CHAPTER 1

Weekends are always too damn short. No matter who you are or what your situation at school or work is, Friday always seems to be that one weekly celebration ushering in a long and relaxing period of freedom. Still, it always seems that that one period of freedom vanishes seemingly only a few hours later. Summer and winter vacations were always the best. Once the gaming console went on, it seemed like the weekend would disappear.

At least these were the thoughts of one Yukari Tanazaki as she raced towards her job early Monday morning on her used and abused bicycle. It was still only a few weeks away from the start of summer vacation so the possibility of another trip to one beach house owned by her youngest student was enough to keep her motivated and pedal faster. She panted as she zoomed past traffic on the sidewalk and cut into intersections without hesitation, earning several angry honks and shouts from disgruntled drivers.

Still unyielding, Yukari pushed faster as she looked at her watch and grinned. She laughed with satisfaction and proudly muttered, "Gonna make it on time today. No more principal lectures for me!"

The unconventional teacher cracked an egotistical grin and crossed a bridge over a river that curved upward slightly and Azu High School was sitting there as always waiting for her. Fatigue was setting in and she was losing steam but Yukari knew that once she reached the top of the bridge and saw the school ahead of her, she would gain her second wind.

This old pattern once again proved valid when the exhausted woman's eyes captured the large school only less than a mile away from her and her smile grew. Picking up speed as she rode down the hill, something suddenly caught her eye. Up until now, this morning transit to work was a dream come true for a Monday but her worst nightmare was soon about to become a reality.

A train was fast approaching a railroad crossing Yukari would have to pass through if she wanted to make it to school on time. It was a morning transit train, a normal part of the Monday rush and she never beat it before. It was like a reoccurring nemesis, almost as if she was Captain Ahab and the train was her white whale. The crossing guards had not yet activated so there was still time to cross.

Squinting at the train, she yelled, "Not today you bastard!"

Even though she was freely speeding down the bridge, Yukari decided to add more by pedaling faster and she leaned forward, creating a potentially dangerous position for herself. The lights of the crossing began blinking but the arms hadn't lowered yet. Feeling like she was the center attention in an action flick, Yukari put all her effort into it, but even machines have limits against human determination.

The chain on her bike rattled and started to jingle wildly, making Yukari scream, "Oh no, no, no not now damn you!"

The bike chain did not adhere to Yukari's desires and snapped off the gears and got tangled in the spokes of her back wheel. Now losing control, Yukari tried desperately to slow herself down but yet another Monday morning challenge found her when she spotted a small, gray cat bearing a mysteriously toothy grin slowly waltzing into her path.

Natural instincts took over and she swerved her handlebars in every direction she could until she struck a light post on the bridge, turning her bike into a catapult and she quickly assumed the role of the boulder. The screaming teacher flew off her bike and glided into the morning air and the last thing she saw before she plummeted was the gates lowering across the railroad crossing. She could only glare and sigh.

Yukari fell off the bridge and landed with a splash in the river along with her school supplies. Though the water wasn't deep nor was it rushing, it still didn't help the enraged teacher as she sat in the water now soaked. She rested her head on her open palm with her elbow secured on her knee and she leered angrily at the train, which just finished passing by the crossing.

Still sitting in bitter and contemptuous silence, Yukari's watch began beeping on her wrist, just as she heard the morning school bell ring.

"I hate Mondays..."

(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)

After the inevitable scolding and lecturing from Principal Kitazawa, Yukari sulked in her sloshing wet clothes now smelling like a bayou to her classroom. No doubt they were enjoying this extra half hour freedom to give their Monday a pleasant start, but she was without a doubt going to trample that fire when she arrived. Gripping her moistened and moldy teaching books tightly, she gripped the door and flung it open with all her might.

"This is not a damn social club!" She thundered, making all her students scramble back to their seats as fast as she was pedaling earlier. With every step she took, the students found themselves fighting an uphill battle not to laugh every time their teacher's shoes squished. Yukari reached the front of the desk and angrily pulled out a clipboard with a paper attached to it, also drenched. "Okay...I'll make everyone a deal. You don't ask me what happened and there'll be no homework for tonight. How's that sound?"

The crowd instantly agreed with borderline applause but when Yukari gave them her look again, the silence reformed in the room.

"Alrighty then...time to take attendance." Yukari stated and began calling off the names of her students. "Mihama, Chiyo."

"Here, Miss Yukari." The cute and eleven year old prodigy said with her usual cheery and optimistic smile.

"Mizuhara, Koyomi."

"Here." The taller and more responsible student announced while adjusting her glasses.

"Osaka." Yukari called but several seconds past and there was no response. "Osaka?!"

The body of students turned towards the chair that was usually occupied by their infamous spacey transfer student and found her staring into space. She was instantly brought back to reality when a piece of chalk from Yukari's hand launched and struck her in the head.

"Hello?! Earth to Osaka!" Yukari screamed angrily, making the walls vibrate.

"Oh...good morning Miss Yukari...hey...why y'all wet like that?" She asked.

The teacher gritted her teeth and announced, "Okay, just for that, ten page essay for everyone tonight on why you shouldn't piss your teacher off!"

Groans and sighs erupted in the classroom and some scolded Osaka, though she was still unable to comprehend what was happening around her as Yukari moved on.

"Sakaki?" Yukari asked.

"Oh...here." The tall and quiet girl was able to quickly snap herself out of her daydreaming from out the window.

"Takino, Tomo?" Yukari asked.

Silence.

"Hey, where the hell are you, Takino?!" Yukari yelled again, now becoming more irritated.

"She's not here today, Miss Yukari. I haven't seen her since yesterday." Yomi announced for her.

Yukari glanced over Yomi's shoulder and saw the empty desk where the also infamous wildcat used to occupy but today was now property of thin air. The teacher glared and noted, "Okay so she's skipping school today. Got it. Thanks, Yomi."

Yomi rolled her eyes but couldn't help but chuckle at the idea of Yukari scolding Tomo for yet another stupid antic of hers. A thought did suddenly occur to Yomi though as the teacher finished roll call and began the class. Tomo, as usual, stopped by her house the previous night at her window. While Yomi did her homework and Tomo read another magazine, it remained unusually quiet between the two girls.

Tomo then took it in a weird direction and started talking about some very strange things. Things that weren't very becoming of her personality. She started asking Yomi why we were all here on Earth, was there some giant and all knowing power watching over them, and, the one that Yomi remembered the most, "What is our relevance in the universe? Just like what is a housefly's relevance to the concept of existence?"

Yomi was barely listening but she just took all those questions as one of Tomo's weird attempts at trying to mess with her for being more academically focused over her or the rest of her knucklehead team. Whenever Tomo would get like that, it would become so easy for Yomi to simply call her an idiot and brush her off. Still, before Tomo climbed out her window again, she did say something that for some reason still puzzled Yomi.

"Sometimes...I just think there's no reason."

Before Yomi could ask Tomo what she meant, the usually happy and eccentric girl jumped out her window again and was gone. Now her desk sat alone without the Azu High wildcat to terrorize the classroom or the school. Still, Yomi didn't think much of it.

No one else dared speak to Yukari for the rest of the day as she struggled in her wet wardrobe to get through the day. Even just making it to lunchtime seemed like a milestone for her and when the noon bell tolled, she was gone again, though still pissed that she would be spending her lunch hour running home to change clothes and running back.

As for the students, most of them stayed and ate their packed lunches while others opted for the cafeteria. The group of girls in Chiyo, Yomi, Sakaki, Osaka, and Kagura minus Tomo chose to eat their packed lunches in the classroom and while their conversations stayed rather mundane and trivial, Chiyo did eventually bring up a subject that was stirring in the back of everybody's minds.

"So um, where do you think Tomo is, Miss Yomi?" Chiyo asked with childish curiosity as she stuffed a meatball into her mouth.

Yomi shrugged. "Who knows? She's probably out skipping school like Yukari said earlier."

"Skipping school?! Why on Earth would anyone want to do that?" Chiyo exclaimed. "Doesn't Tomo understand how important it is, not to mention how much trouble she could get into if she's caught?"

Yomi sighed and shook her head. "I wouldn't even bother worrying about her, Chiyo-chan. She's at that age now where she's her own problem so I would only focus on yourself and your studies."

"Unacceptable!" Kagura suddenly roared, making everyone (aside from Osaka) jump. "That damn Tomo! She just needs to keep one-upping me, doesn't she! If it's not the knuckleheads, then it's being the first one to play hooky! Well I'll show her! Starting tomorrow, I'll skip two days of school, I swear it!"

Yomi narrowed her eyes. "Yeah, and tell us how that works out when the cops pick you up for truancy. Sakaki, Osaka, don't you two have anything to add?"

Sakaki was busy staring out the window once again, still seemingly locked in an incessant dream focused on the clouds. Her other friends didn't know it however, but Sakaki was seeing cats in the clouds and her complacent smiled accompanied by a slight blush illustrated her desire for one. Osaka on the other hand was able to keep her focus on the conversation, though not in the way Yomi had hoped.

"Hey Kagura...how exactly do ya skip school? Do ya do like a hopscotch deal past it or somethin' like that?" She asked, her smile still wide and face showing a vacant expression.

Yomi groaned and massaged her exhausted eyes with her thumb and index finger under her glasses. "Chiyo-chan, sometimes I think only you and I are the only sane people left out there."

The youngest of the group giggled uncomfortably by the observation but an idea suddenly clicked in Chiyo's mind. "Wait, what if Tomo is sick?"

"With her energy and attitude, I don't even see how that's possible. Maybe she got sick of herself." Yomi giggled a bit at the end.

"I say we at least stop by her house on our way home today to make sure she's okay." Chiyo added with clear enthusiasm.

Normally Yomi wouldn't even bother with such an errand as she's seen this kind of scenario by Tomo before. In her mind, her friend from grade school was either skipping school or making this some kind of a prank. If anything, she could even be faking an illness to garner sympathy then laugh at them for falling for it. Still, Yomi could see how much visiting Tomo meant to Chiyo so she agreed to accompany her to the wildcat's house.

Yukari Tanazaki was out the door and speeding down the street even as the final bell for the day echoed throughout the school. This was without a doubt a Monday to forget and the faster she got home, the better off she was. The rest of the students however took their time getting out, some even saying goodbye to their teachers for the day, which was always the case for Minamo Kurosawa. Still, Chiyo and her friends walked together and exited the school on this warm day and began trekking towards the neighborhood where Tomo's residence was established.

Their conversations on the way there were still somehow routine and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It always seemed that Yomi and Chiyo were always able to connect the most through their mutual respect for studying and academics, while Kagura still pursued Sakaki in joining a sports team with her. Osaka on the other hand always seemed to be locked in her own world fantasizing about something as she stared up at the blue sky.

"Well, here we are." Yomi finally announced after a short walk and they stood before the Takino household. "Tomo's parents should still be at work so there's really no need for formalities."

Yomi walked up and turned the doorknob without knocking or ringing the doorbell since she's done it before when it was just her and Tomo hanging out. They casually walked inside the quiet house as Chiyo also reluctantly followed since she's never really entered a home without signaling her presence first.

The girls, especially Yomi, felt something strange the very second they walked into the house, however. It was like some strange omnipresence that came with the even more so quiet household. The home was so quiet, they could even hear the natural ringing in their eardrums. Being inside now somehow felt like being in the movie Paranormal Activity during the nighttime scenes before the creepy stuff would happen.

"Tomo? Hey Tomo, are you home?" Yomi called.

Silence.

Chiyo suddenly clung to Yomi's skirt. "Miss Yomi...it's a little scary in here."

"It's okay, Chiyo-chan. It's just Tomo's house." Yomi gently reassured with a smile. "Let me check her room upstairs and if she's not there then we'll go."

Yomi walked up the stairs and Kagura followed, taking in as much as she could from her wildcat rival with intentions of eyeing her room for any psychological edge over her. The two girls arrived at the top of the steps and Tomo's room was the first door in a hallway with her parent's room next to it, and the main bathroom at the end of the hall.

Yomi gently knocked on the door. "Tomo?"

Downstairs, Chiyo switched from Yomi to Sakaki and the tall girl was happy to hold Chiyo's hand as they waited. Chiyo looked up at her and said, "This is a mystery, isn't it Miss Sakaki?"

"Oh...well, I guess so." She gently replied and looked around. The tallest member of the group suddenly noticed a strange observation about the house. It was clean. Not just for a normal house, but it still smelt of furniture spray and ammonia from the kitchen floor. She could also see the track marks from a vacuum cleaner on the smooth carpet in the living room.

Yomi slowly opened the door to Tomo's room and looked inside. The room was vacant and Tomo was nowhere to be found, but Yomi also took notice of something peculiar about the room. It was clean. Freshly cleaned as well.

She closed the door. "Wow. She even made her bed and everything. That's not really like her."

Kagura shrugged and folded her hands across her chest. "Well I don't know where she could've gone."

Yomi hummed as she too was now becoming a little uneasy about this setting. It wasn't like Tomo to simply not show up to school one day and then suddenly decide to clean her room in addition to the whole house before disappearing. Yomi sighed and said, "Okay that does it. I'm calling her cell."

As Yomi pulled out her cell phone and began dialing Tomo's number, Kagura's voice stopped her. It wasn't even what she said that stopped Yomi. It was how she said it. Yomi could feel the sheer presence of fright and horror within the swimmer's voice when she uttered the first of many things regarding Tomo.

"...Oh my god..."

Yomi looked up and saw the usually tanned athlete was now white as a fresh snowstorm in January and she was staring down the hall at the bathroom door. It was wide open and they could see most of the fixtures in it but the tacky setup wasn't what caused Kagura such frigid and budding despair.

Yomi looked down on the floor and saw a pair of human feet resting there lifelessly covered by a pair of pink socks. She could also make out the shape and structures of the two legs attached to the feet snaking their way towards the body they were attached to, also resting on the floor and obscured by wall.

The phone slipped from Yomi's grip and when it struck the floor and echoed all throughout the quiet house, they panicked. "Tomo!" Yomi cried and sprinted forward and was chased by Kagura.

They tore into the bathroom and Yomi nearly screamed when she found her lifelong friend in Tomo Takino stretched out on the bathroom floor with several empty pill bottles scattered around her head. A small trail of foam was dripping from her darkened lips and her skin was ice cold upon Kagura touching it to clear the foam away and begin performing CPR. Her eyelids were also closed, almost like curtains signaling the end of a final act on a performance stage.

"Come on, Tomo, come on!" Kagura screamed with all her might as she pushed down on her rival's chest and connected her lips with Tomo's to force fresh air into her lungs.

The two girls were so focused on their unconscious friend, they didn't hear Sakaki rush up the stairs, who had left Chiyo with Osaka downstairs and she shrieked when she saw the cause of such commotion. She glanced down and saw Yomi's cell phone sitting there and she instinctually did her part by snatching it and calling for help.

"Oh god...she's so cold...!" Yomi cried. "Please, Tomo, please! Please breathe!"

Kagura still performed CPR on the unresponsive Tomo for another sixty seconds until Yomi sat back and the cabinets below the sink caught her. Tears were streaking freely from her eyes and Sakaki slowly approached, also dripping water from her eyes and breathing deeply at what she was seeing. Kagura was the only one left who still wouldn't accept fate as she kept pushing down on Tomo's chest and breathing into her.

It was when Yomi slowly reached up and grabbed her arm and whispered, "Kagura..."

The dim-witted but still kindhearted girl looked at Yomi and when she saw the waterfalls falling from under Yomi's glasses, her body clenched and she did the same. The waterworks for her began as well and she quickly covered her mouth in horror of what just transpired here and she sat back bluntly, the cabinets also catching her as she wept next to Yomi.

"What in the world is happening?!" Chiyo called from downstairs and Sakaki looked down the stairs and saw the young girl about to ascend them.

"Stay down there!" She screamed, making the young girl jump and nearly tear up herself from the harsh and loud words.

Kagura couldn't take it anymore. She turned away from the horrendous scene and buried her face into Yomi's bosom, who quickly hugged her but she herself couldn't take her eyes off Tomo's lifeless and pale corpse. Tomo's eyes were shut and if it weren't for the pale complexion accompanied by the empty pill bottles scattered everywhere, she would've thought Tomo was simply asleep.

As the two girls hugged each other in the bathroom, they could suddenly hear ambulances fast approaching the house. However, by the time the paramedics stormed into the bathroom, Kagura had already done all they could have for her.

Tomo Takino was pronounced dead at the scene.

*A/N: First attempt at an Azumanga Daioh fic so definitely know what you think! Should I continue...?