The Oval Office was even bigger than Mio had expected. She stared in amazement, trying to take it all in. This was one of the last places in the world she'd ever expected to be.
Movement drew her attention, and Mio realized a man was stepping towards her. She froze with panic. It's really him. It's the president!
Indeed it was. Mio had seen him on the news, but in person was another story. For a girl who still found bus drivers a little intimidating, being in the presence of the leader of the free world was right off the charts. He only had a few inches on her, but to Mio, he might as well have been fifty feet tall.
The president, for his part, was perfectly at ease. He smiled warmly at Mio and extended his hand. "Miss Akiyama. Thank you for coming."
Mio jumped back and bowed so low she nearly snapped in half. "I am honoured, Mr. Sir President Obama-dono! Sir!"
"It's okay," said the president, holding back a chuckle. "We're friends here. You can just call me Mr. President."
"Aye, sir!" Mio was still bowing.
With a sigh, Obama gestured to the chair across from his desk. "Come have a seat."
She did, as did he. There were cups and saucers already set out for each of them. Obama picked up the coffeepot and poured himself a cup. "How do you like your coffee?" he asked Mio.
She stared at the mysterious black beverage. "Cof...fee?"
"Oh. I suppose you prefer... well, that's what I wanted to talk to you about, at any rate."
Mio listened closely. She was eager to hear this — the invitation had given no hint of why the president wanted to meet with her.
"I understand you're the leader of a group called the After-School Tea Party," began Obama.
"Y-yes," said Mio, not about to correct the president — on the band's name or her role in it.
"Stop it," said Obama.
Mio stared. "What?"
"You're wrong about everything."
"I... what? Wrong?"
The president frowned. "Sorry. I'm coming on too strong. Let me start over."
Mio was now completely baffled. Coming on? He's... he's not trying to hit on me, is he?
"I know that your group has strong beliefs. You feel that the government spends too extravagantly and taxes too much, and you're entitled to those opinions. I'd even go so far as to say I admire your conviction."
Admire? He's flattering me now?
"That said, you need to understand that you're mistaken. I've considered all these issues, and I assure you I know what's best. You've got to stop resisting and trust me."
Mio very slowly reached for her mace. "I... I'm sorry, I don't really understand you," she said.
"Exactly! See, you and your group are just amateurs. I do this for a living."
Wait. He's a musician?
"So leave the important business of politics to the grownups, like me. All you need to do is vote Democrat. I'll handle the rest. Are we on the same page now?"
Obama sighed. It was clear from Mio's stare that they weren't even in the same book.
"Have a biscuit," he said, and she did. It wasn't bad. The act of snacking made Mio feel much better — a Pavlovian response conditioned in her by Tsumugi's treats. Soon she was ready to tackle the conversation again.
"So what do you play?" she asked, picking up where she thought the president had left off.
"Play?" Obama frowned. "This is no game, Miss Akiyama."
"You need to understand the consequences of your actions. You're making people mistrust a government that only wants the best for them. No one likes high taxes, but we need them to fund programs that help everyone. Let me be clear..."
He launched into an eloquent, passionate defense of the virtues of government — and completely left Mio behind. Her eyes glazed over. She could understand about a third of each sentence, if that. In desperation, she poured herself a bit of the strange black substance. Maybe an American drink would help her understand an American spee—
"Miss Akiyama? Are you all right?"
It was all Mio could do not to spit the poisonous gunk out entirely. "Yeuccch! Why? Why would you drink this...?"
He smiled. "Well, it is an acquired taste."
Mio privately promised herself she'd never acquire it. More or less recovered now, she decided to take advantage of the interruption to re-establish communication, even if it meant swallowing a little pride. "Mr. President, could you please speak slower?"
Obama blinked. "Slower?"
"And use shorter words? Please?"
Before he could stop it, a smirk crossed the president's face. He had just had a private suspicion confirmed. "Very well. Let me recall where I left off."
He took a big drink of coffee. Mio's eyes went wide. He wasn't even flinching!
"Now then... it is, of course, less than ideal to pass a bill along partisan lines, much less one as bulky as the ACA. But the business of government is frequently less than ideal. I came into office with certain goals..."
The bassist was already lost again. If these words were any shorter than the ones he'd been using before, she couldn't tell.
"...left me no choice. You have to understand the mess handed down to me by the previous administration. I promised the electorate I would correct that administration's mistakes, and although in certain cases it may be difficult to tell, I am working as hard as I can —"
"Oh!" She'd picked out just enough words to recognize the sentiment. "I have a song about that!"
" 'Don't Say Lazy'. Want to hear it?"
"Um, all right..." This was a side of the Tea Party he wasn't familiar with.
Mio took out her phone and called up an audio file. Obama was startled to hear not country-western but pop music. Even stranger, he could only understand the first two lines. Everything after that was gibberish.
"Er..." This could be awkward. "Is this an example of, uh... speaking in tongues?"
"It sounds like another language."
Ah! This could be Mio's chance to make herself understood. "It's Japanese!"
Obama raised an eyebrow. "I was under the impression that your organization was emphatically English-only. If not, I'm pleasantly surprised..."
"No. English..." What was the phrase for this? "...second language."
"Really? Are your parents immigrants?"
"Er, no..." Mio's family was Japanese as far back as she was aware of.
"Then are you one yourself?"
It was becoming clear to Mio that the point hadn't quite gotten across. Had there been some mixup? Was it really possible that he didn't know she was from Japan?
Clearly her English wasn't good enough — not even to explain that her English wasn't good enough. But there was one simple, unambiguous way to make that point. She grabbed her purse and began rooting around for a certain document, one that she had needed to present at Customs.
She frowned, unable to find it.
"What are you —"
Still nothing. In her frustration, she exclaimed, "Where's the birth certificate?"
Obama suddenly drew back. Mio looked up at him and nearly jumped. His face had set; all the warmth was suddenly gone.
"Um, Mr. President? Is there a problem?"
"Don't be cute with me. I see what you're really up to now."
"Well played, Miss Akiyama. You got me off guard before showing your true colors. Your little prank was a success."
"I don't understand. What's wrong with —"
"I'll tell you what's wrong with it! I am sick and tired of having my origins questioned! No other president has ever had to put up with this! Hmm, I wonder why not? Why do you suppose I might be getting singled out?"
"Why don't we just call it what it is? You, Miss Akiyama, are a racist!"
Mio went white as a sheet. "I'm what?"
"You only claim to oppose my policies to cover up your true nature. As if any intelligent person would really disagree with me on the issues! I won the Nobel Peace Prize! No, you just can't stand to look at me! When you say 'Lower taxes,' all you really mean is 'Get that dirty foreigner out of the White House!' "
Mio understood that last part. She understood it just fine. She'd blown it. Guards were about to burst in and take her away. They'd stick her in some dark hole to spend the rest of her days. Any moment now —
WHAM! The door burst open.
Mio passed out.
"Uh oh." Obama's anger gave way to concern. "Miss Akiyama? I didn't mean to —"
Who was that? He looked up. The door had been opened not by one of his people, but by —
"Ms. Yamanaka, you can't be in there!" A Secret Service agent rushed in. "They're having a private meeting!"
"Some meeting! Look what he did to my student!" She pointed at Mio. "She's just a fragile little thing! How dare you?"
"Uh, I didn't mean to —"
"Of course not. You Americans never do. You just barge in and do whatever you feel like!"
"But she —" Wait. " 'You Americans'?"
The brunette leaned over to inspect Mio. "We'll need to do this carefully. What kind of tea do you have?"
Obama sighed. It was clear now that his staff had crossed a few wires in the process of setting up this meeting. He told the agent, "Go get a menu from downstairs, would you?"
A little while later, Mio was conscious again, Sawako had introduced herself properly, Obama had pulled up another chair, and all three of them were sipping some high-quality Japanese tea the chef kept on hand for special occasions.
"I sincerely apologize for this mixup, ladies," said the president. "We'll make sure you get a complimentary tour of D.C. so the trip won't be a total loss."
"Oh no, I'm sorry," said Sawako. "I had a feeling there was something fishy about this invitation. We were just too excited to ask."
Mio nodded, content to let her teacher do the talking. Sawako's English wasn't perfect either, but it was a lot better than Mio's.
"As you can see, I'm under a fair bit of pressure at the moment," Obama explained. "I'm sorry Miss Akiyama was on the receiving end."
"Please. You think your job is hard? You just had to talk to a Japanese schoolgirl. I have to teach classes full of them."
"Ah, but you don't have to answer to everyone in your country."
"Are you kidding? That's the definition of Japanese society. We call it honne-tatemae. And y'know what would make me feel better about it? A half-million-dollar salary."
Obama let out a bemused sigh. This one he could communicate with — enough to tell she was a piece of work.
"We'll have quite a story to tell Ritsu and the others," Mio said to Sawako.
"You mean your band?" The president smiled. "I liked what I heard of your music. Pass that along. In fact, I'd be happy to sign something for you..."
"Sure!" Mio dug in her purse for an appropriate object. She quickly rejected the mace bottle.
Sawako stirred her tea. "I hope they're not getting into too much trouble back home. Not that they could compete with a mess like this!"
"Are you sure this is a good idea, Ricchan?" asked the worried Tsumugi.
" 'Course. Mio would never let us do this. With her out of the country, it's our best chance to trade up!"
"But Yui is our friend..."
"Yeah, our friend the guitar moron. She's got nothing compared to this guy." Ritsu gestured. "Okay, give us what you've got!"
The portly middle-aged man across from them gave a polite nod. "Let me thank you again for this opportunity. All my life I've wanted to be a rock guitarist, but I've never had the chance. I didn't think anyone even knew I played! All people know me for is my political commentary. There's so much more to —"
"Yeah, yeah. We're burnin' daylight here."
"Right." The man brought his guitar into position. "Let's rock!"
He began playing.
"Smoooke on the waaaater and fi—"
"Hold it! Hold it!" Ritsu was holding up a hand as if to fend him off. Both she and Tsumugi were clearly in pain.
"Sorry! Too loud?"
"Too BAD! You completely suck! You're like four and a half times worse than Yui!"
His face fell. "I am?"
"Yeah! I don't get it! Mio swears by you!"
Ritsu nodded. "She always says there are two kinds of guitarists in the world: Glenn Beck and everyone else."
He thought for a moment. "Um... are you sure she doesn't say that about Jeff Beck?"
The drummer went slightly red. Tsumugi gave her an I-told-you-so look.
"I... I guess I'd better go..."
"We're very sorry," said the blonde. "This must be so embarrassing..."
"We're not sorry enough to pay for the plane ticket," Ritsu added to avoid confusion.
Beck shrugged. "That's okay. I'm looking forward to checking out Akihabara anyway." He packed up his guitar and went on his way.
"I hope things are going better for Mio and Ms. Sawako," said Tsumugi.
Ritsu scoffed. "In America? They'll be lucky to make it back with their heads still on. I'm startin' to think Yui and Azusa were smart to just have an old-fashioned sleepover tonight."
Inside the blanket fort, Yui turned to the last page of her presentation. It was a pie chart with 99% marked "us", 1% marked "somebody else", and two holes in the centre to let steam escape.
"And that," concluded the pyjama-wearing guitarist, "is the top 19 reasons we need to make Ron Paul prime minister of Japan. The end. Occupy stuff!"
"I'm leaving," said Azusa.