive, and more! We got food, we got water, we got beds! It’s a goddamn paradise! And you morons better learn to like it, because you’re going to be here for the rest of your life!”
Nervous glances and quickened breaths run rampant. Saya asks, “What do you mean by that?”
“Means exactly what it means, sweet cheeks.” ‘Michelle’ leans forward, its voice dropping into something like a purr. Disgusting. Tae thinks so too, silently stepping in front of Saya. “Means you’re going to live here forever and ever and ever! No escape, no way out!”
The statement echoes, bouncing wall to wall, beating them down harder each time. Until ‘Michelle’ giggles.
“But that’s a lie! There is actually one way you can leave!”
“Then spill it,” Sayo hisses.
“Wanna leave? Then you gotta graduate!” ‘Michelle’ makes an exaggerated shrug. “How do you graduate? Couldn’t be simpler!”
‘Michelle’ leaps off the podium, sprints to the edge of the stage, leers down at them and, swear to god, grins. Somehow, with the stupid permanent smile stitched on its face, the thing grins.
What the fuck?
“The only way out of here is by killing someone! No ifs, ands, or buts!” ‘Michelle’ is shaking now, vibrating in place out of sheer demented excitement. “You kill someone, you get to leave! Simplest thing in the world!”
Misaki’s stomach churns. Her legs are shaking, itching for her to run the hell away or to pounce on the doll and rip it apart, she’s not sure, but they’re screaming at her to do something.
“You can start with the shitty toddler with the shitty cat headphones! Or how ‘bout that robot? Not much life there to begin with!” The members of RAS quickly move to shield CHU2 from ‘Michelle’, and the Morfonica members do the same with Rui. ‘Michelle’ giggles at the sight. Then it marches up to Hagumi, its face inches from her, and Misaki’s throat goes dry. “Or annoying orange right here! Come on! Like anyone’s gonna miss her!”
Misaki’s never moved so fast in her life, pulling Hagumi back and putting herself between the doll and Hagumi. ‘Michelle’ stares straight at her, purrs at her, but it’s not as scary when Kaoru joins her, a firm hand on her shoulder.
“Oh, wait, wait, wait! Also!” ‘Michelle’ suddenly sputters, scrambling back to center stage. “Nobody can know you did it! If you kill someone and nobody can figure out you did it, you get to leave!”
Misaki tunes the doll out for a moment, turning to Hagumi. “You okay?” she asks softly. Hagumi nods, trying to smile. Trying. It’s damn near the worst thing she had to see in her life.
“And also there’s a bunch of other rules that I already sent to your phones. Read it! You morons break a rule, you’ll be punished!” A few of them quickly pull out their phones to check. The scattered low curses after must mean the files really are there. “In the meantime, feel free to go about your dull, dumb daily life! Check out the cafeteria! Check out the pool! Check out the dorms! They’re all great! Spent a pretty penny on those!”
‘Michelle’ starts giggling again, starts vibrating.
The doll pumps a fist to the air, and suddenly, wrapped around its fingers, is a gleaming knife. Everybody backs away from the stage like it’s on fire.
‘Michelle’ throws the knife, and it lands in the floor, blade-first and grip out, in front of everyone who cares to look. Like an invitation.
“Anyone’s interested in going psycho right now?!”
The silence is deafening, suffocating, but it’s nothing compared to the heart attack when Yukina steps forward.
“Yukina, what-?!” It’s as if Lisa’s words go unheard, as Yukina bends down, wraps her fingers around the grip, and pries the knife out of the floor. She rises, and the whole room flinches. Holds their breath. Until she tosses the knife to the stage and it clatters to a stop before ‘Michelle’s’ feet.
“We won’t play your game.” Yukina’s voice is the same as her eyes - firm, unwavering, final. “We’ll find a way out of here on our own, and we’ll send the authorities after you.”
‘Michelle’ groans, and would probably roll its eyes if it can. “Boring! Boring and awful!”
It points at the door on the other side of the room, and there’s an echoing click. “The gym doors are now open. The key to your room is already somewhere on your person.” Misaki paws around herself, and feels a lump inside her jacket. “Have any questions? Keep it to yourself, keep your mouth shut. It’s your fault you’re slow.”
There’s a hiss, and behind ‘Michelle’ rises what looks like a comically small elevator. It backs away inside, holds the mic out front, and lets it drop to the stage.
“Happy killing, morons!”
The elevator slides back down inside the stage, leaving the girls alone, finally, to really process what they’ve been told, to stew in their thoughts in silence.
Misaki looks around at the girls gathered here - all of them, in some form or another, friends of hers. Friends with each other. She tries to not feel scared. Tries to ease herself. Tries to believe that nobody here is willing to go as far as killing their own friend.
“What do we do now?” Misaki asks, keeping her voice steady, to no one in particular.
“With the gym door open, the rest of this Academy is accessible to us. I say we explore as much as possible, look for a way out, or at least, for anything that can aid us in escaping this place,” Rui lays out plainly, making Misaki’s attempt at staying calm look crude.
“Yashio is correct.” Sayo takes center stage next to Yukina. “We must gather ourselves and not fall into panic. We have still yet to know if the bite of this ‘Michelle’ matches its bark. It’d be very stupid of us to fall for nothing more than a bluff.”
Sayo is trying to assure them that the situation might not be as bad it might seem, and Misaki appreciates the thought.
“Um…” starts Rokka’s gentle voice, shrinking when eyes turn to her. “No one… no one is… right…?”
She can’t bring herself to say it, but what’s unspoken is obvious. It’s the vice that quickly takes hold of everyone’s hearts once again, as the glances becomes less nervous and more wary.
“Of course not!” Kasumi is suddenly there in front of Rokka, taking her hands in hers, so sparkling and earnest and optimistic, in the only way Kasumi can. “We’re all friends here! Like Yukina-senpai said, no way we’ll play along with this game!”
They’re just words, with possibly not an ounce of weight behind it, but somehow, Misaki can breathe a little easier. So can everyone else. As expected of Kasumi.
This ‘Michelle’ expects them to kill each other? Ridiculous.
They go through the files that had been sent to their phones, finding a set of rules committing and a map of the Academy attached. They agree they should prioritize exploration of the premises and so that’s what they set out to do, each band checking different sections of the Academy. As they march out of the gymnasium, Misaki stares straight ahead to ignore the small, yet conspicuous gap between each group.
Yeah. Absolutely ridiculous.