"Our next category is high school pop and rock music clubs. This year, third place goes to... Yokozuna High!"
Sawako watched the club members take the stage to get their third-place trophy. They were over the moon, and they had a right to be. This category was one of the most crowded at Regionals - finishing third out of 15 schools was something to be proud of.
She sighed. Her club had things to be proud of, but this wasn't going to be one of them. Their moment of triumph had come and gone. Now it was time for the reckoning.
"In second place... Astraea Academy!"
Mio was okay. The rest of the band had brought her back around without too much trouble. Physically, she was none the worse for wear (except a small bruise where she had hit the floor), but she was absolutely mortified about ruining the performance. In the end, everyone had decided it was best not to make her stay for the final rankings. She would be sleeping over with Ritsu tonight, and Sawako (coming off a brief but alarming phone conversation with Chika Kawasumi) had managed to gently nudge Tsumugi into going with them.
Yui and Ui had gone home too - the elder sister still a bit mopey about her first romantic adventure, and the younger eager to get her home before she did anything else crazy. Azusa had been the last holdout. Dutiful as usual, she hadn't wanted to leave the event early or "abandon" her teacher, but Sawako had assured her it was all right. There was really nothing to stay for.
Music contests were many and varied, but there were a few things you could count on. Stage time was always one minute too short for comfort, the distance to the nearest parking space was directly proportional to the weight of your instruments... and drama was worth zero points. An spontaneous on-stage kiss; an instrument-wrecking frenzy of enthusiasm; an awkward, hesitant singer suddenly seeing her distant father in the audience and finding her voice - things like that might be life-changing for the players themselves, but they left the judges cold.
No matter how good the reason, a band that didn't finish its set didn't place. Period.
"And this year's winner..."
There was a drumroll, of course. The teacher sighed.
Sawako blinked. No. It can't be. We WON?
"We won!" she screamed. "We won! We actually won! Stick THAT in your pipe and smoke it, Yamada! We wo-"
She stopped. Everyone within several feet was looking at her.
"Um... they did say Sakuragaoka, right?"
"No," said the woman next to her. "Sasunori."
Fortunately, the crowd was big enough and the applause loud enough that her interruption had gone mostly unnoticed. The Sasunori band was on stage now, jumping up and down in the rush of victory. Camera flashes were going off all over the room. Another year, another deserving winner.
Sawako's heart sank. She realized now that for all her pragmatism, deep down she'd still been hoping for a miracle.
"Congratulations," said the announcer to the Sasunori kids as they left the stage. "And finally, this year we have a special award - an honourable mention for outstanding effort. The winner is... Ryuumei Academy!"
Hmph. Outstanding effort. A consolation prize, in other words. The judges were showing off their kindheartedness. Probably found some constituency they wanted to score points with.
"Ryuumei Academy! Are they here?"
Wait. Wasn't that...
"Well, we'll catch up with them later. That concludes this category. Now, to present the awards for high school jazz, please welcome Mr. Hiiragi."
Ryuumei Academy. That was them, wasn't it?
It was! It was them!
"We won! WE WOONNNN!"
Again there were stares, and again the applause was the only thing keeping her from causing a disturbance - but this time Sawako didn't care. She was in the stratosphere. An honourable mention! For outstanding effort! This wasn't quite a miracle, but she would take it.
"You won, did you?" said Principal Yamada.
Sawako jerked to a halt. Why couldn't she ever see her boss coming? "Y-yes, sir," she said, collecting herself.
"I heard the name Ryuumei, not Sakuragaoka."
"There was a mistake. They had the wrong name for us. It's Ritsu's fault."
"I see," he said.
His face gave nothing away. As nervous as she could ever remember being, Sawako prodded for the verdict. "So isn't that great, sir? The club got an honourable mention!"
"Indeed they did," he replied. "For their song about the virtues of sloth."
In every life, there are moments of decision.
"I gave them a chance to prove themselves capable of hard work and commitment. Their answer was to deny that these things are even necessary."
Sawako had decided to abandon her band. She had left them discouraged and disillusioned. They had overcome it, but only by marshalling those negative feelings and turning them into defiance. Defiance of her - and the duty and authority she represented.
She'd forced them to stand up for themselves. They were supposed to be standing up for the school.
"I... I didn't..."
"My office, Sawako. Immediately after classes end tomorrow. Do not be late."
Sawako could just barely manage to nod.
There was a brief silence broken by the announcer. "In second place... Takizawa Junior High!"
"Hurrah!" said the principal. "My daughter's school did well. I should get some pictures."
He walked away, but then turned back to Sawako. "The reason I know she won is that the name we just heard is the same as the name of her school."
"I felt I should explain that in case you found it confusing."
Ritsu was usually very comfortable in her room. She had a certain ratio of stuff on the floor to stuff on the shelves which she did her best to maintain. Her mom always nagged her to clean up, and Mio had come up with some creative descriptions over the years ("it looks like a garbage truck crashed into a bookstore"), but this was how she liked it. Nice clean places made her... tense somehow. Here, she could relax.
Today, though, she felt embarrassed about her room for the first time in a while. It wasn't even because Tsumugi was here; it was Mio. She looked like part of the mess. This wasn't a panic attack or a crying fit - nothing so normal. She was just sitting there hugging her knees on the bed, looking half-alive. Ritsu would gladly have cleaned the room if it would have helped her somehow.
She looked around for something they could talk about. "Hey, you were reading Gunmad GXQ, right? Did you get up to volume 3?"
"I'm not sure. Let me see."
Ritsu tossed the book over to her. Mio flipped through it. "Yeah, I remember this part. Do you have the next one?"
"It's not out yet. The author got, like, the inside-out flu or something."
The silence returned. Ritsu sighed; what could she say? It wasn't like Mio hadn't blown it.
With an unnecessary knock on the door, Tsumugi came in, carrying a teapot in one hand and a stack of cups in the other. Ritsu smiled. Her mom had offered to make tea for them, but the blonde had insisted on doing it. No complaints from the others on that score (Ritsu because she didn't care much about etiquette, Mio because she didn't have the energy).
Tsumugi set everything down and began filling a cup. "This will be yours, Mio," she said.
Ritsu took a deep sniff. "Mmmm. That sure smells good... wait, we don't keep this kind of tea here."
"These tea leaves were mine," Tsumugi explained. "I happened to have some with me today."
The drummer would normally have been pleased to get more evidence for her "Mugi is capable of making tea at all times" theory, but in this situation she felt like the Tainaka household was being slighted a bit. "We do own basic refreshments, y'know. And ours rarely cause hallucinations in the drinker."
Mio smiled. "That's what this tastes like - the tea that brought Sawa-chan back to life. I'd forgotten all about it." No surprise to Ritsu; with everything they'd been through, that day felt years away.
"This blend is related, but less powerful," Tsumugi confirmed. "And there's no need to exaggerate. I would never serve anything that caused hallucinations."
"I seem to recall Yui seeing God," said Ritsu.
"Who are we to say she didn't?"
"She told us God looked like the KFC guy!"
"Who are we to say he doesn't?"
Ritsu was working on a retort when it hit her - Tsumugi was being silly. That was good. That was a sign of recovery. "Aw, whatever, you pom-pom. Let's get some of that tea already."
The three girls just sat drinking quietly for a little while. It had been a long, long day.
Eventually Ritsu's phone buzzed. It was an unknown number. Popping the phone open, she said, "I don't want any. Unless it's money."
"Wait! Don't hang up!"
"Oh, it's you." Ritsu recognized the voice of the reporter from earlier. "Hey, sorry about this, but I don't think Mio and Mugi are up to chatting right now." (Mio looked puzzled, but Tsumugi nodded in agreement.)
"Really? That's too bad. I guess we'll just use what we have."
"Good luck. Lookin' forward to it."
"Thanks! We'll text you our website address, so check tomorrow. Bye! And congratulations on your special prize!
"Catch ya later," said Ritsu, hanging up.
"Was that one of those reporters we met?" Mio asked. "I could have talked..."
"Nah, better not. Y'know how you're not supposed to put weight on a muscle after you sprain it?"
Mio nodded. "Right."
"What I'm sayin' is, the brain is a muscle."
"I recommend head push-ups to strengthen it."
Tsumugi picked up the pot. "More tea, Ricchan?"
"Thanks. S'okay, I got it." She took it and began filling her cup.
"And how does a head push-up work exactly?" Mio asked.
Ritsu just smiled. She didn't answer. Or move.
"Ricchan! Look out!" said Tsumugi. The drummer's cup was full, but she was still pouring. Her friend grabbed the teapot back before it could overflow the saucer.
"You dummy!" said Mio, snapping her fingers in front of Ritsu's face. "What's wrong?"
"One... one sec."
Ritsu picked up her phone. She opened it. She hit redial.
"WHAT SPECIAL PRIZE?"
The Day After Regionals
Sawako had come to school early every day for weeks. The reason was not industriousness. Tsumugi's gimmick had needed very careful monitoring. The size progression had to be just right: slow enough to pass for weight gain at school, but fast enough to look like pregnancy to the judges at Regionals. Even more important, it had to be tight enough to never slip, but without hurting the person inside. She couldn't let Tsumugi "learn on the job" - it required perfection, and that was Sawako's department.
The original plan had been to reverse the process after Regionals, but that was no longer feasible. Now that Sawako knew Tsumugi's feelings, those one-on-one fitting sessions couldn't possibly continue. Instead, Tsumugi would be taking today and tomorrow off; she would return on Monday, back to normal, and everyone would assume her parents had spent a fortune hiring experts to get her slimmed back down in a hurry.
Despite this, Sawako was once again at school early. The reason was still not industriousness. She was just terrified.
Her plan was to wait by the main entrance, catch the principal early, and see if they could have their meeting right away. As much as she feared the guillotine, lying with her head in the frame waiting for it to drop was worse. And at least she would get out of teaching today's classes.
The arrival of a student broke Sawako's train of thought. Students rarely came in this early, but when she saw who it was, she understood. "Good morning, Azusa."
"M-Ms. Sawako. Good morning." Azusa clearly hadn't been expecting anyone to be here.
"Up bright and early today, eh? Any special reason?"
"Uh... not really. I just like coming in early. It makes me feel..." She paused. "No, that's not true. I do have a reason."
"You don't want to run into Jun."
She nodded quietly.
"You can't put that off for long, you know. You'll see her in class."
"We don't have to talk there."
"But you will eventually. So... do you know what you're going to say?"
She shook her head. "I was up half the night over it, and I still can't decide. I want to strangle her. But... this time yesterday she was my friend. Probably my best friend."
"Don't let Yui hear that. You'll break her heart."
"Oh! No, it's just... I mean, Yui's my senior, it's not really the same -"
"I know." Sawako smiled. Easy to fluster as usual.
"The point is, I'm mad. I don't feel like being the bigger person. But if I'm cold with her now, she'll probably get defensive, and then what? How long does it go on? What if we're never friends again?"
"You're overthinking, Azusa. I'd say you're entitled to be angry for a while. If she's worth making up with, she'll understand that."
Azusa nodded, but still looked unsure. She wasn't done overthinking by a long shot.
Poor kid, thought Sawako. She often found Azusa annoying for much the same reason Ritsu did - she was so serious about everything. It could be stressful being around someone like that. Until now, looking down at her student's tortured face, Sawako had never really understood how tough it was to be someone like that.
"It's going to be okay," the teacher said. It wasn't something she said a lot - she had no proof, after all - but she was starting to realize it was still worth saying.
"Do you really think so?"
"Sure. These things happen."
Azusa looked up, suddenly pleased. "Right! You must know what this is like! How do you deal with it, Teacher?"
"Friends betraying you! It must happen all the -"
Azusa stopped short and slowly turned to meet Sawako's eyes. They had gone from warm to absolute zero.
"I should probably get to class, Teacher," she said.
"You should probably do that," Sawako agreed.
Azusa scurried away.
Some people. Sawako shook her head and turned back to the door. To her surprise, there were already other students arriving. She must have spent longer with Azusa than she'd thought.
Wait... how much longer exactly? Long enough for...?
Sawako dashed upstairs to the teachers' offices. She couldn't have missed the principal coming in, could she? The conversation with Azusa hadn't been that long!
She made it to the office and breathed a huge sigh of relief - no one was there yet. Even so, best to make sure. Sawako unlocked the door and turned on the lights inside. As long as the principal's sign wasn't up yet, she should be okay...
"Thank you," said Principal Yamada, catching the office door before it closed.
"No problem," Sawako replied, still waiting for her eyes to adj- "Ack! You're here!"
"Does that really warrant such shock?"
"Er, no, of course not. Sorry." Sawako jerked her brain back into plan mode. "Sir, I was wondering if you'd mind -"
The principal was staring down. "Really, Sawako? No indoor shoes?"
Sawako reddened. "I didn't have... I mean, I was in a..."
"I prefer not to see my staff tracking mud through the school. It makes it more difficult to set an example for -"
"Sorry! I'll get them! Hang on!"
Sawako ran back into the hallway. She made it about thirty feet before stopping cold, smacking her forehead, and turning around. Naturally, the principal's door was shut, "Do Not Disturb" sign on display. He was already busy filling out paperwork - if nothing else, Principal Yamada's work ethic was unimpeachable.
So much for Plan A. Sawako had a full day in that guillotine frame to look forward to.
She sighed and went to get her indoor shoes. No sense leaving an improperly-dressed corpse.
Sakuragaoka was a fairly upscale high school. It wasn't some sequestered academy with a rigid code of manners, but that didn't mean the students couldn't behave themselves. For instance, the morning arrival period might be noisy, but it was still orderly. Students got their things and proceeded to class without incident.
Mio covered her ears. "Owww."
"Oh, I'm sorry, does my freedom pain you?"
Students began gathering to see what the fuss was about. "Ritsu!" said one of them. "Your chair and casts are gone!"
"That's right! I'm FREE!"
A younger girl, looking nervous, asked, "C-can I sign your leg?"
Ritsu gave her a look. "Really not how it works."
"Way to go, Ritsu!" said Yui. "You recuperated like a pro!"
"You too! Look, everybody! Yui can see again!"
A general "Ooooo!" came from the crowd.
"That's right!" said Yui. "It's so great! I feel a solo coming on!"
There were a number of sighs.
"La la la... I can see clearly now! The rain is g-" Yui tripped over someone's backpack.
"Still can't see all obstacles in her way, though," Mio whispered to Ritsu, earning a grin.
Yui got to her feet. "Oww."
"Singing takes too much concentration," Ritsu told her. "Just let it out! FREEDOM!"
"Uh, no. I don't think we're on speaking terms with justice right now. Go with freedom."
"All caps! FREEDOM!"
They began proceeding to class, still chanting. As they went along, other students began joining the parade. Mio rolled her eyes, partly at the spectacle and partly at Ritsu's latest turn of phrase. What was next, "scroll lock"?
"You too, Mio!" said Ritsu. "You're free of those dumb glasses! FREEDOM!"
Well... she did appreciate being rid of the things. "Freedom."
Oh, all right. "FREEDOM!"
"Yeah! And Tsumugi's losin' that spare tire as we speak! FREEDOM!"
"FREEDOM!" everyone cheered. Tsumugi was popular; her recent "image change" had been alarming.
"And Sawa-chan's ditching her contacts! FREEDOM!"
"And now that I'm back on my feet, the janitors don't have to clean those disabled washrooms anymore! Maybe they'll make 'em into supply rooms or something! FREEDOM!"
"And Yui, you don't need your annoying sister around anymore! FREEDOM!"
"FREE-" Yui stopped. "Hey! Ui isn't annoying!"
"FREEDOM!" shouted another girl enthusiastically. When Yui glared, she sheepishly explained, "The extra chair was in my way a lot."
"Yeah! FREEDOM! And Azusa -"
The non-members stared. "What about her?"
"Yeah. What about her," Mio hissed at Ritsu.
"Uh, Azusa doesn't have to put up with all our problems anymore! FREEDOM!"
That worked for the crowd. "FREEDOM!"
They were at their class door. It was open. Ms. Kawasumi was standing there, looking at the impromptu parade the way the Queen would look at a breakdancing party in her throne room.
"I'm not with them," said Mio, zipping off to her class.
She pays for that later, Ritsu mentally grumbled. She cleared her throat and addressed Ms. Kawasumi. "So. Um... detention, usual time?"
The teacher considered. "Not if you stop now."
There was a collective sigh of relief. Everyone hurried to their seats. Ritsu followed, happy to escape punishment, but slightly glum to have her parade quashed. "We were just celebrating freedom."
"Welcome to life," said Ms. Kawasumi. "You're only as free as you're allowed to be."
Somehow it didn't surprise Ms. Yamasu to find Sawako waiting in the office, staring at the principal's door. "Hi. Still trying to jump ship?"
"Just the opposite. I want to talk him out of firing me."
"What makes you think he'll do that?"
Sawako explained about the Regionals bargain. "It's funny," she concluded. "We actually did win something, but the way we did it may have made everything worse."
"Even so, congratulations," said Yamasu, eyes wide. She couldn't believe Sawako's club had pulled it together, especially after Jun's big betrayal.
"I owe you an apology," she said with great reluctance; this was not a position she had ever expected to be in relative to Sawako. "I should have put a stop to what Jun was doing."
Sawako waved it off. "You didn't think she was serious. I've been there. These kids are nuts."
"Even so, I should at least have warned you." And why hadn't she, really? Why had the thought never even crossed her mind?
"You can't possibly compete with how badly I screwed up. When your club succeeds, it's not in spite of you."
Yamasu smiled a bit. Nope. If MY kids ever succeed, it'll be in spite of themselves.
"Oh, dammit!" said Sawako.
"He's eating his lunch in there. I thought I might be able to catch him on the way out. No such luck."
"Want my advice?"
"Stop trying to get it over with early. You have a little time to prepare. Don't waste it stressing out."
Sawako sighed. "You're right. I always do this."
"I see students do it all the time. It's a hard habit to break."
"I guess I'll go eat." Sawako picked up her bag. "Thanks, Megumi. That was some sound teacherly advice."
Yamasu closed, rolled, and opened her eyes. "I'd rather you called it friendly advice."
Sawako paused; a smile appeared, quickly broadening. "Friendly it is."
She opened the door. On her way through, she turned and asked, "By the way, how's the head?"
"Better," said Yamasu. And she intended to keep it that way. She'd brought two flasks today.
Azusa usually ate lunch in class. Sometimes she ate in the cafeteria for variety. She'd tried the roof a time or two. Wherever Ui and Jun felt like going, she was usually okay with.
There was just one place she made a point of not eating: the music room. Oh, she knew she could if she wanted to - lots of students ate in their clubrooms. Azusa just felt like it would be somehow disrespectful.
Today, respect wasn't such a priority. She was no longer sure this particular club deserved any... and more important, she needed to be alone.
For five minutes, she was. Then -
"Hi! I didn't expect you to be here first."
Azusa looked up at Mio with some surprise. The feeling was mutual. "Hi, senior. Don't you usually eat with the others?"
"Didn't Ritsu tell you? We're meeting here today to read the article!"
"The one we did the interviews for, remember? It's supposed to go up at noon!"
Ah, right. "Did you and Tsumugi get to talk to them?"
"Yeah. They were the ones who gave us the news about our prize! It's so exciting!"
Azusa nodded with all the enthusiasm she could muster. She hoped Mio couldn't tell how little that was.
All along, even if no one else in the band had believed they might win, Azusa really had. Right up until the second last day, she'd kept the faith. Sawako quitting had been rough; Jun's betrayal had been rougher. But she hadn't given up, and for a few shining moments, as they were playing Mio's new song, she'd just known that in spite of everything, her faith was about to be rewarded.
Then Mio fainted, Ritsu cracked a stupid joke, and it was all over.
Azusa felt different today. It was like something inside her had finally given way. One bright autumn day months ago, Azusa had seen a band perform and fallen in love with it at first sight. Since then, despite what they were like in their off hours, she'd fought to keep believing that was the real light music club. Today she didn't feel like fighting anymore.
These people were exactly as they appeared, nothing more or less. Yui wasn't a genius with slacker tendencies, she was a slacker with moments of genius. Ritsu was a competent drummer and an incompetent club president. Tsumugi was a puff of cotton, happy to float wherever the wind took her.
And Mio, whom Azusa had admired the most, was all bark and no bite. She could come through any time except when it really counted. Her will would never be as powerful as her fear.
Azusa felt like a religious believer whose god had missed one prophecy too many. What did she have to show for these months in the club? A lost friend, a fading tan, and half a concert.
Mio seemed happy about the prize, so Azusa wasn't going to rock the boat. But to her, the fact that their lies had been rewarded just made everything worse.
"You all right?" asked Mio.
Mio wasn't fooled. She sat down beside Azusa. "Is this about Jun?"
"Not onl- uh, yeah."
"I'm so sorry that happened. I really thought the others were just being silly, making that bet and all."
"Pssh," said Ritsu, entering the room with Yui. "You had digits 8 and 9."
"Just in case! I didn't think she would really quit. She seemed so sincere..."
"In her flattery, ya mean? Of course you didn't suspect anything - she was buttering you up. To us, that was the most suspicious part. You're good, but you're not super ultra triple-ply good."
Mio glared. "That was not the most suspicious part. What about the tape recorder? The way she ambushed us every morning? The time she took all our fingerprints 'just to have them on file'?"
"And she never actually quit the jazz club! I asked!" Yui chipped in.
Azusa sighed. "Even you could tell, senior?"
"A ninja must see underneath the underneath!" The guitarist held her hands around her eyes like a mask.
"Sorry," Ritsu said. "We really did think you knew."
"So why wasn't I in on the bet?"
"Being corrupt personally is one thing. We drew a line at corrupting the young."
The kettle, which had been getting louder for a while, started boiling. Mio got up to make the tea; Yui immediately stole her seat and started squeezing Azusa. Ritsu smiled. "Easier to find her now that you can see her again, eh?"
Yui rolled her eyes. Apparently the idea that she would ever have trouble locating Azusa was preposterous.
Returning with the teapot, Mio filled everyone's cups. Azusa took a deep breath and immediately felt better. Tsumugi might be the teamaker supreme, but Mio was no slouch. The four girls took their first sips and sank into their chairs in deep satisfaction.
"For what it's worth, I'm sorry about Jun," said Azusa. "I should've known right away what she was doing. She... wasn't who I thought she was."
"S'okay," said Ritsu. "Everybody's entitled to make a few mistakes."
"Three, in your case."
"It was five to start. You used up one with Jun and another when you missed that note yesterday."
"But you -"
Ritsu held up a hand. "Don't even try it. Senior members have more capacity."
"How much exactly?" Yui asked.
"If I tell you, you'll spend it all in one place."
As Yui disputed this, Azusa sat back and just relaxed. For once, she wasn't conflicted about drinking in the clubroom. They deserved a slack day after all they'd been through. But more than that, Azusa was feeling a strange serenity. This day, this togetherness, felt special.
After all... everything felt special when it might be the last time.
There was a knock at the office door. Ms. Yamasu got up and opened it - and had to stifle a laugh. She wasn't surprised at who was there, but... "Jun, you can't possibly tie up hair that short."
She sighed. "How bad does it look?"
"Like you got chewing gum stuck in your hair. Twice."
"Rats." She reached for one of the hair ties to pull it out. "I just... wanted to be back to normal, you know?"
"I understand. You can't force it, though. Messing with your hair won't fix the real problem."
Jun looked to one side.
"I take it you haven't run into the real problem yet."
"I skipped this morning," she said apologetically. "I don't know what to say to her."
As a teacher, Ms. Yamasu couldn't approve of truancy... but she'd seen the state Jun was in last night. If a few missed classes had helped her recover, Yamasu would let it slide. "Just don't miss the afternoon."
"But what do I tell her? She'll be in those classes..."
Wait... in them? "Are you talking about Target Zero here?"
Yamasu frowned. "She's not the 'real problem' I was talking about. You're friends. You can work it out."
"Then who's the real problem?"
"Your teacher! Jun, don't you understand what you did? You sabotaged the club five minutes before stage time! If Mio hadn't shown up, they might not have made it at all!"
"O-oh. Yeah. But..."
"Sawa-chan can't really criticize, can she? She quit too."
Yamasu glared. "First of all, don't call her that. Second, no matter what mistakes she made, it's not your place to judge her. She's your elder, your teacher, and your club advisor."
"But she -"
"No! This is about you. Your mistakes, your duty. Jun, do you know the one thing you did right this month?"
"You went around calling me things like Captain. It was kind of annoying, but the principle was right. I was the one in charge of this supposed mission you were on. So you showed me respect... that is, right up until the one time it counted."
Jun turned red, remembering that scream in Ms. Yamasu's ear. "Sorry."
"You may not be a spy or a soldier, but you do have a job. You're a student. Do it right from now on. Obey your superior officers, and let us answer to ours." And to ourselves, thought Yamasu. The memory of Sawako at the bar, drowning in regret and self-loathing, was still fresh.
"So... what do I say to Ms. Sawako, then?"
"An offer of seppuku would be appropriate."
"Kidding, kidding." Jun's reaction came as a relief to Yamasu - samurai rituals would've been right up her alley this past month. "Just apologize profusely and accept punishment. I'm sure she'll let you stay in the club after that."
The student was quiet.
"I... I don't think I want to stay in the light music club," she said, looking a bit bashful. "I think... I want to come back to yours."
Yamasu felt a smile spread across her face. She wondered why. This wasn't really good news, was it? Somehow, though, hearing this annoying student ask to rejoin her terrible jazz club made Yamasu feel happier than she had in ages.
"Okay, Jun. But that doesn't get you out of apologizing to Sawako."
"Right. Thanks, Ms. Yamasu. You're... a really good teacher."
Yamasu was still smiling as Jun left. Her hand, however, was halfway to the flask.
Mio looked at Ritsu. "Well?"
"Let's see the article!"
"What arti- oh! Right!" The drummer pulled out her phone.
Yui fretted. "I hope they got my good side."
"I don't think they took any pictures," Azusa said. "Anyway, do you even know which side is your good one?"
"Left," she said.
"My left or your left?"
"You have your own left?"
"Got it!" Ritsu interrupted. "I'll send the address around."
All three of the other girls' cell phones buzzed at once. They opened Ritsu's mail and -
"Oh, you're here," said Sawako, closing the door behind her.
Everyone put their phones away immediately. Then they looked at each other, surprised at their common reflex. All four girls had the same thought: I know what I told those interviewers about Sawa-chan, but what did YOU tell them?
"May I?" their teacher asked. Mio and Azusa quickly opened up a space between them. Sawako sat down and poured herself some tea.
"Had that meeting with the principal yet?" Ritsu asked.
She didn't answer; she just leaned back in her chair and let the tea soak through her, easing her stress. It occurred to the others that she hadn't been present for the late-night emergency practice. This was Sawako's first clubroom tea all month. She would probably be in bliss mode until her third cup or so.
Mio whispered to Ritsu, "She's having a rough time. Let's talk about something that won't remind her."
Ritsu nodded. After a moment's thought, she said, "So, anybody heard from Mugi today?"
Sawako's hand shook slightly. A bit of her tea spilled on her shirt.
"Not me," said Yui. "She slept over with you, right?"
"Yeah, but she was already gone when we woke up. Quite the early riser, our Mugi."
"It was a bit rude," Mio said. "I mean, she thanked Ritsu's parents and all, but she could at least have woken us to say goodbye."
"Guess she's still upset," said Yui.
Mio traded a look with Ritsu. "You noticed that too?"
"Yeah. Mugi usually smiles all the time. Yesterday she only did it when we were looking."
Ritsu nodded. "Good eye. But wait, if she smiled when we were looking, how did you... oh, right." Yui was holding her hands around her eyes in circles, reminding Ritsu that she'd been wearing dark glasses. Behind those lenses, she could look in any direction unnoticed.
"Didn't that gesture mean a ninja mask earlier?" asked Azusa.
"It's in disguise now," Yui explained.
Sawako set down her glass and sighed. "I can't believe I forgot."
"Forgot what?" asked Mio.
"There's somewhere I need to be. Thanks for the tea, girls. I needed it." She got up to go.
"Wait! You didn't tell us about -"
"Haven't had the meeting yet. It'll be after school. I'll come here afterward."
Ritsu nodded. "We'll be here, Sawa-chan. Good luck."
The teacher nodded back and headed out. There was general tension among those left behind.
"Whattaya think'll happen?" Ritsu asked.
"What else can happen?" said Azusa. "She failed. She had to lead us to a win and we lost."
"We let her down," said Mio sadly.
"Oh, like it's our fault!" Ritsu protested. "We tried our butts off!"
"At the wrong things," said Azusa. "We put all our effort into the gimmicks and neglected the thing that actually mattered: our performance."
"But the gimmicks were Sawa-chan's idea! She insisted!"
"I don't think she realized how much they would distract us," Mio said.
"And we didn't have to let them!" added Azusa. She was sick to death of everyone, even Mio, dodging responsibility. "We overdid it! You taking those glasses so seriously, Yui acting like she really was blind half the time..."
Ritsu calmly said, "I have a nuke, Nakano. Don't make me use it."
"Like you can talk! You were the worst one! Your 'stealth game', your solos and detentions... and hey, when are we gonna hear why we really had to wear another school's name tags, huh? What happened to that school's real band? Did they miss out just so we could humiliate ourse-"
"The biggest distraction was Jun," said Ritsu.
Azusa's mouth closed.
"She kept us dancing around all month. And she was your friend. She joined to mess with you. That big wrench in the engine cut our chances in half. You're the most to blame, and you know it."
"Ritsu..." said Mio.
"I warned her. Now she can deal. She's got no room to criticize."
Azusa finally found her tongue. "W-well, fine! So what? I don't have to be perfect to call this club out!"
"Oh, you still here?"
"YES! Yes I am! But you know what? Maybe it's time I -"
The bell rang. Mio and Yui quickly started packing up their lunches; they nudged Ritsu and Azusa respectively to do the same. Reluctantly, they broke off their fight to get ready for class.
"We'll meet here again right after school," said Mio. "Oh, the article! Nobody read it until then!"
"I wasn't supposed to read it?" said Yui - quickly followed by "Just kidding!" when Mio shot her a glare.
Azusa took off, as did Mio. As the other two headed for class at their usual relaxed pace, Ritsu muttered to Yui, "God, what a twerp."
"That's mean. Azu-nyan's right about all those things."
Ritsu sighed. "I know. I think I'd like her better if she were full of crap once in a while."
Yamasu had assumed she could hide her flask fast enough to fool anyone who came in. She was wrong by about half a second.
"Alcohol? Really?" said Kawasumi. "I told you, with all that aspirin you took -"
"Took. Past tense." Yamasu wiped her mouth. "It's not in my system anymore."
"How can you be sure?"
"Have you ever taken a whole handful of aspirin? I did some extra-strength throwing up later. Trust me, my system was empty after that."
The other teacher sighed. "Well, it's your body. Don't say I didn't warn you."
Since her cover was blown, Yamasu took the flask back out and had another swig. When Kawasumi did a bad job of hiding her distaste, she reminded her, "I seem to recall catching you in the smoking zone yesterday."
"Megumi, why do you need that stuff so much?"
"The job. The kids. The noise."
"So why don't you get some other job?"
Yamasu leaned on one hand and smiled bemusedly. "Would you believe this is all I ever wanted to do?"
"Yep. Teaching the next generation of musicians... it was my dream. I just had no idea the next generation of musicians was so terrible."
"Well, they're only in high school..."
She shrugged. "That's when I discovered music. I wanted to help others do the same. I guess it didn't occur to me that lots of people get interested, but the real talents are like needles in a haystack. You have to dig through a lot of horse manure to get to them."
"But you stay."
"It's a steady paycheck - safer than performing. I'm used to it." She raised her flask as if in a toast. "Living the dream, baby."
For a minute or so, Kawasumi just stood there thinking.
"Something on your mind, huh? Want to talk about it?"
The other teacher gave her a plaintive, almost pathetic look.
" 'No' is an option," Yamasu clarified.
Kawasumi let out a breath. "Thank you. Nothing personal."
Yamasu smiled. This was something personal - but not about her. It had taken her a while to notice that Kawasumi was a very private person, but from now on she was going to respect that.
The other teacher walked over to the principal's door and knocked. He waved her in; then she noticed the sign. "Oh! Sorry, sir, I won't -"
"Quite all right. Have a seat."
"But if you don't want to be disturbed..."
He smiled. "I've decided to use the sign as a test of will."
Sawako shook her head. What had possessed her to think she had the afternoon off? She hadn't checked on Tsumugi since they'd all gone home last night. The girl's mental state was fragile right now - she needed monitoring. Forcing herself through Regionals right after a crushing rejection was going to have consequences.
A certain irony about that last observation occurred to Sawako, but her case was different. She was an adult, responsible for her own mistakes. She could push herself through one more day.
The start-of-class bell was ringing as Sawako went out the front door. She headed for her ca-
"Sawa-cha- I mean, Target Pri- I mean, Ms. Sawako! Wait!"
She turned around, but saw no one there... until she looked down. Jun was in a pose of abject supplication. She was face-down, with her knees folded under her and her arms stretched out in front. And in her cupped hands... "What's that?"
"All my money. Please accept it in restitution."
Sawako sighed. "Get up, Jun."
"But I -"
"Quickly. And put that pouch away before someone robs you."
The bassist picked herself up and pocketed her money. "Are you sure?"
"More than sure. I'd be breaking a lot of rules if I took that."
Jun blushed to realize she had technically been trying to get Sawako in even more trouble. "Sorry!"
"For all of it!" She started bowing over and over. "The whole thing! Sorry sorry sorry! I never meant to hurt anyone!"
Sawako's eyes widened. "You're about to hurt yourself. Stop that before your brain gets scrambled."
"Sorry!" Jun straightened up.
She tensed, awaiting her punishment.
"Well, you did something pretty awful, Jun. So I'll have to... um..."
Who am I to come down on her for this? I was hardly a saint this month. I mean, I just left the girls to their fate. What's worse, abandonment or acts of sabotage?
...No, wait, acts of sabotage are a lot worse. But even so, I was their teacher. She was just a... friend and colleague... who was best friends with one of them...
Okay, but still, she's just a dumb kid. Too dumb to know that... um, betrayal is wrong? But I... I can't judge... even if she IS one of my students and a member of my -
"Oh, forget it. You can wash my car at lunch for the next two weeks."
"Got it! I'll start now!"
"No, you'll go to class now. But there's somewhere else you should go after school."
"The music room."
She looked away. "I don't think I should stay in the clu-"
"Oh, you're not staying. I didn't say you could, did I? Traitors do not get tenure and pensions."
The corners of Jun's mouth rose just a little, and Sawako knew she had guessed right: she wanted to go back to the jazz club. After what she'd done, she couldn't show her face in the light music club again, even if everyone forgave her. But in her own club, she could still get things right.
That said... "I pointed it out because I'm not the only one you have to apologize to. You should seize the opportunity."
"Right! Sorry again! And thank you!"
She ran for the school door. Sawako called after her, "One more thing, Jun."
"Do not offer Ritsu the money."
Mio's math teacher had sent her to the office to pick up a folder he'd left behind. She was happy enough to help... though if she were more like Ritsu, she would consider him still on thin ice for that train question on the test. If she were more like Ritsu.
She knocked; a teacher got the door. It was Ms. Yamasu, who had taught one of Mio's classes last year. "Hi, Mio," she said. "What do you need?"
She explained, and the teacher let her in. Unfortunately, the file cabinet where the folder was supposed to be was locked. "Do you have the key?" Mio asked.
"Yep. I'll have to find it, though. Mind if I go to the bathroom first? You know how it is... liquid in, liquid out."
Mio liked Ms. Yamasu - most of her students did - but every once in a while she provided way too much information. It tended to coincide with those occasions when she seemed a bit unsteady on her feet.
As she was leaving, a cellphone on a nearby desk went off. "That's been happening for hours," Ms. Yamasu said, wincing. "Can you make it stop? I can barely work my own phone."
"I'll try," said Mio, who could also barely work her own phone, but wasn't about to refuse a teacher's request.
Ms. Yamasu left. The noise from the phone stopped; Mio carefully picked it up. At arm's length, she opened it and looked for the volume setting...
...only for it to go off again. Acting on pure reflex, Mio pressed Talk. Then she froze, realizing what she'd done. Was it too late to -
"Are you there? You finally picked up, so come on, let's talk."
Trembling, Mio raised the phone to her ear. "S-sorry. Ms., um, Yamako... I mean, Sawanaka... Sawa-chan isn't here!"
The caller's baffled reaction reminded Mio that she wasn't supposed to use that nickname with other adults. "Ms. Sawako. She isn't here."
"What? Then who are you?"
"I'm not her."
"...I gathered that. Who ARE you?"
How did this become about Mio? "That's personal! In fact - who are you, huh? Huh?"
"It's Tetsuo. Now who's this? You must know Sawako if you're answering her phone, right?"
Whew. Now that the caller was identified, Mio found herself suddenly calmer. She was no longer fending off some random stranger who might track her down and mug her. At least now she knew -
Wait. She did know. She knew all too much about this person.
"This is Mio," she said. "From the light music club. We met once."
"Mio... the, uh, tall one, right?"
Somehow Mio doubted that was the main thing Tetsuo had noticed about her. "Right. We had our big competition yesterday. I'm sure Sawa-chan mentioned it..."
"Of course. How did you do?"
"She quit in our second last practice. Over you. Then she nearly drank herself to death. Over you."
"She told us what you're really like. We know you're not rich and you rejected her harshly."
"Come on! She PROPOSED! It was crazy!"
"It was love. She put her whole heart on the line, and you... you just... how dare you call her now?"
"To apologize! I want to make things right!"
That surprised Mio a bit. "I thought you were done with -"
"No! Listen, Mio, I... I screwed up.
She raised an eyebrow. He actually sounded sincere.
"I did some stupid, awful things. I know that. I've got to get her to listen and give me a second chance. Your teacher is someone really special. I don't want to lose her."
"Haven't you ever made a big mistake before? Messed things up with someone important to you?"
"...Yes..." All too many times, she had to admit to herself.
"So listen... Sawako won't hear me out, but she'll hear you. Can you please put in a good word for me? Just tell her how sorry I am. Please!"
Mio thought carefully.
Right now, Tetsuo didn't sound like the unrepentant user Sawako had described. It was certainly possible that he wanted to change - that he'd just been caught off-guard by the proposal and reacted badly. Mio could relate to that (as little as she wanted to) and she did believe in second chances. But how could she possibly help him after all he'd put Sawako through?
She had to find out if it was worth it. Mio didn't know a whole lot about adult relationships, and what she did know terrified her - but she wasn't a child either. She knew one day, not so far off, she would be as close to a man as Sawako had been to Tetsuo. She would want to... do things with him.
And she knew that day would absolutely not come unless something else came first.
"Mr. Tsukamoto," she said, "suppose I offered to tell Sawa-chan one more thing besides your apology. Just one thing. What would you want me to tell her?"
"Just the first thing that comes into your head when you picture talking to her again. What is it?"
"Uh... I'm really sorry for -"
"Besides the apology. In fact, forget the apology. Suppose this is the only thing you can say to try and get through to her. It's your one and only chance. What do you tell her?"
"I... I... I really like you, Sawako! I think we were great together!"
Mio sadly shook her head, though she knew he couldn't see her. "I'm sorry, Mr. Tsukamoto. That was the wrong answer."
"Oh, love, right? It had to be love? Come on! That's what I meant to say!"
"I don't believe you. If you loved her, I wouldn't even have had to ask. You would have told me to give her that message before anything else."
"It was a trick question! Gimme a break! You've gotta tell her I've changed!
"I hope you have, sir. I wish you the best. But stay away from Sawa-chan."
"Wait! I -"
Mio hung up. Then she found the menu button (on the third try), found where it said 'Block Number', and selected it. She put the phone back on the desk, confident that it wouldn't be going off and bothering Ms. Yamasu again.
When Mio had said "Sawa-chan", Tetsuo had clearly been startled. And yes, Mio knew she really should call her Ms. Sawako. Ms. Yamanaka would be even more appropriate. Or Ma'am. Teacher. Miss. But she hadn't done that in a long time, and neither did the other club members.
They called her Sawa-chan. Like "Mugi". Like "Ricchan". Like "Azu-nyan".
It wasn't about disrespect - well, it was, but not exclusively. Sawako was less than their teacher, but she was more than that too. She was one of them.
And they would protect her.
The science teacher had just left, so Ritsu's class had a few minutes before Ms. Kawasumi would come back to teach history. The drummer glanced back at Yui. Yep - still at it. She got up and moved to Yui's desk.
"Hey Ricchan. Is it nice being able to walk around again?"
"It's exactly as nice as you bein' able to see again, if you get me."
Ritsu pointed at the papers on Yui's desk. "So every time I've turned around today, you've been workin' on something. What gives?"
"Oh, this? It's a song! Take a look!"
Ritsu picked up the top sheet. "Hmm. Happy, jumping... kinda Mio-y so far... wait, 'study after school'? Since when?"
"That's the point! I was thinking about Mio's new song from yesterday. It was great, but taking a break is what got the principal so mad at us in the first place, right?"
"So I'm writing something he'll like better. If we play it for him, maybe he'll let Sawa-chan off the hook!"
Ritsu considered. "Could work. But when are we gonna do it? The big meeting happens after school today, and it's already second last period."
Yui's eyebrows slanted. "I have a plan!"
"Oh do ya now."
"I finish writing the song this period. Then we pull the fire alarm! Everybody has to run outside! In the confusion, we grab the principal, hit him with some stuff..."
"...bring him to the music room, and play the song when he wakes up! We should even have time to practice while he's out!"
"Yui, that plan isn't just crazy. It's Ritsu crazy." She paused. "So I guess I'm flattered."
Yui sighed. "I know. But we've got to do something! What's going to happen to us if Sawa-chan goes to jail?"
"She's not going to jail. And if she did, I think we both know she'd end up ownin' the place." Ritsu patted Yui's shoulder. "You need to relax."
"Can't we do anything to help?"
"Hope an' pray. That's about it. You know what they say about accepting the things you can't change... well, this is one of 'em."
"I guess. It's hard, though."
Ritsu, who had continued skimming the lyrics as they talked, suddenly raised an eyebrow. Huh. Maybe she's better at this 'accepting' business than she gives herself credit for.
She handed the lyrics back to Yui. " 'Our love will be rejected, but let's go anyway', huh? You feelin' bouncy on that particular topic already?"
Yui smiled, though not with any great enthusiasm. "Bouncy isn't really the word, Ricchan. Maybe... okay."
"Workin' on your next stalking plan already?"
She shook her head. "I'm done with Matsuo. He's just a jerk. He doesn't respect me."
Ritsu nodded. She knew better, but that was something Yui shouldn't hear about for a while - not until it was safe.
"I feel okay about it now. Mostly."
"Even after all that time you wasted moonin' over him?"
"That wasn't a waste, Ricchan. That was practice."
Ritsu shook her head. "Do not get it. Seriously don't. Love just screwed you over. Love screwed Sawa-chan even worse. Love screws Mio every time she tries. Love sucks. Why not just forget about it?"
"Because we'll get it right someday. All of us. You too!"
Ritsu looked at her skeptically. "You really think so?"
Yui beamed. "I'm a believer."
Sawako had known for a long time that Tsumugi was rich. She'd seen the pictures of the villa. She'd heard the principal's budgetary reminders. Hell, she'd tasted the tea. Any serious tea drinker could tell that stuff was well beyond grocery-store quality.
But nothing had quite prepared her for the Kotobuki mansion.
She'd been greeted at the door by a butler, who handed her off to a maid, who handed her to another maid. It had taken ten minutes and two flights of stairs just to get from the entrance to Tsumugi's room. All along the way, she was peppered with questions about "the young mistress." How was she doing at school? Did she have a lot of friends? Why had she changed her mind about the choir club and chosen light music of all things? Oh, no offense, ma'am!
These people weren't just employees - they cared deeply for the family they served. Sawako wasn't surprised, but it was all a bit overwhelming. She wished she had more to tell them. As a mere club advisor, she didn't see much of Tsumugi during the day... usually.
They finally reached Tsumugi's room; the maid knocked. "Miss Tsumugi! Your teacher is here to see you!"
"Oh! Please come in."
They entered. Again, Sawako was unprepared for the size of the place - it took her several seconds just to find Tsumugi. She was in casual clothes (as casual as you'd ever see on an heiress, anyway) and didn't look particularly upset, at least at this distance. Sawako breathed a sigh of relief: so far, so good. She'd half-expected to find Tsumugi in sackcloth and ashes.
The maid asked, "Shall I bring -"
Tsumugi shot her a furious warning look.
"Oh! Sorry!" The maid ducked out the door and closed it. Clearly Tsumugi wanted to see this guest in private.
"Have a seat!" she told Sawako, immediately back to her normal self. The teacher raised an eyebrow, but sat down in the chair (one of eight!) that Tsumugi had indicated.
"You seem to be doing all right," she began.
"Yes," said Tsumugi. "So do you."
Hmm? Oh... yes, Sawako had been through a few things herself, hadn't she? "I'll be okay. I didn't come here to talk about me."
"Is your job secure?"
"I, uh, won't know till later."
Tsumugi whispered, "I can see to it that it is."
"No! I mean, that's not why -"
"I know. But I can arrange it."
Sawako was not such a good person that she could refuse the offer without thinking it over. She took a few moments. But... "No. Thanks, Tsumugi, but if my boss wants to fire me, I don't want him forced not to. He would make my life hell for it."
"Anyway, that's not the point. I came to see how you were doing."
Tsumugi looked away; her expression soured a bit. "I would rather you did not give me any special attention. Under the circum-"
"No, it's not just me. Everyone's wondering if you're okay. Mio and Ritsu said you were gone when they woke up."
"Yes. I... I wanted to be alone."
Sawako could tell now that Tsumugi wasn't quite as okay as she'd seemed from a distance. Her hair wasn't brushed, and her eyes... "Did you get any sleep last night?"
"Some," she said. "Not very much. I found it hard to put my thoughts aside and rest."
They were quiet for a while. Finally Sawako said, "Tsumugi, I'm so sorry."
"It isn't your fault."
"It is. I encouraged you. I should've realized what I was doing."
Tsumugi looked down. "You had no reason to suspect something so foolish."
Well... Sawako couldn't claim it hadn't been foolish. "All the same, I'm sorry."
"Don't let this trouble you. It was unavoidable. I'm sure I won't be the last student you have to reject."
A sad thought came to Sawako. She didn't want to suggest this, but if it would help... "Tsumugi, if being around me makes things harder for you -"
"No, stay here. I will have to learn to deal with it; I may as well start now."
"I'm saying you don't have to. I'll understand if you can't stay in the light music club."
Tsumugi looked up with sudden anger. "No."
"Hey, don't -"
"You have no right."
"I offered myself to you. If you had said yes, I would have done anything you asked without question. But you said no! That was your choice! I won't sacrifice anything more for -"
"Tsumugi, calm down! I don't want you to leave! I just thought it might make you happier!"
"...Oh." The blonde took a deep breath.
"I was thinking about what happened to me in junior high," Sawako explained. "I fell pretty hard for my drama club president. I thought things were going well with him, but when he realized I wanted more than friendship, he turned me down. After that, I tried staying in the club, but I had to quit after a week. I couldn't take being around him."
Tsumugi nodded slowly. "Well, thank you for your consideration, but I will never choose that solution."
"Yes, I gathered."
"I... I need them, Ms. Sawako. I need my friends. They mean more to me than I can say. If I ever lose them, I know I will never find such happiness and companionship again."
Sawako had to marvel a bit. Poor Tsumugi... how could someone so intelligent have so little self-knowledge?
There was nothing special about the light music club members. They were good kids, nothing more. And that was the point. Tsumugi loved them so much because they were ordinary - a breath of real air in the pure-oxygen environment where she'd grown up. She would have found that same normality in any other club, and loved them just as much.
And that other club would have loved her right back... because how could they not?
"I should go," she said, patting Tsumugi's shoulder. "I don't think I'm helping."
The student nodded. She gently pushed Sawako's hand away. "I'm sorry. I'm not ready. Being reminded that you care about me on other levels makes me feel the absence of the level I wanted."
"I will recover in time. We will be as we were again..."
"But not yet," said Sawako. "I understand."
She got up to leave. "By the way," she added, "those friends you care so much about are worried too. You should call them."
"Perhaps I will."
She smiled. "And do something about that hair. It's too beautiful to leave in a tangle."
Sawako opened the door to find a maid waiting suspiciously close by. She decided not to say anything, but gave a mild scolding glance. The maid blushed and led her back out the way she'd come.
That's one mess attended to, she thought. Now I can get back to my own. Let's see... I have what, two hours left till Armageddon?
They were stopped by the butler. "Pardon me," he said to Sawako, "but the master requests your presence."
"The master? But I just saw -"
"I refer to Mister Kotobuki."
Uh oh. "Did he say what it was about?"
Sawako gulped. Armageddon might be arriving slightly ahead of schedule.
There was a very quiet, very timid knock at Tsumugi's door.
"Come in," she said.
A young maid - middle-school age, in fact - carefully opened the door and stepped inside. "Milady?" she said. "Please don't be mad..."
"I'm not mad."
"I know you said you didn't want to see me today, but I've just been so worried. I just had to see - wait, you're not?"
"No. I changed my mind."
Tears came to the maid's eyes. "Milady..." Tsumugi opened her arms, and the maid came in for a hug.
"I'm sorry, Sumire. It wasn't about you. I just didn't want you to see me at my worst like this."
"A-are you ready to tell -"
"No. I'm sorry, but this... this is a true secret, one that's only for me." She gently broke the hug. "Someday... if a day ever comes when I can look back on this and smile, I promise I will tell you everything."
"But milady, to see you suffer alone... it just... it b-breaks my heart..."
"Please don't cry, Sumire. There are still ways you can help."
She jerked upright. "There are? Wonderful! Tell me, tell me!"
Tsumugi smiled. "To begin with... please fetch the scissors."
Ui hadn't been part of the "freedom" procession, but she'd heard about it from friends. She was glad Yui was so excited (not to mention distracted from the topic of Matsuo). For Ui, this return to normal was more bittersweet. She was happy to be back with her friends, but she'd been enjoying the more challenging material of second year... and needless to say, spending all day with her sister had been paradise.
Ah well. Time to get moving before lunchtime ende-
"...know what you must be saying to yourselves."
What was that?
"If that's the way she feels about it, then why doesn't she just end it all?"
How odd! Ui was alone in the hallway. Where was that voice coming from?
"Oh no, not me. I'm not ready for the final disappointment."
It was almost too quiet to hear. She kept listening and turned her head in all directions, but the voice just wasn't loud enough for her to tell where the speaker was.
Then Ui realized something. There was only one room close enough to be the source of the sound - one of the "disabled washrooms".
"I know what I'll be saying to myself..."
Ui silently approached the door.
"Is that all there is?"
The voice had started singing! Ui very carefully turned the doorknob.
"If that's all there is, my friends, then let's keep dancing..."
Was that -?
Ui had to know. She opened the door. There was nothing inside but mops, cleaning supplies... and Azusa.
"Uh, hi," said Ui as her friend turned bright red. "I -"
Azusa shoved the door fully open, ran past her, and disappeared down the hallway.
Ui stared after her friend, feeling a bit bad about embarrassing her... but it hadn't exactly been her fault. She wondered if Azusa was aware of the flaw in her escape plan.
A few minutes later, the two of them were sitting side by side in class. The red colour had yet to fade from Azusa's face. Several times, she turned and opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again and turned back.
Finally she managed to say, "Whatever you heard, it was NOT a solo."
"Oh, should I have heard something?" said Ui, looking perfectly sincere. "I just forgot it wasn't a real washroom."
Azusa sighed with relief and focused on her notebook.
Ui smiled. Blindness was her sister's department, but she could be deaf if need be.
There was no time to prepare herself. The butler led her directly to an enormous office. Inside, behind a desk, was Mr. Kotobuki... with Mrs. Kotobuki at his side.
Sawako gulped again. She wasn't just in trouble, she was outnumbered.
"Have a seat," said the businessman, indicating a leather chair worth more than Sawako's whole apartment.
She did. "P-pleased to meet you both."
"Likewise. We've wanted to meet the famous Ms. Sawako for some time."
"Tsumugi is always talking about that club advisor of hers," said Mrs. Kotobuki, smiling. "She adores you."
"That's... very nice." Please, thought Sawako. Please, please, please don't let them know just how true that is.
Mr. Kotobuki continued, "We are grateful to you for all you've done to encourage Tsumugi's interest in music. Thank you for coming to check on her today as well."
"We thought while you were here, you might be able to help us sort something out..."
"Sure! What is it?"
"A certain incident that took place two days ago."
Sawako's heart dropped fifty stories. She was still doomed. The praise had lulled her into a false sense of security.
"Tsumugi was at school late for a band practice," Mr. Kotobuki began. "Then something unusual happened. One of my employees reported carrying out an order... one that I had never given him. I tracked the order back and learned that it had originated with my daughter."
"W-what order was that?"
"To arrange for the cancellation, at a specific time, of all the credit cards of one Tetsuo Tsukamoto."
Sawako's eyes widened. Tsumugi had done that? Tsumugi could do that?
"Upon further research, I determined that the man in question was dining out with you at the time. I take it he was unable to pay."
"Yes. Yes, that happened."
"Can you give us any idea what all this was about?"
She certainly could... the question was whether she should. After a moment's thought, however, Sawako realized this part of the story was safe to tell. And although she didn't feel like sharing something so personal and shameful, doing so might be a good idea for that very reason. No one would make up such an embarrassing experience. Telling them would be worth -
Sawako nearly laughed out loud. It would be worth sympathy points, that's what. This was her gimmick.
She steeled herself and said, "Tetsuo was my boyfriend. He was also a liar and a fake. Tsumugi tried to warn me... I wouldn't listen."
Both parents raised their eyebrows.
In as much detail as she could bear to provide, Sawako told the story. She explained how Tsumugi had known the truth, how she'd proposed to him anyway (leaving out the part about quitting the club), how he'd rejected her - and how he'd given himself away. The parents listened as closely as if it were some tense drama episode.
"How could Tsumugi have known you would see that tag, much less recognize it?" Mr. Kotobuki asked.
"She probably didn't," said Sawako. "She must have been counting on the card rejection itself to raise my suspicions. It did, too. I might have missed that detail otherwise."
"Well... I am not pleased that she took such an action, but I can understand her motives now. You should be more careful in the future."
"And you should be forever grateful for such devoted friendship," added Mrs. Kotobuki.
Sawako smiled. "Believe me, I am."
She began to get up so she could bow and take her leave - but Mr. Kotobuki gestured for her to stop. "That was the first part of the incident. There was a second."
Slowly, the teacher sat back down. She'd been a fool to hope.
Mrs. Kotobuki took the lead now. "Tsumugi had told us her practice would run late," she said, "but not nearly as late as it actually did. I waited for her until well after midnight. When she finally returned, she took the back entrance to avoid me - I didn't realize she was home until the chauffeur came back from the garage.
"Tsumugi had gone to her room and locked the door. I knocked and called to her, but she refused to answer. I had to wake the butler and have him fetch the master key. By the time I finally got inside and saw Tsumugi... she had cried herself to sleep."
Sawako's heart broke for Tsumugi all over again. She'd known what must have happened, but that didn't make it any easier to hear.
"In the morning, Tsumugi appeared to be fine again. She wouldn't tell us anything about it, and she still won't. But the chauffeur did have a few details for us."
"He picked up Tsumugi at ten o'clock. Rather than going home, she gave him quite unusual instructions. He was to bring her to various bars, most of them near the school. At each one, she went inside and came back out a few minutes later. After an hour of this, she signaled him to come inside... and help her carry you out."
Sawako went pale.
"They drove you home. He waited while Tsumugi helped you inside. She had warned him that she might be several hours, but she returned only half an hour later. From that point on, she was different. She spoke only to tell him where to go, and she wouldn't let him see her face. She was also holding an object she hadn't brought inside with her."
"He didn't recognize it, but I found it next to her in bed later. It was a stomach pouch."
In a tiny voice, Sawako said, "Uh, that's... that was..."
"It was nothing we hadn't suspected," said Mr. Kotobuki. "She was gaining weight rapidly while eating no more than usual."
When Sawako realized the implication of that statement, her horror grew. Tsumugi had been keeping up her gimmick at home?
"When I told her I had seen it," Mrs. Kotobuki continued, "she could no longer deny it existed. Nonethless, all she would tell us was that she was doing something special for the light music club."
"Can you elaborate?" asked Mr. Kotobuki.
Sawako fought to clear her panic. If Tsumugi had been this tightlipped, she might still have a chance. "The pouch was part of her costume for the performance. We were experimenting with different sizes over the course of the month. I didn't tell her to wear it at home."
"Then why did she do so?"
"Maybe she wanted to get comfortable with it?" Sawako suggested. It wasn't much of a theory, but it definitely beat "She thought of it as a baby I impregnated her with."
"Hmm," said Mr. Kotobuki. "What sort of costume was this?"
"Uh... well, we had an Alice in Wonderland theme. I didn't want any jealousy, so they were all Alice, just different aspects."
"I... see. But what 'aspect' was Tsumugi?"
Sawako's mind raced. How was she going to justify giving Alice a "fat side"? Did she even eat in the book? There was a tea party, but - wait! Of course! "She was the big Alice!"
"Remember when Alice ate that cake that said 'EAT ME' and grew really big? That's what Tsumugi represented. I couldn't make her any taller, so I had to go with other dimensions."
The parents exchanged a look.
"The idea seemed better in my head," Sawako granted.
"No no, it's... creative," said Mr. Kotobuki.
"We are getting off topic," his wife reminded him. "Ms. Sawako, it is clear enough why you were drinking, and we can now assume Tsumugi predicted the whole scenario. I even understand why she went to so much trouble to find you herself. She knew you might need help, and children tend not to realize adults have their own friends to help them. But there is one question remaining.
"What took place in your apartment that left Tsumugi so upset? What happened between you?"
There, at last, was the question Sawako had been dreading. But she was finally ready. She'd had just enough time to figure out what she had to say - the one thing that just might get her out of this room alive. And it had the extra benefit of being true.
"I'm sorry," she said. "We talked, but I can't tell you what it was about. It's not my secret to tell."
Mrs. Kotobuki pursed her lips. Her husband scowled.
"You have my word that she's not in danger," Sawako quickly added. "I would have told you right away in that case. This was just something very... personal."
"Too personal to tell her own parents?" said Mr. Kotobuki.
"Is that so hard to imagine? How did you feel about talking to your parents when you were her age?"
Mr. Kotobuki looked unconvinced... but slowly, reluctantly, Mrs. Kotobuki nodded. She couldn't deny having felt like that once. A girl needed her privacy.
"Tsumugi trusted me, and I won't betray her," Sawako concluded. "If you want to know what we talked about, I'm afraid you'll have to get it from her. Otherwise, please just take my word that she'll be all right."
Mr. Kotobuki looked at his wife, then back to Sawako. "I suppose we have no choice. Thank you, Ms. Sawako."
"And you," said the teacher, standing up. "Let's continue doing our best for Tsumugi."
"Indeed." He stood too, and they bowed to each other.
Sawako turned to bow to Mrs. Kotobuki as well, but she had moved. She was now on Sawako's side of the desk - right in front of her.
"One more time, from the bottom of my heart, I wish to thank you," she said.
"Oh, I'm just doing my job."
"No," said Mrs. Kotobuki, putting a hand on Sawako's upper arm. "You are truly a fine teacher and role model for my daughter. You provide her with a daily example of proper femininity and professionalism."
The hand squeezed. Hard enough to hurt. Hard enough to cut off Sawako's circulation.
"I trust. You will continue. To show. Proper. Femininity. And. Professionalism."
"I will! Of course I will!" said Sawako.
"Good," said Mrs. Kotobuki, releasing her and stepping back. "This has been a pleasure."
"L-likewise," said Sawako as they bowed to each other.
Barely registering Mr. Kotobuki's very confused look at his wife, Sawako turned and walked out. She met the butler again and he escorted her out of the building. It took several minutes to get to her car. She thanked him, got in, drove off...
...and parked a block away. Now, at last, she let her mask drop. She shuddered as violently as if she'd just stepped out into an Alaskan blizzard. Her head dropped right into the steering wheel.
So that was what it felt like to be warned off by a girl's parents. In a million years, Sawako had never expected to be on this end of it.
Clearly Mrs. Kotobuki had a bit more insight into this situation than her husband. (And thank heaven for that - Sawako had a feeling his reaction would have made hers look like a picnic.) She must have realized Sawako had rejected Tsumugi, but even so, she'd felt the need to put the fear of God in her. After all, what if Sawako changed her mind?
The message was now well and truly received. No playing with Tsumugi, no matter what she said. Hands off.
And in the midst of her panic... deep, deep down... Sawako was glad a higher authority had taken the option away once and for all.
Oh, she hadn't been lying earlier. Sawako was straight. As straight as they come. She had no interest in women whatsoever.
But if anyone had ever tempted her to make an exception... Tsumugi... with that smile, and that personality, and that body, and that money...
Sawako shook herself. This was not a thing to think about. She started the car again and headed back for Sakuragaoka.
She'd dealt with her disciple. Time to face her master.
"Ui said Azu-nyan may be a bit late today," said Yui, taking her seat at the table. "Something about needing to collect herself."
"She can have herself," said Ritsu, still annoyed from earlier. "I have no interest in collecting any."
"What do we do until then?" asked Mio. She had already started the kettle up.
Ritsu shrugged. "Read the article? I don't really feel like waitin' for Nakano anymore."
"Don't be so hard on her," said Mio.
"Figures you'd take her si-"
"I'm not! You heard my song yesterday. I don't think we're bad people for not being workaholics. But I don't think we're perfect either."
"We're future perfect," said Yui. "We'll be perfect in the future."
"Anyway, you know it's hard for Azusa right now. After the whole thing with -"
There was a knock at the door.
"It's unlocked," said Ritsu. "Wait, it's always unlocked. Who comes here and knocks?"
There was no answer, verbal or otherwise. The door remained closed.
"Nodoka?" asked Mio. "Is that you?"
Ritsu sighed and got up. "If that Occult Club is pranking us again, there are gonna be consequences."
"We don't know for sure it was them the first time," said Mio, following.
"But they're never in their clubroom," said Yui. "That means they're out pranking!"
Ritsu opened the door. On the other side was...
She sighed. "Get up, Jun."
"You too? Maybe I'm overdoing it. Isn't this how to make a serious apology?"
"Oh yeah, totally. Here in the Edo period we do that all the time. What's that in your hands?"
"A nickel. Please accept it in restitution."
Yui muttered to Mio, "Maybe she does think this is the Edo period. That's the last time a nickel was worth anything."
"Get up already," said Ritsu, taking the coin. "We forgive ya."
"If it'll get your face off the ground."
She got up. "I'm so sorry. I never - where's Azusa?"
"Not here yet," said Mio. "Jun, why did you do it?"
"I thought our clubs were rivals. I only meant to... well... you know, I'm not even sure. I didn't think ahead."
"Nobody really did this month," said Ritsu. "I'm not sure some of us know how. Even Sawa-chan mostly gets by on showmanship."
Mio rolled her eyes. She could think ahead. Well... when stress wasn't making her crazy, anyway.
"We've been talking this over," Ritsu said. "Answer us two questions. One, did you learn anything?"
"Yeah. Lots of things. Too many things."
"And two - honest, now - didja have fun with us?"
It took a moment to happen, but finally a smile broke through Jun's embarrassment and shame. "Yeah. It was fun."
"Then as club president, I hereby absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father and of -"
"Ritsu!" said Mio.
"Sorry. Anyway, you're going back to the jazz club, right?"
"Then go in peace, and never darken our doorstep again, ya lousy Mata Hari." Ritsu winked. "We'll pretend none of this ever happened."
"Thanks, senior. But can I wait here until -"
"Nope!" said Yui. "Look behind you."
Jun turned... and then held very still. To her left, equally motionless, was Azusa. The junior students stared at each other in silence.
"We'll give you the room for a minute," said Mio. "Come on, guys." She headed out and down the stairs, followed by Ritsu and Yui (who, while sympathetic, nonethless had to be dragged away from her tea).
After a long moment, Jun and Azusa stepped inside and closed the door behind them.
With Yui, Azusa, and Jun doing their own things today, Ui had a rare opportunity to walk home with Nodoka. The two of them were busy catching up when, on their way through the school gate, something unexpected happened.
"Ui! Hey, Ui! Over here!"
The girls turned. There was a boy there in a different school's uniform. Nodoka didn't recognize him, but Ui seemed to. "Matsuo?"
Nodoka puzzled. Matsuo... Matsuo... oh! "You're the boy that Yui kept talking about."
"...Yeah," he said, looking awkward.
As well you should, Nodoka thought. "She also said you were very cruel to -"
"No, wait!" Ui interrupted. "I made him do that. It was for Yui's own good."
Nodoka's eyebrows rose. She knew Yui needed a firm hand sometimes, but even so, hearing those words from a little sister felt wrong.
"Let me introduce you. Nodoka, this is Matsuo Otoko. Matsuo, this is Nodoka Manabe, a dear friend of my sister's and mine."
They awkwardly traded bows.
"I'm afraid Yui will be with her club for a while," said Ui. "You shouldn't wait for her today." Nodoka agreed - he was probably making the first-years nervous.
"Uh, right," he said.
Ui looked concerned. "I'm sorry if this sounds harsh, but are you sure you should talk to her at all? I know it's hard leaving someone with a bad impression of you, but it's too soon to -"
"No. That's okay. It's not Yui I came to talk to."
"Oh!" Ui blinked. "Um... is it Nodoka?"
The three of them took about the same length of time to realize how silly that was. They chuckled together.
"No, it's you," Matsuo said. "This just... it was really bothering me. Yui has to hate me, I get that, but I had to be sure you don't."
Ui smiled warmly. "How could I ever hate someone who tried so hard not to hurt my big sister?"
He smiled, but still looked uneasy. "The thing is... it's not that I don't like her..."
"I know, you explained before. She's not your type."
"Right! I can tell there are lots of good things about her. She's enthusiastic, lively, talkative..."
Ui nodded. Nodoka rolled her eyes - clearly Matsuo had only seen half of Yui's behaviour. She was quite content to laze around the house in between frenzies of excitement. Then again, Nodoka supposed, she approached that activity with the same determination. A Yui at rest, just like a Yui in motion, tended to stay that way.
"But it's like that girl she saw me with before. I like her too! They're great, she and Yui both, but they're just kind of... how can I put this..."
Or maybe WHY can you put this, thought Nodoka. She didn't want to be uncharitable, but Matsuo had now done what he'd come here to do, right? Why was he still talking?
"They're pushy," he said. "They have their plans and the rest of us have to keep up. It's exhausting."
"I understand," said Ui. "We all have our personal preferences."
"Yeah, I do," Matsuo said, looking up at her. "I really do. I like the strong silent type. A girl who lets me get a word in edgewise. Someone who has her own life, but likes sharing in others' lives too."
Nodoka blinked. This was starting to sound pretty specific.
"A girl who doesn't show off, but anyone can see she's really smart and caring. One who wants the best even for someone she's just met. A girl who... who's just so beautiful..."
Matsuo suddenly pulled Ui in and kissed her.
Nodoka's eyes went huge. Her glasses slipped off her nose and fell to the ground.
The kiss lasted for several seconds. It was Matsuo who broke it. He drew a few inches back and looked deep in Ui's eyes.
"It's just not fair."
He let go of Ui and ran away. By the time Nodoka had her glasses back on, he was gone.
For about 25 seconds, Ui was as perfectly still as a statue.
"Um, are you..."
"NODOKA!" Ui suddenly came alive and grabbed her friend's shoulders. "Nodoka! Nodoka! Nodokanodokanodoka!"
"I can hear you!" What did this reaction mean? There were so many emotions on Ui's face that Nodoka couldn't pick one out.
"Nodoka! This is so important!"
"Yes, it -"
"You can't tell her!"
"Big sister! You can't tell her, Nodoka! She can never know I had my first kiss before she did! Never! NEVER EVER!"
Nodoka couldn't believe it. "That's your first thought after -"
"Okay! I promise!"
Ui sighed with relief and let her go. Nodoka guided her to a nearby bench where they could sit down.
There was suddenly so much to talk about that Nodoka didn't know where to begin... but it didn't matter. Ui was just sitting there staring at nothing. Her eyes were twitching rapidly, as if she were solving some incredibly complicated math problem in her head. Nodoka sighed; she'd be getting home late tonight.
She was happy for Ui (assuming Ui herself was happy - it was still too early to tell). But she had to wonder... was there some reason her life was never this dramatic?
"My mouth feels funny," said Yui.
"Somethin' you ate?" Ritsu suggested.
"No, it's like... well, never mind. What do we do now?"
"Read the article?"
Mio shook her head. "Azusa's here now. She won't be that long with Jun."
"Yeah, okay. We'll wait."
They waited for several minutes.
"I wonder if Sawa-chan's meeting has started," said Yui.
"Oh, right! We should..." Mio trailed off.
"Exactly," said Ritsu. "We've got nothin'. The nearest temple is too far away and time travel is too hard."
There was silence.
"Hangman?" the drummer suggested.
"I don't have any paper," said Yui.
"Me neither," said Mio. "My bag is in the clubroom."
A few more minutes passed.
"Oh, screw it," said Mio, pulling out her phone. "Let's read the article."
Sawako couldn't quite believe what she was seeing.
School had been out for twenty minutes. All the other teachers had gone home. Aside from a few club meetings that were taking place, the whole school was empty.
And that sign was still on the principal's door.
Sawako would've been grateful for the extra time... if she'd known she was getting it! In this situation, where the principal could come out at any minute, she had to be on alert. It was impossible to do anything useful like work on her speech. (That was the best plan, she'd decided - open with a big speech so she could choose what order to discuss things in.)
She sighed and, for the third time, started pacing. What was his problem? Why did he always have to mess up her timing? Surely -
"Sawako? Where are you going?"
Of course! Of course he'd finally come out of his office when she was walking the other way! "Just pacing, sir."
"Ah. Come on in."
She followed him, mentally struggling to reassemble her speech. She had no chance to use it, however. As soon as she sat down, the principal extended his hand and said, "Congratulations."
Although startled, she reflexively shook hands. "You mean for the prize?"
"For proving me wrong. I should have trusted you to begin with."
"I was foolish to let circumstantial evidence convince me you were neglecting your duties as club advisor. You were never the problem. Your students were."
Sawako's eyes went wide.
"Your club is a remarkably lazy and shiftless group of children. They made it clear with the song they played at Regionals - a desperate attempt at denial. You tried to tell me when all this began, but I didn't listen. I apologize."
"Your job is safe, of course. I can hardly punish you for being unable to control such delinquents; on the contrary, I'm pleased with you for trying. They are the problem, and from now on they will be dealt with much more severely."
Only a moment passed while Sawako made the decision, but in her mind, it was an eternity.
"Sir," she said... "I'm so glad someone finally understands!"
"You weren't in class."
"I... wasn't ready."
So far, this was about as deep as Azusa and Jun's conversation had gotten. The awkwardness between them had been too great for either of them to make a real first move. They'd done little more than exchange trivialities.
Finally, Jun asked Azusa, "When did you find out?"
"Something seemed weird the whole time," she said. "But I didn't know for sure until you forgot your phone."
"What was suspicious about - oh! Oh! You read my messages, didn't you?"
"Well, excuse me! They were showing when I looked at it! Whose fault was that?"
Strangely enough, this broke the ice. The two girls half-talked, half-argued, going over each detail of the past month that either of them had been wondering about. Azusa was careful not to give away the existence of gimmicks, which wasn't just her secret, but otherwise they were completely truthful with each other. They were at it for a good 25 minutes, by which time they were both in a better mood.
"Tanning! How did I not think of that?" asked Jun. "My best guess was that you were drinking too much chocolate milk!"
"That wouldn't do it. Believe me, I tried."
"I never knew you were so vain. Come on, who needs a tan?"
"Who needs non-frizzy hair?"
They both laughed. Azusa leaned back against the wall. "I really missed this."
"Yeah. Me too."
"Why, Jun? Why did you have to be such a... a bonehead this month?"
Without meaning to, Azusa had brought a bit of the serious atmosphere back. Jun looked down. "It was just something small that turned into something big. I had ideas about how it would end, but not how to get there. I didn't think it would be so hard."
"You didn't think you'd like us so much," said Azusa.
"Well, you I knew. But the others... yeah. I couldn't break away from the act. It was too much fun."
"I know the feeling," said Azusa. "Too bad fun is all it is."
"What else should it be?"
"This is a school club, Jun! It's supposed to be serious! We're supposed to be improving ourselves, and I'm the only one who's really trying!"
Jun could tell the anger in the guitarist's face wasn't meant for her. "What's this about, Azusa?"
"I'm... I'm thinking about quitting."
"I'm serious! What do I get from this club besides a headache? What am I learning here?"
Jun just stared.
"I'm waiting for the punchline."
"I know. But if you could hear the way you talk about this club, you'd be waiting for the punchline too."
"The way I... what?"
"You talk to me and Ui every day about this club. Sometimes you're happy, and sometimes you complain... but it's the same way you complain about your parents. Not like you're a 'member' who could leave any time... like you're family. Meant for each other."
"Well - well maybe I've been wrong about that! You were wrong all month! Why should I listen to you?"
"It's your life," Jun agreed. "I just can't believe you're considering this. I'm really sure it wouldn't make you happy."
"Maybe I'm not supposed to be. Maybe I'll be unhappy either way. But if I belong here, why am I so different from them? Why do I feel like they were fine before I came along, and I'm just... extra?"
"No, you're -"
"I am, Jun!" Tears were in Azusa's eyes. "They don't need me! I'm not even the only guitarist! All they want is to have fun, and I'm just a... a drag! A wet blanket!"
"Maybe that's the whole reason they need you."
Azusa looked up at Jun.
"Did that sound deep?" said the bassist. "Heh, good one, me. But look, every group needs somebody serious, right? Somebody to keep them on course? You really think Sawa-chan cares about that? You think Mio is determined enough to do it alone?"
"But I'm just a..."
"A junior, yeah. So they have to set an example for you!"
Azusa narrowed her eyes. "This is them setting an example?"
"I didn't say they were good at it. But you make them try."
There was silence for a minute.
"I don't know," said Azusa. "I don't know if I can handle this. I don't know if I can even be friends with you again yet."
"Yeah, I know. I'll just... I'll be around. Okay?"
"Okay. Thanks, Jun."
If Ui had been there, they might have hugged. But it was just the two of them, without her balancing presence. There was still too much between them right now to be smoothed over. For a moment, they made tentative motions; then they just nodded to each other, and Jun turned to go.
"One last question," said Azusa.
"Why was I Target Zero?"
Jun looked surprised. "Because zero comes first."
As her friend turned back around, Azusa found it impossible to keep a smile off her face.
For about a minute after Mio, Ritsu, and Yui read the article, not a word was spoken.
"Well," said the drummer, "that was... different."
"Maybe this is the wrong article," said Yui.
"No, it's got our names. This is definitely it."
"What do you think Sawa-chan will say?"
"Hooooo boy, I don't wanna think about it. We'd better not even show her. Whatta you think, Mio?"
Mio didn't answer. She was just staring.
"Oh no you don't," said Ritsu, snapping a finger in front of her face. "You are not going all Mio on us again."
The bassist glared. "No, I was just... disturbed for a second. Don't use my name like that!"
"Why not? It's shorter than 'catatonic over nothing'."
"Nothing, huh? You just don't take anything seriously! You're really Ritsu that way!"
Yui asked, "Can I be -"
"This is a straightforward fight," said Ritsu. "Don't Yui it up."
"Oo!" said a voice. "What am I?"
Everyone turned. It was -
"Mugi!" said Yui. "You're here!"
Beaming, their rich friend reached out for them, and everyone joined in a group hug. They had all seen her yesterday, but their worry had made it feel like a long time. And it really had been a long time since they'd seen her like this.
"Notice anything different?" she asked when they separated.
"Of course!" said Mio. "You're back to normal!"
"We can finally see your belly button again!" Yui agreed. "If you lift your shirt."
Tsumugi looked slightly hurt. "I didn't mean that."
"Uh... new haircut?" said Ritsu.
"Yes! I knew you would notice, Ricchan!" She hugged the drummer again.
"Is... is that new?" Mio asked. It was a reasonable question. Her hair looked the same as ever.
"Of course it is! It's short!"
"Look!" Tsumugi held up a handful of her hair. "It's a whole four inches shorter!"
"...Mugi, your hair is three feet long."
"Well, Ritsu noticed." She stuck her tongue out, then giggled at having done so.
Mio glared at Ritsu, who mouthed the words "Wild guess."
"So why are you all standing here at the stairs?"
"Room's in use," said Ritsu. "Azusa and Jun are hashing it out."
Tsumugi's eyes lit up. "Well, what are we waiting for?"
She ran up the stairs. The others shared a look, then followed. By the time they got there, she already had her ear to the door.
"No good," she said. "Does anyone have a cup?"
"Mine is inside," said Yui. "I'll go get it." Mio grabbed her arm and gave her a scolding glance.
"Then we'll just have to look!" Tsumugi very slowly turned the doorknob.
"What exactly do you think is happening in there?" asked Ritsu.
"Bonding!" She silently opened the door a crack.
"Well, don't bother them over it. Mio and I can fight over something and then make up. We do it like once a week."
Mio was about to complain, but then everyone heard Jun's voice dangerously close to the door. "Run!"
They had just barely made it back to the bottom of the stairs when Jun stepped through the door. Then she turned back and looked at it funny. "Wasn't this shut?"
"Gremlins," said Ritsu as they passed her on their way back up.
"Hey, senior!" Jun said to Tsumugi. "You're ba- AAAA! What happened to you?"
"I am on an excellent diet," the heiress said without missing a beat.
"Oh. Wow! Talk about fast!"
"Talk about dumb," Ritsu whispered to Mio.
"Senior, I'm really sorry I -"
"It's all right," said Tsumugi. "Will you be staying in the club?"
"No, we all agreed it's best if I'm not a member anymo-"
"Shh," said Ritsu. "You were never a member in the first place, remember?"
"Oh yeah. Um, see you later, people from some other club I was never in!" Jun hurried down the stairs.
"Wait!" said Tsumugi, still looking confused. "Wouldn't that mean you never got your hair cut?"
"Right! It's still long! It just looks short!"
Yui looked back and forth from Tsumugi to the disappearing Jun and remarked, "Hair is weird today."
"They're terrible! Just terrible! Especially Ritsu! I don't have the words to describe how awful they..."
The principal waited.
She couldn't continue. These words tasted foul in her mouth. Sawako had done a lot of lying to a lot of people, and it always felt wrong, but today it felt uncomfortable. Unpleasant. Worse than telling the truth.
Over the last two days, Sawako had looked deep into her own soul and hated what she'd seen. She couldn't just forget about it now. She had to change.
"No," she told the principal. "I can't do this."
Sawako took one last, deep breath as a teacher at Sakuragaoka. "I'm sorry, sir. You were right the first time. The students are only part of the problem. The other part is me."
His eyes narrowed. "Explain."
"I'm a bigger slacker than any of the club members. I'm usually not even there when they practice. When I go to the music room, it's for snacks and tea. I let them take the lead when it comes to club activities; I would certainly never have pushed them into Regionals on my own. I let them take it easy because I want to take it easy too."
As strange as it was under the circumstances, Sawako felt a weight lift off her. There were people who knew her true personality, but she had never come out and told someone before. If this was how Catholics felt after confessing their sins, Sawako could see the appeal. But she'd confessed to her boss, and the consequences would be much bigger than a few extra Hail Marys.
"I see." The principal's face was neutral.
"There's just one thing I have to say in my defense," Sawako continued. She had been thinking all day, and this was the only half-decent strategy she'd come up with. "I can have more than one reason."
"A month ago, I told you the girls had natural talent. I said I had never put them on a strict schedule because it might wreck their enthusiasm, not make them better players. That was the truth. Now today, I'm telling you I never came down hard on them because I preferred to take it easy myself. That's also the truth.
"There are two reasons. I'm not proud of the second one. All I'm asking is that you don't ignore the first. I'm not the teacher I should be, but I still am a teacher. I've never wanted less than the best for my students. I'm just... not there yet."
"This is your final answer, then?" asked the principal. "You won't be switching stories again?"
"No," she said. "That's the truth."
Sawako gripped the arms of her chair and wai-
"That was close," said the principal.
"It's a good thing you changed your mind. For a few seconds there, you were fired."
Sawako's jaw hit the floor. "This was a test?!"
"You don't really blame the kids for everything?"
"No. I didn't really expect them to win at Regionals either."
The principal smiled. "Oh, I hoped they might, of course. But it wasn't likely. This was their first competition of any sort, wasn't it?"
Sawako rested her head on one hand, taking all this in. "Okay, so... why tell me they had to? And why lie now?"
"I wanted two things from you, Sawako. First, I wanted evidence that your club was not simply taking up space. You can hardly blame me for getting that impression, given the behaviour I saw a month ago."
"But on that day, I saw even worse behaviour from you. You lied over and over, blaming everyone but yourself. I won't tolerate that from one of my teachers. However, since you were clearly in a panic, I decided to give you another chance."
"And that was today?"
"Correct. I judged it likely that your students would lose; the test was whether you would put all the blame on them once again. You passed."
Sawako raised an eyebrow. "So you lied to me to teach me honesty?"
"No, not honesty. Responsibility. Your students look to you for an example. If they see you dodging and scheming, they will learn to do the same."
I'm hearing this setting-an-example thing a lot today, Sawako thought. "Do you really think I'm that... influential?"
"Certainly. If I seem demanding, Sawako, it is only because you have chosen the most important of all careers. The future of Japan is in your hands every day. It's time you began taking that seriously."
As Sawako paused, unsure what to say, he added, "We have a position for a homeroom teacher opening up next year. You could start there."
She was startled. "You nearly fired me, and now you're offering me a promotion?"
"Not offering, no. You still have to apply."
"But if I was bad enough to fire a minute ago -"
"This was never about your ability. By all accounts, you are a fine teacher. The problem is your attitude, and I now believe you are prepared to work on it." He paused ominously. "That belief will be subject to revision."
"U-understood," said Sawako.
"Good. That will be all."
She got up, bowed to the principal, headed for the door... and stopped halfway.
Her honesty had been rewarded, but it was only half-honesty. There were still six big lies hanging in the air: the gimmicks. And although Sawako had decidedly mixed feelings about her boss right now, what with the trick he'd pulled, she still didn't feel right about leaving things this way. Not only was it dangerous (she would be history if he ever did find out), that foul taste in her mouth was back.
Cursing her conscience, and herself for listening to it, she turned around and said, "There's one more thing I have to tell you. The club members -"
He held up a hand. "Stop there."
"What you're going to tell me - does it involve any immediate threat to anyone's well-being?"
"Then let it be. I am content with where things stand now."
Sawako raised both eyebrows. "Really?"
"I intend this meeting to be a fresh start for you. I'm sure your attitude problem has led you to make other mistakes, and I'm willing to leave them in the past. But if you tell me about them, I will have no choice but to punish you."
"Let's avoid that. I'll see you on Monday."
It was the best of both worlds. Sawako had tried to confess and the principal had outright told her it was okay. Part of her brain was trying to remind her that this might be yet another test, but it was drowned out by the rest of her brain shouting Don't look a gift horse in the mouth. She bowed again and left before he could change his mind.
As soon as she was outside the teachers' offices, she felt different. The farther she got, the more it sank in.
Her whole body felt lighter. Her steps quickened.
This hellish, godforsaken month is over. I got through it. The world hit me with everything it had, and I'm still on my feet.
The staircase to the music room was in sight. She didn't make it - the rush of emotion was so overwhelming she tripped. It didn't hurt a bit. Getting to her knees, Sawako raised her fists to the sky and screamed:
Now alone in his office, the principal smiled. Sawako was right. It was possible to have more than one reason for one's actions.
He himself, for example, had told Sawako not to make whatever damning confession had been on her lips. It was time to start fresh, he had told her. And that was true.
Now, perhaps it was also true that schools with no disabled students find it difficult to get grants to bring them up to code. The grants always go to schools with a pressing need. The sort of pressing need illustrated, say, by an injured student struggling for a month to get her wheelchair around the school - forced to rely on friends carrying it for her (even if no one seemed to see this happen). Such a story might be highly useful to everyone... as long as it wasn't based on false pretenses.
He had also told Sawako she had passed the test and saved her job by being honest with him. And that was true.
It might also be true, perhaps, that he had no desire to upset the Kotobuki family by firing their daughter's favourite teacher. That a firing offense for any other employee might be an occasion for... creativity where this one was concerned. Not to mention that regardless of his actions after finding out, a principal who had allowed a phony club to exist under his nose for a year and a half might not look good to parents and investors.
Yes, this multiple-reasons theory was worth exploring. Principal Yamada hoped Sawako got her act together, but he also hoped she never quite lost the cunning edge that she'd shown in defending herself. She was bound to need it now and then.
After all, there was a day and an hour for everything.
The light music club was now back at the dining table. Tsumugi was preparing a fresh pot of tea. The other members were enjoying various treats. Conversation topics ranged from local sports ("I once saw a middle-school baseball game where this girl hit the ball right into her own glasses!") to physics ("Oh come on, that's impossible") to ethics ("Are you calling me a liar?") to recent events ("Hey, why do you think Sawa-chan put those rainbows and pink triangles on Jun's costume?") Nobody, except possibly Azusa, was even thinking about playing a musical instrument.
God was in his heaven and all was right with the world.
But was that really so? Ritsu looked around at her friends, pondering. Just yesterday, Yui had been "dumped", Azusa had found out her friend was a traitor, and Mio had bombed almost as badly as on what Ritsu liked to call "P-Day". Honestly, the drummer didn't feel great herself. And Mugi! Whatever had happened to her, it had been serious, life-crushing stuff (and by now Ritsu had figured out about half of it, though it would be many years before she knew for sure). Bad enough to make her miss a day, which Tsumugi never did.
Were they just fooling themselves acting okay again? Wasn't it too soon for that? The experiences of the past few days were the kind that some people take years to recover from. What if they were making things worse, like a football player wrecking his leg by playing through an injury?
People had different ways of healing. Curling up in a ball and staying home for a week was just one approach. Without this club, maybe some of them would've done that. (Definitely Mio.) But now they had a better way - something that gave them real peace in body and soul.
This was after-school tea time. This was how they rolled.
A sigh interrupted Ritsu's contemplation. She looked to see who it was... as if she didn't already know. Now that Yui was cured of the mopes, there was only one real candidate: Azusa.
Yui noticed too. "What's the matter, Azu-nyan? Did I not hug you enough yet?"
"No! No, that's not it."
Ritsu smiled at Azusa. "Still hung up on our screwups, huh?"
She sighed again. "I'm sorry, senior. Don't pay attention to me... I know it's not my place. I just can't help it."
Normally Ritsu would be happy to leave it at that, but under the circumstances, she decided to throw Azusa a bone. "You are allowed to speak your mind, y'know. I only object when you get all uppity about it."
"Really? Wait, how do I tell the difference?"
"Feel your face. If I haven't punched you in it, you're okay."
Azusa smiled at that, but just briefly. "Then... can I say the one thing that's really getting to me right now? You won't like it."
"Warning appreciated. Have at it."
She took a deep breath. "We need to return the prize."
Everyone was startled silent.
"I don't want to do it either! But how can we keep something we didn't win honestly? They gave it to us because they thought we were -"
Ritsu held up a hand. "Is that all? Hang on a sec."
Azusa watched, puzzled, as the drummer took out her phone and pushed some buttons.
"Here ya go," she finally said, handing over the phone. "I think you'll feel a lot better when you read this."
"Oh, the article. How's this going to -"
CRAZY COSTUMES WIN BIG AT REGIONALS
Tokyo's biggest high school music competition, Regionals, has wrapped for another year. As usual, three prizes were awarded in each of the ten categories. Ryuumei Academy, a competitor in the pop/rock category, was not one of the winners - but they didn't go home empty-handed. Their performance earned them a special prize for outstanding effort.
"Most bands in this category just wear their school uniforms and play something popular," explained Mr. Ito, one of the judges. "That's fine, of course - the competition is about skill and technique. But Ryuumei came to us this year with a whole different kind of performance. They had no shot at placing for a number of reasons, but their creativity deserved to be recognized."
Ryuumei's opening number, "Don't Say Lazy," was an original composition by the two founding members of the club. The song is a cry against Japanese student culture and its harsh, sometimes unfair expectations. While asserting the need for downtime, it also makes the important point (or "Red Point") that an apparent slacker may actually be a good student. This is done subtly with lines that include material learned in school, such as English phrases and facts about animal behaviour.
The song, however, was just the first layer. Said Mr. Ito, "Ryuumei's overall theme was the frustration of adolescence. The music spoke directly to this, but they also used visual aids. They chose costumes based on Alice in Wonderland, the story of a girl thrust unexpectedly into a world she doesn't understand and isn't ready for. What could be a better metaphor for puberty?"
But there was still a third layer to the act. "The part that impressed us most," said Mr. Ito, "was something we found confusing at first. All five Ryuumei students seemed to be disadvantaged in some way. One was in a wheelchair, another had dark glasses and a cane, and so on. This made no sense - Regionals makes a point of accomodating disabled students, but Ryuumei hadn't registered any, much less a whole band full.
"It took us a while to see what they were getting at. They were representing themselves as people on the margins of society - those who are casually judged and sold short. Most teenagers feel that way as well, but to an adult, who has long since lived through those frustrations, they often seem like mere foolishness. By taking on the appearance of those whose problems we cannot ignore, Ryuumei reminded us how we all felt in our high school days."
"We just wish they had been able to finish their set," said Mr. Ito, referring to the lead singer's collapse after the first song ended. "Who knows what other surprises were in store?"
The Ryuumei Academy light music club consists of five members. Their president and drummer, Ritsu 'R.T.' Tainaka, is also head of the student council and holds several interscholastic track and field records. "Music is my first love," the wheelchair-bound R.T. told us, "but I'm pretty much the best at everything. I'd show you my long jump but, y'know, legs." (Note: To get in character for their performance, all the Ryuumei members spoke to us as if their "conditions" were real.)
The club's bassist, lead singer, and songwriter is Mio Akiyama, who wore glasses on stage to feign nearsightedness. She describes herself as "Normal. I'm normal. I mean... I guess I like... no. Just normal." Ms. Akiyama was reluctant to discuss her collapse, but according to R.T., it was the result of an unexpected convergence of low blood sugar, post-traumatic stress disorder, hypertension, "excessive chestage", and light converging inside her brain due to the glasses.
Third in seniority is Tsumugi Kotobuki, the club's keyboard player, who is "maybe" related to the wealthy Kotobuki family. She had clearly gained a large amount of weight for the performance, but claimed to have no regrets. "My part of the show was a labour of love. Do you like that expression? I found it in Shakespeare. He understood love so well..." (Ms. Kotobuki appears to have been referring to the play Love's Labour's Lost, in which the romantic subplots end indecisively.)
The last of the club's original four members is guitarist Yui Hirasawa, whose "disability" was blindness. "It's okay, I don't want to see stuff," she told us. "None of it matters. All I care about now is [my sister] Ui and [my boyfriend] Giita. Everybody else can go jump off a roof and try to fly. Especially boys. Are there any boys here I can punch? I can't tell unless they talk." The cause of Ms. Hirasawa's distress was unclear, and R.T.'s diagnosis of "dude cancer" did little to clarify matters.
A recent addition to the band is rhythm guitarist Azusa Nakano. Her disguise as a foreigner was made possible by her photosensitivity, a rare condition that makes her extremely susceptible to sunburns. Ms. Nakano assured us that being "true to herself" somehow made the condition less painful.
There is some mystery surrounding the band's possible sixth member. A backup bassist, Jun Suzuki, was present for interviews and even had a distinct "condition" like the others, but did not appear on stage. R.T.'s only comment later on was "Optical illusion. All in your minds." According to Mr. Ito, the judges had a different interpretation. "It was a brilliant concept - a little extra puzzle for those in the know to figure out. You see, only the senior students were playing Alice; the junior student, who isn't as deep into those awkward adolescent years, played the White Rabbit. But rather than make her the sole exception, they registered a nonexistent extra junior student - to play the invisible Cheshire Cat!"
The club's advisor, known only as "Sawa-chan", was not available for interviews. An orphan, Sawa-chan grew up on the streets of Tokyo, doing odd jobs for the Death Devil gang in return for shelter. The fighting skills she gained got her a job as a yakuza enforcer, which allowed her to pay her way through fashion design school. Unfortunately, the world of high fashion is travel-heavy, and Sawa-chan is unable to leave Japan until various court orders expire. She bides her time at Ryuumei teaching music (the best job she could think of that did not involve learning to read) and using the school's bands for live costuming practice. Her gang connections remain useful for fending off male suitors and allegations of sexual harrassment.
What comes next for the Ryuumei light music club? They plan to continue their band, After-Tea School Time, through high school and beyond. They are already hard at work on their third album, "I Am A Pen", due to hit store shelves early next year. After graduation, they plan to go on an international tour; SentriFUJE has already agreed to open for them. We wish the band all the success their efforts merit.
Azusa put down her phone and forced her gaping mouth closed.
"See what I mean?" said Ritsu.
"Those reporters," said Azusa. "They got everything wrong."
"Yup. And more important, so did the judges. That prize wasn't for being disabled - it was for being artsy."
"But... that's not true either..."
"Isn't it? They knew we were faking and they liked it. Those deep meanings they found do exist, we just didn't put 'em there on purpose."
"And the important thing," said Mio, "is that Sawa-chan's plan didn't work. The judges didn't believe our gimmicks and feel sorry for us."
"Because they were lookin' at the wrong registration form," added Ritsu. She winked at Azusa. "You can thank me for forgettin' our real one any time."
Azusa jumped up. "So you admit it now!"
"Yep. And I'm sorry. Won't happen again."
The sincerity in Ritsu's face mollified Azusa. She sat back down.
"Feel any better?" Yui asked her.
Azusa smiled. "Yeah." In fact, she had already been feeling better since the talk with Jun, and even more so after getting some tea in her system. Now, with the real reason for their prize revealed, she honestly felt... okay.
Her illusions had been shattered, but it wasn't the first time, and she doubted it would be the last. This was still her club; these were her friends. Azusa was ready to fight for them again. She wouldn't let either their laziness or her own frustration keep After-School Tea Time from being all it could be.
"It's wonderful to have an article about us," said Tsumugi (Mio having taken the opportunity to show it to her), "but was I the only one expecting something longer? Why did they do all those interviews and then give us only a paragraph each?"
Ritsu shrugged. "That's show biz. They probably didn't have much space."
"They're crazy," said Yui. "So are the judges. Do you think they caught it from each other?"
"Hey, the judges are fine. They're so smart they can tell we're smart and don't know it!"
"Kidding. They're not crazy, though. They just have a super easy job."
"Judging, you mean?"
"Yeah. What could possibly beat tellin' other people they suck for a living? That's definitely the job I want if we don't make the big time."
"Oh, we don't need to worry about that," said Azusa, half-smiling. "After all, we're already on our third album."
Ritsu said, "I have no idea where they heard that from."
"Maybe they are crazy," said Tsumugi. "Just look at the strange ideas they had about Ms. Sawako!"
There were a number of looks exchanged.
"Yes," said Mio. "That was pure invention."
"Total nonsense pulled out of nowhere," Ritsu agreed.
"I will personally gut you in alphabetical order," added Sawako.
"Ha!" said Yui. "That's just what Sawa-chan sounds like. Who was that?"
No one answered. They were all staring at -
"You're here!" said Tsumugi.
"You didn't jump out a window!" said Azusa, who had genuinely worried.
"Again with the ninja act!" said Ritsu. "What are you, allergic to showin' up like a normal perOWWWWW! Leggo!"
Sawako released Ritsu's ear. "I dress you all up for Regionals, and this is the thanks I get? You slander me in the media?"
"Well, we were mad! And they didn't get your full name! Nobody lookin' you up will ever find it!"
"I will get you all back for this. Not right away. Maybe not for years. I'll wait patiently till the day you've completely forgotten, and on that day... POW."
The club members cowered before her. But then, one by one, they noticed something. Sawako was ripping into them, sure, but not quite like she ever had before. The difference was in her face.
She was grinning.
"Sawa-chan!" shouted Yui. "You're not fired!"
As one, the girls tackled her to the ground in a group hug. "Woo-hoo!" "Go Sawa-chan!" "Three cheers!"
"And the club?" Mio asked.
"Still in business!" said Sawako.
They hugged with renewed enthusiasm. In fact - "Uh, everyone? This is a bit too... too much... en..."
A few seconds passed before Ritsu said, "Anyone feel her breathing? 'Cause I don't."
The club hastily backed off. Sawako gasped. She had already turned slightly purple.
"Sorry, Sawa-chan," said Mio. "We didn't mean to celebrate by killing you."
"T-tea," was all the teacher could get out.
The club members and Sawako spent the next two hours relaxing, chatting, and enjoying their tea and treats. At long last, there was nothing hanging over their heads. They'd reached the light at the end of the tunnel.
Eventually Tsumugi and Azusa said their goodbyes and headed home. Sawako was next to go. "I need to get some sleep," she said ruefully. "Back to work soon."
"Weren't you desperate to keep this job?" Mio reminded her.
"Pfft." She got up. "That doesn't mean I have to like every part of it. If teachers ever get flex-time, I'm first in line."
"So long, Sawa-chan," said Ritsu. "Good to have ya back."
She smiled. "Good to be back."
"Just remember - no more boyfriends. In fact, no dating at all. From now on you're a nun."
Mio swatted Ritsu, who said, "Kiddin'. Of course you can date. But date smarter." She winked. "Don't get fooled again."
The teacher rolled her eyes. I'll date smarter all right, she thought on the way out. The next guy isn't coming anywhere NEAR this school.
With Sawako gone, Mio's eyes fell on Yui. Speaking of people who need to date smarter... "How are you holding up?" she asked.
"Me?" said Yui. "Great! But I'd better go too. Ui is probably getting worried."
"Yes, but I mean -"
"I can't wait to get home!" Yui continued, putting her coat on. "I bet Ui made something super delicious for dinner! Then I'll play Gitah for a while and have dessert and play Gitah some more and go to sleep!"
Ritsu laughed. "Simple pleasures for simple minds. We should never've been worried. What would you even do with a boyfriend?"
Yui paused. A slight, crooked smile appeared on her face.
"Hmm," she said.
"We would've... had fun, Ricchan."
Both girls just stared at Yui as she said goodbye and left. As soon as she was through the door, Ritsu spun on Mio. "Did you hear that? 'Cause I didn't."
"Not. A. Thing. Yui did not say what she just said. I dunno which one of us will be the first to grow a libido, but it's NOT her."
"Right. I agree."
"Good. Let's drink tea till we can't see stuff."
They hung out for a while longer, taking it easy. Neither of them was in any great hurry to get home. On the contrary, this restoration of normality was so satisfying they wanted it to last as long as possible.
Still... "Eventually we'll have to talk about our fight yesterday," Mio said.
"Will we? I'm cool with letting it drop."
"We said things we can't take back."
"I took mine back already. Didn't you get the memo I sent out? Here, I'll send it again." Ritsu pretended to type on her phone. "Everything... taken... back... forever. Done."
Mio had to smile. She sat back in her chair, as did Ritsu, and the two of them took a good long look at each other.
Someday, thought Mio... someday I'll turn you around.
I wasn't wrong; you do drag me down to your level. But that's a two-way street. I'll lift you up. I'll MAKE you the friend I deserve - the person you deserve to be.
You can grow up. Me too. We'll do it together.
And as Ritsu looked back at her friend, she thought, One of these days I'll get you to loosen up. I mean, who can actually be comfortable with a whole tree up her butt?
"C'mon," said the drummer. "Let's go home."
Four Months Later
The term was over. Aside from a little incident with Yui catching cold and then forgetting her guitar right before the concert, the light music club had made it through successfully. Tests were over. Most of the students were now home, taking a break and resting up for next term. Teachers, too, had little to do; the school was almost empty.
But not far away, at a bar - a different one from last time - three Sakuragaoka teachers had assembled.
"When will we three meet again, in thunder, lightning, or in rain?" asked Sawako.
Kawasumi rolled her eyes. "You can be a witch if you want, but count me out."
"Sorry. But it's true, isn't it? Who knows when we'll all be together again."
"It's going to be strange without you, Chika," said Yamasu. "You've been here even longer than I have."
Kawasumi nodded. It was going to be strange for her too - even though these two had only been nodding acquaintances of hers until quite recently. "I may end up coming back. This is just something I have to do."
"What's the plan exactly?"
"I'm going back to my home town. It's just a start, but there were things I left unfinished there. There are... classmates I need to see again."
"Classmates?" asked Sawako.
"Friends," Kawasumi admitted. "Who deserved better from me than I gave them."
"Well, best of luck. I'll keep your classroom warm for you."
Kawasumi raised an eyebrow. "You're taking over my homeroom?"
"Yep! It'll be my first time having one. The principal said there was a position open, and I decided to apply for it. I felt like it was time to take the next step in my career."
She smiled knowingly. "You felt like it was time to get paid more."
"Oh, is there a raise involved? News to me." All three women chuckled.
"So you see this as a career?" asked Yamasu. "Not out to marry money anymore?"
"Please. The career is to keep me busy until I marry money. Preferably real money this time."
Both teachers nodded, getting the reference. "What ever happened to that guy, anyway?" Kawasumi asked.
"What? I told you I wanted to kill him. Tracked him down, kept him in a warehouse for a few days of quality time, then hit him with a shovel and left him out in the woods. It's bear season. He won't be back."
There was silence.
"...is what I'd like to say," concluded Sawako. "Come on, you didn't believe me, did you?"
Both teachers let out a breath. "We had to wonder," said Yamasu. "You were very detailed."
"I did picture it a lot. No, I just ignored the bastard until he stopped calling. Maybe he found some other girl. Maybe not. Maybe he really did die. Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
Yamasu clinked her glass against Sawako's. "I'm happy for you. And if you can actually take satisfaction from this godawful job, I'm happy for that too."
Sawako shook her head. "I will never get you."
"How can someone who hates the job so much be so good at it?"
Yamasu slammed her glass down. "Take that back!"
"She's right, you know," said Kawasumi. "I've been wondering too."
"No you haven't! There's nothing to wonder about!"
"Oh no?" said Sawako. "I think Jun Suzuki would disagree. You could have just ignored her when she was doing that spy thing, but not only did you let her bother you on a daily basis, you stepped in personally when she took it too far."
"And that jazz club. You've had nothing but bad things to say about them - to us. But Jun says you never take it out on them. And didn't you eventually train them well enough to compete?"
"The principal made me! And they only came in third!"
"Out of ten. They didn't just walk into that."
Kawasumi added, "I'm in the office sometimes when you talk to students. You should hear yourself - you're good at it. You never have to be reminded what their troubles are, and you give them good advice."
"I - I drink!" Yamasu protested. "I drink like a chimney!"
Sawako shrugged. "Nobody said you were perfect."
"Dammit! Look... I used to want this job. But that was before I experienced it! Teaching is just something I settle for now. It's not my destiny or something!"
Kawasumi smiled. "Funny thing about destiny... you don't get to choose it."
"Why does this bother you so much?" asked Sawako. "You might as well be good at your job, right?"
"No! No! I want to be good at teaching real musicians!"
"Maybe you are. This is what real musicians sound like in high school."
"It's not what I sounded like!"
Sawako raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure?"
"Look, most people don't know this, but I used to be in a heavy metal ba-"
"We know," said Kawasumi. "When you got drunk that time, you recited half the lyrics from your first album to show us you still knew them."
"We believed you," added Yamasu. "God, my head hurts just thinking about it."
Sawako glared at them both. "Well, keep it to yourselves. Anyway, we really got into the whole bit. We were Death Devil, I was Catherine... you should've seen my hair. And we were the hardest-rocking metal band Tokyo had ever seen! We were an unstoppable noise machine! We were gods!"
"You told us that too."
"Uh huh. And then a while later I went back and listened to some of our music again."
"I was too embarrassed to get through it all. We were awful." She sighed. "Back when I was in the middle of it, my ears couldn't tell the difference between us and Metallica. We were having so much fun we had to be the best. But I know the truth now. At a few years' distance, everything is... smaller than I remembered."
Kawasumi nodded. It was the same reason she was going home. All those years ago, her shame and disappointment had been like forces of nature, overwhelming her whole life. But now, although she still felt them... they were just feelings. She didn't have to let them control her anymore.
She hoped and prayed - as did Sawako - that Tsumugi would feel the same way in time.
"Do you still have any recordings from when you were in high school?" Sawako asked Yamasu.
"...We made a tape once," she admitted.
"I bet you haven't listened to it in a while. You should. I guarantee it won't sound like you remember."
"Ugh. If you're right, that's just going to depress me." She took a swig of beer.
"Yep. So here's what to do afterwards. Are you still in touch with your old bandmates?"
"Some of them."
"Look 'em up. My friends from Death Devil have gone different ways in life. Some of them don't play anymore. But the ones who do... when they play clubs, I always try to make it."
Yamasu looked skeptical. "They're good?"
"They rock. And not in spite of Death Devil, because of it! I can hear our sound in there every time. It's just grown to maturity. I bet you'll find the same thing."
"Sawako's right," said Kawasumi. "High school is high school. You're never going to come in and find a class full of Thelonius Minks."
"Whatever. But if you really do want to help kids discover their love of music, you're in the right place. And you're good at it, like it or not."
Yamasu stared into her glass.
"Embraaaaaace your destinyyyy," said Sawako. "Embraaaaace it. Woooooooo..."
"Oh, fine! I'll think about it." Yamasu closed her eyes, rolled them, and -
Kawasumi said, "You know we can all tell when you're doing that, right?"
The school was almost empty. But one or two clubs had come to squeeze in one last practice.
"I'm not wearing it!" said Mio, hiding under the table.
"Aw, c'mon. Are you gonna let Sawa-chan's hard work go to waste?"
"She didn't make that thing!"
Ritsu shrugged. "Yeah, okay, it was a discount Hallowe'en costume. But it did cost me five bucks."
"This is what you borrowed the five bucks for?" Mio clawed out at Ritsu.
"I think you'll look great in it!" said Tsumugi.
"Pirates are fun!" Yui agreed. "Arrr!"
"This is an adult pirate costume!" said Mio. "It's almost bikini-size! It actually says 'Booty Pirate' on the label!"
"So? There were girl pirates." Yui turned to Azusa. "There were girl pirates, right?"
"I'm not sure," said Azusa. "Maybe a few, but I wouldn't put money on -"
"That doesn't matter!" Mio interrupted. "Even if there were girl pirates, which there weren't, they didn't dress like this! No one with any self-respect would!"
"Unless it was about empowerment," Ritsu suggested. "It's like you're saying, 'I know I'm hot and you're still not gettin' any.' "
"Exactly! None of you are getting any! Of anything! EVER!"
Ritsu whispered to Tsumugi, "I'm not sure she knows what that means."
"What does it mean?" Tsumugi whispered back.
"Oh, you'll know when she's wearin' it."
With that, Tsumugi was fully on board. "Come on! Let's turn this table over!"
"Nooo!" Mio grabbed onto its legs, but couldn't stop her bandmates from upsetting the table (spilling everything on top, of course). She made a break for it, but Ritsu was too fast. Pinned down, she could only struggle uselessly as the other members started taking off her -
Everyone looked up. The principal was in the doorway.
Ritsu shifted off Mio. The others released her. Everyone tried to look as casual as possible.
It wasn't working. The principal was still staring, stunned at the scenario he'd walked in on: four club members dogpiled on the fifth, pulling her clothes off.
Self-awareness suddenly swept over Mio. She looked down. She was already in her underwear... and the principal was still there... staring right at -
A moment later, Mio was standing over the unconscious principal, gasping for breath. The others stared in amazement. Ritsu snuck a picture with her phone, but no one dared to speak. It was Azusa who finally broke the silence.
"Well," she said, "I guess we're going to find out if that amnesia thing works."
[A/N: Ladies, gentlemen... it is DONE. What was meant to be a short, goofy story turned into a three-year project, but now it's finally over. Be here in a week or so for the afterword and omake, in which, among many other things, the "true identities" of two of the OCs will be revealed! (Reviewers are welcome to guess...)]