"The world," announced Sawako the next day, "loves an underdog."
She paused for dramatic effect. The club members waited, trying to hide their nervousness. As far as they could tell, Sawako hadn't even brought the glasses this time.
"Now, you're underdogs already because you never practice. But the audience and judges won't know that. Or at least they'd damn well better not."
All five girls shrank back from her glare. Azusa had to fight the urge to dig a hole and hide in it.
"But Regionals are only a month away, and even if you practice nonstop, you won't legitimately be the best band there. You're good, but not that good. So we need to score you some sympathy points give you a little boost."
"How do we do that?" asked Mio.
"We're going to create the impression of certain... weaknesses. The kind that aren't your own stupid fault. The kind people will sympathize with. We're going to make you a scrappy team of misfits a heartwarming feel-good movie that just begs for a happy ending."
"Isn't that sort of like cheating?" asked Ritsu.
"Not at all. I have no intention of bribing the judges."
"That's just one kind of cheating."
"Right, and we're not doing it. Does that answer your question?"
Ritsu scratched her head. "...Yes?"
"Glad we got that settled. Now, as I was saying, you need weaknesses. The trick is to pick the right ones. They have to be obvious, but they can't actually impair you. We can't use Mio's shyness, for instance it's only visible when she's panicking, and then she couldn't play."
"Heh heh." Ritsu elbowed Mio in the ribs.
"For the same reason, we can't use Ritsu's stupidity."
Azusa fought to stifle a laugh and failed. Sawako immediately added, "Or Azusa's pushy attitude, naivete, and general stick-in-the-mudness." The junior student curled into fetal position.
Yui frowned. "Don't be mean to Azu-nyan."
The teacher gave her a withering glare. "Oh, don't get me started on you."
"All right, we get the idea," said Mio. "What kind of 'weaknesses' do you have in mind instead?"
"Glad you asked!" Sawako made a grand gesture toward the drum set. "What do you... um..."
Sawako stared at Tsumugi. The rich girl was leaning so far forward she was in danger of falling over. Her hands were held up to her chest in fists, her face eager and determined.
She wants me to insult her too, doesn't she? asked Sawako with a look. Mio and Ritsu both nodded.
"We also can't use Tsumugi's... um... blondeness," the teacher finished lamely. Apparently it was enough to satisfy Tsumugi; she sat back in her seat with a pleasant smile.
"So about the drums," said Ritsu.
"Right! Notice anything different?"
The drummer took a good look. "Not really. Seems about normal. I mean, somebody switched my regular chair with a wheelchair, but besides that..."
"Exactly! That's your gimmick! You're handicapped!"
Ritsu's eyes went wide. "You're not serious, are you?"
"You bet I am!"
"This... this is..."
The other four braced themselves for an epic squabble.
"...This is totally awesome!"
Mio blinked. "What?"
"I've always wanted one of these!" Ritsu hopped in the chair and started driving it around. "Everyone will have to get out of my way now!"
"Now wait a minute here!" cried Mio, following Ritsu. "You can't just suddenly be in a wheelchair! There's nothing wrong with you!"
"Ah," said Sawako, "but that's what these are for!" She picked up two mysterious white objects that had been leaning against the wall.
"Those are big goalie sticks," said Yui, impressed.
The teacher rolled her eyes. "They're fake casts. Ritsu is wearing these from now on, and no one will wonder why she needs a wheelchair."
Azusa turned that one over in her head. "Wouldn't that defeat the purpose? A temporary injury isn't the same thing as a handicap."
"Oh, close enough," said Sawako, opening one of the casts. "All we need is sympathy points. Get over here and try them on, Ritsu."
The drummer wheeled over. "Do I really need both?"
"Sorry. If it were just one, you could still get around on crutches."
"Does this at least get me out of tests?"
"You bet it does! In your sweet, sweet dreams."
Ritsu sighed and took the first cast from Sawako. She clapped it around her leg; to her surprise, it fit snugly. "How did you oh. Of course you have my measurements."
Yui whipped out a pen and started signing the cast. "I've always wanted to do this!"
"So you've been rooting for one of us to break something," muttered Ritsu. She looked closer at the signature. "Yui, why does this say 'Hiru Yuisawa'?"
"It's a fake cast," she explained.
Tsumugi was clearly thrilled with the idea. "May I sign too, Ricchan?"
"Sure, why not? Make it a party. Hey Mio, you in?"
"This is insane!" shouted Mio. "You can't seriously be planning to fake two broken legs! It's offensive! It's stupid!"
Sawako laughed. "It can't be offensive if nobody finds out."
"Everyone will find out! How is Ritsu supposed to have gotten this 'injury'?"
"Jumped off a roof thinking she could fly."
Ritsu glared. "If that's the best you can do, I'll come up with my own."
"What about her family?" continued Mio. "The hospital would have called them!"
"Obviously she won't wear this stuff at home," said Sawako. "She can store it all somewhere between home and school. They'll never find out."
"Oh yeah? What if her brother has friends who go to this school?"
The drummer waved the objection off. "Satoshi's just a kid. He still thinks girls will damage his nanomachines or something."
Yui punched her palm. "Time out!"
"If Ricchan got sick the day of a concert, Satoshi might dress up like her and take her place, like Ui did for me! Then he would find out!"
Everyone stared. "...There are so many things wrong with that idea," said Ritsu.
"One, Satoshi's like half my size. Two, he can't play drums. Three, he'd never even get the idea only your sister's that crazy. Four, he knows I'd kick his butt if he tried. And five... how would he see me in a wheelchair at school if he was taking my place?"
Yui thought it over. "Time in," she said.
Sawako smirked. "That's Ritsu sorted out. Who wants to go next?"
Mio went pale. "You have schemes for all of us?"
"Do Azu-nyan next!" said Yui, earning a skunk-eye from her junior. "What? I'm interested."
"Ah yes, little Azusa," said Sawako. "You tan easy, don't you?"
The teacher raised an eyebrow.
"I'm not sure what... what you're..." She leapt to her feet. "Oh my GOD!"
"You can't be serious!" agreed Mio.
"What?" asked Yui.
"No! I can't do it, Teacher! That's just wrong!"
"Wow, Sawa-chan," said Ritsu. "I didn't think you could top mine."
"What? What's her idea?" Yui looked around.
"I mean, seriously! Seriously!"
"You're making this sound much worse than it is," said Sawako. "I'm not suggesting you actually claim to be a foreigner. I'm just saying to get a nice dark tan and let people draw their own conclusions."
"You called these things weaknesses! Being foreign isn't a weakness!"
"Poor choice of words, maybe. Would you prefer disadvantages?"
"That's just as bad!"
"Oh?" Sawako shot her a stare. "Are you really claiming that foreigners aren't at a disadvantage in this country? Do you see a lot of them at this school? In this city? It's no secret that Japan isn't the most welcoming place on Earth."
"All you need to do for your sympathy points is get a little sun. We should all be so lucky."
Azusa steeled herself. "I'm sorry, Teacher, but I can't follow this order. It's just too... awful."
"Well, that's all right," said Sawako. "We can go with my backup plan. C'mere and I'll tell you what it is."
The junior student came up to listen. Then she began turning purple as her teacher whispered the backup plan in her ear.
"So? Whattaya think?"
"Tanning is fine," she squeaked out.
"Really? You don't think it's too awful?"
"No. It's good. Let's do that."
She sat back down next to the still-baffled Yui, who said, "Azu-nyan, do you know your hair is standing up?"
"Who's next?" asked Sawako.
Tsumugi practically leapt up in excitement. "Me! Me, please!"
"Ah yes." Sawako looked the rich girl over. "Yep, it'll work. I have a great one for you, Tsumugi. Come see me later and I'll explain it to you."
Her face fell. "Why not now?"
Sawako glanced nervously at Mio and Ritsu. "Er... let's say I want this one to be a surprise for the others."
Ritsu narrowed her eyes. "This is something we'd never let you do in a million years, isn't it?"
Mio and Azusa shared a look. They both had the same thought: What could possibly be worse than what we've seen so far? Then they shuddered, realizing that if there was something, their teacher would definitely be the one to come up with it.
"Next, Yui. I gave this one a lot of thought. More thought than Yui herself has given anything in her life."
Yui drooped. "I miss the fake Sawa-chan."
"What do we know about Yui? She can't read sheet music. She misses things that are right in front of her nose. She needs a full-time helper at home and various caretakers at school. On the other hand, her sense of pitch is unusually acute, and we all know how important taste is to her."
"And I can't snap my fingers," added Yui. "Hey, let's make that my gimmick!"
"Don't interrupt my chain of logical reasoning," said Sawako. "I was building up to something very specific."
"But I don't see "
"Exactly." Sawako grinned. "You're blind!"
Nodoka stopped walking. "Ui? What's wrong?"
"I... I think something happened to Big Sis! Something terrible!"
Oh, great. This again. "All right, try to relax. I'm sure Yui is fine."
"I've got to go find her!"
"She's with her club, remember? They'll call if anything's wrong."
"But... but she..."
"Ui, the last time you got one of these feelings, Yui had only poked herself with a pencil."
"Don't remind me!" she cried. "...I still have the scar..."
"Come on, let's go back to your house and wait for her. I'll make you some tea." Nodoka knew full well that Ui would end up making her tea, but it was polite to at least offer.
"O...okay." Ui let Nodoka help her up, and they walked home without further incident.
Not until the next day did it occur to Nodoka to wonder... SHE still has the scar?
"Blind? Ricchan, she says I'm blind! How did I never notice?"
"Because you're blind."
"Not literally blind, of course," Sawako clarified. "More like... mentally blind. But it's a short enough step."
"That's not a short step at all!" said Azusa.
"Let me demonstrate, O ye of little faith." Sawako took a bandana from her pocket. "Yui, come here for a minute."
She did. Sawako folded the bandana and tied it around the guitarist's head, covering her eyes completely.
"How does that feel?"
"Glad you're comfortable. Can you see anything?"
"Just a bandana."
"Right. Now go pick up your guitar."
Without hesitation, Yui walked around the couch and made her way to where the instruments were set up. She triumphantly grabbed her guitar from its stand.
Azusa's jaw dropped. Her senior hadn't stumbled even once. "Yui, that was amazing!"
"Huh," said Ritsu. "How'dja do that?"
"Giita and I will always find each other," Yui announced with deep conviction. Mio actually saw Tsumugi wipe a tear from her eye.
"Okay, Yui, now play something," said Sawako.
"Hmm." The guitarist thought. "Oh, I know! Hey Mugi, I spy with my little "
"She meant play a song!" said Azusa.
"Bad Azu-nyan," Yui scolded. "I was trying to let Mugi be the straight man."
"What?" Azusa turned to see the rich girl slumping. "Uh, sorry. It's kind of hard to tell when Yui's... well, never mind."
Sawako frowned impatiently. "I'll be more specific. Let's hear 'Fluffy Fluffy Time'. Ready?"
"One sec." Yui strummed, keeping her hand off the frets, and listened carefully to the "chord" that resulted. "E, A, D, G, B, E. Okay. Here goes!"
Azusa raised both eyebrows She can tune like that? Sawako, correctly guessing what was in the junior's head, smirked and told her, "Pay attention. You might learn something."
Yui got through the intro without a hitch. She started singing at the right time. She never paused to remember the words or the chords. She even played around a bit during the bridge without losing the tune.
Ritsu tapped her fingers. Mio started nodding. Moments like this were when they knew they'd been right to push Yui into joining up. For five golden minutes, a high school music room became a little slice of rock heaven.
At last, Yui wrapped up. Sawako grinned as the final chord reverberated. Her point was made.
"That was amazing, Yui!" said Tsumugi.
Ritsu gave a thumbs-up. "Vintage Hirasawa!"
"Thanks!" She put Giita back on its stand.
Azusa had a look of dull shock. "Yui, that... that was..."
The guitarist practically hopped with anticipation.
"...That was 'Curry With Rice'."
Her face fell. "Oh. It was?"
"Yeah. But you sure played it well."
"You can take the blindfold off now," said Sawako. "Come on back."
Yui did so. On the way, she tripped over the couch.
"All right, maybe she doesn't need to see to play guitar," conceded Mio. "But what about school?"
"Well," said Sawako, "most blind people have dogs to help them. Yui is lucky; she doesn't need one. She has Ui."
"You think Ui will want to be Yui's dog?" said Ritsu. Then she, and everyone else in the room but Yui, went very quiet for a moment as the obvious answer came to them. Ritsu shuddered, sorry she'd asked.
"...Anyway, they'll stick together from now on," explained Sawako. "Ui will help Yui get around, take notes for her, and so on. She'll be a temporary member of Yui's class."
"But I'm a second-year!" said Yui. "Ui can't do my work!"
Sawako stared. "I hate to break it to you, Yui, but your sister is much smarter than you."
"That can't be right. I've asked her before, and she says she's not."
Everyone sighed except Tsumugi, who always found Ui's devotion heartwarming.
"I suppose you have an explanation for this sudden 'blindness' lined up..." Mio said to Sawako.
"Jumped off a roof thinking she could fly."
Yui blinked. "Isn't that Ricchan's accident?"
"It was. Now she was just walking by at the time. You landed on her."
"Oh, and she broke my legs with her eyes?" Ritsu protested.
"Funny things happen in accidents. Trust me, this will work. And after we win at Regionals, you'll both 'recover'."
"Should I wear anything different?" asked Yui. "What do blind people look like?"
Ritsu smirked. "Don't ask them. They don't know."
The drummer stared at her. "Because... because blind people don't make reflections in mirrors."
"Oh! Like vampires! I'll wear my fan"
"Stop that, Ritsu," said Sawako. "Yui, you'll dress normally, you'll just have a cane. And dark glasses... unless you prefer the Little Orphan Annie look."
"Would I get my own Daddy Warbucks?"
"You have one already," said Ritsu, cocking her head at Tsumugi. If the blonde noticed, she didn't react.
"And that just leaves... Mio," Sawako declared.
"No," replied the bassist.
"Hey, you haven't even heard "
"It doesn't matter. I'm not doing it. Nothing embarrassing, nothing disgusting, nothing fraudulent. I'll put up with the others' gimmicks, but I draw the line at doing one myself."
"Not even "
"HEY!" Sawako stepped closer to Mio, enough to loom a bit, and hit her with the full force of her death-stare. "You gonna keep INTERRUPTING, or can I talk?"
"G-go ahead!" Mio had given it her best shot, but now her bravado failed her. Standing up to Sawako was one thing facing Catherine was another.
"Tell you what," said Sawako. "You're not sitting this out, but I'll give the choice to you. I'll tell you my ideas and we'll find one you're willing to do."
"O-okay. That sounds fair."
"Let's see." Sawako took a list from her pocket. "Suppose you had a delusion that you were really a magical girl."
"I don't think so."
"What about compulsive stuttering?"
25 minutes later, Yui and Azusa were both asleep, Tsumugi was making a third pot of tea, and Ritsu was staring at the ceiling, wondering if it was possible for a human to get so bored she spontaneously exploded.
"Okay, just like your normal self except you can't pronounce the letter G."
"Uh... pink hair. Because of radiation."
"Hmm... oh! This is a good one! What if you were left-handed?"
"I am left-handed."
"Really? No good then. If I've never noticed, it's too subtle." Sawako flipped through the pages of her list. "I'm telling you, Mio, you're wearing me out. Not one of these ideas has been acceptable to you?"
She sat still, pondering. "I wonder... there's always my trick..."
"Let's see how it looks. Try these on." The teacher handed Mio a glasses case.
She opened it and gave a start. These were no ordinary glasses. They were those glasses the ones that kept Sawako's true self hidden. She looked at them skeptically. "How can I wear these? They're made to your prescription..."
She did. "What the ? I can see perfectly!"
"They're not real. I only wear them to create an image."
Ritsu raised an eyebrow. "Sawa-chan, are you Superman?"
"Up, up, and away!" cheered Tsumugi.
The teacher glared at them both. "The important thing, Mio, is that glasses give an impression just a little one of being shy and weak. It's not much, but it's worth a point or two. Can you live with that as your gimmick?"
"I... I guess so. It's better than the others."
"Good. Keep those for now. I expect to see you wearing them whenever you're at school."
"But don't you need them yourself?" asked Tsumugi.
"I'll take them back when this is all over. Until then, we're in serious mode, and I'm not letting you girls forget it. You'll see Regionals every time you look in my eyes."
"I always see eternal damnation in your eyes," said Ritsu. "Is that close enough?"
She glared at Ritsu, who jumped back, shouting "Ow! It burns!"
By now the smell of tea had woken Azusa up. It took her several seconds to realize she had cozied up to Yui in her sleep. She hurriedly disengaged herself and glanced around to see if anyone had noticed. Didn't look like it, though something about Tsumugi's smile made her wonder.
"Welcome back," said Sawako. "Wake up Yui too, would you? We're nearly done for today."
Finally, thought the guitarist. She gave her senior a gentle nudge. "Yui..."
No reaction. "You'll need more force than that," said Mio.
The idea clearly made Azusa uncomfortable. She gave another nudge, ever so slightly harder, and then nervously jumped back. Still nothing.
Mio smiled; Azusa's respect was sweet, if painfully misplaced. "Like this," she said, and shoved Yui in the shoulder.
The guitarist bolted awake, shouting "Stop the octopus!"
"We'll get right on that," said Ritsu. Tsumugi giggled.
Rubbing her eyes, Yui emerged from the dream world. "Oh! Mio! You're wearing glasses again!"
"Again?" asked Azusa, who'd just noticed herself.
"I've never worn glasses before," said Mio.
Yui stared. "Are you sure? I remember seeing you in them once."
"I don't think so."
"You tipped them forward and gave a little wink."
"Okay, I definitely didn't "
"I think it was the same day I took a big bite out of Ricchan's ice cream cone."
"Hey!" shouted Ritsu. "I forgot you did that! You're gonna pay, you maniac!"
"And Azu-nyan met another ki"
"Are you quite done?" interrupted Sawako. All five girls clammed up and paid attention.
"So you all have your gimmicks now. But listen... I don't want you getting the wrong idea from this. I'm not telling you you're not good enough on your own."
"You're not?" said Azusa.
"No. I know how good you girls are. You have the potential to go as far as you want. I'm only setting you up like this because not everyone has the vantage point that I do. To the rest of the world, you're just another band.
"I'm doing my best to give you a little edge something to serve the same purpose in other people's minds that my time spent with you does. I make allowances for your inexperience. With this, the judges will have something to make allowances for. But don't let that shake your confidence. I believe in you, and you should too."
By now all the girls' eyes were misty. So the real Sawa-chan is still in there, thought Mio. "Teacher, that was "
"But if you screw up and get me fired, I promise I will eat you alive."
"I will barbecue you on a propane grill. I will destroy all record of your existence. I will impale your heads on spears and stick them on my lawn as a warning to all who cross me. And if your families complain... have you seen Saw?"
They shook their heads.
"That's probably for the best. In conclusion, mess this up and people in Hell will feel sorry for you. They will hold bake sales to raise hell-money for your benefit. You will forever be "
"Ack! I'm late!" Sawako packed her bag hastily and scampered for the door. "Okay, see you girls on Monday with your gimmicks. Have a nice weekend!"
There was a brief pause in the teacher's wake, as the band processed what they'd heard. Then Mio and Ritsu dashed for the window to see where Sawako was going.
"Azu-nyan," said Yui, "how could she erase all record of us if our heads were right there on her lawn?" The younger girl shrugged.
"There!" Ritsu pointed out the window. "She's heading for that car!"
"Shh, she'll hear us!" said Mio, pulling her friend's arm back inside.
"Is that a man in the driver's seat?"
Before Ritsu had even finished her sentence, Tsumugi was behind them, craning her neck to see. "You're right, Ricchan!"
The drummer whistled. "He looks rich. And what kind of car is that, a Rolls?"
"Don't all cars roll?" asked Yui, popping up between Ritsu and Mio.
"He's probably just a friend," cautioned Azusa. But she too was trying to get a good look.
Sawako had now reached the car. The driver was leaning out the window to meet her. She brought her head down and
"I have a feeling they're not just friends, Azusa," said Mio, red-faced.
Ritsu whistled again. "That boy's got style. I want one."
"Go, Sawa-chan!" said Yui.
As the adults finally broke the kiss, Azusa was surprised to realize Tsumugi hadn't weighed in. She snuck a look at the rich girl, but her expression was unreadable.
"Wow," said Ritsu as the car drove off. "Our Sawa-chan with a boyfriend. For reals."
"Do you think it's a good or a bad thing?" asked Azusa.
"Good!" said Mio. "This will keep her from torturing us too much. Nothing is a bigger distraction than romance."
Tsumugi spun on her, yelled "And how would you know?", and stomped out of the room.
All four girls stared after her in shock.
"Wow," said Yui. "What was that about?"
"So Mugi's finally snapped," said Ritsu, rubbing her chin. "It had to happen sooner or later."
Azusa sighed. "She's probably just tired. It's been a long day. I wouldn't take it personally, Mio."
The advice was necessary. Mio looked like she'd just been mugged by Santa Claus.
"Weird," said Ritsu. "Well, let's head home."
"Oh no you don't!" replied Mio, jolted out of her stupor by the suggestion. "We haven't practiced yet! You heard all those threats! From now on we don't miss a single day!"
"Oh, fine. Lemme just take a pit stop first." Ritsu wheeled herself over to the door, which Tsumugi had failed to close behind her for the first time ever.
The others began setting up their instruments. After a minute, Ritsu popped back through the door.
"Uh, which way to the elevator?"
Meanwhile, across town, two volunteers were finishing up the preliminary paperwork for this year's Regionals.
"Have we got all the application forms now?" asked Tarou, picking up a stack of papers.
"Yep," said Kimiko. "The deadline was noon today. Anyone who's not in that stack is out of luck."
"I'll start entering the data, then."
Tarou headed for the door, but stopped halfway. Marshalling his courage, he spun around again. "Kimiko!"
"Will you come to karaoke with me after work today?"
She raised an eyebrow. "Are you asking me on a date?"
"N-no! I just, uh, I think you probably sing well!"
"Oh? That's too bad. If it had been a date, I might have said yes."
"Okay. Sorry. Wait, what?"
As they talked, neither of them noticed the lone, just-barely-on-time application form that had slipped off the stack when Tarou suddenly turned. It drifted to the floor like a dying dream, finally sliding underneath a filing cabinet, where it would be found and disposed of by the janitor the next morning.
The name on that form read "Verbena Academy Jazz Quintet."
The Sakuragaoka High School Light Music Club's form, of course, was safe and sound at the bottom of Ritsu's desk drawer.