Five minutes ago, Jun had burst in and announced her intention to join the light music club. Three minutes ago, most of the club members had decided she was serious. One minute ago, she had convinced Azusa that it wasn't a prank and she really was serious, honest. Probably.
Now, Jun was hanging out by the instruments with Ui while everyone else huddled around the tea table in conference.
"I vote no," said Ritsu.
Mio glared at her. "How long have we been trying to get new members for this club? And now one comes right through our door and you object!"
"At any other time, this would be awesome. But now?" Ritsu shook her head. "This is how it goes wrong in the movies. The caper always falls apart when you take on somebody who's not in on it."
"A band is not a caper!"
"But our concert plan essentially is," said Tsumugi. "Ricchan has a point."
"Then this is one more good reason to drop the whole thing!" Mio threw up her hands. "Let's just be a club again! This whole scheme is crazy! We never should... should have... um... f-forget it."
Sawako, of course, had stared the bassist into submission. "Don't provoke me, Akiyama," she said. "I will yank out your hair one strand at a time."
Yui turned to her fellow guitarist. "Jun is your friend, Azu-nyan. Do you think we should let her in?"
"Oh! Uh, you guys are the senior members..."
"It's okay," said Mio. "We'd like to hear what you think."
"Well... normally I'd be really excited. But I agree with Ritsu that there are potential problems right now. It might be better to wait till after Regionals."
"There may not be a club after Regionals," Tsumugi pointed out. "But if Jun joins now, she might help our chances."
"A bigger band isn't automatically better," said Ritsu. "What if she turns out to be our Pete Best? Our Stuart Sutcliffe? Even, God help us, our Yoko Ono?"
Yui frowned; she might not know who any of those people were, but she understood the sentiment. "Ricchan's right! Sometimes new members are trouble! Remember that other time?"
Tsumugi and Azusa gestured wildly for her to stop.
"You know, the time with Akane Mi–"
"SHHHHHHH!" Azusa clamped her hand on Yui's mouth.
She was too late. Mio and Ritsu were both staring at the floor in full brood-mode.
"Yui," said Tsumugi gently, "sometimes when an upsetting thing happens, it's better not to mention it again."
"Is this one of those things?"
"This is several of those things."
Azusa looked back and forth between Ritsu and Mio. They were totally silent, faces turned away from each other. Ritsu drummed her fingers on the table; Mio adjusted her hair, then adjusted it back.
"...Would anyone like more tea?" ventured Tsumugi.
Mio finally spoke. "Ritsu, I told you how sorry I —"
"Oh, spare me the crocodile tears," said the drummer.
Sawako checked her watch. "Can we get back to the question at hand, please?"
"Right!" said Yui. "Mugi, the answer is yes. We do want more tea."
Azusa was about to scold Yui, but caught herself and left it to Tsumugi, who whacked Yui's head lightly. "The question about Jun, silly!" she said, pleased as punch.
"I still say no," said Ritsu. "Too risky."
"And I still say yes," said Mio. "If for no other reason, Azusa is under a lot of pressure as our only junior member. It's not fair to her if we turn Jun away."
Somewhere in Yui's head, an engine turned over. "JUNior member! It's perfect! I vote yes!"
"Okay, Yui doesn't get a vote anymore," said Ritsu. "How 'bout you, Mugi?"
"I will abide by the decision of the majority," said Tsumugi, peaceful as a windless lake.
"It's cute how you all think this is a democracy," said Sawako. "Weren't you listening before? Until Regionals are over, I steer this ship."
"Right," said Mio with a sigh. "What's your verdict?"
"Frankly, I don't like the looks of this kid. I think... we..."
"Azusa," she finally continued, "did you say Jun was in some other club?"
"The jazz club," replied Azusa. "I guess she must be quitting, though. Our practice times collide."
Quietly at first, then louder, Sawako laughed a laugh that made the girls' blood run cold. She reached up and touched the bridge of her nose, forgetting that she wasn't wearing her glasses. "Poach a member poach a member POACH A MEMBER! We'll do it!"
"Er... poach?" asked Ritsu.
"Steal. Capture. Appropriate. Take things what doesn't belongs to ya."
Ritsu knew what the word meant, but decided not to press further. Sawako's motives probably weren't rational enough to be worth hearing anyway.
"She's in!" concluded Sawako. "Go welcome her to the club, ladies."
"Hooray!" said Yui. She and the others got up (Ritsu excepted) and went to join Jun and Ui.
"So? Have you decided?" asked the newcomer, playing with —
"Jun! Put that down!" cried Azusa.
"Why? Ui was just showing it to me."
With a shrug, Jun roughly set Giita back on its stand. She gave the G string a good pluck just for kicks.
With a TWWONNG you could hear from across the street, the string snapped. Its loose end whipped out and hit Ui's arm; she yelped in pain.
Jun sheepishly looked at Yui. "Uh, sorry about that. Those G strings, huh?"
Yui was purple with rage.
"You can never join the light music club," she said. "Never! NEVER EVER!"
"Took us an hour and a half to calm her down," said Sawako through a mouthful of pasta. "Weirdest part? She kept grabbing her own arm in the spot where her sister got hit."
"So did she let the new girl join?"
"Eventually. She made her apologize to the guitar first."
The man across the table laughed heartily. "The things you have to put up with. More wine?"
He poured, and she admired his pouring. Everything Tetsuo did, he did with flair. He owned the world — and Sawako loved to watch him own it.
"I wish I could have had you as a teacher," he said. "You clearly have a real gift for it."
"Aw, you're sweet. But I don't know if this is a permanent career for me." Sawako stirred her cocktail. "I might want to, you know... settle down..."
For just a moment, Tetsuo's smile faltered, but it was so brief Sawako decided to ignore it. He'd probably just tasted something funny.
"So I was thinking," she said, switching gears. "When you pick me up tomorrow, why don't you come in first? The girls are eager to meet you."
Tetsuo choked on his salad. "You told them about me?"
"Apparently I didn't have to," Sawako muttered. Between this and her old photos, she was starting to doubt there was any point in trying to keep secrets from that bunch of Nancy Drews.
"Well, I, er... I guess that would be okay. Sure. Why not?"
"Great!" She threw him a wink. "Sexy and accommodating."
"What can I say? I'm flexible." He winked, back in command. It was as though his composure had never slipped.
They resumed eating. After a while, Tetsuo spoke up again. "I may be a little late tomorrow."
"Oh. Big day?"
"Very," he said through a mouthful of salad. "I have an important meeting with the Kotobuki group. They're my biggest clients."
"Well, take all the time you need. I'll wait. Making mon– I mean, serving your clients comes first."
"Thanks." He winked again. "I'll make sure it's worth your while."
"Oh reeeally? That sounds like something we can get started on tonight."
Tetsuo grinned and paged the nearest waiter. "Check, please."
I bet he'll be surprised to see his clients' daughter in my club, Sawako reflected, and then she put all thoughts of tomorrow on the back burner.
Azusa had decided to come in a little early today. The weather was nice, and she liked being at school before the crowds arrived. It made her feel like the place belonged to her just a little more than —
Her cell phone rang. She picked it up to see a text message from Ritsu.
Azusa called her senior back to see what was wrong. To her annoyance, there was no answer. Some kind of weird joke...? Whatever. She put her phone away and kept walking.
Moments later, the phone rang again. This time it said S.O.S.! Come to school quick!
With a sigh, Azusa called back. No answer this time either. "What the heck is she up to?" the guitarist muttered.
Again she put the phone away, and again her respite was short-lived. All the way to school, the messages kept coming.
Hurry! I'm doomed!
Na-ka-NO! I know you're reading this! You better help your senior or I'll eat you for breakfast!
For BREAKFAST! Toasted! With a side of bacon!
Sorry, that was mean. Just help! I'll make your lunches forever!
** SIDE! OF! BACON! **
By this point Azusa had almost reached the school. She was about to turn the last corner when someone hissed at her from the bushes. "Over here! Quick!"
She stared into the foliage. "Ritsu?"
"Who were you expecting, Ultraman? Come closer!"
Azusa, who would frankly have preferred Ultraman, approached suspiciously. "What's going on here?"
"Shh! We've gotta be quiet. Take a look around the corner. Carefully."
She poked her head out just enough to see the school's main entrance. "Oh, Jun's there," she said. "What's the problem?"
"She's been there for half an hour! I can't get in!"
"Huh? Why can't... oh. Oh, I see how it is." Azusa glared at Ritsu. "Where exactly is your wheelchair?"
"I'll explain later. Just distract her! Get her inside so I can sneak in!"
Reluctantly, Azusa turned the corner and headed for where Jun was standing. Her friend noticed her immediately. "Hey Azusa! You're here early too, huh?"
"Yeah. It's a nice day, I thought I'd enjoy it. What about you?"
"Uh, same here! Just look at this great weather! WOO!" Jun pumped a fist at the sky.
Azusa raised an eyebrow. The lady doth protest too much. "Well, people will be getting here soon," she said. "Let's head inside."
Jun nodded, and they proceeded to the locker area. As they changed out of their outdoor clothes, Jun gushed about how excited she was to be in the light music club. Azusa listened, still not quite sold, but trying not to let on.
After a couple of minutes, her phone rang yet again. The message read All clear! C ya!
Uh-uh. Ritsu wasn't getting off that easy. "Hey Jun, I should answer this call. I'll meet you in class, okay?"
Azusa caught up with Ritsu a few hallways down. Somehow, the drummer was all geared up now — wheelchair, casts, the whole package. "Hey Azusa!" she said. "Thanks again!"
"You haven't thanked me the first time yet."
"Oh, then take this as —"
"Explanations!" interrupted Azusa. "What was all that about?"
"I wish I knew. Does your friend always come in that early? And, like, guard the door?"
"I've never seen — no, that's not the issue! Where was your wheelchair before?"
"Ah. Well, you were there when Mio went bazonkers, right? She's not gonna lift the chair anymore. I can't ask you and Mugi to do it alone, and Yui's supposed to be blind... so I had a way better idea."
"See, I just need to be seen in a wheelchair. It doesn't always have to be the same wheelchair."
"I planned it all out with Mugi. She bought a bunch more chairs. One can stay in the club room, and I found a hiding spot on the first floor for another one. If I need more, I'll keep hidin' 'em."
"You can't be serious."
"So now all I have to do is get from one chair to another without being spotted. It's like a stealth game, and I'm good at those. Zombie games too. Seriously, we ever get a zombie outbreak, you just call me. I'm the Zombie Master. This one time —"
"Are you insane?"
"Yeah, you're right. We'd never get zombies here. Maybe aliens."
"I mean this whole plan! It's crazy! There are so many things wrong with it!"
"Like what?" asked Ritsu, genuinely curious.
"Like...! Like...!" Azusa stammered; all the obvious crippling flaws were jamming together, blocking the exit to her brain. After a moment, they broke through in a jumbled heap. "People! Timing! Parents! Money! Stupid!"
"Generally inobservant, early and late, already made up some extra practices, Mugi, and nuh-uh, in that order. Anything else?"
Azusa fell silent. The drummer had done her homework — she had a flimsy answer for everything. "Okay, fine. But don't come crying to me next time you get caught."
"Hey, I wasn't picking on you. I called everybody. You were just the first to show up."
"Okay, but why didn't you answer when I called back?"
Ritsu, whose phone had been on silent by mistake, said "Jun might've heard. Had to play it safe."
The mention of Jun reminded Azusa that her friend would soon be wondering where she'd gone off to. "I'd better head for class. You'll be okay now, right?"
"No problemo. Thanks again."
"You still haven't... oh, forget it."
Halfway back to class, Azusa got another text message. This time the ringtone was Yui's. She opened it to read.
Hey Azu-nyan! Ricchan says save her. See you later! XOXO
Some days, Azusa really felt like transferring to the calligraphy club.
Elsewhere in the school, Sawako asked, "Is that tight enough?"
"Very comfortable," said Tsumugi. "Thank you."
"Good. Get your clothes back on, quick."
As Tsumugi put herself back together, Sawako glanced nervously at her watch. They were cutting this much too close. She'd have to think of a less public place next time.
"Ready!" said Tsumugi. "Please allow me to thank you once again for this privilege, Teacher."
"Don't mention it," said Sawako, and she meant it. This was not something she should be thanked for.
After a moment, she realized with alarm that her student wasn't leaving. The rich girl looked like she wanted to say something, but wasn't sure if she should. "What's wrong, Tsumugi?" Sawako asked.
"Teacher... would you please call me Mugi?"
Sawako raised an eyebrow. This was about some silly nickname? "I don't know if that's appropri..."
She couldn't finish the sentence. Tsumugi was a sight that would have moved Genghis Khan to tears. Her clasped hands and wide eyes made it undeniable how important this request was to her.
"Oh, all right," said Sawako. "Mugi it is."
"Thank you!" she said. "And... and..."
"Spit it out."
"May I please call you Sawa-chan?" she finished.
The teacher sighed. "That's not some privilege. I've been trying to get the others to stop."
"But... since they won't..."
Sawako checked her watch again nervously. People would be arriving any second. In fact, what was that sound just now...? "Oh, all right, you can call me that. Now go! Hurry!"
"Thank you! Thank you so much, Sawa-chan!" Tsumugi took off, bouncing off the walls in delight.
Sawako slumped in her chair with relief. That had been way too close for comfo–
Of course. Of course Principal Yamada had been walking in at that very moment. "Good morning, sir," she said, sitting up straight again.
"Good morning. I see you were having another meeting with Miss Kotobuki."
Fortunately, Sawako had an excuse ready for that. "Well, you know, with Regionals coming up, Mu– uh, Tsumugi is worried about falling behind in class. She asked me for a little extra help. As club supervisor, I thought it was the least I could do."
"Indeed. I'm glad your students look up to you. Keep up the good work."
He headed for his office. But just as Sawako was about to stand down from red alert, he turned back around and said, "Since she does look up to you so much, I'm sure you'll be very careful not to do anything that might... upset her. Correct?"
Oh crap he knows he knows he knows! "Of course, sir! I wouldn't dream of it!"
"Good," said Principal Yamada. "I'm counting on the Kotobukis for our fourth-quarter expenses."
Ms. Kawasumi surveyed her class with a wary eye. So far, so good. All right, the Hirasawa sisters still stuck out like a sore thumb, and Kotobuki had a strange look on her face, but no one seemed too distracted... and above all, no one had brought a musical instrument this time.
So why was her trouble sense still acting up? Simple paranoia? Best to try and ignore it for now. She picked up her chalk and began the lesson. "As you know, ten years ago a mysterious event took place that scientists currently believe..."
She focused her gaze on one student. Target acquired. "Tainaka."
"I am!" And indeed, she was. That was the problem. Ritsu was never this attentive.
But she couldn't punish a student who hadn't yet misbehaved. She'd just have to give the drummer enough rope to hang herself; anyway, a warning might be sufficient. Ms. Kawasumi turned back to the board. "To continue, ten years ago an event known as Kaimon took place. Scientists —"
Ms. Kawasumi spun around... and couldn't believe what she was seeing. Ritsu had produced a pair of drumsticks and was banging out a tattoo on her desk.
For a while, the teacher just stared in amazement. What could possibly be possessing Ritsu to think this was acceptable behaviour? The rest of the class seemed to take it in stride; the girls closest to Ritsu were covering their ears, but some others were nodding along with the beat. Yui in particular was listening very carefully, a slight frown on her face. She leaned over and said, "You're rushing, Ricchan!"
"Excuse me?" replied Ritsu. "Who's the expert here?"
Oh, that tore it. "TAINAKA!"
"What do you think you're doing?"
"Expressing my feelings! Sawa-chan told us to. Any time we feel the urge, we're supposed to bust out with a musical number."
"Not in my class, you're not! And how is that noise conveying any feelings?"
"This song is about the pain and frustration of being handicapped," said Ritsu. "Can't you tell?"
"Just stop it!"
"Oh, fine." She put the drumsticks away.
Ms. Kawasumi took a deep, calming breath and turned back to the blackboard. "As I was saying, ten years ago a phenomenon known as the Kaimon event took place. Scientists —"
The noise started back up. Furious, Ms. Kawasumi spun around. "I told you to stop!"
"I felt inspired again," said Ritsu.
"Insp– come ON! There aren't even any words in this song!"
"You can't stifle my creativity! I gotta be me!"
In Ms. Kawasumi's high school days, she had been the class idol, admired by juniors and respected by peers. Above all, she was famous for her mature femininity. When her classmates thought of words like "ladylike", "elegant", "unflappable", they thought of Chika Kawasumi.
Only her best friends knew she had a temper. Only her worst enemies had seen that temper first-hand. And no one dared to speak of it.
Now, for the first time, a student had pushed her too far. Her nostrils flared. Her ears turned red. Her black hair nearly burst out of its tight bun. She stormed over to Ritsu, grabbed the drumsticks, and snapped them in half.
"Hey! Those cost —"
"My classroom is orderly!" screamed the teacher. "Those who cannot be orderly will be punished until they can! Do you understand, Tainaka? DO YOU?"
"I don't care what Yamanaka tells you! In this class, there will be no spontaneous drum solos! Feelings are expressed with words, not property damage!"
"Do I make myself clear? No drumming! None!"
Ms. Kawasumi returned to the blackboard. Once there, she closed her eyes and took a moment to collect herself. She was already wishing she hadn't lost her temper... but faced with behaviour like this, who could blame her?
"Now then." She picked up her chalk and started writing again. "Ten years ago —"
"We'll be fighting in the streets! With our children at our feet! And the morals that they worship will be gone!..."
No. It couldn't be. It couldn't.
"And the men who spurred us on sit in judgment of all wrong! They decide and the shotgun sings the song!..."
Ms. Kawasumi turned, very slowly, to confirm the unbelievable evidence of her ears. Ritsu was singing now.
"I'll tip my hat to the new constitution! Take a bow for the new revolution! Smile and grin at the change all around... Pick up my guitar and play!" (She nodded at Yui, who grinned.) "Just like yesterday! And I'll get on my knees and prayyyyy... DRUM SOLO!"
Grabbing two pencils, Ritsu started banging on her desk again. This time the "solo" was brief; she soon resumed singing, but kept up the percussion. As she went on, more and more of the class got into it, tapping their feet and swaying to the rhythm. At last she reached the end of the song, built up a drumroll that could have inspired scarecrows to march, and ended with a final smash. Both pencils broke, their ends flying across the room.
Ms. Kawasumi didn't bother telling Ritsu what was going to happen. They both knew. She simply asked, "Was it worth it, Tainaka?"
"Yep! You can't put a price on self-expression."
"And what were you expressing this time?"
"Let's say the handicapped thing again."
Question 1. (2 marks) A train leaves point A, travelling at 60 km/h. 150 km away at point B, a second train departs at 45 km/h. The dispatcher has carelessly assigned both trains the same track. What will be the distance between the two trains at the moment when they crash?
Mio stared at the question in horror. She didn't even know how to start solving it. And this was only worth two marks! What hope did she have for the rest?
Even worse, the other students near Mio didn't seem to be having trouble at all. Nodoka was no surprise, but the rest weren't usually on her level. Getting desperate, Mio looked all around the room, trying to find at least a little company for her misery... but not only was everyone doing fine, they even seemed to be smiling. Smirking! At her!
Just then, the teacher cleared his throat. Mio started; she hadn't seen him coming. "Is your own paper not sufficiently interesting, Miss Akiyama?" he asked.
"They're laughing!" she hissed. "They're all laughing at me! And so are you!"
He leaned over and said, "I highly recommend that you calm down and focus on your own work. Pretend no one else is here." He moved on to watch other students.
Mio took a few deep breaths. Maybe the teacher was right. It was worth a try, at least. She looked closely at her test paper — taking off Sawako's glasses, which had steamed up a bit — and did her best to ignore the rest of the room.
To her amazement, Mio felt less stressed-out almost immediately. She was able to concentrate on the test, and it didn't even look as scary anymore. Okay, that first question was tough, but the next one wasn't so bad. Or the next one... in fact, that one was easy...
25 minutes later, Mio couldn't believe she'd been so upset. She was three pages into the test without further incident. What was more, she was now calm enough to realize she'd been imagining things before. Her classmates weren't laughing at her; they weren't thinking about her at all. They were busy with their own tests. Even Nodoka looked like she was struggling a bit.
Mio's relief was so powerful that for the briefest of moments, she actually felt a song coming on. But that was not going to happen. Sawako could just keep giving her pushups till doomsday.
Thinking of Sawako reminded Mio about her borrowed glasses. Better not be seen without them for too long. She wiped the lenses on her shirt sleeve and put them back on, then turned the page.
...Wait a minute. This fourth page was way harder than the first three. And did that girl beside her just snicker?
When Mio finally handed in her test, her writing was practically unreadable, every other line had been wildly crossed out, and her entire answer to Question 1 was "I'll train YOU!" Also, she didn't so much hand the test in as crumple it up and hurl it out the window.
God bless lunchtime, thought Ms. Yamasu. There were no words for how badly she needed this break in her day. The solitude of the teachers' office was her only escape from the hundreds of inept students who surrounded her — weighing her down, draining her energy, crushing her like a pile of rocks.
Rocks — that was the perfect metaphor for these students. They were useless, mindless. They served no purpose except to strain the poor fool who had to carry them. And they couldn't stay in tune for ten damn seconds at a time.
Yamasu's contemplation was interrupted when another teacher came in. It was Ms. Kawasumi, who looked around, frowning. "Has Sawako been in here today?" she asked.
"Not that I've seen," said Yamasu.
She sat down, rubbing her hands together in frustration. "When I find her..."
"Why? What did she do?"
"Let me put it this way," said Kawasumi. She opened her lunchbox, took out a pair of chopsticks, and started banging them on the desk. This went on for about thirty seconds.
"If that was an audition for the jazz club, you're in," said Yamasu.
"No, there was just this student who..." Kawasumi raised her eyebrows. "They're that bad?"
Yamasu stared hopelessly at the ceiling. "You do not. Even. Know."
Before Kawasumi could inquire further, someone knocked at the door. "Psst! Ms. Yamasu!"
Panic gripped the teacher. Was there any way to get out of this? Maybe if she stayed very quiet... oh no, Chika was here too! She tried to think of some excuse, but it was too late; the other teacher was already opening the door.
The student — Jun, of course — marched inside and saluted. "Agent Suzuki reporting for duty, Chief!"
"At ease," said Yamasu. "You have news, I take it?"
"You bet! Phase One went perfectly — I'm in. Phase Two is currently under way. I started this morning."
"And how did that go?"
"No decisive results. I had a strategy, but while I was carrying it out, Target Zero showed up and diverted my attention. I think she may be onto me."
"Not good. Work on that."
"Aye, Captain!" Jun saluted again. "I'll report again this time tomorrow!"
Yamasu's eyes widened with horror. "D-don't you think it might be better to meet earlier? Or later?"
"Nope. I have classes and band practice. Gotta be lunchtime! See ya then! Vive le roi!" With a final thumbs-up, Jun headed out the door.
Yamasu stared into the middle distance, watching her precious lunchtimes ride off into the sunset. She shed a single tear for them.
Looking at the door Jun had just left through, Kawasumi asked, "What in the world was that about?"
"Damned if I know," said Yamasu.
"I don't mean the French, I mean the whole thing."
"So do I." She sighed heavily. "That was Jun from the jazz club. She's trying to infiltrate the light music club because she's got it in her head that we're rivals."
"And you really aren't?"
"Of course not! I don't know why anyone would think that!"
The door opened again. Ms. Sawako came in, took a quick look around, and walked up to Yamasu, grinning like a fiend. "Well hello there."
"Heh heh... so how's the ol' jazz club doing these days?"
"Same as ever."
Sawako snickered. "Talk about composure! You're good, Megumi. Nobody looking at you would know."
Yamasu rolled her eyes during a blink. "Know what exactly?"
"That you were betrayed, of course. That one of your beloved members defected to your rival club!"
"It's fine, really. You can have her."
Sawako patted Yamasu on the head. "That's the spirit! Fight on!" Still smirking, she left the way she'd come.
Kawasumi, who'd been watching with detached curiosity like a baseball fan at the Super Bowl, suddenly remembered she had her own Sawako problem. "Get back here, you!" she said, taking off in pursuit.
Alone at last, Yamasu closed her eyes and tried to find inner calm. There was still a little time left before she had to teach again. If she could just relax properly now, she'd be able to get through —
"Hey Yuiko!" a girl shouted in the hallway. "Come see my new cellphone!"
"Woooooow! It's so cute!"
"And I have the best ringtone for it! Listen to this!"
Some godawful pop song started playing in roughly 8-Track quality, and Yamasu, without even having to think, reached into her purse for her last hope. She opened it and raised it to her lips.
Empty. She'd forgotten to refill the damn thing.
As schoolgirl banter ricocheted around her brain, Yamasu laid her head on the table and soberly awaited the migraine's warm embrace.
"Fluffy fluffy time!" sang Mio and Yui, finishing the song with their usual call-and-response routine. The band played a few more chords, holding the final one; Ritsu drumrolled them out. Silence followed as all six girls gasped for breath.
"Admit it," said Sawako.
Mio sighed. "You were right. We sound even better with two basses."
"Woo!" Jun jumped in delight. "I won't let you down, senior!"
Yui, on the other hand, was facing Ritsu and frowning slightly. "Ricchan, are you okay?" she asked.
"Sure. Five by five. Why?"
The guitarist leaned in and whispered, "You're slacking off!"
"You're not playing a bunch of your instruments!"
Ritsu facepalmed. "Yui, before you went blind, what did you usually see on the floor near my drums?"
"Pedals and stuff."
"Good. And what am I sitting in?"
"A wheelchair. Oh! I get it." She lowered her voice conspiratorially. "Sitting around all day is making you lazy, isn't it, Ricchan?"
"DRUM SOLO!" yelled Ritsu, battering Yui's head with her drumsticks.
Sawako checked her watch. "Ah, it's time! I have a surprise for you girls. Wait here a minute." She skipped out of the room.
"Oh good," muttered Mio. "A surprise. Those are great. Like that surprise math test earlier..."
"I know!" said Ritsu. "We wrote it too. I couldn't even get the first one!"
"That wasn't fair at all," said Mio, scowling at the mention of that question. "Trains? Who even rides those anymore? How were we supposed to know the distance between them?"
"Zero," said Yui.
Both girls stared at her.
"They crashed! Boom!" Yui illustrated with hand gestures.
Mio and Ritsu traded an appalled look. They wanted to bang their heads against a wall, but no wall hard enough for this occasion existed.
Azusa checked her watch. "Ms. Sawako's taking a while," she said. "I wonder what this is about."
"It'll be great!" said Jun, still bouncing around. "Everything's great! We rock!"
Mio smiled at her new apprentice. "You did very well today, Jun. You'll be a good addition to the band."
"Yep! I'll do my best! No sabotage here!"
Azusa gave Jun a suspicious look. "Nobody mentioned sabotage."
"Right! 'Cause there's not gonna be any! Heh heh. Heh heh."
"What's so funny?"
"...Um. I, uh, heard this joke earlier."
"Right. Tell it. Uh... so this octopus walks into a bar..." Yui perked up, suddenly fascinated.
As Jun continued, Mio brought her bass over to its stand. Then she gently pulled Tsumugi off to the side for a moment. "Mugi," she said, "is everything all right?"
"Of course! Why do you ask?"
Mio hesitated; there was no tactful way to approach this. "Have you been, er... eating right?"
"What do you mean?"
"It's just... I mean, the two of us share a certain worry, so to speak... and it looks like you've, well... put on... j-just remember you can always talk to me, okay?"
Before the blonde could reply, Ritsu called out from across the room, "Hey Mugi! You're lookin' round today!"
One near-concussion later, Ritsu was bowing as low as she could in her wheelchair, apologizing profusely to Tsumugi for her insensitivity. The rich girl seemed more amused than anything else. "You're right, Ricchan," she said, blushing. "I have been a bit careless with snacks lately. I will be sure to watch my intake more carefully."
"It's okay," said Mio. "I was just concerned as a friend. You don't owe us anything."
"Right! Fat is fine too! We're cool with that!" said the drummer.
One near-concussion later, Ritsu was bowing as low as she could in her wheelchair, apologizing profusely to Tsumugi for her insensitivity.
"And then the rabbi says, 'Get me a beer and a mop!'" finished Jun.
Yui stared. "Then what?"
The new club member stared at her in disbelief. "Senior, this is the fourth time I've tried to end —"
"It still doesn't feel like it's over! Keep going!"
Jun pondered, eyes crossed. "So then, uh... then who should walk in but... okay, these two ropes come in the door, right? And the bartender gets mad, 'cause they don't serve —"
"Ropes? How would ropes come in on their own?"
"They're living ropes. And the first one says —"
"But how do they stand up and walk? Can they control their whole length or just their ends?"
Jun shot Azusa a desperate glance, but no help was forthcoming. The rhythm guitarist was having the time of her life watching this. She leaned over and whispered to Ui, "Looks like being 'blind' hasn't changed Yui much, eh?"
"Not a bit!" said Ui, smiling happily at... wait. Were those tears? Why were there tears in her eyes? No way... Yui, don't tell me you...
Just then, the door opened again, saving Jun from more improv. Sawako was back — and she wasn't alone. Beside her was the man who had been picking her up after practice lately. He was even more striking close up — not only handsome, but clean-cut and dressed to kill.
"Girls," said Sawako, "let me introduce you to my boyfriend, Tetsuo Tsukamoto. He's a financial consultant."
All seven girls gave a little bow. "It's a pleasure," said Mio on the group's behalf.
"The pleasure's all mine," he replied, sauve as some international spy in a movie. Ritsu swore she could see a lens flare off his teeth.
"So who's who?" he asked Sawako. "I'd like to put some faces to the names I keep hearing."
"This is Mio," she replied, indicating the bassist. "And here we have Yui... this is her sister, Ui... here's Azusa and the new one, Jun... in back is Ritsu..."
"Ah," said Tetsuo, nodding sagely. "Ritsu." He put an arm around Sawako in support.
"Hey!" complained Ritsu. "What's that about?"
"Oh, I've told Tetsuo a thing or two about you, that's all..."
"I dare you to give me five minutes alone with him! I'll tell him enough about you to make his head catch fire!"
"Heh. That's enough, you," said Sawako flippantly. She sounded flippant, at least. But as she laughed, her eyes sent Ritsu a very clear message: Your body will never be found.
There was a noise from over by the keyboard: "Ahmm!" It sounded like a first attempt at purposeful throat-clearing by someone who had never tried it, only seen it done.
"Right! I didn't finish," said Sawako. "But our last member needs no introduction. After all, she's your clients' daughter!" She made a grand gesture toward Tsumugi.
Tetsuo held very, very still. After a moment, he said "Why... so she is."
"Tsumugi Kotobuki at your service," said the heiress, beaming. "I am delighted to meet you."
For one more long moment, Tetsuo was motionless; then, as if his engine had been jumpstarted, he turned to Sawako and said, "Well that was great I'm glad I finally got to meet them but we should probably go after all our reservation is for six and it's what five now so let's go!"
It was actually four-thirty, but Sawako had no objections. She took Tetsuo's arm. "Okay, girls, we're done. See you tomorrow, same time. And Azusa? Tanner!" The happy couple departed, leaving Azusa blushing with embarrassment and both Yui and Jun wondering why.
"That guy's gonna be in the news for holding up a casino," said Ritsu. "You heard it here first."
Mio frowned. Something about that conversation just now wasn't sitting right. She couldn't quite place it, but... "Mugi," she asked, "what was it you said to Sawa-chan's boyfriend?"
"I said I was delighted to meet him."
A hush fell upon the room. The keyboardist's voice had sounded very strange. As one, the girls turned to look at her... and gasped.
Tsumugi was smiling, but it wasn't like any smile they had seen their friend wear before. It was cold-blooded, confident, supremely satisfied. It was the smile of a predator.
"My father finds it useful to cultivate the image of a family man," Tsumugi continued. "He makes a point of introducing me to all of his major clients and associates. Over the years, I have met every one of them, often on multiple occasions.
"I have never met that man before."
And as her bandmates stared, Tsumugi picked up her things and danced out the door, humming a cheery tune.