The sound of the bell that day filled her with delight. She'd put in a hard day's work; it was finally time for her sweet reward. She tidied her desk, packed up her things, and headed for the door of the teachers' offices. She had almost made it when the hammer dropped.
"Oh, Sawako," said Principal Yamada, peeking out his office door. "Wait a moment, please."
"It's nothing important, I just thought I would come with you today. I have a little time and I've been meaning to take a look at this light music club of yours."
Sawako froze solid.
"You seem very happy with these students," continued the principal as he put on his suit coat. "They must be talented. I'd like to hear them play."
Just leave, Sawako told herself. If you're fast enough, he'll think you didn't hear... no, no, no good. I already answered him. Stupid!
"Shall we go?" he asked, shutting his office door.
"Certainly!" replied Sawako. "Just follow me."
They walked. Her mind raced. I'll tell him they're sick! All of them! ...No, dammit, I would have had to do that before we left. Why don't I think of these things faster?
"Have a good day, Ms. Yamanaka!" shouted a couple of girls on their way home. Principal Yamada nodded approvingly. For such a new teacher, Sawako was doing a remarkable job of earning her students' respect. But then, they were bound to admire such an elegant, proper young lady.
Kill him! Of course! But where do I stash the body? Sawako rubbed her chin thoughtfully.
They walked for a few more minutes. Eventually the principal broke the silence, muttering, "We do seem to be taking the scenic route, don't we, Sawako?"
"Oh! Not at all, sir. We're almost there." A new idea struck; she looked around frantically. "Ah! Here we are!"
The principal raised an eyebrow as Sawako opened the door for him. "That," he said, "is the cafeteria."
"They play here on Tuesdays. Oops! No one's here! I guess they were busy today."
"This is Thursday," said the principal.
Sawako blushed. "Yes, sir."
"I know where my school's music room is, Sawako."
He headed for the stairs. Sawako dashed after him. "Sir! You can't go there! It's not safe!"
"And why not?" he asked, not stopping.
"They're doing all kinds of construction work in the music room! Knocking down walls, pulling out power lines, the works! You'll get hurt!"
"Again," the principal replied, "I would know if construction were taking place in my school."
"Fair enough. But... but the girls play their music loud! Dangerously loud! You can't go in there without a helmet!"
"The light music club does this?"
"It's just a name. These girls are hard rockers! They use nine amplifiers each!"
The principal rolled his eyes. "I'll take the risk."
He was now just a few steps from the door. There was no choice. Sawako dove in front of him, blocking his way.
"I can't let you go in there. You're too important to this school. Let me go in first and make sure it's safe. It may take several minutes."
Principal Yamada glared. "This is becoming ridiculous. I intend to enter the room. Is there any reason I should not?"
Sawako's head spun. Something! Anything! Diseases! Monsters! Ghosts!
"No, sir," she conceded. "No plausible reason."
She stepped aside, defeated, and he moved for the door. There's only one chance left, she realized. Maybe they'll be practicing. I've never seen them start in the first half hour, but there's a first time for everything. Please. Please. Please!
The principal stepped into the music room. Sawako followed. And in unison, they stopped cold.
"Go, Ricchan! Go for five!"
"You can beat her, Yui! Hang in there!"
In the center of the room, Ritsu and Yui were balancing stacks of cupcakes on their heads.
Yui moaned, "This is too hard!"
"Ha!" laughed Ritsu. "Packing it in already? I told you you were no match for the perfect balance of a master drumme-"
"You're tilting!" warned Tsumugi.
Too late. Ritsu had been too busy taunting Yui to notice. Her cupcakes tumbled off her head and landed, one by one, on the snare drum.
"Aw, no!" Ritsu grabbed the desserts and started wiping the drum off with her sleeve.
"You'd better not have gotten anything on the other instruments," rebuked Azusa. "And we win."
Yui lit up; that hadn't occurred to her yet. "We win, Azu-nyan!" she cheered, and gave a little hop.
Her stack of cupcakes immediately flew from her head, bounced off Azusa's Mustang, and hit the floor.
"AAAAA!" The younger girl panicked, rushing over to check the damage.
Despite losing the contest and seeing so many of her confections ruined, Tsumugi smiled. "You tried your best, Ricchan."
"Thanks. Man, I'm never gonna get this out." The drummer rubbed harder. "Hey, is Mio back with us yet?"
Tsumugi glanced under the table, where Mio, dressed in what appeared to be a female ninja outfit, was dead to the world. "I think it'll be a while," she said.
"Sheesh. Get over it already, Mio. If you didn't want to be Sawa-chan's clothes horse, you shouldn't have grown such big -"
Principal Yamada loudly cleared his throat.
All four conscious club members looked up. Silence fell as they finally noticed the new arrival.
This is it, thought Sawako. Go for the gold. She stepped out from behind the principal and shouted, "GIRLS! What are you doing? This is the music room, not a tea shop! Put that junk away and practice!"
Yui perked up. "Ah! Sawa-chan! We got Mio to put on that kunoichi outfit you made! What do you think?"
Sawako feigned horror. "Why would you make the poor girl wear embarrassing clothes?"
"Because you told us to," said Yui, perplexed.
Sawako glanced nervously at her boss. "Uh... heh... what a... kidder?"
To describe Principal Yamada as "not amused" would be like describing outer space as chilly.
It was quiet in the club room for the next hour or so. Outside, in the hallway, it was much louder. The principal was giving Sawako the dressing-down of her brief career.
The girls had been taking turns listening through the door. So far it didn't sound good. Words like "suspension" were flying.
Ritsu, whose turn it had been, stood up. "I'm not getting much here. Yui, you're on."
Yui saluted. "Aye, captain!" Grabbing an empty cup, she took up position at the door.
Does the cup actually help? wondered Azusa. Once upon a time, she would just have assumed her seniors knew better about these things. Once upon a time.
The drummer paced impatiently. "Anything?"
Listening through the cup, Yui frowned. "I think Sawa-chan is saying it's all our fault."
"Oh, she's been doing that the whole time. Be more specific! Listen harder!"
Over at the table, Azusa had been watching in amazement as Tsumugi coaxed Mio out of her stupor with chamomile and soothing words. Against all odds, the bassist was now sitting up and responding to stimuli. Someday Tsumugi was going to be the greatest mother in the world.
Of course, under the circumstances, it might have been more merciful to leave Mio insensate. "What are we going to do?" she lamented. "The principal is sure to take away our club status over this."
"We always knew we might get caught," replied Tsumugi. "We should have been more careful. But let's not assume the worst."
"Not till we have more information!" agreed Ritsu. "Well, Yui?"
"Still blaming us." She paused. "I keep hearing 'Especially Ritsu.' "
The drummer swore under her breath. "If I get expelled over this, I'm sticking three pictures of Death Devil in every locker."
"NO!" shouted Azusa, punching the table and making Tsumugi and Mio jump. "No one's getting expelled! Everything's going to be fine!"
"W-what makes you so sure?" asked Mio.
"He wouldn't have become the principal if he didn't have understanding and compassion for students! He'll give us another chance!"
Ritsu faked wiping a tear from her eye. "Oh, Nakano... your innocence is so touching. I just wanna give you a lollipop or something."
"Let's hope so," said Mio, putting a hand on her junior's shoulder. "But let's have a backup plan."
"Hmm," mulled Ritsu. "Do people really get amnesia if you hit them on the head?"
"If they did, you would get amnesia every day, Ricchan," pointed out Tsumugi.
Mio snorted. "No, Ritsu's safe. I always hit her on the forehead, where her armour plating is."
"I could hit her there all day. Even slam her with a chair or something. She wouldn't feel a thing."
"Oh, we'll see what you feel when -"
"Hold it." Azusa was thinking hard. "Supposing it is true."
"We're not knocking out the principal!" said Mio, aghast.
"But if it does work like on TV, it wouldn't do him any permanent harm. The victim usually just forgets the recent past. Last day or so."
"It doesn't work that way! Tell her, Mugi!"
"We shouldn't try it," said Tsumugi reluctantly. "We would have to hit him in exactly the right spot. It would take a lot of skill."
Azusa sighed. "You're right. If we messed up, we could hurt him pretty badly."
"Hey, that's a risk I'm willing to take!" said Ritsu.
Mio facepalmed. "Why are we still talking about this?"
"I know!" shouted Yui. "Mio, you're a ninja now! Use a jutsu on him!"
"Make him forget or fall asleep or something!"
Mio glared. "Dressing up like a ninja doesn't actually make you one."
"You have the power, Mio! Believe it!"
"Oh come on! Look at this outfit!" She stood up. "It's purple! Stockings, mesh... what kind of ninja dresses like this?"
"A sexy ninja," said Ritsu, because someone had to.
"Enough of this ninja nonsense. We need a real plan. Let's see if Yui's heard anything more." Mio paused. "Wait a minute. Yui, you're over here."
"Weren't you supposed to be listening to the fight?"
"Oh, it ended a while ago. The principal left. He said something like 'You're on fire.' "
The other four girls shared a look of pure horror.
Ritsu dashed for the door. "Sawa-chan!" she shouted. "It's gonna be okay! Don't do anything crazy!"
She flung the door open. Sawako was still there... in body, but not in spirit. Her skin was pale, her eyes empty. She looked like she'd just been drained of her blood by a vampire.
"Uh, Mugi?" said Ritsu. "We're gonna need some serious tea here."
It had taken a lot of help, up to and including lifting the teacup to her mouth, but Sawako finally had most of her colour back now. Tsumugi had broken out her special tea for this job. The mere scent of it was enough to make the band feel like they could play the Rolling Stones' entire discography while running a marathon.
As Tsumugi tended to their teacher, the others stared at the teapot in awe and terror. "I'm going to try it," whispered Yui.
"Be careful," Azusa warned.
Ritsu poured a bit of the new tea in Yui's cup. "You're a brave woman. We will remember you fondly."
Taking a deep breath, Yui drank the tea. She was completely silent for a long moment.
"Yui? Are you okay?" asked Mio nervously.
A tear came to Yui's eye as she stared straight ahead. "I can SEE GOD," she announced.
"Hi, Mr. God. Thanks for Ui and Giita."
Ritsu pushed the teapot away like it was going to bite her. "I'm not touching that stuff. It should be a controlled substance."
"It contains several," noted Tsumugi, who nobody had realized was listening.
"Girls," said Sawako, "we have a problem."
The band perked up. "Teacher!" said Azusa. "Are you okay now?"
"Okay?" Sawako laughed bitterly. "We ain't none of us okay."
"Were you fired?" asked Ritsu bluntly, earning a disapproving look from Mio.
"No, Ritsu. I wasn't fired." She sighed. "Not yet."
"Has our club been suspended?" asked Tsumugi.
"Same answer. Not yet. We're on the bubble, girls."
Mio stared. "The... bubble?"
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Sawako with utter scorn. "You're afraid of bubbles, right? You've got so many stupid phobias I lose track."
"Yeah, lay off Mio!" said Ritsu, putting an arm around her friend. "She's not afraid of bubbles. She's afraid of barnacles. And skulls. And blood. Her nightmare wouldn't involve bubbles. Just lots of barnacle-encrusted skulls that would just keep BITING her until -"
"For the love of God, Ritsu!" yelled Azusa. She pointed at the quivering mass that had until recently been Mio.
"Oh. Heh. Um, sorry, Mio. That was only half on purpose."
A bit nervous about taking the liberty, Azusa patted her senior on the head. "There, there. Everything's okay."
"...B-biting..." whispered Mio.
Sawako grunted. "You people are so tedious. Do you want to know the situation or not?"
Even Tsumugi was visibly startled at the teacher's gruffness. The "real" Sawako was bad enough, but this was full metal Sawako. Whatever the principal had told her, it had been ugly.
No sense delaying the inevitable, thought Ritsu. "We're ready, Sawa-chan. Lay it on us."
"I told Principal Yamada the truth," she explained. "I told him that the five of you have natural talent, and I didn't want to quash it by putting you on some regimented schedule or banning your tea and treats."
"But you offered to do that, right?"
Sawako glared. "Azusa..."
"Sorry." The junior student sighed; if a genie had offered her three wishes for the club, regimented-schedule would have been the first, and she would have thought hard about making no-tea-and-treats-in-the-club-room number two.
"I explained all that to him," continued the teacher, "and he listened. He believes me... but he wants proof."
"No problem!" said Ritsu. "Mugi, make him some pudding!"
"See, the proof is in the... oh, forget it."
"If I can finish," said Sawako, "he wants a demonstration that this club is accomplishing something. So he's sending us... to Regionals."
Azusa's eyes went wide. "Regionals?"
"What's that?" asked Ritsu.
Her junior frowned in disappointment. "What kind of high school musician are you? Regionals are Regionals! They're the biggest deal in the region!"
"Oh. Then shouldn't we have been going already?"
"Mio and I have been bugging you about it for weeks! Right, Mio?"
"Oh, for Pete's..." Azusa grabbed Yui's cup of tea and held it under the bassist's nose. She leapt three feet into the air.
"Wow," she said, conscious but shaking. "Mugi, where did you get that stuff?"
The rich girl just smiled mysteriously. Ritsu got the distinct impression that if she told them, she would have to kill them.
"And did I hear someone say we're going to Regionals?" asked Mio.
"Yep. Apparently they're a big deal."
"Of course they're a big deal!" scolded Azusa. "They're... they're regional!"
"Well, good." Mio managed to smile. "It'll be our first chance to compete with other groups. Think of it as Round 1 of Budokan. It'll be fun!"
Sawako laughed bitterly. "Oh, you're not having fun with this, girls. You're fighting for your lives. You're in it for blood!"
"Shh!" hissed Azusa.
She needn't have worried; Mio was more concerned about what Sawako was saying than what words she chose. "What do you mean, fighting for our lives?"
"You don't just have to play at Regionals - you have to win. That's the test. If you lose, it proves to Principal Yamada that I'm wrong about your talent. Then you lose the club... and my position at this school gets 'renegotiated'."
There was a moment of silence while the ultimatum sank in.
"Hey Mio," said Ritsu, "what's the competition like at Regionals?"
She hesitated. "Well... I watched last year's finals on TV. You know that band you've been into lately, SentriFUJE? The ones who went platinum with their first album and did a private concert for the Emperor?"
Ritsu gulped. "They were last year's winners?"
"No. They came in third."
"...Well, this was a nice club while it lasted."
"We can't give up!" cried Tsumugi. "Ms. Sawako's career depends on us!"
"Good point. Hey Sawa-chan, how are ya at flipping burgers?"
"I do host a mean barbe- HEY! Are you saying that I wouldn't even be able to get another teaching job? That I'm only suited for menial labour?"
"Saying? No." Ritsu liked to maintain plausible deniability.
"It won't come to that!" Tsumugi pressed, horrified at the image of her teacher being doomed to serve fast food involuntarily all her life. "We can win at Regionals! We'll practice until no one can beat us!"
"What about our school work?" worried Mio. "Exams are only a year away, and we have this year's tests too. We can't devote ourselves completely to -"
A soft click interrupted her. The sound filled all the girls' hearts with dread. They turned, hoping it had been something else. Something other than...
...Sawako setting her glasses down on the table. "Oh, you will win at Regionals," she declared with a wicked grin. "I have a plan."
In the dead silence, Mio, Ritsu, Azusa, and Tsumugi felt a chill that froze their very souls.
Yui laughed out loud.
"W-what was that for?" asked the startled Azusa.
"Oh, sorry," she said. "God told a joke."
Ritsu glanced at the blazing eyes of their teacher and muttered to Mio, "I think we're the punchline."
Next: Tokens of Esteem
(A/N: This takes place about halfway through second year. The anime skipped through that year pretty fast; I'm taking a little comic license to squeeze this in. Any resemblance to popular TV shows is all in your mind.)